Sustainable development has become one of the buzzwords of our times. The term is used and articulated by different sectors of society, ranging from politicians to popes, from environmentalists to energy providers, from sociologists to speculators and from businessmen to biologists.

Optimistically speaking, the term has now become so mainstream that we can only hope for a brighter environmental future. On the other hand, one can argue that the term is interpreted in so many different ways that it has lost all practical significance.

Whereas Green politics have never, so far, been a dominant form of policymaking, sustainable development has been taken up - at least in rhetoric - by all sorts of policymakers in different countries, including national governments, local councils and transnational bodies from the EU to the UN. Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is the latest big news in this regard and this is most welcome.

Originally coined by the Brundtland Commission within the United Nations in the mid-1980s, sustainable development was defined as “development which meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It was meant to combine social, environmental and economic priorities. Thus, economic development which brought about environmental degradation or social inequality was not deemed as being sustainable.

Sustainability was meant to encourage different social sectors to work together for the common good. On the other hand, critics point out that some antagonistic interests cannot be reconciled. For example, they argue that no green sugar coating will make fossil fuel industries sustainable.

Besides, the common good can be in peril where short-term self-interest prevails. The case of boreholes in Malta is a case in point. These might provide water for users, however, the end result is degradation of groundwater which can eventually become unfit for use.

The common good can however be promoted and protected through education and through direct political action.

The recent protest organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ – the largest of its kind ever held in Malta – represented a clear call for the protection of the common good against ODZ development.

Malta has more of a cowboy, rather than circular, economy in some areas

Some believe that sustainability is best reached through markets as, for example, the price of a scarce resource will go up once it becomes more limited, thus discouraging consumption. Others have less faith in markets and believe that we require widespread moral obligation to protect nature. Others still believe in more effective policymaking and enforcement.

Some believe that sustainability can be obtained in modern industrial society whereas others believe that capitalism is in itself the greatest source of unsustainability, due to waste producing, overproduction and overconsumption, which increases inequality and environmental degradation along the way.

Sustainable development can also be framed within a context of opportunities and risk. We are living in a world characterised by new opportunities in so many spheres, yet, at the same time, we are also facing risks that we ourselves are creating: climate change, terrorism, precariousness, pollution, you name it.

In this context, gone are the days of simple solutions and rock solid certainty. Instead, we reflexively navigate through such risks – some of which are unintended – by attempting to manage them in the best way possible. For this to occur, a vibrant and democratic civil society is required, thus enhancing social interaction, dialogue and trust and moving away from top-down authoritarianism or fundamentalism.

Currently, sustainable development is also being linked to the circular economy concept. For example, the European Commission states that by late 2015 it aims to present a strategy “to transform Europe into a more competitive resource-efficient economy, addressing a range of economic sectors, including waste”.

The European Commission says that our economies have used a “take-make-consume and dispose” pattern of growth. Instead, a circular economy considers waste to be a resource. Resource efficiency is given prime importance and green jobs are created in the process.

Malta is expected to support this EU-driven policy process but can we say that Malta has good examples of circularity? There are some encouraging examples. Waste management has improved, though we are European laggards. Sewage treatment has helped bring about the cleanest seawater in Europe.

But, surely, in other areas, Malta has more of a cowboy economy. Think of the construction industry. Though there are some good performers, the general picture leaves much to desire.

The industry is often characterised by decision-making processes which favour developers over everyone one else, by very poor enforcement mechanisms and by a lack of transparency. And Malta is getting worse by the day.

The result is endless construction, governments promoting ODZ development, damaged infrastructure, endless dust, pollution, shabbiness and cementification. In the meantime, vacant properties and abandoned sites continue to cry out for use and regeneration. Hardly a case of sustainability, I must say.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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