People, profit and the environment – can we balance them all?

"What we have today is an economy that simply hasn’t been able to guarantee that we all stay above a basic social foundation and below a safe environmental ceiling."

As the 'Elders+Youngers' online discussion begins, Pedro Telles of Brazil asks: Why is it so hard to make effective change a reality? What are the barriers to change? Where are we failing to deliver, and who is responsible? Gro Brundtland and Esther Agbarakwe offer some initial responses.

Pedro Telles Monday 30th April 2012 | 10:47 UTC

It’s challenging but essential to start this debate with a question that refers to that one crucial but still unsolved matter of sustainable development: how to guarantee economic prosperity, environmental quality and social justice at the same time?

It seems to me that we will only reach real economic prosperity when we have an economy that works to serve the people and preserve the environment, and not the other way around.

This has become crystal clear with the global economic crisis we face since 2008, together with the many social, political and environmental crises it has worsened. What we have today is an economy that simply hasn’t been able to guarantee that we all stay above a basic social foundation and below a safe environmental ceiling.

“Ultimately, this is the most severe crisis of our time.”

Whichever solutions we may find must include dialogue, cooperation and transparency between the most diverse social actors, and everyone who is willing to lead change must find adequate and efficient resources available to do so.

To reach an adequate balance, we need to work on putting social and environmental justice at the top of the agenda.

Change is far from impossible: many groups, communities and organisations are already working on efficient solutions for many of the problems we face, but these solutions still need to grow in visibility and support.

And along with practical solutions must come a deep reflection on ethics and values in our society – ultimately, this is the most severe crisis of our time.

We need something new. And it seems that sustainable development is not only the goal, but also the way to get there.

Meanwhile, many more questions remain for debate and it would be great to hear from Elders and Youngers about them:

  • With so many good ideas and hundreds of conventions and agreements already signed, why is it so hard to make effective changes become reality?
  • What are the key change stoppers at international, national and sub-national levels?
  • Where is each sector of society failing to deliver?
  • Which examples of successful and inspiring initiatives led by governments and by civil society can we point to?
Gro Harlem Brundtland
Gro Harlem Brundtland Wednesday 2nd May 2012 | 12:19 UTC

Dear Pedro,

Thank you for starting the discussion for this week – you have given us a lot to think about.

Your writing takes me back to drafting the preface of Our Common Future - the report we delivered as part of the UN commission I headed, in 1987. Back then we wrote that we could never succeed “unless we are able to translate our words into a language that can reach the minds and hearts of people young and old”. Pedro, you are appealing to human, social values – and that is ultimately the message of sustainable development.

I see your questions have already prompted interesting reactions. I would like to pick up on one of your points in particular, where you ask where each sector is failing to deliver. That is precisely the right question because you already demand that we think about each and every sector of society. Such thinking is still too rare, and that of course is key to the balancing act you describe.

“Every minister – be it for the economy, health, infrastructure, energy or housing – is also a minister for sustainable development. ”

When the UN Secretary-General of the time, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, was trying to convince me to head the UN commission I mentioned earlier, which helped put sustainable development on the global agenda, he used this argument: “You are the only Environment Minister to have become a Prime Minister”. And that convinced me.

It’s clear now that his argument had the seed of sustainable development within it. Indeed if you take that logic to its conclusion, you would have to say that every minister – be it for the economy, health, infrastructure, energy or housing – is also a minister for sustainable development. To return to your question, I would suggest that it is less a case of finding where each sector is failing, and instead asking whether governments are able to lead across sectors in this way. The same can be said at the international level.

This brings me to a question for you all. In your own words, Pedro: “sustainable development is not only the goal, but also the way to get there”. That is an excellent observation which relates to the previous point: sustainable development is both an aspiration for us all and a process every sector of society must, in its own way, undergo.

In that sense: are we, as a global community, moving closer or further away?

I would be glad to hear your thoughts, and those of everybody reading.

I wish you all the best,
Gro Brundtland

Esther Agbarakwe
Esther Agbarakwe Thursday 3rd May 2012 | 15:20 UTC

Dear Pedro,

I have read your comments thrice and keep asking the same question in my mind while thinking about the society where I come from: Africa.

