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Reith 2000: Our common social future

Updated Tuesday, 29th August 2006

The BBC Reith Lectures 2000 theme, 'Respect for the Earth' is inextricably entwined with respect for the needs of others. More subtly than either economic or environmental considerations, the social aspects of sustainability reveal the need to explore and improve our local, national and global mechanisms

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What is sustainable development?

A key concept about our common future is the idea of 'sustainable development', which originally made an appearance in the 1970's during the first modern upsurge of interest in environmental issues. Though it received some attention, it did not really enter the mainstream until the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) of 1987 provided a working definition that has largely been accepted ever since. The commonly accepted wording -"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." - is only one of over sixty other definitions of the same principle.

Even so, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to trace a line of conceptual development from the Commission's work through the historic Rio Earth Summit of 1992. Though many felt the failings of the summit outweighed the achievements, there is no denying the contribution to the current debate through Agenda 21, to say nothing of the subsequent protocols and agreements on subjects as varied as global warming and biodiversity.

How do we organise ourselves in the future?

One of the most basic questions that we currently confront is how to improve our ability to organise ourselves. Individually and collectively, people are concerned that modern pressures are putting undue strain on our requirements for institutions and leaders. Whether at global or local level, our need to ask searching questions of our societies can only be enhanced by knowledge and understanding of the developments that are taking place around us.

Is it possible to govern without nation states?

Over time, all systems become increasingly complex. Those systems that society has developed for governing itself are no exception. The traditional building block of these systems, the nation state, has to confront and deal with aspects of economic, social and environmental change previously unimagined. In the face of such growing complexity, there are many who feel that it is time to re-examine the basic structures of governance, in order to manage the seemingly irreconcilable requirements of modern global systems.

Can governments resolve the competing requirements of growth and the environment?

The debate about our future is already taking place in academic circles, in the environmental movement and in the global political arena. It is inevitable that conflicts arise at all these levels and between all the interested parties. But our understanding of how we approach and resolve these issues is a crucial part in shaping the future. Scientific certainty, on which we have heavily depended until recently, is increasingly couched in terms of risk assessment, allowing different perspectives of risk perception to compete, seemingly on a more equal footing.

Why do we do one thing as individuals, but act another way as a group?

Probably one of the most contentious aspects of sustainable development is the way in which it brings to the fore a wide range of ethical problems, competing cultural traditions and deeply held beliefs focused on the environment. Keeping a cool and detached view can sometimes be impossible under these circumstances, so an examination of the many perspectives available certainly helps to position and explain our own views, beliefs and culture in relation to others. Many will have heard of 'deep ecology' for example, but how deep and different from traditional ethical frameworks is it? Are we really at the mercy of the 'two cultures' of science and religion, forever to be caught between them?

Is democracy or dictatorship better for the planet?

Two hundred years ago, democrats were in a minority. Now with the drastic recent changes in Central and Eastern Europe and the retreat of communism, democracy appears to have gained a pre-eminent position. If this is linked to the rise of global issues, communication and economic networks, then is this good news, or bad news for our ability to respond to the many changes that lie in store? The growth of mass democracy in the last two centuries will certainly mean a greater emphasis on self-determination. This, by turn, will mean a greater requirement to know our political systems that much better, in order to comprehend fully the new pressures of sustainable development.

Does Europe provide a model for the future of governance?

Whatever your own perspective on the development of the European Union, it is hard to deny that as a political experiment, it is unique. Though it cannot exist outside the changing international context, it is often Europe that leads the way on managing the issues of environmental change, confronting and overcoming many obstacles to cross-cultural governance. Is it, as some believe, the crucible from which a new and better political model will arise, or will the demands of sustainable development put even more stress on the already tenuous and fragile links in such a patchwork entity?

Will a global culture allow global change?

It is common to refer to our present society as being 'materialistic', and this widely accepted cliché hides a deeper truth. If material goods really mattered to us, we would spend a great deal more time preserving them and any other aspect of the material world that we could affect. Instead, the consumer-oriented approach leads to our swift acceptance (and just as swift abandonment) of the next, newest, latest product or service. In reality, it is not materials that fascinate us, but the abstract values that we invest in them.

Does globalisation make things worse?

To make sense of the impacts of globalisation, we have to look beneath the popular conception of this trend that started in business but has extended its effects to be felt in all aspects of living. This, in turn, means going beyond the normal boundaries of what is accepted as sociology to examine factors in other related disciplines such as politics, economics and even geography. Are the inequalities created by such exponential growth merely 'blips on the chart' or are they more fundamental to the process, deepening and broadening the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'?





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