Is sustainable development a luxury we cannot afford?

"The great challenges we all face are very clear: poverty eating away at our social fabric; our dwindling ecosystems; the well-documented threat of climate change... And yet so many of our leaders tend to put these challenges right at the bottom of their agendas."

How can we reconcile the demand for economic growth with a fairer and more sustainable future? Archbishop Desmond Tutu asks the Youngers – who come from Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria and China – how they tackle the idea that progressive action on sustainable development is something only wealthy countries can afford.

Desmond Tutu Wednesday 9th May 2012 | 09:26 UTC

My dear friends,

It gives me great pleasure to join you in this discussion – you seem to be a wonderful bunch; inspiring young people who have all given so much already to protect our environment, to promote social justice and to build fairer societies.

The great challenges we all face are very clear: poverty eating away at our social fabric; our dwindling ecosystems; the well-documented threat of climate change. And yet so many of our leaders – in rich and poor countries alike – tend to put these challenges right at the bottom of their agendas, as if tackling climate change and social injustice were some sort of luxury!

My question, really, is why is it that our leaders do not think more like you?

It seems that our leaders are fluent in the language of crisis. But what is frustrating is that they often focus solely on short-term solutions. And yet, addressing the long-term issues by committing to fairness, prosperity and sustainability is precisely what would help to tackle today’s crises.

“It seems that our leaders are fluent in the language of crisis.”

Rather than seeing it as a burden, let’s take this long-term perspective as an amazing opportunity. Less affluent countries have an opportunity to embrace fairer, better, more sustainable paths to prosperity. Richer countries, particularly given their present crisis of faith in the sole pursuit of growth, have an opportunity to rethink their definition of human well-being.

But I defer to you bright young people for the next steps from here!

Sara – Sweden has done much to advance sustainable development, and is also a land of plenty. What is your reply to those who argue that you’ve reached a level of development which our entire planet simply could not afford?

Esther – some people in your country, Nigeria, may be tempted to dismiss calls for a sustainable future when their immediate concern is to be able to feed and educate their children. Is this the case, in your experience?

Marvin and Pedro – the world is in awe of China and Brazil's booming economies. In many ways, your countries embody the danger and opportunity of this moment in our history, for humanity and our planet. So when you see such deep change taking place at home, how do you think it can be reconciled with a fairer and more sustainable future?

Sara Svensson
Sara Svensson Tuesday 15th May 2012 | 20:18 UTC

Dear Desmond Tutu,

Thank you very much for starting off this important discussion. In response to your question, I will share some perspectives from my home country, Sweden.

Sweden is one of the countries in the world with the highest energy consumption per capita. If every person on the planet consumed as much resources as the average Swede, our one single Earth would be far from providing enough. In that sense it is absolutely true that Sweden has reached a level of development that our entire planet could simply not afford.

As an individual I’m trying as much as I can to live a more sustainable lifestyle. However, just by being part of the Swedish society and using our common services, I’m consuming more than my fair share from a global perspective. I was born into this, but not born to accept it. Growing up in Sweden in the 1990s, I was told at school that our lifestyles need to change.

“I was born into this, but not born to accept it.”

Still, however, our society is full of situations when sustainable choices are irrational from an individual perspective. Fossil fuels are subsidised, which makes it cheap to pollute. Eco-labeled food products become a luxury since they are more expensive than conventional counterparts. As long as people measure their status in 'stuff', sustainable second-hand will be a socially unaffordable self-sacrifice for some.

I remember one summer in Sweden when I walked around in broken sandals. It was not because I did not have enough money to buy new ones – it was my moral thinking that could not afford it. The winter before, I had been living in an informal settlement in the Philippines. When one of my sandals broke there, I got it fixed for a few Pesos. Back in Sweden many months later I was still using it, but then the other sandal broke in exactly the same way. My shoemaker laughed and told me to throw it away – it would be cheaper to buy a new pair in the store.

When my grandmother was young, people in Sweden used to take care of their belongings and repair them. Why did that cultural practice get replaced by an unsustainable throw-away mentality, just because we have become richer? That is a luxury we cannot afford – and sustainable development is the solution.

I am looking forward to hear my fellow Youngers’ perspectives on your respective home countries. For people with similar experiences as mine, I would like to ask:

How can the more sustainable options become the rational choice for every individual and every nation?

Pedro Telles
Pedro Telles Wednesday 16th May 2012 | 18:44 UTC

Dear friends,

The question raised by Desmond Tutu in the beginning of his text is crucial in the search for a way to overcome the challenges we face: why is it that our leaders do not put sustainable development as a top priority?

We have been debating sustainable development for several decades now, and it seems clear that a vast majority of the world leaders – if not all of them – are aware of the urgency to tackle issues such as poverty, inequality, climate change, loss of biodiversity and systematic violation of human rights if we are to guarantee dignity, well-being and a safe environment for everyone. So why have changes been so slow?

One classic and accurate explanation related to the short-term vision of politicians, at least in democratic countries (the reality of non-democratic countries is something we must surely debate as well), is the fact that elections happen every four or five years. Being so, many politicians and parties find little motivation to focus on long-term objectives, when they want short-term results to be re-elected.

“Countries, organisations and individuals who change now will be the leaders of the future”

Two other reasons that could be mentioned are corruption and the private financing of political campaigns. As Esther pointed out in our previous discussion, corruption itself is a major issue, and for well-known reasons it is a true change stopper. At the same time, private financing of political campaigns also brings problems, and it is a subject over which discussion still needs to grow – is it possible for a candidate to receive millions from a few donors and still keep his or her autonomy to act boldly and in favor of the common good? How fair and democratic is it to have an unequal debate among candidates due to the fact that some of them receive much more money from specific donors with private interests?

