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Sustainable Development for Scotland

Sustainable Development for Scotland:
Ritual, or Rite and Right?

Keynote address by Alastair McIntosh, Centre for Human Ecology
for the Workers' Educational Association (Fife), 1-11-97

"By 1996, most local authorities in each country should have undertaken a consultative process with their populations and achieved a consensus on "a local Agenda 21" for the community... Through consultation and consensus-building, local authorities would learn from citizens and from local, civic, community, business and industrial organisations and acquire the information needed for formulating the best strategies." - Local Agenda 21, Chapter 28, Earth Summit '92, p. 200.

So ... a year after it's all meant to have happened, do we feel we have just been part of somebody else's ritual of consultation, but without the informed and effective participation necessary for true consensus? Or are we in Scotland, especially after the momentous vote of 11th September, now entering a new rite of passage towards sustainable development? And if so, do we have the courage, the tools of empowerment and sensitive wisdom of heart, head and hand to ensure that our own culturally appropriate definition of "development" is set on a sustainable path as a right of all those living in Scotland today, and for our children's children's children?

Let me take these three - ritual, rite and right - one by one. For most of the world's governments that signed up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Rio in 1992, being there was a matter of just going through the ritual. This is clear not just from the reluctance of some heads of state to attend and the puny resources put into follow-through, but from the contradictions in Agenda 21 itself. On the one hand it speaks the language of peace, ecology, and putting people first. Principle 1 of the Rio Declaration, for instance, says, "Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature." But Principle 12 makes clear that this will be on a playing field laid out by an advanced capitalist global economy based on competition, deregulation and mere "self-regulation" (p. 204), together with a business-as-usual aspiration towards "economic growth". Alternative thinking, such as that of the Government of Bhutan which replaces the idea of GNP (gross national product) in its national development plan with GNH (gross national happiness), is outwith the economic mindset of what the compromises at Rio could provide. So is recognition that unending growth, and growth without the guiding hand of governance are, in medical terms, what we call "cancer" and "deformity".

On the matter of ritual, then, I want to suggest that in Scotland we must insist on pushing its limits and enlarging the concepts of Rio. Let's work with the handles that Agenda 21 does offer us. Fife local authority officials have actually been exemplary in this regard. But lets push the ritual into becoming a rite of passage. We are shaping a renewed nation for ourselves in Scotland today. So let us ask: what will do honour to the land that holds the spirit of our ancestors? What will communicate nature consciousness into a resurgence of those qualities of human nature where, no longer, might such bards as Burns be forced to lament, "I'm truly sorry man's dominion/ Has broken Nature's social union"? And what will communicate a rich and enriching social conscience, so that like Hugh MacDiarmid reflecting on a woman's suffering in a slum, we can proclaim of one another, doing so as a matter of national policy, "And I am concerned with the blossom."

And so to right. Scotland's parliament is emerging from a claim of right; a claim rooted deep in our pre-Christian, bardic and Christian principles of social and ecological justice with the added dimension, thank goodness, of gender justice. (Not having women's voices made explicit is maybe where our forebears went most wrong.) Sustainability, according to Mrs Brundtland's UN commission, is about developing "without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". That's obvious enough. But what is "development"? This is where we must be most careful, for it is not just about economic development. Indeed, far too often economy expects to be served by community, rather than the other way round as any human-centred development ought to be. The word, "development", derives from the Old French, de, meaning to undo something, and voloper, to fold up or envelop - as in our word, "envelope". We use the word "development" properly in medicine when we speak of "foetal development" - the development of a new child, in right relationship and balance with the environment of the womb that holds it. Development is therefore about unfolding what it means to be most fully and authentically human. It means to recognise each woman, child and man as having human potential. It is to make a society where the purpose of being family, community, nation and world are to ensure that each person can take up the right to achieve their fullest humanisation for what it is, for all it is, and for all we are and might yet become.

It is no good attempting this in ways that take away from what future generations should inherit of the Earth. Thus our development must be sustainable. Like many native peoples and the ancient Chinese, I think we should plan on a seven generation time horizon. That's not too short, but neither is it so long as to be crazy. We should look to the past and see what we can learn from and appreciate of what we have inherited since our great, great, great, great grandparents' time. That's only about 150 years. It's the same as the age of a mature oak tree. And we should plan a similar distance ahead. For instance, if I might use the oak tree as just one example of nature's providence ... when we cut that oak which our ancestors planted and use it to floor the house, it should be built well enough to last until the acorn we sow tomorrow is harvested by our children another seven generations down the line. And if we need to use one oak tree each year, then we must plant and care for one acorn each year in a forest that contains 150 trees.

There's sustainable development for you in a nutshell ... but with just one proviso. It is that we don't forget also to dance around the oak tree, and sing as we share love under its shade, and tell our children stories at night round the hearth fuelled warm by the old oak floor now chopped to firewood. For these stories will graft our lives to the taproot of ancient culture. They will richly tell us in who we are, where we are, what we are, why we are and how to be. In Scottish tradition, where fostership can be more important than blood lineage, they will remind us too of how to kindle both shared and diverse identity as a people of rainbow hue and origin. They will remind that we belong to Scotland inasmuch as we are willing to cherish and be cherished by this ancient land and its timeless peoples. We will re-learn, or learn perhaps for the first time, the meaning of deepest respect or reverence for place and one-another. And then we shall be worthy of rising again to be a nation that stands steadfast like the king of trees. Then we shall have become like the leaping salmon, and the hind in calf, or the oak with roots deep in the ground. And this is nothing newfangled out of Rio that I'm suggesting here. This is our own deep culture, the culture of a people who in rising to the turning point of history know how to embrace the heart as well as the head; a people whose bards listen for the movement of the Spirit with one ear to the turf of the hollow hill, and the other, to Heaven. It is the Scotland that Burns in 1792 likened to the oak. Rabbie Burns, who here addresses us as women and men alike - he would have had it no other way - with that surprisingly right-on use of the word, "man", and asks:

Heard ye o the tree o France

I watna what's the name o't;

Around it a' the patriots dance,

Weel Europe kens the fame o't.

It stands where ance the Bastille stood,

A prison built by kings, man,

When superstition's hellish brood

Kept France in leading strings, man.

And Burns' "tree o France" is, of course, as the title indicates, The Tree of Liberty. And as we move ahead after our own bloodless "French Revolution" of September 11th this year, Burns reminds us that nothing less than the union of social and ecological justice is our own ancient understanding of "sustainable development". Let me close with his eighteenth century words as an agenda for an Agenda 21 of the 21st century, and trust that this conference might today find favour to honour them:

Let Britain boast her hardy oak,

Her poplar and her pine, man,

Auld Britain ance could crack her joke,

And o'er her neighbours shine, man.

But seek the forest round and round,

And soon 'twill be agreed, man,

That sic a tree can not be found,

Twixt London and the Tweed, man.

Without this tree, alake this life

Is but a vale o woe, man;

A scene o sorrow mixed wi strife,

Nae real joys we know, man.

We labour soon, we labour late,

To feed the titled knave, man;

And a' the comfort we're to get

Is that ayont the grave, man.

Wi plenty o sic trees, I trow,

The warld would live in peace, man;

The sword would help to mak a plough,

The din o war wad cease, man.

Like brethren in a common cause,

We'd on each other smile, man;

And equal rights and equal laws

Wad gladden every isle, man.

 

 

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03/03/04

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