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Punxsutawney Phil time @ Rio+20

The leak/release of the Rio+20 draft agenda has set of many discussions about outcomes for this anniversary summit (read the agenda all here). Of course there will be a lot of head bashing, technical work done by delegates. Fine. That is their job. But the real route to effectiveness is going to be around global narratives, rekindling the notion of the planet for normal people, perception and all that. I have a nightmare in my head that the ‘Our Common Future’ definition of sustainability of:

“…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

will be heard ad infinitum in the media etcetc, gaining traction and becoming the go-to narrative setting piece.

This (pathbreaking at its time) definition which began life incomplete, morphed to become a welcome tool for mediocre boardrooms to trot out in their unending pursuit of incremental non-gains…leading on to weak action, wanton destruction in the pursuit of near-term profits, the endless talk about embedding sustainability into business and a fatal erosion of trust between business and society – instead of the start of a radical restructuring of our how we create wealth and get out of the mess we are in (exhibit a-z: destroyed societies across the world , sclerotic politics, fatter fat cats, insert your favourite example of declinism here__________).

The other day, when reading a paper by Ken Arrow and Partha Dasgupta on measuring stocks of national wealth (have a sneak, it is rather immense PDF) for a short note on why the fears of a low growth couple of years might be a time to rethink the GDP-chase madness, I came across their well laid out critique of said definition. Here is what they say:

As sustainable development must refer to a path of development that sustains (prevents the diminishing of) something, our first requirement is to state what that “something” should be. In a landmark report, the Brundtland Commission (World Commission, 1987: p.70) defined sustainable development as “… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Note that the definition makes no mention of human well-being. Relatedly, it makes relatively weak demands on intergenerational justice. In the Commission’s view, sustainable development requires that future generations have no less of the means to meet their needs than we do currently; it requires nothing more. As needs are the austere component of well-being, economic development could be sustainable in the Commission’s sense without having much to show for it.

Note also that the Commission’s definition is directed at sustaining the factors that go to meet needs. In their view “sustainable development” requires that relative to their populations each generation should bequeath to its successor at least as large a quantity of what may be called an economy’s “productive base” as it had itself inherited from its predecessor. That raises another problem with the Commission’s reasoning: it does not explain how the productive base should be measured.

We take the view that economic development should be evaluated in terms of its contribution to intergenerational well-being. Specifically, we identify sustainable development with economic paths along which intergenerational well-being does not decline.

Gets to the nub of a few of the holes in the phrase but of course it would probably have sent Donald Draper into a gin soaked rage. Do we need better definitions and communications? Yes. But, more critically, the world has moved on. The corporate age is having its final swansong. New business models, an understanding of what wealth is all about and a world confronted by a myriad of impossible tasks call for the emergence of a new compact.
Rio+20 can either be remembered for Punxsutawney Phil seen-it-all-before irrelevance or it could be the focal point for a gathering swell of new ways of doing things that are bubbling everywhere. We have a choice.We sit back and curse newscasters prefixing Brundtland to their Groundhog summit coverage or, we can seize the Rio+20 coat tails and use it as a launchpad. Time to get out of the bunker, leave the silo, ditch the obtuse language and get cracking.

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