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Sustainable development’s “taboo territory”

Faced with a warming climate, should rich countries consume differently – or buy less? And can poor nations be expected to do the same? Isabel Hilton interviews Jonathon Porritt.
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Isabel Hilton: If you want to live sustainably and ethically, what do you do?

Jonathon Porritt: There’s a large question about that in the UK, let alone in China. The truth is that the vast majority of the two to three million Chinese who are now moving into purchasing parity with the middle classes in the west have absolutely no interest in consuming more sustainably. Things that are happening on sustainable development in China are largely driven by central government – unfortunately not in the regions or the provinces, which makes it very difficult. Trying to stimulate a lot of civic enthusiasm around sustainable consumption is very hard work. It’s still an upward curve of increased materialism, which is what they feel progress is all about. They think that they are just getting on this ladder and now someone’s going to tell them to climb it more slowly, differently, with fewer benefits than we had – that’s a very difficult sell.

IH: But is that the message of sustainable consumption? That people in developing countries must climb the ladder more slowly?

JP: There’s a very lively debate about that, of course. The sustainable consumption debate ranges from those who argue that all we have to do is consume more responsibly, ethically, sustainably, sensitively – and in a way that need not put any question mark over the method or the quantum of consumption at all. They argue that we just need to consume differently, not to change the volume.

At the other end of the scale, are those who say that’s complete nonsense: when you talk about the nine billion people who will live on Earth by the end of this century, consuming the way that we consume in the west – however ethically, environmentally or sensitively it may be, it will still blow the system. They want the concept of consuming less to be part of the political debate, but no mainstream political party anywhere in the world wants the word “less” to be used at any point in the political discourse – it’s just taboo territory. So what you get is a conversation about the manner – not about changing the core of the system.

For any Chinese politician, too, the dreaded word “less” is unthinkable. You have to have a bit of sympathy: it’s an extremely difficult thing for people who are just coming into consuming to be told that it’s all too late, that they can’t have any more.    So unfortunately, the realpolitik of the situation is that we are not going to be able to argue for less consumption in India or China – or anywhere else in the poor world – until the rich world has already demonstrated a very serious intent to contract their economies. In the first instance, this means contracting the carbon intensity of their economies, which is a proxy for contracting the economy as a whole, and to reduce dramatically the social and environmental externalities of the economy. When we’ve demonstrated that we are serious about it, then it would be possible to open up a dialogue with China and India about consuming less in those countries.

Right now, the only thing you can say is: “consume much more intelligently,” because this is an appeal to the idea that China ought to be able to build a new paradigm of consumption, which doesn’t go through the massively wasteful, destructive and inefficient processes that we have been through in all western economies. We have come to the conclusion that this is all pretty stupid, and we have to become much more efficient in the use of our energy and resources. It isn’t necessary for the Chinese to go all the way through that wasteful and destructive curve. It would be possible for people in China to aim for the end goal, which is to improve people’s well being but with far lower energy consumption.

For example, at the moment most politicians in China seem hell-bent on creating car-based infrastructure in their cities, particularly in Beijing. An good approach to this would be to say that we can see that that’s going nowhere – the intelligent thing to do is to build an advanced transport infrastructure that is not based on individual car ownership. But right now in Beijing, if you don’t have a car, you haven’t made it.

IH: If you can’t make the argument in China, are you doing any better in Britain? 

JP: Well, at least we’ve got a discussion going in Britain. Politicians are very nervous about anything that seems to imply that the conventional growth paradigm is in jeopardy. That remains very, very difficult. If you imply that we will not be able to rely on 2 to 3% economic growth forever, then politicians just do not want to talk to you. When we are doing our economic advisory work with the government, and trying to apply different measures to make the economy more supportive of sustainable outcomes, you can push hard on macro elements – like fiscal reform, or the way government uses different regulatory interventions and market signals. But should you trespass into rethinking the economic growth paradigm, they don’t want to listen. The consumption discourse has to be all about providing people with a higher quality of life, but with a massive reduction in resource and energy intensity. Within that paradigm, politicians in the UK are getting more serious, but it is still a painful process.

