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Realities of Sustainable Development--continued

Thus it was that energy efficiency replaced energy conservation.  Rafts of official leaflets describing technologies that could be applied in industry, commerce and the home were issued in a smart new livery.  Wherever the word conservation had appeared before, efficiency took its place.  Technology, not simply switching things off or doing without, would be our saviour.  One result is that public attitudes to profligate use of energy are little changed today.

More generally also, words that were politically unacceptable were phased out.  Despite the 'three Rs' hierarchy (reduce, reuse and recycle) having been in common usage in the chemical industry for more than a decade, it was the lowest ideal of recycling that was promoted to political stardom, a place it retains today as a testament to how far and for how long people can be duped.

Sustainable development: greenwashing comes of age.  Following decades of few words and little action in reducing energy demand, the government debate on sustainable development is centred on its 'three pillars' of social progress, economic growth and environmental protection.  The latter treats the natural environment as one issue amongst much trivia, all of it UK oriented.  True to form, small projects of limited impact will be supported (so that ministers can point to involvement), a few acres here and there will be reforested or turned into token nature reserves (to provide photo opportunities for local minions) and international accords requiring little achievement will be signed (to confirm government resolve).  At the same time, consumers will be encouraged to spend to stave off a recession, to fly more, to fly the flag and to applaud the televised re-homing of three rare frogs, this having been identified as the only remaining objection to building Heathrow's Terminal 5.  Treasury studies will confirm that the environment can only be safeguarded as a by-product of a robust growth economy capable of generating more consumer spending year on year.

Of course, every false dogma needs its demonstrable successes.  It is here that parameter selection is important.  For decades, organisations that are serious about 'sustainability' have been warning that things are getting worse.  Deserts are expanding, energy use is rising, species are disappearing at an increasing rate, tropical forests are vanishing and large parts of major oceans and seas have been denuded of life.  Rising carbon dioxide levels may precipitate an irreversible climate 'flip', leading to disruption of food supplies, and worse.  Sources of fresh water are being degraded and exhausted.  China is embracing the car economy.  The gulf between rich and poor nations is growing ever wider.  For more than a fifth of all people, those who survive on less than a dollar a day, hunger and desperation, not rhetoric and materialism, are the primary emotions.  These are parameters of substance, measures of man's behaviour and of the state of the planet that any serious person could consider valid.

Politicians choose different criteria.  Increasing car ownership is helping to eliminate social exclusion.  The energy efficiency of cars and aircraft is improving (slowly) so the effects of the huge rise in their use is being minimised.  Carbon emission targets will be met (primarily by burning precious gas reserves, not coal, to generate electricity).  Use of renewable energy is increasing (but without prospect of contributing to the burgeoning transport sector).  We are recycling more each year (but generating more total rubbish).  Conservationists too are guilty of playing the partial parameter game.  As the rain forests shrink and are fragmented, maybe below the critical size for regeneration, each desperate project to save or relocate one species is hailed as a great success.  False hopes restore complacency.

Almost unnoticed, 'sustainability' has been enshrined into the collective consciousness without compromising the march of materialism.  This has been achieved by appending the word to almost every government document, even down to mundane local planning applications.  Few officials who now preach 'sustainability' have the faintest idea what they are talking about.  This applies especially at the local level.  Any road scheme or housing development that is too expensive or simply disliked can be labelled 'unsustainable' and (thereby) contrary to purported policy.  Neither formal analysis nor discussion is then necessary.  The S-word is now so widely used that (like the Emperor's new clothes) it is assumed that only a complete imbecile would raise enquiry or doubt.

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