Redefining sustainable development


IN 1991 I published a series of articles on sustainable development, introducing the term to South Africans who at the time were struggling under a corrupt apartheid state. The work commissioned by South Press and Grassroots, examined the findings of the Brundtland Commission and the report entitled Our Common Future, in which sustainable development was defined as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future’.

Canvassing recently unbanned political parties on the subject, including Trevor Manual and the late Barney Desai, from the bustling South Press newsroom housed in Russel Street, Woodstock, I managed to stir up enough debate on the subject around the country, with the result that the term ‘ecological sustainable development’ was later included in South Africa’s constitution.

The term was adopted at the first National Conference on Environment and Develoment held at UWC in 1991.

I am one thus of the first persons to introduce the term to the general public and civil society in South Africa, whilst also demonstrating the causal links between apartheid and the environment, under-development and over-exploitation.

I went on to become a vocal critic of the over-use of the term to describe development by both corporations and government eager to cash in on the environmental movement, the invariable rise of greenwashing — the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not

Now some twenty years after the rise of the environmental justice movement and our constitutional victory, I am moved to question once again, the over-use of the term by our current government.

Sustainable development is not development which requires annual bail-outs from the treasury.

Sustainable development is not development which ramps up the production of Greenhouse Gas (GHG).

Sustainable development is not development which destroys ecosystems whilst subjecting human populations to toxic chemicals.

Sustainable development involves a far broader view than the annual budget allocation for environmental affairs.

Sustainable development is more than just a catch phrase or buzz term, it is an economic long-view, a philosophy which takes habitat and environmental factors into consideration, places people and planet at the centre of value, and which uses the inter-generational yard-post that avoids development which compromises the ability of future generations to live and prosper.

Sustainable development is thus a far reaching environmental justice term and broader in scope than any particular generational concern, it has survived the commission which produced it, and it will undoubtedly outlive both our government and those who first introduced the term into South Africa’s common lexicon, campaigned around the idea and voted for the new constitution.

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