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Sustaining the development of 'sustainable development' by metaphor

Through Metaphor to a Sustainable Ecology of Development Policies (Part #6)

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In the light of the series of integrative focii of the past decades, 'sustainable development' can be considered humanity's best and latest effort to reconceptualize 'the good, the true and the beautiful' for the international community. Given the responses to past efforts, notably the Brandt Commission, it is fruitful to ask how sustainable over time is the concept of 'sustainable development'. Already there is evidence of multiple interpretations (Pezzey, 1989), some of them quite incompatible, just as has been the case with 'development' alone. In any policy forum, such differences are immediately apparent through the factions and coalitions to which they give rise. As with past focii, there are those who perceive it to be totally legitimate to 'milk' a concept to their own benefit whilst it still has 'mileage' left in it. Johan Galtung has described the life cycle of such concepts in relation to the international community (see Annex 2). The position in the life cycle determines how the theme is handled within policy agendas.

It is not the purpose of this paper to view such concept cycles cynically, although exposure to them can justify this. The challenge is to identify how the development of any such insight can be sustained, especially in a policy forum.

The difficulty lies in assumptions made by those actively involved in promoting or clarifying such an insight. These include:

    (a) a tendency to consider it the only valid integrative concept that has ever been formulated. This ignores the history of previous concepts which have created the context for the emergence of this latest one. It also ignores what happened to the previous ones and the nature of the relationships they established with other competing policy concepts.

    (b) a tendency to consider that no further valid integrative concepts will emerge to replace the current one. This structures reflection on the concept to preclude the future emergence of more appropriate concepts. It engenders dogmatism and identification of heresies. (Do the advocates of sustainable development have the right conceptual posture to respond appropriately to the policy insight which will succeed it -- or will there be no such innovation ?)

    (c) a tendency to believe that the concept is inherently credible and desirable to those who have not been involved in its formulation. The step beyond this is to assume that they ought to be persuaded to that conviction if they do not hold it.

    (d) a tendency to believe that policy insights of requisite variety can be adequately embodied within a single policy framework.

    (e) a tendency to fail to recognize that groups are sensitive to quite different forms of information in relation to any issue, and frequently consider other forms as having marginal significance, if any.

As more people and groups are touched by the insight, they reinterpret it to better reflect their own understanding. This leads to factionalism and multiple interpretations which may be highly critical of each other, even to the point of subverting each others initiatives in competition for resources. 'Sustainable development' has to survive in this environment. To be of any significance, policy forums must respond effectively to such factionalism -- whether or not they are effectively represented at any forum.

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