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Proceedings of The Great Debate: Development, Sustainability and Environment

Session 2: Sustainability Here and Now
Proceedings based on the notes of John Theaker, edited by Caspar Hewett

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The Chair, Viv Regan, opened the session by pointing to the way work has been undertaken at international, national and local levels to advance sustainable urban development over the last decade. She then introduced the two speakers for this head-to-head discussion on the benefits or otherwise of the sustainability paradigm in the context of the developed world; Allen Creedy, Project Director, Peer Review for European Sustainable Urban Development (PRESUD), Directorate of Enterprise, Environment and Culture, Newcastle City Council and James Heartfield, editor Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age and author The 'Death of the Subject' Explained and Need and Desire in the Postmaterial Economy.

Allen Creedy opened with a presentation on the PRESUD project. PRESUD is a three year project aimed at developing and testing a peer review tool that will undertake a performance assessment of sustainable development in nine European Cities. Performance Asessment is being used by the cities to develop and implement an action plan. The action plan will improve the sustainable development performance of the city by putting in place new policies and by delivering new activities.

The objectives of the project are to elaborate on the OECD peer review methodology, pilot a peer review tool in the partner cities over three years and implement a SMART - action plans to achieve improved sustainable development performance.

What are the issues? All areas - air water waste natural resource etc. . . social and economic integration - energy - transport - regional co-operation - environmental and social integration. The project has taken benchmarks from www.idea.org.uk/lgip and tested them at EU level.

Results: Nine Reports have been produced. Thirty five politicians and technical experts have been involved; the review teams are made up of these. High level EU wide dissemination is taking place and there is OECD support for this project. The project is attempting to challenge existing approaches to sustainable development; all cities are implementing change and PRESUD is contributing to understanding better how culture effects sustainable development.

In closing Allen Creedy pointed out that in Newcastle there is no one responsible for sustainable development, there is no cohesion of policy and there is poor public consultation and participation. As a result Newcastle City Council has set up an environmental partnership; this provides the audience with a chance to get involved along with other stakeholder groups. The second review is taking place on 2nd - 6th Febrary 2004 and the people present were encouraged to join the debate.

James Heartfield sees us as the first post-scarcity generation and began by asking why we are still clinging to scarcity. Having studied for a long time the concept of sustainability he has concluded that it has no precise meaning, only a vague intellectual framework for operating and developing policy. What is brought to mind is the concept of scarcity itself. In 1943 a report was issued about scurvy; "our rationing system is failing - our citizens are coming down with scurvy." The civil service was very unsympathetic - they argued that people were much healthier since rationing was introduced (although they did say that some people in supervisory grades were suffering from strain!). Heartfield pointed to the fact that those who lived through the post Second World War period experienced real material want. This affected every aspect of their lives and their way of looking at material things - they were, and had to be, a scarcity minded generation.

In contrast it should be great for us, the first post-scarcity generation. There should be parties celebrating an end to scarcity but in fact it makes us fantastically anxious. The fact that there is food in the shops means that you have to buy it all. This makes some people feel insecure and like children some fail to eat responsibly which has led to the obesity situation. There are no material limits to our immediate consumption needs - in the late 1970s it was oil that we thought would disappear. However we now know that there are greater oil reserves today than there were in the 1970s. Already we are developing the technologies beyond oil use - every time we have met an obstacle we have overcome it. In the South East of England there is land scarcity and in Britain as a whole there is a scarcity of houses. Why? Because there has been a reluctance to build and so the houses that are needed have not been built! So why not build some houses? Contrary to popular assumption there is more and more land available every year, mainly because modern agriculture does not require much land. There is also more forested land in Europe and the USA now than there was a century ago.

So, James Heartfield asked, why are we afraid of superfluity? One reason is that there is always a "milk monitor" - someone controlling the distribution of things and these people don’t like abundance. For Heartfield it is informed by existential fear; superfluity is something we are coming to terms with and instinctively we imagine barriers to replace the physical limitations on our abilities.

Allen Creedy picked up on Heartfield’s point about a lack of housing in the South East. In the North East we have more housing than we need. Why not encourage people to move north? Creedy went on to point out that in the majority of the world there is enormous scarcity - maybe if we took a broader view than our own narrow view we would recognise this.

James Heartfield expressed a small fear that any regeneration development framework has an overarching theme. He had no doubt that PRESUD will result in great developments and did not want to knock what they are trying to achieve, but if the big theme is a kind of guilty nervous sentiment then that is a problem. Giving some examples of recent positive developments Heartfield cited China, who are racing ahead, and pointed out that life expectancy in the UK is climbing. If you go to India and China those people are living longer and longer too. What is more we are generally producing more than we consume. Korea is now twelfth place among developed countries; this is a country that used to be seen as poor. Heartfield does not think we should go around beating ourselves up - it is good that the West is booming.

Allen Creedy argued for a principle that tries to find ways of continuing our growth that does not produce wastes and does not use up non-renewable resources - if we can move towards eco-efficiency then maybe we can continue our growth. He argued that we need to be humble.

Asked from the floor whether there is a conflict between choice and sustainable development, Creedy said that we all have a choice but it depends on how we are looking at things; are we being inward looking or are we concerned with our fellow man? If it is that latter then we do not have a choice. Heartfield thought that the actual choices the market mechanism presents are mind-numbingly boring. It presents a kind of fake choice which has reduced choice to a terribly banal level which has led to us losing the sense that we can make decisions more broadly.

Creedy stated that 40% of all road haulage is food and said that if we want to reduce congestion we should buy local and not use supermarkets. In contrast Heartfield sees this as a superb achievement that we do not have to eat locally - it represents an amazing advance related to the economies of scale and division of labour in the world today. For Heartfield, although it is true that along rapid economic growth comes great disparity in wealth, if you have more over all, then this tends to lift the standard of living of every sector of society, even the poorest. In fact, perceptions of wealth are all relative; What we call poor now would be seen as great wealth 100 years ago; Today, more than 50% of young people think that having a mobile phone is essential. Their values are different and the floor of needs rises.

Creedy gave the example of Earth Balance as the sort of postive approach that can be taken. Earth Balance is a project in Northumberland set up to help to restore the natural balance between people and the environment. Based on the concepts of regeneration, sustainability and community empowerment, the main projects were related to organic farming, renewable energy generation and the encouragement of small businesses which would function in a sustainable manner. Creedy saw this and projects like it as giving us a choice by helping/enabling us to support the local economy.

In his final comments, Allen Creedy described Heartfield as a bit of a rascal. He argued that we have to subscribe to a system to survive and that we must take account of scarcity. We may be currency privileged, but we have few skills, have no subsistence and are highly vulnerable; if the system fails we are in very big trouble.

James Heartfield proposed that we can better provide for future generations by providing more - what is it that we think that future generations will be short of? Shouldn’t we aim to provide those things? While it is true that the whole of human society is less than 49 days away from starvation this is only because we choose to create the means of existence through agriculture - We are dependant on other people, but that is a good thing according to Heartfield. However this can create great existential fear in times of conflict; people are concerned that if the distribution network failed we would all starve. For Heartfield the idea that the developing world feeds the developed world is an oversimplification of reality; Europe and USA are belching out food surpluses and this is one of the great examples of post scarcity. In his closing remarks he bemoaned the way the benefits of this society that DO exist are all to often ignored - the very real things that make our lives easier represent great achievements of humanity. Not only that, we may want to leave a very dainty footprint, but in actuality we want our cars and televisions - we love stuff!

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