IH: That doesn’t leave much for the individual to do, if the individual is concerned.

JP: Because the government moves so slowly, it leaves a huge amount for the individual – and for business – to do. Suddenly all our big retailers, for instance, have   gone very green on the issue of climate change, and they’ve left government miles behind. Industry has taken the lead and the government is half-relieved and half-anxious about it, because suddenly they aren’t sure if they are setting the pace of change. With business in the lead, the individual consumer can play a very big role. Besides, I don’t believe anyone is naïve enough to think that this is going to be sorted out by governments on their own. Government action without citizen buy-in is not going to work. Our government right now is thinking about communication and information campaigns, about how you work with NGOs, professional bodies and business to get the messages out more effectively. They are rolling out a new campaign called “Act on CO2”, which tries to persuade individuals to reduce their own carbon footprint.

IH: But government is lagging behind the people on this.

JP: It certainly is. The Sustainable Development Commission recently published our annual review on sustainable development in government, which is a report on the 11 key targets they have to improve their own performance – and the results are shocking. Five departments have gone backwards, not forwards. And despite all the attention on climate change, the majority of departments have missed their CO2 reduction targets. If this was a private sector report, people would be sacked. In my opinion, it’s truly shameful. You have a government that creates a great head of steam about climate change, with a high level of rhetoric about how important it is to do something about it, and it is not even delivering the basics in its own backyard. 

IH: So you have published the list of shame.

JP: We have, but in a gentle way, as you can imagine.

Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, an independent watchdog to advise how environmentally friendly development should be put at the heart of government policy.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

Homepage photo by Mironabside

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匿名 | Anonymous






全球化的经济在制约着可持续的消费。 可持续的消费是一个全球问题,特别是一个全球的政治和经济范畴的问题。每个国家对推动可持续消费方式都有责任。


Does the West consume sustainably?

Demestically, the West seems to consume sustainably, because they are using overseas sources, especially those in developing countries.

But internationally, the West's consumption style is wasteful and detrimental to the environment.

You just need to go to supermarkets in the West, you will know what I mean. Most products are shipped across the world to feed their needs. Excessive packaging is also a problem of products sold in the supermarkets.

Nowadays, it is so difficult for me to buy a "made-in-Engand" gift for my friends in China.

Globalization is checking sustainable consumption.

Sustainable consumption is a global issue, especially in political and economic categories. Every country is responsible for it.

China and India and other developing countries are not the only nations to should the responsibilities to promote sustainable consumption.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The problem of developed countries

There is a problems that people in developing countries are moving into the purchasing parity with those of the developed countries. If people in rich countries stop their non-sustainable consumption, maybe the worship will make some positive sense.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Shop smarter

Reducing consumption seems impossible while China develops. But as we move towards a more environmentally aware mindset, more people will shop smarter. Like using less plastic shopping bags, not using non-biodegradable disposable cutlery, try to buy more recyclable products, even not buying a car. These are all achievable. The only thing is -- the calls for awareness are too weak and only limited to environmental NGOs and governemtn. That being said, it is better than nothing and more people are becoming conscious of their impact on the environment, this is a positive trend. There is one thing I don't understand, why must China see cars as a sign of economic progress, why must all cities compare with each other how many cars there are, but not telling citizens there is a limit on the number of cars? Like the above article, why not improve urban public transport -- instead of racing to build road infrastructure? Juliet

