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  Realities of Sustainable Development 
by Dr. Stephen J. Wozniak
This article first appeared in the Newsletter of Offwell Environment Link and is reproduced with their permission

Editor's Note:  The last Newsletter included an article "Sustainable Development: What does it mean?".  There seemed to be no consensus even on definitions, let alone on priorities.  We have devoted much of this issue to a thought provoking response from Dr. Stephen Wozniak, who gave the 1998 Offwell Lecture.  In the Autumn 1998 Newsletter we described his lecture as wide ranging, challenging and almost wholly pessimistic.  Write to the Editor with your further views!

I sighed wearily whilst reading about definitions of sustainable development.  As a scientist who was involved for nearly 20 years on the periphery of drafting official documents to make them 'acceptable' to Whitehall and Westminster, the sequence of events seemed familiar.

First, take a clear and principled idea: that sustainable development is a process leading to sustainability, itself a way of living and of treating the Earth and all Life in such a way as to ensure that any permanent diminution of the whole that may in future occur is owing to causes outside of man's control.  Second, proffer it to mandarins and a few part-time junior ministers.  Finally, marvel at how they manage despite all knowledge placed before them to emasculate the central ideas and ideals to an extent that even definitions (let along policies) reek of insincerity.

Far from being a jumble of words formulated by well meaning but muddled amateurs, the official definition of sustainable development (DETR 2000, and reproduced in the Autumn Newsletter) is a masterpiece of homage to both perpetual economic growth and the consumer society - arguably the twin antitheses of sustainability.  A year is an age in politics.  Yet we need to look back 30 years to obtain a context for what is happening today.

The end of complacency.  During the 1950s and 1960s oil had flowed reliably and cheaply from Arab states.  We had "never had it so good" (Harold Macmillan, 1957).  Moreover, prosperity would be forged in the "white heat of (the technological) revolution" (Harold Wilson 1963).  For another decade and despite a fledgling environmental movement, the old buffer class of mandarins continued to feel secure amidst the leather seats and saddle soap of Whitehall.  World without end, save loss of Empire.

Yet an end was to come, precipitated by the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973.  A gradual increase in the price of oil had long been suggested by ecologists.  The Shah of Iran was sympathetic.  But the actual rise was both sudden and huge, an act of vengeance rather than of altruism or ecology.  Prices quadrupled inside a year.  The UK was dependent upon Arab oil despite having (at the time) a large coal industry.  Departmental panic buttons, unused since the Suez crisis of 1956, were hurriedly unearthed.  Petrol coupons were issued and religious faith found new expression as motorists queued for hours at the pumps to await deliverance.

The knee-jerk reaction to the oil crisis and (later) the miners' strike was to encourage a reduction in energy use.  Brushing your teeth in the dark, showering with a friend, removing light bulbs or sharing your most treasured possession with strangers - all made headlines for a few days.  The important point is not the banality of much of the advice but that ministers were urging a reduction in consumption and material living standards.  The words 'conservation' and 'reduction' were applauded.  But not for long.

Institutionalised insincerity takes hold.  Within a few years, OPEC stabilised, the miners were put in their place (out of work), the North Sea became a short-lived national treasure, world oil prices fell and the consumer society was propelled to new and brave horizons.  Amidst the sighs of relief in Westminster was heard a murmured discord.  The Goddess of Shopping, chief mentor of the Treasury and High Priestess of the housing estates, was displeased by the new multi-faith society that had embraced 'conservation'.  Encouraging people to use less?  To do without?  To distinguish between want and need?  But happiness and economic growth (for the two were clearly inseparable) depended on using more, if not of everything then of almost everything.  Conservation was for hippies, not for patriotic consumers.

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