Sustainable Development

There is a dizzying gulf between the need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases by 50% and the galloping economic development set in motion by economic globalization.

Scientists are very pessimistic about the future, but accepting their doomsday scenarios is likely only to turn public attention away from the search for solutions, as well as to isolate the Cassandras. The image of the «Titanic syndrome», used by Nicolas Hulot as the title of his recent book, springs to mind.

So what can be done? Sustainable development is the setting within which social and economic development can find common ground with the limits imposed by the environment. This does not mean that what most people understand today by “sustainable development” will solve the problem, but it does mean that the mental attitude of searching for solutions is an essential prerequisite. Partisans of sustainable negative growth are objectively right, but they are in a political impasse. It seems unthinkable that, in a democratic system, politicians could campaign on a platform of reducing the standard of living, and believe they could form an elected majority to implement such a policy. This was in fact the initial position of the political ecological movements, but the play of politics and the media finally forced the leaders of the Greens to abandon it. The fact that the Green members of the French parliament were not even present when the debate on the Charter for the Environment took place was all the more symptomatic because they were in the media limelight at that time with their deliberately provocative views on gay marriage.

There is no political majority without a pre-existing cultural majority. The task is to change people’s perception of the world and their vision of what constitutes human progress. We are talking about a paradigm shift. A paradigm is defined as a reference model that gives coherence to a set of beliefs and actions shared by the members of a community. The paradigm of sustainable development involves a new relationship between man and nature, a sense of responsibility towards future generations, a systematic approach designed to handle complexity, and the creation of room for cooperation in a world that runs on competition… All these elements working in synergy represent a very real paradigm that is rapidly seen to be in conflict with the dominant paradigm of competition and the growth of material production. We are, as Lemoigne expresses it, caught up in a situation of paradigm tectonics: their movements with respect to each other bring them into violent collision, and cause veritable earthquakes. The violence of the debate over the principle of caution has shown how fundamental the issue is. But to build the debate on these fault lines is certainly not to choose the most stable of foundations. It is true that the violence of the crises we will have to face (tempests, heat waves …) will force changes upon us, but it will already be late in the day, and there is no guarantee that the crisis situations will produce the best decisions. We have no choice but to prepare for the crises ahead of time.

To do this, we need to consider society as a “learning organization”. That is to say, to consider that the collective practice of continuous improvement (a win-win approach sanctioned by continuously evaluating progress made and correcting actions taken) will make it possible to change society’s visions and values. This two loop structure is what is proposed in the theory of the learning organization. Creating win-win strategies means building information systems, organizing consciousness-raising and training operations, and setting up the processes to discover and then disseminate these win-win solutions.

We must organize this process so that it can change the vision we have of the world and produce the understanding and the information necessary to create profound change and to enable us to face our responsibilities. The French Charter for the Environment contains most of the elements necessary for this change.

But although the search for solutions that satisfy the trilogy of sustainable development – economic progress, ecological protection and social justice – is an effective rallying point for action, this vision will remain unfocussed until it confronts such concrete objectives as reducing greenhouse gas emissions four-fold by the year 2050, an objective set down in the French National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS). It was in this context of reflection on strategy that I became involved in two major projects: Mediaterre and SD 21000. The former ( aims at setting up co-operative monitoring of sustainable development in French, in order to reinforce both competence and cooperation within the French-speaking world. The latter (SD 21000) is the system for building sustainable development into corporate strategy and management; this system has been developed within AFNOR (French Association for Standardization) and is now on the table at the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) in the context of reflection on sustainable development and corporate social responsibility. This system will facilitate sustainability related transactions between the different parties involved, either along the value chain or in different geographical areas. My appointment as Inter-ministerial Delegate has led me to resign from my position of director of Mediaterre, but I will now be coordinating government reflection on the work of the ISO concerning corporate social responsibility.

In the context of this new mission, my first objective is to ensure the implementation of the SNDD programme (French National Strategy for Sustainable Development) and to report on the progress of the various associated projects such as the Climate Plan. The SNDD programme concerns some 600 measures, whose monitoring is the subject of the SNDD report to be published shortly.

But for a genuine strategy to emerge, a hierarchy of objectives must first be established. To do this we need to draw on the indicators of sustainable development and identify the elements that are critically important if we are to reverse trends inimical to long-term sustainability. The most crucial of these elements are seen to be the spreading artificialization of land surfaces and the impact of transport and housing on the greenhouse effect: choices made here today will still be affecting our world in 30 or 50 years’ time. The report published this summer on the 45 indicators of sustainable development is a useful basis for public debate.

Sustainable development must also be built into the most strategic political processes, such as the LOLF (the organic law relating to public accounts ) or the future Plan contracts. The LOLF is to institute results-oriented public policy management, and this profound change must apply also to the objectives of sustainable development. The networks and competencies brought together within the National Council for Sustainable Development must be capitalized on, and all information concerning innovations and their means of diffusion must be mobilized. A key element is the proposal to create an interdisciplinary CNU (National University Council) of engineering for sustainable development. This proposal, made by the French National Council for Sustainable Development, will soon be in the study stage. Post-Kyoto thinking should draw on a wide range of research, such as the project for positive energy buildings that was touched on in the Climate Plan.

As far as awareness, education, and dissemination of information are concerned, good practice has an important role to play. Each annual Sustainable Development Week will make this vision more widely known, and will promulgate exemplary and innovative practices.

This article expresses Christian Brodhag’s personal views.

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