Business, Sustainable Development & Learning

Dr Stephen Gough

Department of Education, University of Bath

12 January 2004

The speaker began by declaring that he does not believe that there are hard-and-fast answers to the problems of sustainable development. He contrasted his experience of the difficulties faced by some indigenous peoples in Papua, New Guinea, who generally ‘led wretched lives’, with others in Brunei and Sarawak who coped well and did not welcome Western expertise. Although unfortunate effects of logging, such as silting rivers, tree loss, business and tourist pressures, etc. are similar, responses and possibilities for sustainable developments differ. ‘Blanket judgments are unhelpful’.

Definitions: The Centre for Research in Education and the Environment at Bath University, where the speaker now works, relates sustainable development to management and government. Dr Gough noted that Karl Popper pointed out that meaning is discovered by enquiry rather than by definition. Since there are several hundred declared definitions of ‘sustainable development’, we need to ‘listen to each other’ before making decisions. In 1987 the Brentland Commission stated that sustainable development is about meeting our needs while not preventing future generations from meeting theirs. Although that view is widely approved, the speaker pointed out that businessmen and economists are primarily concerned with what people are willing and able to pay for – their ‘wants’ rather than their ‘needs’.

Realism: Governments usually set up ministries to deal with distinctive elements of development. Those which serve society in general (e.g. a Home Office) are served by social scientists. Those which relate to finance (e.g. a Treasury) are served by economists. Those which relate to environment (e.g. on Forestry) are served by environmental scientists. The speaker questioned the realism of such distinctions.

Some non-governmental organizations claim that prime conditions for sustainability are ‘ democratic involvement’ and ‘social justice’, but again the speaker questioned the realism. However desirable such elements may be in themselves, such factors are not necessary conditions for such development in his view.

Such factors are interdependent. He gave an example of that through discussion of how economists consider substitution of manufactured capital, for example, the degree to which a simulated beach experience on a cruise ship could substitute for a real beach experience. This would lead to consideration of the maintenance of non-substitutable natural capital, which in turn might generate discussion of social justice. Our government regards sustainable development as ensuring a better life for citizens now and in the future, whatever ‘better’ may mean to any single generation, which the speaker thought too vague in itself. The declared aims, however, are to promote ‘social progress, effective protection of the environment, prudent use of natural resources and the maintenance of a high and stable standard of economic growth and employment’. All of these apparently have to be secured locally, nationally, internationally and globally, and all at the same time! In the light of such declarations businesses must realize that it will be insufficient simply to consult stakeholders, recycle waste and buy timber from sustainably-managed forests.

Attitudes: People’s views on sustainable development differ considerably. Some are conscious of personal threats, such as the ozone holes (now being tackled) or global warming (real or unreal). Others have moral problems, as for wildlife or environmental degradation. Others are concerned for national security, such as President Bush, who welcomed the Johannesburg Summit as a move towards reducing agitation by the poverty-stricken. Businessmen also reveal a variety of views – some simply seek to comply with regulations or show public commitment to sustainability, but some want to protect opportunities (like the plant sources for pharmaceutical companies) or the security provided by a stable business environment. Some seek to develop tourism and ecotourism in particular, but some seek conservation and the efficient use of resources, and some share moral concerns.

Competition and collaboration: Both nature and society continuously show aspects of both predation and interdependency. Hayek, the economist, has pointed out that we need to distinguish kinds of both. For example, corporations show shareholder collaboration and competitive activity. In a perfect market competition promotes efficiency, whereas in an imperfect market collaboration promotes it. In changing contexts, the best balance can only be achieved by adaptation. One example of that is the current recognition by NHS procurement managers that while local procurement promotes collaboration, third world suppliers in greater need of sustainable development are thus penalized. Continuous management of the ‘interface’ is needed, which should result from a process of learning from experience.

Learning: Businessmen often believe that environmental problems have environmental causes, which leads some to conclude that scientific education will solve such problems. The speaker cited the example of an expensive eastern Caribbean schools programme, which enlightened children on the science of corals, but completely failed to reduce the decline of the coral. Similarly, some social scientists have argued that communes will sensitise people to environmental problems, but there is no evidence that behaviour actually changes. There is no single prescription because there is no single cause. Moreover, both society and environment continuously co-evolve and there never was or will be a ‘golden age’. There is continual interaction and mutual response, however. Dr Gough described his work in North Borneo with 300 management trainees over 3 years, which involved three government ministries and local businessmen. Trainees were required to simulate the setting up of two local businesses, while reviewing those developments from the points of view of ministries, local businessmen, villagers and citizens. The results were quite instructive of the effects of such a learning process – all involved had significantly changed their views on what was appropriate over the changing circumstances of the simulation period. Concluding his talk, the speaker reiterated that business has relevant expertise – it understands efficiency, marginal pricing, opportunity cost and comparative advantage, but it often sees sustainable development as a cost. Governments tend to accept the market model as simply satisfaction of consumer demand rather than as a summation of incomplete knowledge. A policy of being realistic and adaptive would enable business to respond much better than it presently does to problems of sustainability. Effective learning of how to adaptively manage is necessary for sustainable development.

Discussion: Questioned on the value of ‘efficiency’ for sustainability, the speaker maintained that a policy which produced a given output through the use of minimum possible resources or with given resources maximized output accords directly with conservation, which is basic to sustainability. He gave illustrative examples showing local and global collaborations with competitive features, which he regarded as the ‘key’ to sustainability. He conceded, however, that many involved found long term planning and execution very difficult.

The distinction between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ was raised. Dr Gough re-emphasised the differences of viewpoints. So-called ‘primitives’ have to understand their environments intimately for survival and for them tree-felling is akin to murder. Authorities in developing countries see tree-felling as vital for development. Observers in developed countries can see tree-felling as vandalistic and ecologically unsound. For most people distinctions between wants and needs are hard to draw and we must accept what people want is a basis from which to promote realism through learning. Except in extreme medical situations we should not decide their needs. Furthermore, we should not confuse teaching with learning , since learning cannot be directed, only encouraged. The speaker was not opposed to ‘social enterprises’ which try to bridge gaps between wants and needs, but we should try to create situations in which ‘people learn things about themselves and their own circumstances’.

Urged to amplify on the distinctions between learning and intervention, the speaker conceded that issues such as conservation of biodiversity were easier to tackle than those relating to sustainable development. A policy relating to biodiversity can be developed where there is evidence of ‘what kind of intervention is likely to be successful’. After describing a personal experience of constructing a garden pond, he noted how incomplete information and conflicts of values can affect outcomes, which could be approached by the supply of information (e.g. through ‘phone-ins’) and a consequent allaying of fears. There are other issues related to sustainable development, however, where disagreements on both values and the science involved are so firmly based that policy is very difficult to determine. Education and training services are much less influential on people’s views than the economic, political, social, legal and media environments in which they live.

Geoff Catchpole