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An alternative view of sustainable development

The problem with the UK’s proposed planning reforms is not the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The problem is the definition of sustainable development itself.

The draft National Planning Policy Framework uses the usual definition of sustainable development, that is, a balance between the needs of the society, environment and economy.

The problem with this definition is that it is based on the notion of the economy as an entity that is separate from society. If one is going to treat the economy as somehow separate, then one has to ask the question why sustainable development does not include the law, science, theology, etc as separate entities or systems.

It is indisputable that there is a dialectical relationship between society, i.e. human beings, and the environment. When society expresses or describes the nature of its relationship with the environment, it is recognising that the two are connected. That language of recognition is made up of different dialects.

Law is the expression of the relationship in terms of obligation, economics in terms of value (cost and benefit), science in terms of cause and effect and so on. In environmental law, this is demonstrated in the preventative, polluter pays and precautionary principles respectively. All dialects are part of this one language of recognition and, like American, Canadian and Geordie English, society speaks in all dialects depending on the context.

The point is that one dialect, while distinctive, cannot be separated from the rest. So, in the common definition of sustainable development, there is a preference being given to one particular dialect – economics. It’s a bit like giving priority to Queen’s English. A goal of sustainable development would therefore mean that society sees its relationship with the environment as primarily one of cost and benefit.

On the other hand, how can you achieve a balance between two entities and the method of communication? In other words, sustainable development as defined in this way is impossible.

A more realistic definition of sustainable development would be one that seeks balance between society and the environment through the economy, law, science, etc.

This post is a summary of a part of the first chapter of my PhD thesis


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