Well researched essays on sustainability

  • 29/06/1993

THE INTERNATIONAL Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) in London has been conducting research on environment- and development-related policy issues for the past 20 years. Policies for a Small Planet is its vision of "sustainable development" prepared for the 1992 Earth Summit and could well rate as one of its most comprehensive and timely statements and one that needs to be heard and registered the world over.

Although the summit has come and gone, the publication is still relevant and will be for many years to come. It would be interesting to see IIED's follow-up document assessing the world's progress towards sustainable development.
A book for all This collection of well-researched essays makes absorbing reading for anyone -- from the layperson to the professional and from the activist to the policy-maker. Each chapter deals with a particular problem and its potential alternatives, and is complete with references and bibliographies.

The book opens with an interesting discussion on the origin of the concept of sustainable development and how it differs from the dangerously simplistic "sustainable growth". (The book says IIED founder Barbara Ward first used the term "sustainable development" in the mid-1970s to make the point that environment and development are linked.) IIED admits it has "no such thing as a universally agreed definition of sustainable development", but its approach aims at maximising development goal achievements simultaneously across biological, economic and social systems through an adaptive process of trade-offs. Development becomes sustainable when the three systems converge and their goals overlap.

The umbrella term IIED uses to describe the development approaches in the interactive zone between these systems is primary environmental care (PEC). PEC forms the essence of most recommendations in the book, which include establishing community level institutions; and formulating a sound economic policy for sustainable natural resource management, sustainable agriculture, urban renewal, restructuring of industry, sustainable forestry and energy consumption.

The highly complex issue of the price for sustainable development is also discussed thoroughly. The myth that huge incremental financial resource flows will be required to achieve a secure future -- whether in industry, agriculture or energy -- is also destroyed. While there is little doubt that additional North-South resource flows are necessary, there are also suggestions on efficient aid use, debt reduction and fewer restrictions on foreign trade.

The only apparent inconsistency in the book is the chapter on the future of Africa's drylands. It is not clear why this topic has been singled out and treated when the other chapters deal with global environmental problems, with examples from regions and countries across the earth. Why deal with drylands when there are such problems as drought and famine, survival of indigenous people, destruction of tropical rainforests and extinction of species to tackle? And, why highlight Africa, why not Asia or Latin America? The primary point being made is that governments should decentralise power and vest authority in local community institutions, an argument that holds true for most other parts of the world.

This book is highly recommended for decision-makers who can influence the state of the environment and therefore, the quality of life itself. It is a rational, well-balanced statement that takes no sides and simply makes a powerful plea for local communities to have greater control over their resources and thereby, their destiny.

---Farhad Vania is a consultant with the Indian Institute of Public Administration and a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group.

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