Richard Sandbrook Memorial Lecture

Sian Lewis reports on an evening of discussion and debate in memory of IIED’s former director Richard Sandbrook.

News, 23 March 2011

Before he died, environmentalist and champion for sustainable development Richard Sandbrook said the best way his friends and colleagues could serve his memory would be to carry on the work he had pioneered.

Yolanda KakabadseThis week (21 March 2011), at a Richard Sandbrook Memorial Lecture, the “mafia of sustainable development” gathered to do just that — to discuss and debate how to marry the need for economic growth with the need to protect our environment. The lecture, hosted by the Richard Sandbrook Trust and supported by IIED, Forum for the Future and The Eden Project, was the first in a series of conversations planned by the trust to apply Sandbrook’s philosophy to some of the ‘wicked problems’ that get in the way of sustainable development.

Delivering the lecture, Yolanda Kakabadse, president of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) International, made it clear that business as usual is no longer an option. “Consumption patterns today are unsustainable,” she said.

“There are boundaries in this planet,” she explained, adding that both renewable and non-renewable natural resources are coming to an end. Rivers, oceans and forests are all under threat. Cities around the world — from Barcelona to Quito — are grappling with dwindling water resources; overfishing has wiped several species of fish out of the market; and mining concessions are destroying major forests such as the Amazon.

Kakabadse argued that this “usurpation of natural products” is not only bad for the planet but for people too. “There are always many losers and very few winners in these processes,” she said. Across the world, the poorest people are struggling to cope with the impacts of overexploitation and environmental mismanagement on food supplies, livelihood security and health: in Ecuador alone, 60 per cent of infant mortality is due to contaminated water.

Challenging ‘growth’

The excuse often trotted out by policymakers is that we need to promote economic growth. But Kakabadse argued that there is something wrong in the way we measure growth. We live in a market system centred on producing more. We assess growth using figures for gross domestic product (GDP) which is measured in the tonnes, kilogrammes and barrels of what we produce.

“Is that really growth?” asked Kakabadse. Such measures take no account of the key issues in society and nature: the number of healthy people in our countries, the number of species driven into extinction. Head of The Eden Project, Tim Smit agreed: “everything that matters in our life is not taken account of by GDP.”

Why are we not questioning the system? “We’ve become hypnotised by a circus of wealth,” suggested Smit. “We respect the people that have set up structures that effectively rape our resources because they become rich and wealthy”.

But not everyone is getting rich: “profits for a few equals economic growth for a country,” said Kakabadse, adding that something needs to change.

She painted a picture of an alternative future for sustainable development — one grounded in both equity and nature. It is a future where the poor have equal rights to resources, information and participation in decision-making. Where GDP measures account for both pluses and losses of behavioural changes in society. And where countries with rich natural resources use those resources sustainably to grow — not just to line the pockets of a few, but to truly lift people out of poverty.

Communication counts

Tim Smit and Yolanda KakabadseHow do we get there? Both the speaker and the audience provided much food for thought. Part of the journey is to learn to communicate more effectively. Kakabadse stressed the need to become much better at communicating what we know from science into messages that policymakers can understand and act on: “very valuable information is produced in thousands of pages in a jargon that belongs only to the authors... The missing link is getting that information into two pages that get a sense of the urgencies of acting... Universities should build a career out of translating science into policy”.

Equally important is communicating effectively about the limits of our environment — not only to policymakers but to everyone. It won’t be an easy sell, said executive director of Friends of the Earth, Andy Atkins. Getting clear about the limits and about equity means saying the rich will have to consume less. And that is a message no one (from politicians to campaigners) wants to hear, deliver or, in many cases, even live by.

Building bridges

Linked to communication is the need to build bridges. This includes building inter-disciplinary partnerships, particularly across the climate change and biodiversity communities, as well as partnerships with finance and that private sector. “The sustainable development mafia has ignored finance for 20 years,” said Nick Robins, head of HSBC's Climate Change Centre of Excellence.

But things are changing. “Social enterprise is potentially the most exciting change in corporate structures in 300 years,” said Smit. And Kakabadse described a partnership in Brazil, where the state bank has enlisted the help of WWF Brazil to supervise all agricultural loans and ensure that they comply with sustainability measures.

Sandbrook was a great believer in working with business, and famously forged links with pulp and paper, mining and water industries to improve their social and environmental performance. He would surely have agreed with many of the messages coming out of last night’s discussion. Sustainable development is about people as well as the environment and changing practices which damage both is a collaborative venture.

About The Richard Sandbrook Trust

Richard SandbrookEstablished in 2009, in memory of Richard Sandbrook, the trust aims to promote sustainable development for the benefit of the public and advance the education of the public in subjects relating to sustainable development. The trust focuses on: building the capacity of young people; increasing the influence of and opportunities for, the new generation of sustainability-oriented leaders; and strategic interventions to bring Sandbrook’s approach to campaigning to a broader audience.

For more information about the trust, and to find out how you can support its activities, visit www.sandbrooktrust.or