Yasser Farres Delgado*
HAVANA TIMES — To expand on my previous post dealing with the central role the concept of “sustainable development” has played in the legitimation of Cuba’s current economic policies, I now wish to delve more deeply into the traps inherent to the concept and its potential to promote neo-liberalism in the country.
To do this, I will argue that the concept lacks consistency and will leave the sketching of existing alternatives – which Cuban economists and politicians appear to be unaware of – for another occasion.
I will begin with Serge Latouche’s assessment in Sobrevivir al desarollo (“Surviving Development”), to the effect that the concept of “sustainable development” is an oxymoron or an antinomy, that is to say, two words whose fusion seeks to express the inexpressible (as in the case of “dark light”, and other similar phrases).
Why an oxymoron? Because, while “sustainable” expresses durability and persistence, the concept of “development”, at least in its historical and practical dimension, is essentially opposed to durability.
To understand this contradiction, suffice it to acknowledge that we live in a global society in which “development” is only possible if we stick to “buy, throw away, buy again” logic or that of planned obsolescence.
As Latouche explains, oxymorons are rhetorical figures invented by poets which technocrats and politicians increasingly rely on to make us believe the impossible. We might add that, while its use is a welcome contribution to literature, opening up interpretative possibilities, one is hard pressed to find any political or economic use for them. Is it possible, after all, to establish fruitful exchanges with others when everyone interprets words as they wish or in accordance with their interests?
There are many ways in which “sustainable development” has been conceptualized. In the Brundtland Report (World Commission, 1987) 6 different meanings appear. Two years later, John Pezzey would list 37 in his Economic Analysis of Sustainable Growth and Sustainable Development (World Bank, Environment Department, Working Paper No. 15, 1989). All definitions, however, may be classed under two categories:
1. Humanist intellectuals understand sustainable development as a kind of development that is respectful of the environment.
2. For industrialists, politicians and nearly all economists, it is a kind of development that can go on indefinitely.
Neither of these groups of people, however, questions whether these two objectives (development and the care of the environment) are compatible. Rather, they assume they are, or they are sure technology will be able to make them compatible.
The “exaltation of technology” common to many liberals and Marxists results from this and becomes the subject of much theorization: people speak of “ecological modernization” and of “economizing ecology.”
These two concepts end up distorting the meaning of “ecology”, so that it will not appear to contradict the notion of capitalist expansion. In fact, as Latouche explains, “we can affirm that, if, after the Stockholm Conference of 1972, things haven’t evolved much in the positive sense of the word and the situation around the planet has worsened considerably with each different conference, industrialists, on the contrary, have learned how to deal with it.”
In fact, they’ve learned so much that they even theorize! As Latouche points out, Stephan Schmidheiny, attached to an association of environmentally-aware heads of industry, advisor to Maurice Strong, the UNDP Chair for the Rio 92 summit, wrote: “The functioning of a system of free and competitive markets, in which prices incorporate environmental costs in other economic factors, constitutes the basis of sustainable development.”
Another example of the way in which such theories deny any contradiction between “sustainable development” and capitalism is to be found in the documents of the Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD) quoted by Latouche. According to these, “sustainable development is best achieved through open competition at the heart of properly organized markets that respect legitimate comparative advantages. Such markets encourage efficiency and innovation, factors needed for sustainable human progress.”
The ambiguity of “sustainable development” could already be caught sight of in the Brundtland Report. While its first pages explained that sustainable development can only take place if the powerful adopt a way of life that respects the planet’s ecological limits, it later affirmed that, “as a result of the demographic growth rate, manufacturing will have to increase anywhere from five to ten times just so the consumption of manufactured products in developing countries can catch up to that of developed countries.”
The contradiction is here: if the models which “developed” countries follow are not ecological, how could they approve of “underdeveloped” countries using such models to reach the consumption levels of the powerful?
What the Brudtland Report prescribes is a new era of growth and vigorous development. These are the same terms used by capitalist politicians to propose a way out of the crisis.
Isn’t this the discourse of the Cuban leadership? Isn’t this what economist Omar Everleny Perez explains to journalist Fernando Ravsberg, when he says: “Without foreign investment in the Cuban economy, it will be impossible to reach growth rates higher than 5 or 7 percent, needed to double our GDP in 5 years.”
Curiously, the Brundtland Report establishes that a yearly growth rate of 5 to 6 percent is needed for a country’s development.
(*) Lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture of the Polytechnic University José Antonio Echeverría (Havana, 2003-2007). PhD in Urbanism Planning and Environment (Spain, 2013)