Despite all the hype, the UN-sponsored world summit on sustainable development in South Africa in August could not introduce any real constraints because they would have meant re-examining globalisation. So could sustainable development just be a pretext for maintaining a growth that must be, by nature, destructive to the environment?
By Sadruddin Aga Khan
THE dogma of sustainable development is inherently misleading, and now deludes us the way that the flat earth theory once did, but with implications far more dangerous for our future survival. Despite all the rhetoric about basic needs and poverty alleviation, the number of people in extreme or absolute poverty increases over several decades officially dedicated to development. Sustainability has become a pious invocation, rather than the urgent call to action it should be.
Those who promote sustainable development often do so while pretending to provide benefits to the poor nations of the South. Yet 80 countries now have per capita incomes lower than they had a decade ago, and the number of people living in poverty, defined as under a dollar a day, is stuck stubbornly at 1.2bn, while almost 3bn earn less than two dollars a day. On a daily wage of a dollar would take 109 years to earn what an international footballer receives in a day.
Sustainable development has been diverted by business, which has equated it with sustainable growth - an oxymoron that reflects the conflict between a mercantile vision of the world and an environmental, social and cultural vision. It has become a mantra for big business and multi-national corporations, unwittingly encouraging the gradual take-over of the environment movement by "corporate realists". Terms like environmentalist or conservationist are now used even to describe those who indiscriminately clear forests or kill animals for their skins; these activities are obscured by dubious euphemisms such as "yields", or the "harvesting" of natural and wildlife resources.
Sustainable development has also evolved into "sustainable use" - a euphemism invented by the "wise use" movement to hide activities which are the very reverse of wise. The formulation facilitates destructive use, and it has infiltrated key international events, including the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora and the International Whaling Commission (IWC). So sustainable use of marine resources means killing whales and sustainable use of native wildlife has created a multi-million dollar bushmeat industry, particularly in Africa. Those who believe in it hope to convince impoverished Africans and Asians not to kill wildlife for the equivalent of several years’ wages, while rich European and American trophy hunters kill the same animals for fun.
Some conservationists who consider themselves serious and scientific have distanced themselves from ethical causes such as fur and circuses, which are reserved for emotional idealists. But whaling’s economic sustainability does not make it desirable or ethically acceptable. In a speech to IWC delegates, the assistant director general of Japan’s fishery agency - who is also Japan’s IWC commissioner - revealed that Japan had fishing agreements with eight countries and has spent $400m in aid: fishing for votes.
Every year, businesses from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries pay huge amounts to win friends, influence and contracts. These bribes are conservatively estimated at $80bn a year, roughly the amount that the United Nations has suggested is needed to eradicate global poverty. The trade in banned animal products is second only to that in illegal narcotics, and has become a lucrative and low-risk sideline for international crime syndicates, as enforcement is lax and discovery rarely involves more than a nominal fine. Already the trade has pushed species such as tigers and rhinos to the verge of extinction. Sustainable development fosters the corporate takeover of governance.
He who pays the lobbyist
Perhaps the new maxim is he who pays the lobbyist calls the tune. Just look at the corporate quid pro quo exacted after George Bush’s election as United States president. Richard Parsons, head of Time-AOL, speaking at the world economic summit meeting in New York, declared (with no hint of anything worrying in the statement) that: "Once the church determined our lives, then the state, and now it’s corporations." We hear constantly of the advantages of a market-based response to the world’s ills - philanthropy, self-regulation, corporate social responsibility and voluntary codes of conduct. None of these is an acceptable proxy for state responsibility, policy and control.
Even the UN has acceded to this through initiatives such as the global compact with 50 of the world’s biggest, most controversial corporations (1). As the Guardian commented, the UN "appears to be turning itself into an enforcement agency for the global economy, helping Western companies to penetrate new markets while avoiding the regulations which would be the only effective means of holding them to account. By making peace with power, the UN is declaring war on the powerless."
The sustainable development philosophy has also fostered the abhorrent notion of "sustainable consumption", which is sustainability as redefined in Orwellian newspeak. After the Brundtland Report (2), sustainable development means not a continuation of present growth patterns, but a five to ten-fold acceleration of it.
Eight hundred million people suffer from malnutrition while a small percentage of the world’s population crams fast food. The food industry is a good example of consumerism, global disparities and the breakdown of governance. The opening of a great world market in the name of free trade, the rules of the World Trade Organisation and the disposition of grants, all promote the consolidation and centralisation of the food industry: 60% of the international sector in food is controlled by 10 companies dealing in seed, fertilisers, pesticides, processing, manufacture and shipment.