The challenges I mentioned above are faced everywhere – both in developed and developing nations. And it’s also important to mention that politicians are not the only ones who often prioritise short-term solutions – organisations and individuals do it as well on many occasions. We all must bring to present decisions effective considerations about the future.

We already know that change must come with urgency, and as Archbishop Tutu and Sara already pointed out, sustainable development must not be seen as a luxury. It is, indeed, the only reasonable option we have, and thousands of studies already attest its viability. Countries, organisations and individuals who change now will be the leaders of the future, and answering to Sara's question I believe the offering of more sustainable alternatives must come through cultural change, voluntary commitments and efficient public policies at the same time.

Archbishop Tutu asked about the role that emerging economies such Brazil and China have to play, and we have a great opportunity to use this moment to actively drive structural change – but this has not been easy. In Brazil, short-term interests and the illusion of growth at any cost still have a loud voice, as we can see in the ongoing debates related to the change of our Forest Code and the construction of the Belo Monte dam.

The problems we face here are faced in many other countries as well. Being so, Rio+20 brings a unique opportunity for the world leaders to show what they stand for when dealing with sustainable development. And so I also leave a question to everyone who is participating in this debate:

What would you like to see our leaders commit to at Rio+20? Which concrete solutions must they agree to implement?

Esther Agbarakwe
Esther Agbarakwe Thursday 17th May 2012 | 08:14 UTC

Dear Archbishop Tutu,

“Yu u nobuntu”

Thank you so much for raising these questions. Today I received a belated birthday gift from my senior colleague – a book, Words of Inspiration from Desmond Tutu – and on it was printed in bold: ‘BELIEVE!’

Going back five to ten years, sustainable development would have been only in the minds of very few elite individuals among the very large population in Nigeria.

‘Sustainable development’ and ‘green economy’, though a foreign language, are good concepts in preserving the earth but the challenges of poverty, water shortage, hunger, electricity, high rate of maternal mortality, youth unemployment and other social factors would be considered by the masses as much more important. When a poor family is saddled with how to survive; how to feed and if possible afford education for their children, communicating sustainable development to them will not be easy. It has not been easy.

Ogbonna Augustina, my female colleague from Lagos, Nigeria, wrote to me on Facebook to say: “During a field experience with small scale farmers in Lagos, I noticed that if the government could create an enabling environment for these small scale farmers to do business and thrive in their production, they would be more willing and interested in policies that relate and affect them as regard agriculture and sustainable development. But this is far from possible. They perceive government as about being for the rich and influential but not about them.”

This is the reality and I believe this can change.

“If government lived up to its responsibility, the people would also do the same.”

Nigeria has many impediments on its road to sustainable development. One is the historical corruption among the government and politicians and our dependence on fossil fuel earnings. Now we are seeing increasing participation of the populace in governance processes, enhanced by technology and new media and mostly led by the youth and non-state actors.

For instance, yesterday on 17 May a tweet-discussion on #GreenDealNigeria was started by Japheth Omojuwa, and it became a trending topic on Twitter. Similarly, we have also had tweet-meets and town hall meetings with government representatives and members of the legislature on issues of youth and sustainable development in Nigeria.

But this isn’t enough. It time for everyone to take responsibility for the present and future of Nigerian society – the role of the leaders is much greater here. If government lived up to its responsibility, the people would also do the same. Like you say, Archbishop Tutu: “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.”

As Keme from Port Harcourt says: “The issue of sustainable development is not negotiable, so its being a luxury or not is inconsequential. If we can't embark on developmental projects and programmes that will give our unborn generations a sense of belonging and a good future, then our children's children's children will still suffer what their parents suffered. The choice then is ours, either to compromise this all-important issue, or by tagging it as being some form of luxury.”

Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu Thursday 24th May 2012 | 09:11 UTC

Thank you everyone for your inspiring comments.

Your writings show the best – all that is caring and forward-thinking about humanity. It is so good to see so many people committed to trying to find the best possible solutions to the problems we face. In such moments, I have no doubt that we can succeed in meeting these immense challenges.

I agree with you that sustainable development is not a luxury we cannot afford. Rather, we cannot afford to think that we can continue on the path we are currently on.

The bottom line is this: we have only one world, and without a more sustainable approach that provides for more jobs and development, that does not weaken the planet and that leaves enough vital resources for all – we are done for.

Pedro, the example you use of politicians in government is very important. While there are many good leaders, too many tend to think in the short-term electoral cycles you describe. This example captures much that is wrong and frustrating about our effort to create a fairer world, when both challenges and solutions require us to take a much longer view.

“We cannot afford to think that we can continue on the path we are currently on.”

We also cannot afford to sleepwalk into unfair situations that are of humanity’s own making. Both Esther and Pedro have written of how the pursuit of private gain, and sometimes even corruption, can lead to people, companies and lobbies striving to stop change.

Sara, you say that we are all born into a world that we cannot afford to accept at face value. And ‘value’ is a crucial word.

You ask how the fairer option can become the rational and logical choice for people, but I believe you go some way to answering the question and, in so doing, you answer a deeper question raised by many others who have joined us. Let me explain.

Sara, the tale of your sandals is a wonderful story of how we can find value in all things. There is the price of something, of course – but what you have told us goes beyond that.

What you have done is make us think about value as something to be found, ultimately, in community, compassion and our common stewardship of this bountiful world that we share. That is precisely what we cannot afford to lose.

Reminder about posting comments:

  • All comments posted on www.theElders.org will be moderated before publication.
  • In making comments, please be constructive and treat others with respect.
  • Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, inflammatory statements or accusations, personal attacks, discriminatory or abusive language will not be posted.
  • Links: Please do link to other relevant sites and articles to enrich the debate. Please do not link to inappropriate or offensive websites or use signature links in your post.