In 1972, the United Nations (UN) held its first conference on the Human Environment. In an era of social unrest and urban reform, there were clear global concerns about the persistence of social tensions and inequities, environmental stresses, and the realization that many of our life-supporting resources were in fact finite. It was here that the concept of ‘sustainable development’ was publicly introduced as a social goal. Almost a decade later, further developing on the foundations set by the UN, the words of the Brundtland Commission Report have been integral in defining future discourse regarding the emergence of pro-environmentalist thought. Our current global climate, one of accelerating urbanization, offers an opportunity for us to reflect on how social ethics are too often dismissed from the sustainability agenda.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
– Brundtland Commission Report, (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, para.2.III.27)
It is estimated that by 2050, 66% of all people will be living in cities. These dense environments are the prime catalysts for the social, cultural, and political systems that cultivate human societies. However, parallel to this is the proliferating normalization of urban inequality; for those who have thrived in modern urban development, millions have only found poverty and social displacement. As a result, if these communities are to have any chance of ever catching up with their affluent counterparts, rapid industrialization is the predominant means in overcoming such poverty and economic stagnancy. Thus, environmental concern is not seen to be a priority in developing countries. This ultimately has profound implications for how we address ‘sustainability’ within a framework of international relationships; an elaborate network of differing social equities and justices.
How can we hope to secure sustainable and ethical cities if policies continue to neglect the complexity of power relationships? If our urban environments are to ameliorate such negative externalities, social ethics must be included as a fundamental component of sustainability.
It should be recognized that urbanization has stimulated many positive changes. For example, as noted in Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, it has offered “the prospect of a higher standard of living, more cultural and educational opportunities, and escape from the limitations of traditional societies”. However, these aspects are ultimately negated by the devastating environmental costs of urbanization, including the tangible loss of biodiversity, pollution, and natural resource depletion.
This “insatiable rapacity” has manifested itself as a product of our human-centered ethics, the default orientation of today’s public policies. This is perhaps most explicit through the juxtaposing histories and economic positions of Kolkata and California.
Despite being the capital of a once-colonial empire, Kolkata now stands as an “environmental and human disaster”. Its atrophied urban developmental processes, including overpopulation, sudden expansion, unrelenting poverty, and war, have all physically, socially, and ecologically defined the city’s development. These consequences present a terrifying pattern for the urban catastrophe, threatening the future of many other Third World countries. By contrast, California is one of America’s wealthiest states. However, behind this pretense of glamourized security, California is merely another example of individual political and economic self-interest, triumphing over the concerns of the collective. The whole state quite literally survives by moving water from where it is, to where it isn’t. In doing so, the state has fructified its deserts and rearranged its original ecology – one only need look to the perpetual summer splendor of San Francisco. Yet, as the state is confronted with a water crisis, amidst growing concern for global resource depletion, one must question: how long can sprawling cities, like Los Angeles, continue expanding – each with its own steadily immeasurable circumference, and each with no point zero? With all 40 million people inhabiting a region that was not particularly intended to be inhabited, no place is consumed by mankind’s self-interest, quite like California.
Admittedly, California is certainly not lacking in resources. In comparison to the impoverished West-Bengal, the abundance of North American wealth and technology is undeniably advantageous for this environmental uncertainty. And yet, one cannot help but wonder. If Kolkata is a cautionary tale for cities in developing countries, could the same not be said for Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other ‘rich’ cities?
However, perhaps even more importantly, is understanding that these urban impacts are indiscriminate. Thus, both developing and developed nations can only seek to successfully approach ‘sustainability’ through an understanding of the interrelation between existing socio-cultural, economic, and environmental dynamics.
Whilst “think globally, act locally” has very much become a popularized mindset, our urban policies still lack engagement with the multiplicity, and complexity, of the inherent socio-cultural tensions at both neighborhood and national levels. The perennial challenges facing our urban environments require an integrated approach and cohesive policymaking. If cities are to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development, policies must encompass economic growth, socio-cultural dynamics, and environmental conservation and regeneration.