Crucible for a common ethic

Crucible for a common ethic


explains the role of culture in sustainable development

'Traveller, there is no road; you make the road by walking'. The words of Antonio Machado in his Nuevas Canciones may be applied to the quest for development. Development is not a fixed destination, but a path along which the traveller is also a pathfinder.

We have been a long time in discarding mental maps that identified development goals in terms of linear economic growth, in discovering the complex nature of the development process. In recent decades, our understanding of this complexity has passed through a number of stages, marked by the deployment of such terms as 'endogenous', 'integrated' and 'sustainable' to signpost the path to development. The report of the Brundtland Commission, Our Common Future, represented an important conceptual advance by placing development in its broader environmental and intergenerational setting. Nine years later, we are still pondering and debating the requirements for a development that 'meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. However, there is an increasing consensus - in the United Nations system as elsewhere - that development must be concerned with 'the flourishing of human existence in all its forms and as a whole', as the World Commission on Culture and Development put it, and that culture is an essential dimension of such development.

Culture is elusive to definition. However, it may be taken to refer to all those mentally generated forms of organization created, preserved and transmitted within a social group or, in a wider context, the human species. Such a definition encompasses culture both in its special sense of the arts and in the broader anthropological sense of a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual. Culture comprises all the expressions of our creativity, including language, science and technology, architecture, music and art. It includes our whole system of beliefs, values, attitudes, customs, institutions and social relations. It shapes the way we perceive the world (including ourselves) and how we interact with it.

Culture is thus inextricably bound up with the great developmental challenges of our time - eliminating poverty, curbing population growth, combating disease, protecting the environment and the resource base, promoting a culture of democracy and peace. The global crisis facing humanity at the dawn of the 21st century is above all a reflection of our collective values, behaviour and lifestyles. In a word, it is a cultural crisis.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the implementation of Agenda 21 have served to highlight the complexity of the concept of sustainability which, reduced to its simplest expression, leaves open the question of what exactly is to be transmitted to future generations. They have also underscored the imperative of ensuring that the moral obligation of intergenerational solidarity is not met at the expense of our contemporaries. In many parts of the world, people have little natural capital to pass on to posterity apart from their cultural identity. It has become clear that the concept of sustainable development is meaningful only when construed in multidimensional and global terms, that is to say, when envisaged in its interrelated economic, social, environmental and cultural aspects and in the perspective of an increasingly interdependent world.

school children

Culture as arbiter

The relationship between these different aspects of sustainable development naturally poses highly complex questions of ends and means. Culture, for example, will have an instrumental role in relation to economic, social or environmental objectives deemed necessary or desirable within a particular society. Within a sustainable society, however, it is culture itself that will be the arbiter in the difficult trade-offs between conflicting ends, the 'final court of appeal' with regard to developmental goals. Culture becomes an end in itself when it plays its creative, pathfinding role of determining our ultimate destination. As pointed out in the recent report of the World Commission on Culture and Development set up jointly by UNESCO and the United Nations, culture is not only the 'servant of ends but (...) the social basis of the ends themselves', a factor of development but also the 'fountain of our progress and creativity'.

Culture will clearly have a key instrumental role to play in efforts to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy. Technology alone will not suffice to compensate for the effects of waste and wastage on our environment. Reducing energy consumption to combat environmental pollution and the risk of global warming will call for far-reaching cultural changes in domestic living, transportation, work location and urban-rural dynamics. Responsible stewardship of the planet's material resources will involve a revolution in the habits of the throwaway society. Conservation of the biological resource base will require new patterns of consumption consistent with sustainable farming, forestry and fishery practices. Education - itself an aspect of culture - will have a major part to play in facilitating this cultural shift as well as in promoting capacity-building and technological innovation for sustainable development.

These changes will concern disproportionately the affluent 20 per cent of the world's population that currently monopolizes some 80 per cent of its resources of all kinds. Indeed, unless changes of lifestyle are accompanied by a new ethical awareness, the prospects for global sustainable development cannot be said to be bright. By breeding poverty, our asymmetrical world aggravates its other ills, notably damage to the environment. The inhabitants of the rich countries will have to discover within their cultures the source of a new and active solidarity if such development challenges are to be met through greater international sharing of knowledge and resources.

