SD Imperative

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SD Imperative



Date: Thu, 16 Jan 1997
From: Ann Dale
Subject: Moving On . . .


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    And now on to the meaning and nature of sustainable development. I would very much appreciate if Charles Brassard, Stephanie Cairns and Frank Cosway would jump in given their long experience in trying to influence government about the necessity for sustainable development.

    In 1987, the Brundtland Commission wisely sidestepped the polarized debateof the 70s of limits versus no limits to growth, by arguing for sustainable development. Subsequently, the popular definition of sustainable development generally accepted from their document Our Common Future states sustainable development is development that meets the needs of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED 1987). The strategic imperatives that flow from the concept are:

    1. reviving growth;
    2. changing the quality of growth
    3. meeting essential needs for jobs, food, energy, water, and sanitation;
    4. ensuring a sustainable level of population;
    5. conserving and enhancing the resource base;
    6. reorienting technology and managing risk; and
    7. merging environment and economics in decision-making (Ibid).

    While disagreement exists among different communities about the usefulness of the concept of sustainable development, and there has been much criticismof the term as an oxymoron, I believe the usefulness of the term lies inits constructive ambiguity. It has brought people together at round tableswho have traditionally been adversaries, and it has essentially broughtthe previously separate concepts together of sustainable and development,thus acting as a bridging concept that transcends traditional left-rightpolarization that has characterized political debate.

    A variety of definitions now exist with respect to the term, with varyingdegrees of emphasis on either sustainability or development. I define (workdone at SDRI) sustainable development as a process of reconciliation ofthree imperatives: (i) the ecological imperative to live within global biophysicalcarrying capacity (ii) the social imperative to ensure the development ofsystems of governance that have "cultural sustainability" and(iii) the economic imperative to ensure a decent material standard of livingfor all. It is counter-productive to debate which is more fundamental. Meetingall three imperatives is both necessary and sufficient. Without satisfyingecological imperatives, we poison ourselves or run out of resources anddestroy the basic life support systems so necessary for human and non-humansurvival. Without the economic imperative, we cannot provide the necessitiesof life, and without the social imperative, our societies collapse intochaos. These three imperatives are causally interdependent, It is not possibleto change the direction or nature of one without also paying attention tothe other two. Given this interconnectedness, failure in any one, will makeit impossible to address the other two.

    Given the above definition, it is obvious that sustainable developmentresearch is inherently interdisciplinary. A critical distinction (Price1990) must be made between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research.Multidisciplinary research usually consists of different disciplines investigatingthe same topic, but adhering to their traditional disciplinary languagesand concepts. If integration is attempted it is frequently an add-on tothe traditional separate disciplinary approach. In contrast, interdisciplinaryresearch implies that there is some common conceptual or systemic frameworkthat undergirds the entire research framework. It requires the conscioussearching for unifying concepts that foster and reinforce understandingacross disciplines. Integration among disciplines occurs in the design andconduct of the study.

    Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993; 1991) argue that a post-normal scientificapproach is also necessary, that is, a plural "systemism" in whichboth the parts and the whole -analysis and synthesis- are necessary elements.Post-normal science involves the management of uncertainty through the democratizationof knowledge via an extended, inclusive peer community, and the recognitionof a multiplicity of legitimate perspectives and values. In addition, sustainabledevelopment issues, such as biodiversity conservation, climate change andozone depletion, involve conditions of high variability, complex interactions[insert Holling]. The contextual nature of sustainable development, therefore,also requires a multistakeholder approach to decision-making given the numberof sectors and actors involved in any potential solutions.

    Formal research, experimentation, and testing, that is, systematic observation,theory-forming, and experimentation as a scientific activity, are neededto produce generic knowledge, but they are not always needed for problemsolving. The challenge of sustainable development increasingly presentsitself as a problem-solving activity. It is also about the production ofuseful knowledge, that is, it is inherently applied research. As well, itis normative, it is not value-free, but involves complex issues of polityand culture. Thus, in addition to interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity,that is, interactions not only between disciplines, but also with government,affected populations and between sectors, is also a fundamental characteristicof sustainable development research.

    When we formed the National Round Table in 1987, we debated the desirabilityof defining sustainable development, and decided against it for a numberof reasons. First, we believed we would expend all of our mandate tryingto get consensus around a definition, and remember the context at this time(Frank you would remember this well), we didn't even have consensus aroundthe integration of the economic with the environment. I think we can safelysay that there is now general consensus in Canada around the necessity toreconcile the ecological and economic imperatives, with some growing appreciationof the necessity to integrate the social, especially with the increasingfeminization of poverty worldwide. There is, however, far less understandingof how to affect such a reconciliation. Second, we thought that perhapssustainable development was best defined locally, as each region differedso much in its geophysical characteristics, as well as its socio-economiccircumstances.

