Summary of the topic report no.2, 2000: "Danish nature policy - in a sustainable perspective"

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By the secretariat of the Danish Nature Council

The following is an edited extract of a few key viewpoints in the contributions of the present report. The extract is the sole responsibility of the secretariat and obviously does not cover all observations contained in the individual original papers.


1. The vision for a sustainable development was put on the agenda in the late 20th century – at a time when man’s technological command of life processes, the expansion of societal institutions and the total wealth of mankind was unequalled. On the other hand the extensive expansion of human societies is fraught with a marked disparity in how Planet Earth’s resources are distributed and marred by extensive deterioration of our natural environment.

2. Fifteen years ago hardly anyone would talk about sustainable development, neither in Denmark, nor in Europe or the rest of the world. Today the situation is a different one. Sustainable development has become the overall global objective to which all nations pledged themselves at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, that the EU has committed itself to by the Amsterdam Treaty, and that Denmark has adopted as its overall goal for her national nature and environment policies.

3. The concept of sustainable development is an open-ended one, denoting several different strategies and projects. Opposing sustainable development has become politically indefensible, implying that there is a considerable risk for the concept to become insipid. Therefore there is a need for coining a rather more stringent and succinct concept of sustainable development.

4. According to the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report, ‘Our Common Future’, a sustainable development is one that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The vision for a sustainable development addresses our common global destiny and the conditions of future generations. In this context a number of our central philosophical and politico-cultural beliefs concerning needs, equality, and justice need to be tabled; equally, politico-organisational instruments concerning legislative development, administrative implementation and funding should also be discussed.

5. A sustainable development relies on the insight that globally we need to put a different form of development on the agenda than the one that has prevailed until today.

Sustainability and science

6. Since the report of the Brundtland Commission and following the Rio Summit on environment and development, efforts have been made in order to define and give substance to the concept of sustainable development. In that context the scientific community has, for obvious reasons, played a major role. Especially two academic approaches have predominated in public debate: a purely scientific and an economic one respectively.

7. Science has tried to identify objective limits to the carrying capacity of nature and ecological systems that can be determined in scientific terms. Such efforts have yielded major insights into how human activities impact on animate and inanimate nature and have increased our insights into the conditions of life, its complexity and vulnerability.

8. In economics, similar attempts have been made to identify "objective" economic sustainability criteria. Such efforts have improved our understanding of the crucial influence that nature and environment have on our present and future wealth and welfare. One thing that has become clear is that GNP, the classical indicator of wealth, is in itself an inappropriate measure of human welfare. At the same time, however, we have to realise that nature and environment cannot be put on an economic formula, and that we cannot define sustainability in narrow economic terms.

9. Science and economics are important though insufficient tools for clarifying the sustainability concept. The sciences are able to identify the actual status of society and environment – however they cannot motivate how it should be. A sustainable development cannot be determined objectively and unambiguously. It remains a vision that draws upon fundamental deliberations based on values and ethics.

Different interpretations of the sustainability concept

10. The concept of sustainable development is based on a number of existing value beliefs, while questioning a number of other beliefs.

11. Thus, the concept of sustainable development is based on our understanding of equality and justice. Equal and equitable access to global resources is a fundamental element of the concept, and is extended to also comprise equality within and between generations. Consequently, that sustainability concept is based on our understanding of democracy, i.e. civil participation in how global resources are being allocated and governed.

12. On the other hand the ’sustainability’ concept lends itself to several different and conflicting interpretations that challenge deep-rooted values and beliefs.

13. Thus, sustainable development can, on the one hand, be seen in continuation of ‘the modern project’: rationality, management and control over nature and human activities – though on a more knowledge-based, long-term and reasonable basis than before. On the other hand, sustainable development can also be seen as a breakaway from such an instrumental approach to nature.

14. The instrumental approach to nature is very much anchored in a scientific understanding of the world as being transparent and manageable. According to such a view man’s use of nature will generate risks; however, these risks can be controlled on the basis of scientific risk assessments. Conversely, critics of the instrumental approach hold that both nature and society are full of complicated relations that are difficult to apprehend, and therefore advocate prudence and care for nature’s vulnerability as the governing principle in our dealings with nature.

15. The instrumental approach to nature is also reflected in a nature aesthetic that understands nature as a work of art, into which man will project his own ideas of purpose, beauty, and harmony. Such a view can be contrasted with an aesthetic that attaches significance to the sensed experience of being there, in nature.

16. Such different views can also be formulated as different ethical approaches to nature. On the one hand a utilitarian-ethical approach based on nature’s usefulness to mankind, and one that searches to balance and optimise nature’s different utility values. On the other hand an ethic that views nature as its own purpose, and not as a mere vehicle for utility; an ethic that views nature as irreplaceable, unique and vulnerable and requires man to respect its processes, dynamics, and integrity.

The utility-oriented approach tends to consider economic growth as a means towards increasing utility value, and will therefore be growth-optimistic. By contrast, the utility-sceptical angle will mostly be growth-sceptical, too.

17. The different approaches imply that natural assets are valued differently than those created by society. Thus, natural assets can be grouped in three categories: A) Those that can be substituted by others and are therefore convertible, B) Those that cannot be substituted, i.e. are vital or critical, and finally C) Those that are not critical, albeit they cannot be substituted offhand, and are unique, because – for reasons of value or identity – they are of vital significance to a given community.

While the utility-oriented approach to nature will consider most assets convertible, the utility-sceptical view will emphasise their critical and unique values.

18. Thus the concept of sustainable development brings up a number of conflicting interpretations. "Nature as a means" versus "nature as an end"; "an ethic of utility" versus "an ethic of integrity"; a nature composed of "mutually convertible" values, against a nature determined by "critical" and "unique" values; the "calculating nature of the mind" against "the nature of our senses"; "science and risk assessments" against "precaution". Yet, these different and conflicting perspectives on sustainability are not mutually exclusive. In the real world we need to reconcile or balance these opposing interpretations. And in point of fact all contributors to the present theme paper take up intermediate positions between the extremes of this interpretative continuum.

The vision of a sustainable development

19. A balance between both opposing interpretations could be the following vision for a sustainable development:

Challenges to a sustainable development

20. When it comes to an actual conversion to sustainability, the general vision for a sustainable development presents our societies with several challenges.

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