Can Wales lead the world in sustainable development?

Rachel Francis celebrates Wales’ record in incubating a treasury of sustainable enterprise

At the top of Cardiff’s City hall is a magnificent dragon sculpted in bronze by H.C. Fehr. The dragon is an important part of Wales’ sense of identity, making the connection between the Welsh people, their land, their culture and their ancestors.

The word dragon probably comes from an old Greek verb δρακεῖν (drakeîn) meaning ‘to see clearly’.  The Welsh dragon appears in many stories, from the Arthurian legends to the Mabinogion and is used symbolically to represent the primal forces of nature. In mythology dragons are associated with wisdom and longevity and it is said that we were originally taught to speak by dragons. In short, dragons are a good symbol for sustainability.

The story of sustainable development and indeed the story of unsustainable development, is the story of human civilization. But, for the purposes of this article, I start with recent history.  In 1987, just over twenty years ago, the United Nations released the Brundtland Report, which included what is today one of the most widely recognised definitions of sustainable development:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition contains within it two key concepts: ‘needs’ and ‘limitations’, and the active word is development, not growth. It is a catastrophe that, despite Brundtland, despite the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, despite the Kyoto Protocol, despite science, and despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many powerful human organisations, with supreme detachment, are denying climate change. They are also turning a blind eye to social injustice and seeking to redefine sustainability to suit their own ends. As a result, the ‘economic’ requirement of financial sustainability comes before social justice and before the actual environment.

The slight twist to the truth comes from a clever use of words: Business as usual.

Which is why so-called ‘Green Capitalism’ has a ring of hopelessness about it.

Yet, if today’s ‘leaders; don’t have the strength and imagination to drive through true sustainability, responding effectively to human needs and the world’s limitations, then others do. Right across the world, amongst communities of interest and communities of place, the concept of what a truly sustainable society might look like has been incubated, debated, tried and tested. The concept of a steady state or circular economy has grown alongside new democratic and transitional ways of living, ways of doing business, ways of connecting.

The answers for today’s social, environmental and economic problems exist.  Combining the wonders of modern science and technology with the old wisdom of our ancestors and forebears who worked with the land, we now have a truly sustainable vision. It is not capitalism, but neither is it communism. It is something else.

The National Assembly was formed in the years following Rio 1992 and very much grew out of Local Agenda 21. In 2009 the scheme One Wales: One Planet provided leadership and direction for the embedding of sustainable approaches throughout Wales. As Jonathon Porritt of the Sustainable Development Commission said at the time:

“Wales may well be close to the Goldilocks (just right) scale for leading on sustainable development.”

In today’s Wales a vibrant network of family farms, small businesses and other enterprises that form part of the fabric of welsh community are threatened by the march of global businesses associated with the ‘growth’ economy. Even so, the ‘trickle-down’ of corporate business based in centres from London to New York to Dubai is, indeed, a very small trickle by the time it reaches Wales. And that is quite aside from a double dip recession.

Nonetheless, Wales is rich in vital resources such as clean fresh water, agricultural land and renewable energy sources. It is also rich in pioneering spirit, from the Centre of Alternative Technology to 70 per cent recycling and industrial sized resource recovery. Indeed, Wales has been incubating a treasury of sustainable enterprise.

Ask a Welsh farmer: growth is cyclical. The notion of a circular or steady state economics has its roots in industrial ecology, a theory first developed by environmental academics in the 1970s and still used today. It involves remodelling industrial systems along lines of ecosystems, recognizing the efficiency of resource cycling in the natural environment. And to be truly sustainable, it needs to work alongside open democracy in all sectors and that means new legislation … a sustainability bill for example.

This June, at Rio+20 the mythic battle between  the outmoded ruling dragon of capitalism/growth and the eager young sustainable dragon will continue to play out on a global stage.

The outcome is not clear. Without a country coming forward to take the lead on true sustainability, there may be little hope of real and meaningful change. This may be our last chance. That is why we seek a visionary dragon. Maybe a fairly small one? Maybe Wales?

Rachel Francis is a freelance journalist who blogs at Sharpening Pencils

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