If there are any two words more loaded with meaning in a global context – I can’t think of them. Sustainable and Development are two words that encompass the most abused and the most politically charged words in the English language and in this weeks post I’m going to try and pick out some meaning from both of these so we understand exactly what we are talking about when we throw these concepts about. There are other phrases which are used in the media to convey meaning in the context of wildlife conservation and I’ll have a look at some of these. My focus will be on the meaning in the context of natural resource usage and the Global south which immediately restricts the scope of possible meanings, but also focusses on the most contentious of these.
There are upwards of 70 definitions of the phrase Sustainable Development. Many people complain that the word has no meaning anymore because it has been appropriated by every shade of politician, environmentalist, industrialist and even by bankers, so that it has become something that no one can be against and everyone agrees is a good thing. This is a fair point. However, just because it has been appropriated in this way doesn’t mean that we don’t know it when we see it. In my opinion, this is the most important point. However the phrase Sustainable Development has been abused, using it forces us to question the concept, to question the sustainability of what we do, to argue and debate and ultimately arrive at a consensus on the sustainability of the particular aspect of development under consideration. Sustainability issues around wind farms, transport or wildlife conservation are all different. The issues are always complex and framing the problem under the mantra of Sustainable Development forces us to confront this complexity and to acknowledge and deal with the unintended consequences of development rather than sweep them under the carpet. Development can never be the simple, idealistic quest it once was, and that is what the concept embodied by the phrase Sustainable Development brings to the debate.
Development has a bad name in the Global south. The idea some people are more developed than others (which is implicit in the dichotomy between developed and underdeveloped) or that the underdeveloped are somehow less than the developed, is widely opposed in the Global south, and rightly so. Why is a Western lifestyle something which everyone should aspire to? If they want to, that’s fine, but it is a choice between different options, not a progression on the path from underdeveloped to developed which must be achieved in order to be considered fully human and to earn the respect which all human cultures and lifestyles demand. It is this construction of themselves as opposites that people in the Global south reject and which has been the source of misery for millions of people. Traditional agriculture practices have been done away with to be replaced by more ‘developed’ techniques, many of which have failed once the development programme came to an end or the donor shifted priorities. I’d go so far as to say that development as it has been practiced in the Global south is coming to an end. The failures are too big to hide and the engagement of India and China with the Global south is changing the economic and political space which has been dominated Western donors. I’m not sure this is always a good thing because the way the Chinese are engaging in Africa has potentially disastrous consequences, but nevertheless it seems that the development mindset as practiced in the West will assume less importance in the future. The ultimate outcome in my opinion is that people should take charge of their own development and innovate around the skills, resources and cultures that they already have – as Escobar (2011) has said:
“the authors representing this trend state that they are interested not in development alternatives but rather alternatives to development, that is, the rejection of the entire paradigm altogether.”
The art of propaganda and the selection of words to convey the meaning you want to be received, is a well used tactic of politicians and advertisement companies. In the latest exchanges of missiles between Israel and Palestine the press reports that Palestine “launches missiles” while Israel “mobilises its forces”. I’m not interested in taking sides but I still feel like I am being manipulated when I read these phrases. C’mon – are people really that stupid? I guess they are. Apartheid translates directly from Afrikaans as “apartness”. How nice and gentle. It does not translate as “violent racial discrimination and the domination of a white Afrikaner elite”. Thankfully Apartheid now does mean exactly this which just shows you how far words can travel when it comes to their meaning.
I had a healthy breakfast this morning. It comprised the body parts of a social animal that is highly intelligent. These body parts were fried in the coagulated fats made from an exudate which is forcefully extracted from the glands of another animal which is generally regarded as gentle and docile. These animals are enticed into a pen once a day by offering them a high protein meal and they are then attached to industrial machinery in order to extract this exudate. The meal is called devilled kidneys and I love them. They are rich in iron and Vitamin A and B. They are good for me. I use pig kidneys and I fry them in butter with some sherry and little garlic. It’s the breakfast of champions and really sets you up for a productive day..
Perhaps you can see from this example how words can be used to convey meaning in a rather sinister way. The current phrase of choice among conservationists who oppose trade in wildlife products is “wildlife body parts.” They oppose the trade in wildlife body parts. Not hides, horns, ivory or fur, which is what normal people call these things and which are beautiful products when worked and finished by a skilled craftsman. When I see phrases like this used to headline an article it tells me that the person writing the article is not really interested in objectivity or an alternative point of view. The phrase “wildlife body parts” is propaganda at its crudest and anyone who is looking for intelligent comment in article that uses this phrase would be well advised to take this as a red letter warning that you are about to encounter exactly the opposite. Your belt, your shoes, the handles of your carving knife, the cover of an old bible and probably your purse or wallet are all made from animal body parts. Surely the conservationists who oppose trade in wildlife can do better than this? I suspect, with their permanent campaign mentality, that they are not interested in a solution to the poaching of wildlife that challenges the inconsistencies in the way they use animal products. History shows us that those who use propaganda have seldom been interested in the opinions of other people.
Escobar, A. (2011). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press.