    I now believe, however, that we have enough common experience that we,as a group, could attempt to define some common elements. (David Brown,could you introduce your concept of a dynamic slate of generic principles).Scale, time and place, it seems to me are important. Ideas?


    Date: Fri, 17 Jan 1997
    From: John Middleton
    Subject: the Brundtland definition


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      Greetings to all members of the group for the new year.

      A quibble: I don't think the Brundtland definition of SD mentioned inAnn's recent message is quite correct (although I don't have "Our CommonFuture" at hand to check it). Was the definition not "developmentthat MEETS THE NEEDS OF THE PRESENT without compromising the ability offuture generations to meet their own needs" (emphasis added)?

      As Ann mentions, one of the fundamental breakthroughs of SD in the 1980s,both in theory and in the sense of realpolitik, was this incorporation ofthe needs of the present generation. The narrower "environmentalism"perspective never had real global acceptance because it too easily slippedinto an "Environment OR Development" dualism.

      Unfortunately most national governments have still not made this transitionin practice. To give one concrete example, the great majority of nationaldelegations to the meetings of the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development,including Canada's, still are from Ministries of the Environment (or ofNatural Resources), rather than from Ministries of Planning, or EconomicPolicy, or the PMO etc. (I don't have the study in front of me but I recallthe Netherlands as one honorable exception to the rule.)

      We will never make much progress in practice until this attitude (thisdualism of environment OR development, current pressing needs OR long-termconservation etc.) is eliminated. So, I think it important to be very carefulourselves in our own use of language.


      Date: Thu, 23 Jan 1997
      From: Ann Dale
      Subject: SD Definition


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        How does one incorporate equity and time in the given definition of sustainable development as the reconciliation of the three imperatives?




        Date: Tue, 18 Feb 1997
        From: Ann Dale
        Subject: Summary to Date.18.2.97


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          I would like to suggest the following definition of sustainable development,incorporating concepts of time and equity and the three imperatives. Sustainabledevelopment is development that meets the needs of the present without compromisingthe needs of uture generations to meet their own needs (WCED 1987). Withinthis context, sustainable development can be regarded as a process of reconciliationof three imperatives: (i) the ecological imperative to live within globalbiophysical carrying capacity (ii) the social imperative to ensure the developmentof systems of governance that have "cultural sustainability" and(iii) the economic imperative to ensure a decent material standard of livingfor all. It is counter-productive to debate which is more fundamental. Meetingall three imperatives is both necessary and sufficient. Without satisfyingecological imperatives, we poison ourselves or run out of resources anddestroy the basic life support systems so necessary for human and non-humansurvival. Without the economic imperative, we cannot provide the necessitiesof life, and without the social imperative, our societies collapse intochaos. These three imperatives are causally interdependent, It is not possibleto change the direction or nature of one without also paying attention tothe other two. Given this interconnectedness, failure in any one will makeit impossible to address the other two.





          Date: Sat, 1 Mar 1997
          From: Ann Dale
          Subject: Further Reflections on a Definition


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            I keep coming back to the issue of power and control, and how traditionalinterests and paradigms tend to dominate the public agenda at the expenseof what are called "alternative" paradigms and thinking. ThisI believe is fundamentally counter-productive for innovation and creativity,and our search for framework(s) and what I am now thinking about as "managementfrom first principles". Which leads me back to the definition of sustainabledevelopment that I proposed earlier, and at the same time, trying to teaseout principles and new narratives for social change in this domain.

            There have been many criticisms of sustainable development as an oxymoron,however, I believe the term has constructive ambiguity. It may well be thatthe criticism should be directed more at the sustainable exploitation ofresources (Ludwig et al. 1993), who make an important criticism that withoutan adequate grasp of the human dynamics that drive exploitation, there canbe no adequate understanding of how sustainability can be achieved or maintained.Indeed, it is not obvious that human society has ever established a regiemeof stable interaction with their environment, except with hunting and gatheringsocieties. And that, I believe, was primarily because groups moved off theirenvironment when resources began to be depleted, allowing a restorativeperiod. With our large urban concrete habitats, we no longer move off froman ecosystem to allow natural restorative processes. This argues, therefore,for strategic planning to reconcile that process back into human systems.

