Feb 13, 2012

The many facets of the sustainable development discussion

How have we come to believe that seeking the equilibrium of sustainability is the right thing to do?  Some might argue that it is obvious, given the state of our natural world and the disruption of healthy ecosystems. Certainly, growing awareness of our global interconnectedness and quality of life issues made more difficult through economic hardship have shed light on society’s dysfunction.

However, during this election year there is another nuance in the sustainability conversation that lies hidden in rhetoric from both camps of the political divide. An example from the right is John Anthony’s narrated slide presentation entitled Agenda 21 for public officials: False Choices.

In this fourteen minute presentation he frames his opinion based on threats to individual property rights that he believes stem from the 1987 Brundtland Report to the U.N. In a multitude of ways he suggests that social equity will be achieved by dismantling vital characteristics of U.S. law. For example, he believes free enterprise will be replaced with public/private partnerships. A restructuring of American life will take place and we will have to conform to the views of planners and developers promoting sustainable design. The environmental movement is being used to promote a political agenda, and if that weren’t enough, he claims: “ordinary people will be left unprotected from de facto decrees placing nature above man while relegating man to a biological resource.”

This sounds familiar as a rallying cry for those who see rights pitted against environmental concerns. The two are always irreconcilable. By keeping his argument within the realm of government manipulation he can rouse sentiment without needing to give validity to why sustainable development efforts have emerged in the first place.

On the flipside is this Good Lifestyle commentary. We are trending toward a different world view in terms of choosing where and how we live, but that is clearly a good thing. Apparently, the so-called American dream, that we presumably all embrace, is being revised according to survey results noted in the article. 

Both camps make sweeping assumptions about what Americans have agreed on as their predominant cultural value. In one case, it is individual property rights, on the other, the chase to own “the biggest house possible”. The danger in taking such a single, streamlined point of view on a very complex issue is the tendency to support that view with far-reaching, inaccurate logic.

The trending downsizing of housing isn’t just for the youngest generation. Why isn’t it for anyone taking the long view of their living situation? By suggesting that living in a densely populated city is a sacrifice that forces us to redefine our ideal habitat, the author seems to say that we would otherwise gravitate toward “our outsized fantasies”, as if the majority already had them.

If there is one thing to be noticed about trends, it is that they extend not only to behavior, but also to expression in public discourse. It has long been noted that the public is growing weary of negative, polarizing views. We absorb a multitude of warnings and advice on how to live until we are exhausted by all the fearmongering.  There must be an alternative to the us versus them argument or the feel-good-if-you’re-on-the-bandwagon slant.

The messages that will win the day are ones that mold opinion with a thorough, well-reasoned approach, rather than cloaking statements in terms of self-denial, sacrifice, or impending governmental threats to civil liberties.

posted 2/13/12 by Marcella Van Oel


  1. I recognize the exhaustion syndrome. I suffer from that frequently over politics and the environment. But is it fear mongering if the threat is real? And what if the let's-all-just-get-along big tent dialog doesn't deliver? It certainly is not with regard to climate disruption and most other large scale environmental degradation issues. I'm sorry but what's "trending" is not near enough to save us from ourselves. It's time we start asking the real hard questions. Not whether to mandate higher fuel standards or more efficient everything, those are no-brainers. I'm talking big picture, like how do we improve democracy in a future (present) when we will surely have to reign in consumption and limit choices? As it's going those limits are governed by scarcity, which is profoundly undemocratic and serves to amplify class and income inequality.

  2. Geoff, Thanks for your contribution! The quality of our democracy doesn't appear to have a direct correlation with individual choices to restrict consumption. People will revise their consumption patterns based largely on their own situations and conscience. Choices will be made as long as they are available; however, if limits are imposed in a way that disproportionately harm those of fewer means, then it is only the citizenry that can uphold the quality of democratic process. I think it has always been thus.