There are now more than 200 treaties on the environment, three-quarters of which have been ratified during the last 30 years. But the commitments made with such publicity in Rio and elsewhere mostly remain a dead letter. Worse, the effectiveness of these agreements is too often undermined by vague commitments and lax enforcement.
I wonder if it is not already too late for sustainable development. Many processes underway are probably irreversible. Climate change won’t wait while we procrastinate for conclusive scientific data. Perhaps the time has come to impose a moratorium on new scientific or technological innovations that have potentially negative implications for the planet and people.
Science, or what we should increasingly call corporate science, always seems to be on the verge of a major breakthrough which, however ominous it may sound, will be accompanied by reassuring noises about its potential to cure cancer, reverse climate change or end world hunger if only we keep the research grants flowing.
Can’t we identify a new direction? One which places greater emphasis on regeneration rather than sustaining an untenable status quo; on sound stewardship rather than development and pursuit of growth? Stewardship goes beyond mere economic values, important as these may be, by restoring equilibrium and emphasising the environmental, ethical and spiritual values that are vital to any true and viable civilisation.
The Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Fund for the Environment is a centre for environmental activities, formed by the merger of the Bellerive Foundation and the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF).
Currently, the Fund's resources are fully deployed in the implementation of selected projects. It therefore is not accepting unsolicited proposals. Further information can be found on the Prospective Grantees page.
The Fund’s activities include natural resource management and security against natural risks such as landslides, rural development in fragile natural environments and related programmers in the fields of health, housing and the built environment, education and the strengthening of civil society. The Fund’s activities highlight the linkages between poverty and the penury of natural resources. It promotes the management and development of sustainable natural resources through education, area development and related research that addresses existing issues in the developing world. The intention is to assist populations that are most threatened by their natural surroundings, while working to protect fragile ecosystems that are vulnerable to the effects of poorly planned human activity. Another goal of the Fund will be to enhance natural environments that can be made more productive.
The Fund strives to maintain the values, philosophy and expertise of the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and the Bellerive Foundation, the international environmental NGO he founded in 1977 and chaired along with his wife, Princess Catherine.
Writings of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan; A Friend of Endangered Species, the Vulnerable Habitat and the Monk Seal
Editor’s note: The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933 – 2003) had a particular fondness for the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal. Mr. William M. Johnson, editor of the on-line journal The Monachus Guardian, which is dedicated to “Monk Seals and their Threatened Habitats,” had the pleasure of accompanying the Prince on several of his visits to Greece. Below we publish an excerpt from Mr. Johnson’s tribute to Prince Sadruddin, uncle of the current 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. The excerpt from the obituary is followed by two other interesting pieces which were written by Prince Sadruddin - the first guest editorial for The Monachus Guardian on the subject of the monk seal, and a Preface to Johnson’s book The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, which reveals the history of the exploitation of animals in captivity for public entertainment and profit. Simerg is deeply indebted to Mr. Johnson for permission to produce these pieces here. Links are provided at the end of the post to the original articles as well as the unabridged on-line version of The Rose-Tinted Menagerie.
I was reminded this morning of a very gracious and kind person I had met whilst working in Switzerland, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. I was working working for a multinational at the time and we were expecting a visit to our trade show booth at a trade fair in Davos. I did not know what the prince would look like, but I was expecting an entourage of some sort. While I was waiting for the prince's party to arrive, a gentleman dressed in tweed and with a very British accent approached me and started to ask me questions about our display. He was delightful to talk to and enormously interested in what we were doing. I needed some shots of our stand and since we were getting on so well asked him if he would mind being in them. He very kindly agreed. I noticed that our booth was starting to fill up with people and for some reason many of them were trying to get into the photos I was taking. I didn't think too deeply about this, just found it rather strange. When the impromptu photo session was done, I shook the gentleman's hand, thanking him for being such a good sport. After my visitor had left the booth I wondered aloud when we could expect the prince, only to be told that I had spent the past half hour talking to him! I will always remember how kindly he treated me and how gracious he was. Later we would be introduced more formally and I would go on to help him raise funds for his Alp Action charity. Prince Sadruddin was born a prince, but he was also a prince among men. RIP.
Saving the World One Art Poster at a Time
Posted: 1/20/12 10:59 AM ET
Art is a powerful emotional tool for creating awareness and fostering a commitment to change the world, even if each print makes just a small dent. Think Uncle Sam's "I Want You For The U.S. Army," Apple's "Think Different" and the "Wonderful Copenhagen" poster with a police officer helping a mother duck across the street with her small ducklings. If you want to disseminate information quickly and engage people, thought-provoking art posters are an effective medium.