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


该体系就是“机械化”的社会,其的建立是为完成其自身的目标,它的主要部分是用以有效配置资源满足人们需求的的经济。Jonathon 先生准确的洞悉到当政治家们用物资来解释人们的需要时他们就不惜以牺牲地球和人们的代价来终止经济的优先增长。然而,我们无法通过让政治家们关切人们需求多于经济优先发展的办法来改变这个体系。正如就Jonathon先生指出,这是很幼稚的,“政治家们根本就不想和你谈论这些”。改变体系意味着对经济构架乱改一气,想象一下,经济是否真的有效地配置了资源,又利用这些资源关切的满足了人们的需求而不是把它们当作废品倾倒于环境中?所有这样的经济活动将会算进有效反应福利及可持续发展目标的国内生产总值中。所有用来处理气候改变及其他问题以市场为导向的投资都会增加GDP并促进经济的增长,对此政治家们当然会引以为傲了。经济的增长将不会是我们的敌人。
James Greyson

economic growth is not the enemy

This article is a great reminder that everyone's goal is really well-being. Even those who devote their lives to mindless materialism are still hoping (in vain) to maximise their well-being. Mindless materialism really is wrecking the planet and the globally we really do need to learn to seek well-being directly, without being diverted into an endless cycle of consumption. More well-being and less consumerism are great goals but we should be really careful not to believe that goals are "the core of the system".

The system is the 'machinery' society sets up to achieve its goals, of which the main part is economics - intended to efficiently distribute resources to meet people's needs. Sir Jonathon rightly observes that when politicians interpret peoples needs in material terms then they end up prioritising economic growth at the expense of both the planet and people. However we can't change the system by asking politicians to understand people's needs more and prioritising growth less. That would be naïve - as Jonathon points out, "politicians just do not want to talk to you". Changing the system means tinkering with the machinery of economics. Imagine if economics really did distribute resources efficiently; applying them to more carefully to meeting people's actual needs without dumping them as wastes in the land, air and water? All this economic activity would add up into national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) accounts that would align fairly well with well-being and sustainability goals. All the market-driven investments made to deal with climate change and other problems would add to GDP and boost economic growth figures, of which politicians could rightly take pride. Economic growth would not be the enemy.

On the other hand suppose the system is not changed. Market mechanisms are left unreformed and everyone focuses instead on symptomatic and end-of-pipe measures of growth and well-being. People might try to constrain the unsustainable economy instead of fixing it. We might fool ourselves into thinking that the only way to constrain carbon emissions is to constrain the whole economy, neglecting that alternatives to fossil fuels cost more and that the massive societal investment in change (from lagging lofts to relocalising energy infrastructure) will add to economic activity, not reduce it. By neglecting a basic reform of the machinery of economics, we would not guarantee stable "2 to 3% economic growth forever". We would guarantee a global collapse of ecological, societal and economic systems, in which the whole concept of economic growth would be rendered meaningless. The only uncertainties would be which system will collapse first, which of the many global problems will trigger that collapse and when.

China's national policy of "circular economics" is an excellent basis for fixing the mechanics of the system with fiscal reform. This means correcting prices to encourage more sustainable activities, ideally by transferring a premium on problematic activities to subsidise problem-preventing activities. Governments have tinkered with fiscal reform for decades for targeted problems, such as landfill space or unleaded fuels. However you never hear governments admit that climate change and sustainable development are indivisible - a stable climate in an otherwise unsustainable world is a fantasy. And if sustainable development really needs to happen (after all these decades of talking about it) then it must be implemented throughout the whole economy, not with a patchwork of targeted governmental interventions. Government is not capable of more than a few minor targeted fiscal reforms since any attempt in Western economies at a broad fiscal reform would be fatally labelled as central planning. Hence sustainable fiscal reform belongs within the market and government's role is to legislate and monitor it, not to handle the funds. Thus taxation is an unsuitable instrument for fiscal reform. In fact all the existing economic instruments are unsuitable, which should be no surprise. If we had the right tools then someone would have thought to use them by now.

Other tools for reform can be developed; one of them is described at www.blindspot.org.uk. There is a clear role for national sustainability watchdogs to promote debate about new instruments and approaches. Perhaps it is possible for "developed" countries to rethink their long-established conventions. That remains to be seen before it should be believed. However there is no need for other countries to wait for the West. Nations with a pressing need for ecological improvement and a high capacity for innovation could find themselves quickly leap-frogging the errors of the West and leading a global movement for sustainable circular economics.
James Greyson