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The sustainability farce
By Mark Peach *
Sustainability in a developing country should surely be concerned with more than recycling, nature preservation, endangered species and sources of energy.
Important as these are, they are almost irrelevant to people barely living and in horrific conditions.
Yet many in the sustainability industry moan that they are unable to “engage” the poor about sustainability — perhaps they are talking about the wrong stuff.
Try having a conversation about recycling and preservation with people who are starving, have inadequate shelter, lack skills and an inability to access the job market; who cannot look towards the next day with any reasonable expectations, let alone the distant future.
It is difficult to imagine anything as insensitive, divorced from reality, or irresponsible. Regardless, many in the sustainability industry try to do just this. It is as difficult to arrest a growing feeling that the entire sustainability industry is missing the point.
If the path to a reasonable life isn’t at the centre of any sustainability discussion and project, they really ought not be attempted. Is the sustainability industry deliberately avoiding anti-poverty measures in its work and weighting them at least equal and more important to their staple activities?
Is the industry so fixated on tomorrow that today’s suffering matters very little? Are they guilty of a sort of racism, one that ignores the (mostly black) poor and focuses itself on the upper classes?
Until the industry’s main players show their pro-poor intent in actions rooted in helping them gain a better life soon, alongside recycling and preservation, they will face several uncomfortable outside perceptions.
First, as long as the industry is not prepared to place the poor at the centre of sustainability and make improving their lives a central sustainability issue, they should never claim to be acting on behalf of the poor, as they do.
It is no good using that old chestnut, as they do, that sustainability implemented today safeguards the world of the poor tomorrow. Today’s suffering matters, today.
Second, if they cannot claim to be working on behalf of the poor then on whose behalf are they working?
The industry’s light and heat shows that their overriding concern is with emissions, water pollution, saving species and so forth. These are middle-class issues. This is where the money is, the same money that makes the sustainability industry possible.
Open any sustainability report, most often compiled by the major players in the industry, and paid for by rich organisations, and what you will read about are emissions levels, water savings, preservation projects and so forth — these are important — but there will be very little about jobs created, substantive pro-poor initiatives and the many challenges facing the poor.
Doubtless, the industry will argue for a long-term view of the world, and how their efforts are preserving the lives and livelihoods of the poor into the future. And this is true.
But why is it the industry assumes they can ignore today’s suffering in favour of tomorrow’s salvation? What gives them this right? The sad fact is that there is simply no appetite in the industry to roll up sleeves and do the dirty work that is required today to make a difference in the lives of those who need help most.
It’s preferable to compile studies of emissions, measure water pollution, track sea life, manage herds and plants, and so forth, at a time when all indicators show the poor slipping away down a slippery slope.
The industry is so busy helping corporations look good that they’ve lost track of how to help us all be good, and relevant, today. They find it difficult to show how the assortment of indices, frameworks and philosophies that companies tick off in annual reports, make an evident change in the circumstances of the poor.
It’s all beginning to look increasingly like just another sham, another glass-and-mirrors industry that has been co-opted by business; one that has lost its soul.
Mark Peach is a full-time writer and blogger. He was chief transformation officer at a large multinational financial services company and head of communications at another. He has consulted widely in the last four years in empowerment, sustainability and communication strategies. He is the author of Rethinking BEE: Breaking the Deadlock and is about to publish a collection of essays and other writings titled “Being Coloured”.