Sustainability is not just about trees

What do the Greens stand for? Sustainable development is high on the list. But what does it mean?

For some people sustainable development means no more than an economic growth rate which can be sustained, cycle after cycle. Ours now is somewhere between 2.5 per cent and 3 per cent, which the government wants lifted to 4 per cent.

For others, sustainable development means development tailored so that trees or fish or some other natural resource are sustained in reasonable supply next year and in 10 years. This is where the National party is.

At the next level is a belief that some natural resources should not be exploited for economic purposes, that our descendants have an inalienable right to museum-piece forests or buildings. This is roughly where the Labour party is.

Then there is a view that sustainability is maintenance of humans in good health and in harmony with the physical environment. This, roughly seems to be where the Greens are on genetic modification (GM).

They say unknown dangers in GM demand that it be kept under lock and key for a very long time. Many Greens, including some MPs, are so determined about that that they do not want their MPs to sustain a government that accepts the royal commission’s recommendations, even if that means an even worse government takes office.

(It wouldn’t, on present indications, but if the Greens withdraw their support, Clark would, until an election, be dependent on Winston Peters, a support with the solidity of bubblegum. A precedent for Greens wrecking a Labour government only to let in anti-green conservatives is 1990s Tasmania.)

Enter Nitin Desai, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, a brief which also encompasses sustainable development.

Desai, a smoker, hails from India, a society which seems always to hang by a thread but at its best is supremely cultured and highly inventive.

He spoke at the Knowledge Wave conference on closing the international digital divide. He cited examples of inventive ways of connecting the digitally deprived in the third world, including for example, a handheld internet device that links into the local telephone loop. Such thinking could be useful in the least-advantaged and most remote areas in this country.

Hang on a minute. What has sustainable development to do with the digital divide?

Desai is using digital communications to work with “citizen groups” to build democratic practice and institutions. He intends the Johannesburg sustainable development summit next year, 10 years after the Rio climate change summit, to be a “seminal event” that involves civil society — local authorities, unions, women’s groups and other non-government organisations — and not just government bigwigs.

Desai sees information and communications technology as a means to introduce more transparency into government (and so better governance), giving the poor information about, and potentially access to, new medicines and learning and so reducing the rich-poor divide which has proved resistant to free trade’s ministrations. (Though no country wants off the free-trade train, he says, there are gross inequalities inside it.)

Here is the connection with sustainability. Rich countries use 1000 times more electricity per person than the least-developed countries, Desai said in an interview. “Both are unsustainable. One poses risks to the environment. The other is inadequate for a minimum standard of living.

“Livelihood and the quality of the environment are one thing, not two.” In other words, policy and action must be multi-faceted to be effective: poverty is bad for the environment, a poor environment helps keep the poor poor.

Sustainable development is not just not cutting down trees or cutting back on the family car or curbing the poison on sheep’s breath. It is sustaining human life at a good standard. (Greens agree.)

And that, Desai says, involves human rights and dignity, not just material standard of living. (Greens agree again.)

Bring Desai’s message close to home and apply it to the “knowledge society” and it reads something like this: without the poor taking part, it won’t be sustainable and there will not be true sustainable development. And they aren’t taking part.