In the realm of ideas, sustainability implies a break with mechanistic and one-sided approaches to development issues. Modern science, for example, is increasingly recognizing the value of indigenous ecological knowledge and traditional resource management practices based on generations of observation and experiment and deeply embedded in local cultures. The industrialized world is discovering that traditional pharmacopoeia, fertilizers and insecticides can often be turned to account. Traditional knowledge and values are combining fruitfully with modern science to foster sustainable environmental management - as in the over 300 biosphere reserves in 85 countries making up the World Network of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere programme. Culture can here be seen to be playing a very practical role in sustainable development.

teacher and pupil

Dialogue and democracy

The politics of participation - and the cultural ethos that makes it possible - is arguably another of the requirements for sustainability. A sustainable society is conceivable only in terms of the involvement and empowerment of people - men and women equally. Individuals and grassroots organizations have been prominent in the environmental movement that has transformed the political landscape in most countries over the last decade. Sustainable development needs to be rooted in the lives and concerns of people at large, including traditional cultures and minority groups. It implies a knowledge of, and respect for, cultures in their diversity. It is predicated on a spirit of dialogue and democracy and, beyond that, a climate of civil and international concord. A culture of peace, in the broadest sense of the expression, is one of the constituents of sustainability.

Culture becomes an end when we think of the ultimate purposes of development. 'Sustainable development' is, after all, but a stage on a chartless road. Who can say what are the conditions of 'cultural sustainability'? It is in this sense that culture in the diversity of its forms is an end that encompasses the objective of sustainable development.

There is an important parallel to be made here between biological and cultural diversity, which may be seen as aspects of the same phenomenon. Just as the multitude of diverse species and life-forms that constitute the Earth's biodiversity have evolved in adaptation to different geographical and climatic conditions, so the adaptability of Homo sapiens - being the only species that has the potential to exploit every feasible ecological niche on the planet's surface - is expressed in humanity's cultural diversity. In this way, not only the plants and animals but also the human cultural patterns that we find in the humid tropics differ from those in the tundra or in the arid temperate zones. Just as nature produces a variety of species adapted to their environment, so humankind develops varied cultures in response to local conditions. Cultural diversity may thus be seen as a form of adaptive diversity and, as such, a prior condition of sustainability.

Need for a common ethic

Globalization is posing a serious threat to both kinds of diversity. Peoples and cultures that have existed for thousands of years in equilibrium with the natural environment are disappearing along with the ecosystems that sustained them. The loss of diversity is debilitating the biosphere of which humanity is a part. At the same time, the rapid destruction of age-old cultures and traditions is diminishing our collective repertoire of cultural response. Unlike modern industrial society, many traditional cultures promote not only the need but the sacred duty for people to live in symbiosis with their natural environment. If the unique and particular understandings of humanity's different cultures are lost or simply reduced to a lowest common denominator, something precious and perhaps even essential for our collective survival will have been squandered. Their world view, their values and their innate respect for nature and life represent potential contributions to the profound change in attitude and behaviour that can alone engender a global culture capable of acting responsively and responsibly in the face of global change. The world's cultures must be preserved in their diversity - 'for their sake and ours'.

Yet while posing a threat to diversity, globalization is also giving us an expanded vision of the human situation and of the repercussions of our individual and collective actions on ourselves and on the biosphere as a whole. The concept of sustainable development may itself be seen as an expression of this new awareness. Our greatest need at the present time is perhaps for a global ethic - transcending all other systems of allegiance and belief - rooted in a consciousness of the interrelatedness and sanctity of all life. Such an ethic would temper humanity's acquired knowledge and power with wisdom of the kind found at the heart of the most ancient human traditions and cultures - in Taoism and Zen, in the understandings of the Hopi and the Maya Indians, in the Vedas and the Psalms, in the very origins of human culture itself. Is this not perhaps the essential role of culture in and beyond sustainable development - to be the crucible for a common ethic, corresponding to the intuition of a shared yet diverse destiny?

Federico Mayor is Director-General of UNESCO.

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