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

3 thoughts on “Can Wales lead the world in sustainable development?

  1. Wales has every opportunity to take a global lead, but the signs are not good. It will take a combination of available resourses, cash and educated risk taking and most worryingly, the missing ingredient is not necessarily a lack of cash. My concerns are a very ‘conservative’ approach within the Welsh Government. They certainly do the talk but as far as doing the walk is concerned, their latest transport announcements have actually gone backwards from the One Wales Government. Furthermore, they should be inspiring cooperative enterprises in every community but again, little action. Perhaps the most worrying aspect for me is the inability to at least look at tidal lagoons as an option, through a test lagoon in Swansea Bay. This is one area where Wales has all the advantages, but where the critical factor is a lack of political interest from the current Welsh Government.

    In the first industrial revolution, there were individuals who were prepared to take risks to move technology forward and consequently, we led the world in many areas. Now is the time to re-gain that reputation, so let’s hope that the current Welsh Government grasp this wonderful opportunity. There is still time, but it is fast running out.

  2. A steady-state economy requires a steady-state population. If the population grows and the economy doesn’t you have increasing misery.
    “Wales is rich in vital resources such as clean fresh water, agricultural land and renewable energy sources” says Rachel Francis. Well, I much doubt that Welsh agricultural land could support a population of 3 million in anything other than poverty. We have already long gone past the point where the population we have can be sustained without industrial methods. The world as a whole is in the same situation.

  3. I agree with you that many perceived ‘global’ human rights organisations are ineffective as they are nothing other than US Government sponsored bodies funded by stealth to sing from the same hymn book as the global interests of the US neocons.

    Welsh dragons can puff and huff as much as they like and it’ll make not an iota of difference to climate change or any other global issue unless self interests of mighty and powerful coincide with those who are not powerful, influential or relevant. From the scientific perspective there is still a great deal of hypothetical supposition and uncertainty as to the origins of climate changes which again doesn’t help.

    However the biggest problem comes from ‘individual nation’s greed’ to do anything meaningful unless its serves their self interests too and for example you need not look any further than the EU – A fine concept in theory but when the proverbial hits the fan as the ‘Greek Tragedy’ (XXI century style) as is currently unfolding and in the process destroying ordinary folk and their lives no one is prepared to help as help costs money (Look at the UK position and stance on this very issue).

    Back to green energy and let’s briefly examine Anglesey’s situation as an enterprise zone for sustainable energy development. Significant EU moneys earmarked for this but other than hot air there is very little substance to many projects that have been hailed as visionary and ground breaking.

    Also there is no hi-tech infrastructure and there is no academic institution nearby of any merit to lead the ‘green revolution’ in scientific and technology terms. The money will be spent on useless consultants and red tape bureaucracy and unless Wylfa B is resurrected there will be just gloom and doom not only for Anglesey but for all of Wales as the Welsh Government has no vision or capability of doing anything meaningful, sustainable or durable.

    Ground breaking sustainable energy will come in due course of time and already in advanced state of development but sadly not from Wales and unless the Welsh Government finds a way to attract inward investment I can’t see anything other than gloom and doom for Wales.

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