“Everyone is responsible for the way we are now and we must all take responsibility to make it better.”

As a continent we are super-blessed with rich natural and human resources and yet we are still struggling for development that meets the needs of ordinary people: water, electricity, food, education, health care, including sexual and reproductive health services and supplies, etc.

Everyone is responsible for the way we are now and we must all take responsibility to make it better, but the 'forces' hindering the movement forward sustainably should be addressed. These include but are not limited to: corruption, poor governance (including eco-governance) and lack of ethical considerations in all sectors of humanity.

We live in a different world now, and change as you mentioned is far from impossible.

The change not only needs to start from us individually, but also from the leaders who represent us. They need to know that we will hold them accountable and that we are watching them.

Pedro Telles
Pedro Telles Friday 4th May 2012 | 09:45 UTC

Dear Gro, Esther, and all those who sent comments: thank you for this great debate!

Gro, what you point out is of high importance. The idea that “every minister is also a minister for sustainable development” is surely something that needs to be strengthened – and it requires not only a change of perspective, but also effective measures to bring an integrated and holistic approach to public policies and planning, aiming at a this much-needed leadership towards sustainability.

“If public procurement policies had clear and priority criteria related to sustainability, the positive impact could be huge”

One simple and clear example that has been growing in importance in Brazil and other countries is the debate on sustainable public procurement policies. In Brazil, public expenditures are equivalent to almost 20 per cent of the GDP. If public procurement policies had clear and priority criteria related to sustainability, the positive impact could be huge and lead to many changes in the economy!

Esther, regarding what you mention about African countries, the situation in Brazil and other countries in Latin America has so many similarities – it's sad to see so many opportunities for advancement get lost because of corruption, poor governance, lack of ethical considerations and other issues that strongly slow down development.

I guess strengthening the connections between members of the civil society from our continents who are working to drive change can make a huge difference! Some organisations are already work hard on this, and I really hope to see it grow during the next years.

Thank you all again, and let's keep the debate going!

Gro Harlem Brundtland
Gro Harlem Brundtland Friday 18th May 2012 | 10:00 UTC

Thank you all for a wonderful start to this debate!

Esther, Marvin: I had the great pleasure of meeting you in Oslo last week. It made the mission of this discussion even clearer to me. I am constantly reminded of the fact we underestimate the need for a deeper dialogue between generations. This idea was always central to our original definition of sustainable development, and is echoed in the advice I gave you when we met: "be yourself, and think long-term".

Now I look forward to meeting you both again, along with Sara and Pedro at the Rio conference in June.

Our first week of debate tells us one clear thing already: people from all backgrounds realise the scale of the crisis. They see what is going wrong and they want to act on it. In its own way, let us hope this debate can channel our indignation, grievances and visions for change - and help lead to results we can all be proud of in Rio.

“Be yourself, and think long-term”

Reading the many contributions and comments, there are several points I would like to draw attention to.

Firstly, the discussion shows how people arrive at a belief in sustainable development from very different directions - the subject of the comments included fossil fuels, consumerism, urban planning and fears about the normalisation of violence.

I also noted several comments about money and finance confusing our perception of value and creating misguided priorities, suggesting the real value of our planetary and human resources are being lost. On a related point, there was an interesting suggestion that daily efforts in support of sustainability, big and small, are equally undervalued and not sufficiently visible. Both these points are, I believe, vitally important to consider in our search for solutions.

Esther offered three compelling insights to add to Pedro's opening description: the need to make clear both our individual and shared responsibilities, mirrored in fairer and better governance and, of course, the backdrop which makes sustainable development worth fighting for: the fact, as she puts it,that we are "super-blessed with rich and natural resources".

Finally my thanks to Pedro, who gave a very fine overview of sustainable development. In short: it is both an aspiration for better and fairer societies, and an immediate roadmap out of a complex web of dangers.

Thank you all, once again, for such a promising beginning. I look forward to continuing our discussion.

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