            Lee (1993) suggests two ways to advance beyond Ludwig's criticisums:first, by considering environmental problems as driven by mismatches ofscale between human responsibility and natural interactions; and second,by emphasizing the central roles of learning and conflict as means of correctinghuman error in the natural world. "When human responsibility does notmatch the spatial, temporal, or functional scale of natural phenomena, unsustainableuse of resources is likely, and it will persist until the mismatch of scalesis cured." To Lee's analysis, I would add that place, and space areall important components of sustainability. Thus, as well as a grasp ofhuman dynamics, I would argue that we need a grasp of human impacts of theiractivity systems on natural systems (Figure 4). Immediate action is neededas knowledge synthesis is required for policy formualation to deal withaccelerating ecologic degradation (Weiskel 1991).

            Rees (1989) states that "sustainable development requires that weabandon the material economic growth model, accept ecological limits onconsumption, and learn to live on the interest of our remaining ecologicalcapital. It also reintroduces ethical and moral considerations into thedebate on global economic development in a world where 25% of the populationpresently consumes 75% of available resources. Thus, there are importantequity and limits inherent to the concept. And this gets us back to thevarious perspectives we all bring to the domain, plus the realities of powerand control.

            In working with the Canadian Consortium for Sustainable Development Researchon consensus around the definition I proposed earlier, which emanates fromour work at the Sustainable Development Research Institute (Dale et al.1995), David Brown offered the following observation, which is relevantto our dialogue.

            "I am glad that you included the expanded definition of sustainabledevelopment to include explicit identification of the three imperatives.This is necessary and appropriate. However, by so doing, I think we haveinadvertantly exposed another problem area. We have well-articulated descriptionsin the literature of the necessary components of the ecological imperative(the non-negotiable elements of biophysical sustainability described inthe work of Robert (1994) and Rees (1996), for example). We also have atleast a reasonable understanding of the economic imperative, and of theimplications of a 'decent material standard of living for all'. Hovever,I have some difficulty with the terminology used in describing the 'socialimperative'. I agree that governance and culture play an integral role inthe social imperative, but I do not know what "cultural sustainability"means, nor do I know if the concepts of governance and culture are comprehensiveenough (without a priori definitions) to embrace the entire concept of a'social imperative' (what about social equity, for example?) This problemis more a reflection of the state of the art of SD research than of ourmuddled thinking, I believe - the greatest challenge ahead of us lies indescribing the principles of the social imperative in concrete, unambiguous,and implementable terms - but I don't think we are at a stage yet wherewe are able to talk about the social imperative in much more than generalities.Perhaps the appropriate strategy would be to identify this as an acknowledgeddeficiency and an area in need of further research, rather than using ambiguousterminology or attempting to avoid the issue by omitting a robust definition."

            I agree with David Brown that our clarity around the social imperativeof sustainable development is not nearly as well defined as that of theecological and economic imperatives, but this may be more reflective ofthe lack of integration of the natural with the social sciences than witha lack of information. With respect to a definition of what constitutescultural sustainability, I dug out my papers from Robinson et al. SustainableSociety Project, where they define cultural sustainability as dependingon the ability of a society to claim the loyalty of its people through thepropagation of a set of values that are acceptable to the populace and theprovision of those socio-political institutions that make the realizationof those values possible." They go on to define key characteristicsof sustainability - 1. sustainability is a normative ethical principle.It has both necessary and desirable characteristics. There therefore existsno single version of a sustainable system. 2. Environmental/ecological andsocial/political sustainability are both required for a sustainable society.3. We cannot, and don't want to, guarantee persistence of any particularsystem in perpetuity. We want to preserve the capacity for the system tochange. Thus sustainability is never achieved once and for all, but onlyapproached. It is a process, not a state. It will often be easier to identifyunsustainability than sustainability. While I find the definition of culturalsustainability to be static, in that it denies a role of leadership on thepart of elected officials, it does provide a useful starting point.

            Another colleague, Tony Hodge offered the following criticism, "Thiscategorization is not consistent with systems thinking. The environment,economy, and social appellations represent non-equivalent system components.The environment (noun) is an ill-defined word that most take to mean "thenatural world." The economy (noun) is a human construct that includescertain (but not all) activities related to the production of goods andservices. Social (noun and adjective) is commonly thought of as to do withsociety and mutual relations of people. Obviously the economy is a key aspectof society.

            The well-being of the environment (or read environmental health/integrity)is an "end", the well-being of people or society is an "end"while the economy is a "means" to those ends. What good is a thrivingeconomy if people and the ecosystems of which we are a part are going allto hell? The three-legged stool mixes means and ends and in the process,elevates the economy to be an end in itself. Isn't this entrenching a fundamentalproblem of today's society? It is at least, entrenching a particular valueset in terms of its consideration of the role of the economy in society.

