Winning the battles but losing the war: Special Feature Environment

Thursday, 01 August 2002


    While there have been some advances in promoting environmental issues, Keith Suter says sustainable development rarely proceeds beyond the debate.

    Are we winning the battles but losing the war? The Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development will provide an opportunity to review the progress made so far. The indications are mixed. Although this summit (August 26-September 4) is billed as "Rio plus 10", it is really "Stockholm plus 30", for it was the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment that triggered the international concern over the environment. As the environmental debate evolved so the UN agreed, with some lobbying by business, that the "environment" only made sense when linked on the political agenda with "development". The 1992 UN Rio Conference was thus on sustainable development. "Sustainable development" is defined as development which "meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Well, how are we going? On the one hand, some progress has clearly been made. First, "sustainable development" is on the political agenda. It is rarely at the top but it is a permanent fixture. All of the Australian political parties are committed to it in one form or another.

    Second, the media regard environment stories as important ones. Third, governments have made extensive administrative changes. There were practically no ministries for the environment anywhere in the world before 1970; now every government has one. There has also been a huge increase in legislation. A decade ago, the AICD Environment Committee produced a small book for directors as a guide to Australian environmental legislation. The book sold very well. But the environmental legislation field is now so large that it is not possible to produce another short guide. Fourth, environmental reporting and monitoring have improved considerably since 1972. A system of international standards has been created (such as ISO 14001). Companies (particularly in the mining and extractive businesses) have pioneered annual reports on these issues. Fifth, industries, such as solar and wind power and recycling of materials, have evolved to cater for the new markets. On the other hand, despite all this effort, there are still problems.

    First, there is still a diversity of opinion over the extent of the problem. Laypeople have difficulty in making sense of, for example, the conflicting theories about global warming and climate change. More generally, Australians are being told that the environment is getting worse but in their own everyday experience it seems to be getting better: the air is clearer, water is safer to drink, they can now do their bit with the recycling of household waste, their places of work now have to operate within tighter environmental legislation, and their children take school courses on the environment. Second, much of the initial concern in 1972 came from dramatic predictions about how the world's environment was heading for disaster, with such references as "the population bomb". Not much progress has evidently been made. In July 2002 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued a report that the humans are using up resources so quickly that the planet will be exhausted by 2050. WWF claims that more than a third of the natural world has been destroyed by humans in the past three decades.

    Third, "sustainable development" has not been fully operationalised. In other words, only slow progress has been made in creating a new paradigm for agriculture, mining, manufacturing and services which make full use of this idea. Clearly there has been progress in how practices have changed. But somehow there has not been a dramatic breakthrough to a new level of thinking. Just what that new level of thinking would represent we will only know when we get there. All we know at present is that we are not there yet. For example, the oil-based economy of the 20th century was a new level of thinking that would have been beyond the comprehension of a person in the 18th century used to thinking only in terms of horses. To conclude, we are all strangers in a strange land trying to work out what "sustainable development" means in practice. Just as business drove the evolution of the oil-based economy in the 20th century, so it is active in the quest for sustainable development. For example, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development ( has produced The Business Case for sustainable Development in time for the Johannesburg conference. Hugh Morgan, CEO of WMC is one of the executive committee. The report makes good reading and is indicative of how business is playing its part in creating a sustainable society.

    * Keith Suter is chair of the AICD Sustainability Committee (formerly Environment Committee)


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