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Achieving a better future: Will Day, SDC Chair, talks to SD Scene

Six months in as Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, Will Day spoke to SD Scene about sustainable development, its potential to deliver a better future and how the sustainability agenda is being addressed in government, by business and by NGOs.

Will Day, SDC Chair: "The principles of sustainable development say that we should live within environmental limits and that we should enjoy and aspire to a healthy, just and fair society. That’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and."

Achieving a better future

Will Day is naturally a strong advocate of the power of the sustainable development framework to deliver a better future. To achieve this significant prize, he asserts that “we need to change virtually everything” and is clear about the very real obstacles we face; yet he maintains a compelling optimism:

It is completely doable: we should be understanding and describing a world where we have a low carbon economy which employs people, people pay taxes and enjoy public services – all with a lighter footprint on the planet, in a way that involves and engages people and is a place where I would want to live and I’d want my children and grandchildren to live.

Articulating a better future

Better communication of the positive aims of sustainable development is essential, says Day, identifying a tendency for perceived negative consequences of change to be seized on and exaggerated in the media and popular imagination:

The picture that tends to get described of a low carbon future is a sort of worst place: “Oh my God, we’re going to have to knit our own socks and pick the stones out of our teeth. It’s going to be a grisly place.”

Politicians may not take such an extreme view, but more has to be done to get the message across to them too that SD is not about telling people not to do things, but about aspiration and engagement:

Politicians do not want to be the people who for the next 50 years stop their voters from doing things, but like to be the purveyors of a better future. They feel they’re going to have to tell people to get out of their cars, not to go on holiday, turn the thermostat down – all this no, no, no stuff. Unsurprisingly that’s an unattractive proposition because it’s not on the whole how people get elected or stay in power.

The challenge is to identify and articulate how SD can lead us to a better future.

Communicating opportunities

The SDC’s own reports, for example on a sustainable diet or sustainable transport, are not welcomed by everyone. Day has been struck by the vitriol and polarised responses of some commentators, who seemingly ignore the balanced and thoughtful wider picture of these reports to focus on specific recommendations they don’t like.

Recognising the perception of a vocal minority that sustainable development represents a conspiracy to restrict choice and make life worse, Day places the onus on those that “get it” to carefully communicate the opportunities of sustainable development.

Describing sustainability: well-being, happiness, quality of life, flourishing

Not that we need call it sustainable development.

The language of SD presents difficulties: although there’s some understanding of roughly what sustainability means, there’s a risk that it’s becoming jargon, allowing an unhelpful perception of SD as “a cult activity, with a priesthood of experts”. Day stresses that sustainability is in everyone’s interest and a collective effort is required to achieve it.

Many prefer alternative terms, such as “well-being”, “happiness” or “quality of life”, all perfectly decent expressions of the same concept: “We shouldn’t get too hung up about language, it’s the so what bit which matters”.

Day points to the example of the Scottish Executive, where a combination of the more intimate scale of government and the questioning process of nation-building have allowed sustainability to be more rapidly and thoroughly embedded in policy making and delivery. “But in Scotland it’s not sustainability, it’s a ‘flourishing’ society and a ‘flourishing economy’.”

Fully understanding sustainable development

Another linguistic danger is that the full meaning of sustainability is lost. A particular risk is that the wider dimensions of SD are forgotten as climate change dominates the agenda:

The tendency at the moment is to default to climate change and carbon. Politicians do it, media coverage does it, business tends to do it. You can measure carbon, you can weigh it, give it a value, put it on a graph – and make legislation to reduce it. All of which is laudable: we need to all of those things. But we need to do those things in a way that also recognises a wider set of issues and concerns. We mustn’t ignore biodiversity or the critically important social issues.

The principles of sustainable development say that we should live within environmental limits and that we should enjoy and aspire to a healthy, just and fair society.

That’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.

Day describes this as his “overarching concern”, that we mustn’t focus on the need for a low carbon economy at the expense of our quality of life, or that of future generations.

Sustainable development in government: achievements and obstacles

The SDC plays an important role in advocating sustainable development in government. Much has been achieved since it was created in 2000, including the government’s publication of Securing the Future in 2005, which “pinned down the principles of sustainability that the government is committed to delivering”.

However, Day recognises deeply rooted obstacles to SD becoming, as the SDC would like to see, the “central organising principle of government”.

Although it’s a necessary first step, Day points to the appointment of individuals with responsibility for sustainability as potentially obstructing its wholesale adoption in any organisation:

One of the risks if you have people with sustainability job titles and that’s it, is that everybody else just defers – it’s a huge mistake.

Where sustainability works best is where an organisation’s leadership “gets it and wants it to happen and enables it to happen – so everyone from the person who sweeps the floor to the finance director feels part of that conversation”.

The departmental structure of government can be antithetic to the cross-cutting nature of SD, with a culture of competition rather than collaboration, and policy all too often failing to address issues outside the interests of the department in which it is developed. Day cites the example of health policy, where planning policy and transport initiatives could play a big part in encouraging more physical activity through walking and cycling.

The SDC is in a position to survey policy across the whole of government but “that doesn’t necessarily make what we say particularly attractive”. Advances have been made, but there’s a clear need for more collaboration across government, and vertically between local, regional and national government.

Another tension is between the long-term aims of SD and the short-term horizon of the 5-year political cycle. Nonetheless, politicians have taken good long-term decisions, notably the legally binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

Opportunities for change

The commitment to reduce carbon emissions is an example of what government can achieve. With such a commitment in place, future governments will have to make it happen, through “technology, culture, changing behaviour and changing the way the economy works”.

Day believes that a combination of regulation, market forces and government example will effect change by ensuring that a proper price is paid for things that we may currently take for granted. But “it won’t be that we do lots less and have a miserable time; but that we do different things”.

The challenges and risks are great, but so too are the opportunities. And Day is hopeful that the imperative for sustainable development is getting through:

What’s intriguing is that if you look at those responsible for strategic decision making, be they in business, in government or in NGOs, they’re basically on the same song-sheet. They get this stuff now – they know that supply chains, food security, the cost of carbon, water availability, changing agricultural practice… – all those things are pointing us down a path which shows that we need to change virtually everything.

But that it can be positive.

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