            The economy is an incomplete envelope. There are additional "means"that are important in nourishing human and ecosystem wellbeing including:housework, voluntary activities, subsistence living, the parts of the undergroundeconomy that would otherwise be described as "legal" actiivites.These activities need to be brought into the sustainability debate, notexcluded (Sally Lerner may want to comment here).

            The three-legged stool was designed in the early 1960s by Walter Fireyas a means to categorize considerations that should be brought to bear onresource-use decision-making. For that purpose, the troika is elegant. Butit was never designed as a means for categorizing the world for assessingoverall wellbeing, just as the GDP was never designed as an indicator ofoverall societal wellbeing. If sustainable development is simply a matterof resource use, my arguments fail."

            Lele also offers an invaluable criticism of the term sustainable development,while the all-encompassing nature of the concept gives it political strength,its current formulation by the mainstream of SD thinking contains significantweaknesses. These include an incomplete perception of the problems of povertyand concepts of sustainability and participation. In her article, WorldDevelopment, Vol. 19, No. 6, 1991, pp. 607-6212, Sustainable Development:A Critical Review, she expands on the traditional paradigm that environmentaldegradation leads to poverty and vice-versa, to include access to resourcesas a key driver, affluence, culture & values, and technology as contributors.

            In a humble attempt to address these criticisms, I offer the followingrevised definition:

            sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the presentwithout compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs(WCED 1987). Within this context, sustainable development can be regardedas a process of reconciliation of three imperatives: (i) the ecologicalimperative to live within global biophysical carrying capacity (ii) thesocial imperative to ensure the development of systems of governance thathave "cultural sustainability" and (iii) the development imperativeto ensure a decent material standard of living for all. And equal accessto resources-ecological, social and economic-is essential to its attainment.

            I would like to keep this general discussion open unti the beginningof next weekend, following which we should start discussing questions 5,17, 19, 21 and 22, 15 and 27.

            Hope everyone is having a good weekend. It is freezing rain here againfor the third weekend in a row.

            To close on an administrative note, it looks like June 27 and 28 arethe best dates for a majority of us to meet. Would you please confirm youravailability and what kind of financial assistance is necessary? I stillhave to approach my Department to see what kind of funding is availablefor our meeting. I am thinking about having it here at our place at LacMaskinonge, where people could work hard all day, interspered with somegood swimming, canoeing, and then play hard all night, which will then contributeto working hard the next day. For those of you from out-of-town, we couldaccomodate tents and sleeping outside, with some guests inside, as longas you don't mind two dogs. We can offer good food and wine, and scintillatingconversation.

            Could Charles Brassard, Norma Burlington, Dale Rothman, Sally Lerner,John Middleton and Ron Edwards confirm their availability around these dates?For those people from Ottawa, our place is an easy 30 minute drive fromdowntown Ottawa.

            Your continuing interest, enthusiasm and involvement is deeply appreciated.Our dialogue is only as strong as the collectivity we bring to it, and thus,the more voices at the table, the stronger we will become.




            Date: Tue, 10 Feb 1998
            From: Shealagh E. Pope
            Subject: The three imperatives


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              I just thought I'd share something from Buzz Holling that redefines thethree imperatives (or perhaps defines a different set of three) in a waythat makes more sense to me that "economics, ecology, and social".

              "We see three solitudes -- compartmentalized communities -- whoseignorance of the others inhibits learning to achieve these goals. One solitudeincludes those motivated by interest in business and policy; one includesthose motivated by understanding achieved through integrative science andscholarship; and one includes those who encourage community action to developan equitable civil society. Each can contribute to a sustanable future. Alone they cannot."

              I like this because it splits the three along lines of how we view theworld - what our primary focus or lens is as individuals. The ecologicalimperative then is separate from the social imperative because ecologistsview the world through a scientific lens and tend to focus on natural processeswhereas people working for social change work through activism and focuson human processes. Simplified, I know.

              Comment on Stephanie's posting of yesterday (welcome back, Stephanie)- I agree wholeheartedly with her comments on transnationals. I saw a presentationa couple of years ago by the head of the sustainable development sectionof Ontario Hydro. He started his talk by saying that many transnationalswere now bigger than governments and controlled more resources and turf. He felt that this wasn't a bad thing - that governments were no longercalled on to be the social arbiter of a nation, that the corporations wouldreact to the situation and rise up to the moral responsibility engenderedby their positions of power. All I could think was - what planet does helive on? Has he never heard of despots?

              Salut, Shealagh

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