The goals of sustainable development
The definition of sustainable development of the UNCED is still the reference. It stresses above all the satisfaction of the “needs”: Sustainable development intends to meet the “needs” of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own “needs”.
The being's “needs” arise out of the bodily demands: food, clothing, shelter, sleep, heat etc. They cover all what is essential to physical life. The “needs” are not very numerous because they are natural, legitimate and real. They differ from “desires”, which come close to the mental and consequently are innumerable, imaginary and artificial.
It is obvious that the definition of sustainable development refers to legitimate “needs”, easier to satisfy than artificial “desires”. A society based on “desires” is definitely destined to be unsustainable as they are too innumerable to be able to be satisfied.
Now, our societies fulfil the “desires” of a non negligible part of their population without responding to the “needs” of the poorest. Could a so-called sustainable development remedy this established fact ? And to whom would such a task fall to ?
Certainly not to the economy as it aims only to satisfy a credit worthy demand. And it is peculiar to persons unable to satisfy their “needs” to be precisely non credit worthy.
Most probably to social issues, but no sustainable development is requested for that. At any moment, authorities are able to decide to facilitate the access of the homeless people to a lodging, a balanced food and a minimum of security.
So, what have these “needs” to do within such a definition ? They should be satisfied even before being concerned by sustainable development. This is the least we could expect from a so-called civilized society (from the Latin “civilis”, which concerns citizens, all citizens).
Unless the definition also covers the “need” for pure air, fresh water, space etc. of every living being, who would be nothing without the air he breathes, the water he drinks, the nature surrounding him etc. In which case, it should not be limited to the “needs” of human beings only, but also extended to fauna and flora. However, the definition of sustainable development does not seem to point in this direction.
It is nevertheless because of the ambiguous notion of “needs” that economic, social and environmental aspects are raised, which, considered all together, converge towards the same goal: sustainable development.
As shown by the preceding diagram, wild nature and natural society are not part of sustainability. Their regression is one of the most striking features of the present world, which will definitely lead to an irreversible loss of cultural and biological diversity 1. In contrast to temperate forests, rain forests do not play a key role in the carbon cycle, but constitute an immense biodiversity reservoir, which should be preserved to respond to the “needs” of future generations. However, it is wishful thinking, for the loss of cultural and biological diversity is inevitable, with or without sustainable development.
If sustainable development tries to reconcile economic, social and environmental issues for the better, it nevertheless cannot respond to the specific “needs” of each of these spheres.
The tools of sustainable development
The tools of sustainable development must naturally facilitate the alliance between economic, social and environmental issues. They are numerous and various and can apply to all levels, from the international to the local one. They go from the 21st century Agenda to the fair trade while passing by new production, transportation and consumer modes, in one word new life styles.
The preceding diagram shows that economic issues lean on social ones and social issues on environmental ones. The economy occupying the highest of the three storeys, the market forces were naturally called upon to help remedy the damage they had caused. Just as the “social economy” beforehand, the “environmental economy” appeared to compensate the deficiencies of the neo-classical economy (“pure economy”). However, “social economy” and “environmental economy” are no more part of durability than wild nature and natural society (see the diagram above). Therefore, “environmental economy” can not constitute the cornerstone of sustainable development.
One of the basic points of “environmental economy” consists in appreciating the value of “goods and services” provided by nature and finding the market mechanisms able to integrate it into economic decisions. That passes notably through:
- The effective incorporation of damages caused to the environment (external costs) into prices. That is particularly true for the transport sector where no real competition between the various modes is possible outside real prices;
- The institution of environmental taxes on pollutants or natural resources compensated by a decrease of labour taxes or social contributions in order not to increase the global fiscal load;
- The trading exchanges of polluting permits;
- The integration of environmental performance into business bookkeeping;
Even endowed with such instruments, the market will not be able to resolve a number of environmental questions:
- How can it stop the rain forest deforestation and the irreversible loss of biodiversity when its short term interests are going in the opposite direction ?
- How can the increase of fuel prices and/or taxes on vehicles reduce road traffic on its own ? The drivers will buy vehicles with better fuel efficiency that the automobile industry will soon put on the market and this will be all profit for the “growth”. Or else, they will reduce their expenditures in other economic sectors to continue to drive.
- How do they imagine that the market will contribute to a more balanced nutrition when the whole life style goes against a healthy nutrition and puts a strain on the health budget ?
- How do they believe that the market will preserve the necessary arable land to supply a still growing world-wide population when the benefits of the agricultural land, especially close to the city where half of the world-wide population is living, are far below those expected in property construction ?
The market will not only be unable to resolve these questions, but will quite often worsen them because of the hierarchical relationship between the three storeys. Economic issues rest on social ones, social issues on environmental ones and the first storey is supporting the whole structure. Rather than evaluating nature by the yardstick of the market, would it not be better that the market did not “waste nature”, natural resources in order to preserve them for future generations ? Now, the human being has cut himself off from nature and this fact has influenced his perception of the environment and sustainability. Indeed, the definition of sustainable development does not provide any representation of the relationship between the being and the environment he is living in. In these conditions, how could he know what has to be preserved and how to do it ?
Furthermore, the three hierarchic storeys are closely interrelated. Any modification in the economic sphere has repercussions in the social and environmental spheres which, in return, are echoing in the economic sphere. These cascading repercussions are more or less direct, more or less strong and more or less quick according to the nature of the interdependent relationship between the three spheres. Thus, the economic decisions which are modifying the content of greenhouse gases of the atmosphere would be able to have consequences on biodiversity, land use, living being and ecosystem health etc. which, in return, would be reflected in the economic sphere. It follows that it is impossible to isolate economic decisions from their social and environmental context. Only a global approach can really be sustainable.