The "Save The Alps" poster, designed by Per Arnoldi, the Danish designer, artist, and TV and radio host is one such encouraging story. The "Save The Alps" story illustrates how two men engaged the financial elite and made an important and visible difference in a mountain world.
At the World Economic Forum's meeting in Davos, Switzerland, 1990, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, then president of the Bellerive Foundation, solicited Arnoldi to create a limited series art poster to elicit funding for saving the Alps. While mountains may look strong, theirs is a very fragile environment. At that time, there were an estimated 40,000 ski runs throughout the seven Alpine countries, carrying 1.2 million passengers to summits every hour during the peak season, and all this activity was threatening the Alps. Exhaust fumes from the traffic going to and from ski resorts were killing off the wildlife and plant life and fifty percent of the trees were dying, causing soil erosion. As a consequence, trees were being cut down increasing the risk of avalanches. Something had to be done to save the Alps and to make the tourism there sustainable.
What Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and Per did was both very clever and different. Instead of asking wealthy people to save all the Alps, they broke the momentous job into manageable bites to which people could relate. They called upon the elite to save a specific valley stream from pollution, clean up a selected distance of road, plant trees on a mountainside or fence off a vulnerable area. The sponsor would then knew where their money had gone, so, instead of spending a million dollars to "Save the World" the sponsors could see what they achieved, feel good and brag about it a little. "See, I saved a plant that had almost disappeared," or, "I brought back a butterfly that had nearly vanished."
Per created a beautiful and provocative art poster that depicted a dark blue mountain, framed by a medium blue sky, with a strong contrasting melting white mountaintop. As you close in on the poster, you notice the melting peak's texture and see Per's actual fingerprint all over the white top. The pattern creates a sense of roads, streams and sand erosion patterns in the virgin snow. Man has symbolically and quite literally touched something he should not have touched and if you smudged the mountain, well, it is up to you to right that wrong.
The world is too convoluted for anyone to understand fully. Therefore, we depend on our pattern recognition skills to make sense of it all. Overriding our thinking, we make emotional decisions and then back them up with logic to justify our actions. In this instance, art distilled a complex message to its essence and communicated it to us though visual storytelling and that has made all the difference to a beautiful mountain such as Mont Blanc.
encouraging young people to bring about positive change in their local and global communities
The Earth Focus initiative began in 1992, through a partnership between students and teachers of the International School in Geneva and Bellerive Foundation, with the encouragement and support of the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, as a simple newspaper. It was conceived as a voice for young people, to empower them and stimulate positive action – encouraging young people to become involved in key local and global issues.
Our aim is to provide young people throughout the world with a forum for discussion and serve as a catalyst for action. The magazine Earth Focus has been described as “one of the hardest hitting environmental publications in circulation at the moment”  . The Earth Focus Foundation, founded in Geneva, Switzerland, by Princess Catherine Aleya Aga Khan, the widow of the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, continues to work on developing projects for young people.
Understanding of global issues provides a basis for opinion and the ability to take appropriate action. Opinions form and fix in young minds, so awareness-raising among young people is particularly important, especially when working with schools that educate future opinion leaders and key influencers of society, from diverse social, economic, cultural and educational backgrounds. Young people have the passion and energy to turn opinion into action. The purpose of this project is, therefore, to encourage and assist young people, particularly opinion-leaders of the future from diverse backgrounds, to become empowered and participate assertively in educational, humanitarian, environmental and citizenship-related debate.
An ambitious environmental education centre for sustainable development and human rights is planned in Geneva.
The new centre, which is to focus primarily on education, is the brainchild of the Earth Focus Foundation, a Swiss non-profit organization set up by Princess Catherine Aga Khan in 2005. The ambitious plans include a greenhouse, a planetarium, an aquarium and several conference rooms, newspaper Tribune de Genève reported.
“In this city, there is a lot of knowledge and experience in sustainable development. It must be shared with the world in order to effect the necessary changes to save our planet,” Earth Focus vice-president, Nicola Spafford Furey, told the newspaper.
The project will include tourist attractions such as an aquarium with both marine and fresh water species, and a large greenhouse, which will have exhibits demonstrating the benefits of different farming methods. There will also be a concert hall and a planetarium.
Non-governmental organizations and other businesses will also be offered office space, and it is envisaged that certain shops in the complex will sell organically farmed and fair-trade products.
The costs for the project are estimated to be 200 million francs ($216.4 million), with operating costs of approximately 22 million francs ($23.7 million) per year.
A location for the site has yet to be confirmed, but is likely to be around the town of Lancy, just west of Geneva city.
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