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What's Next: Shannon May

Everything green must stop getting an automatic green light. It is still not easy being green, but it is still harder to know what is green when everything calls itself green. As sustainable design and development have become the only way to describe construction and development projects without raising eyebrows or inducing guilt, these descriptions have been emptied of any specific definition or criteria that makes sustainability anything more than sustaining whatever current business practice is popular and politically correct. While the Bruntland Report’s conception of “Our Common Future� in 1987 was groundbreaking—particularly at a time when Cold War walls were still standing—we have outgrown the generality and simplicity of its sustainable development framework: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.�

It is striking that there is no explicit subject in this definition of development, and that is where we must begin to work on a new ethical and technical framework. Development is not a technical solution or a natural process, but a human process, spurred on by relational dynamics between persons, places, property, and perspectives. The Brundtland definition not only eliminates the actor and acted upon, but also ignores both the comparative spatial and historical aspects of development, and only looks to future generations. But whose? Those whose needs are being met now by a given development project, or those on whom the development project is enacted? The Brundtland definition obfuscates the relationship between the subject and object of development at a time in which we know that they are rarely the same, and when it is the very differences between subject and object of development that propels the whole process into action.

How do you define sustainable development when it is practiced across so many oblique relationships? Do the requirements of sustainable development change when the subject lives a different life and livelihood than the object of her work? At a time when the disparity between the wealth and poverty is growing at a historically unprecedented rate, and awareness of the need for worldchanging acts is growing, we need a new definition of sustainable development that does not obfuscate the who, where and when of the act, but deals with this complexity as part of a situationally-grounded criterion for sustainability. Who defines the needs of the present (for whom)? Who can work on whom, where and in what ways for whose benefit in what timeline, and still be sustainable development? That means that this new definition must not be an ends-test, measuring the effects of a present action as the Brundtland definition does, but it must also be a means-test, setting forth guidelines and requirements for the process.

We need a working definition of sustainable development that does not allow any project that claims a vision that is more than just the most obvious path to profit to easily pass through the green gates. It is time that green got a little mean.

Shannon May is currently working in Huangbaiyu, China, with a focus on the effects of a transnational project to create a "sustainable development model village" that will modernize the countryside without environmental degradation.

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Shannon, brilliantly said. I put "greens" three categories

1. Pragmatic futurists
2. Rabble rousers
3. Politicos (bandwagon greens)

One can only hope that the vast majority fall into category 1, since those people are the ones who can make all of this succeed.

Posted by: Deepak on 28 Dec 06

These are very important questions.

I prefer to use the term "Integrative Improvement: Sustainable Development as if People and Their Physical, Social and Cultural Environments Mattered".

The shortcomings of the Brundtland definition perhaps reflect the preoccupation at that time and since with the physical environment as demonstrated by use of the word "green".

Posted by: Graham Douglas on 28 Dec 06

This presents an interesting set of problems.

I would suggest that one part of the solution is to try to understand better what we mean by "development". Personally, I like the approach in Bernie Kaplan's Genetic-Dramatism (G-D), where he claims that development is movement toward perfection -- that development is teleological, in the sense that development aims toward some telos (end state) and if it's development, that end state is perfection. Further, we might claim that, in your terms, the object of development is what develops. Development, in the pure sense, focuses on the end, not the means.

Sustainable development, in the green case, would be change only in the direction of creating a more perfect natural environment. Your comments (in their focus on needs) suggest that sustainable COMMUNITY development requires much more than a greener setting. Your comments (in their focus on the "subject" of development) suggest that planned development requires a broad focus on a community and cannot rely upon change in just one facet (i.e., the natural environment). I do wonder, though, whether these aren't all best considered ends.

Nice article.

Posted by: Richard Beckwith on 2 Jan 07



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