Time to ditch the sustainababble

The youth education charity WORLDwrite launches a critical memorandum on the Johannesburg Summit.

Ceri Dingle

Topics Science & Tech

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Sustainability, it seems, has become a concept beyond question.

World leaders, global institutions, multi-national corporations and all the big shots are backing the sustainable development orthodoxy. Many in the developed world believe that we are producing and consuming too much, and that constraint must be the order of the day. We are told that the world is in a terrible state, that resources are running out and that the environment is stretched beyond carrying capacity.

But are these apocalyptic scenarios true? Is sustainability really the best way forward for the developing world?

The UK-based youth education charity and non-governmental organisation (NGO) WORLDwrite has drafted a critical memorandum, to challenge the retrogressive ethos of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) taking place in Johannesburg between 26 August and 4 September 2002 (1).

If sustainability had improved the lot of the world’s majority, there would be no need for criticism. But sustainable development policy and practice has failed to alleviate any of the problems facing the developing world, and condemns the developing world to inequality forever more.

When young people from the Brazilian Amazon visited the UK on an exchange visit organised by WORLDwrite, they were bemused by the preoccupation with the problems supposedly caused by industrial development. They wondered what these problems could possibly be, and whether they were caused by the Second World War. When we explained that it was the amount of roads, construction, industry and technology that people were objecting to, they were astonished.

‘You can see the miles and miles of farmland in England because you have motorways, and you can see the miles of forest in the Amazon because you build aeroplanes’, said Priscilla Melsert. ‘You don’t have pollution – you have purification plants and toilets in your house. What is wrong with you? You think organic food is better. We only have organic food because we can’t afford fertilisers, pest control, fridges and supermarkets.’

In the West, sustainability means buying organic goods off supermarket shelves, increasing renewable energy supplies and working out how to manage traffic congestion and pollution. For the majority of people who after all live in the developing world, sustainability means trying to stay alive. Is that good enough?

‘We can’t export without increasing productivity, developing transport and refrigeration’, said Priscilla Melsert. ‘So why would we want to be organic? It means growing your own food, suffering blight, pests and diarrhoea, being worse off and cut off from the world.’

‘You have cookers and food in minutes, you don’t even grow it. It takes us all day to find food, fetch water from a stream, build a fire and cook. We don’t have the thing you call free time and we’ve never owned a book’, said Millicent Kumeni, a participant in the 2001 WORLDwrite UK-Ghana Exchange. ‘You have pets in the UK – in Ghana we put them in a pot and cook them. How long have you had these fantastic flyovers, sky-scrapers, glass buildings, tunnels underground and bus shelters? We don’t have paved roads. In the UK you can know people who live at the other end of your country.’

Four million children per year die from respiratory diseases due to wood burning, but where are the big new plans for electrification or gas pipelines? Three million die annually from water-borne diseases. Yet there are no plans for major international investment in water purification, sewage plants and the domestic piped water, which we take for granted in the West.

Sewage disposal in London was solved through an underground system over 150 years ago. Even the Romans had a working sewage system. Compare this to the present-day experience of Kwame Saviour, of the Larabranga village in Northern Ghana: ‘We have free range toilets, we have to walk and dig a hole; it’s hard for old people. When it rains it seeps into streams where we drink and we get guinea worm.’

The majority of the world do not enjoy the living standards of those in the West – and worse still, many in the West now think that equality between the developed and the developing world is undesirable.

WORLDwrite’s memorandum is a response to the disastrous consequences of the sustainability mantra. WORLDwrite is a volunteer-led charity that has been facilitating exchange programmes, educational projects and schools-based work for the past 10 years. We have a history of challenging assumptions, putting people first and inspiring global links.

WORLDwrite volunteers are uncompromising in their belief in North/South equality and will not accept anything less than the best for the developing world. The charity will not tolerate the prescriptive policies of summiteers who think people in the developing world should not have the same opportunities as Westerners.

As Millicent Kumeni puts it: ‘You think we don’t want modern development, you must be dreaming. We want what you have. I too think you must have become civilised a long time ago, but now I’ve learned you’ve screwed Africa and held us back. I pray that you don’t keep doing this.’

WORLDwrite’s memorandum demands serious development that puts people first. For those who believe that substantial improvement for the majority of the world is essential and possible, please read the full document, on the WORLDwrite website.

Ceri Dingle is director of WORLDwrite.

For interviews or further information, contact the WORLDwrite centre on +44 (0) 20 8985 5435 or email

(1) See the World Summit on Sustainable Development website

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Topics Science & Tech


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