Until recently sustainability debates had a strong focus on the environmental effects of our actions. Books like Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent spring’, the Club of Rome report ‘Limits to growth’, and the Rio 1992 agreements were related to the damage mankind does to nature – and through this, to itself. Depletion of natural resources, climate change, and the like received the mainstay of attention.
This attention on anthropogenic environmental damage has led to discussions on collective action, responsibility, and blame. But the exclusive focus on nature and eco-protection is revealing its shortcomings in enabling sustainable action: those who are to blame do not want to make agreements, and those who are not to blame do not want to make sacrifices. This may be an important reason why the main proponent of eco-protection, Europe, was quite unsuccessful in realising its goals at the recent Rio+20 conference.
In the meantime, developing countries like Mexico and China are making remarkable headway on sustainability. They appear to emphasize the development of a sustainable industry, rather than counteracting environmental threats. In doing so, they forego collective action; in fact, they distrust it. Mexico and China have opposed international agreements on sustainability, and together with other developing countries, they block agreements meant to counteract threats. Their attention seems to be, not with costs and blame, but with the benefits of technological progress and sustainable innovation.
This shift in attention is also taking place on a regional scale, as regions and municipalities are more and more developing themselves as centres of sustainability. Cities emerge as leaders in sustainability and as a breeding ground for sustainable initiatives; and increasingly, regional policy takes a sustainability profile which would be too expensive or progressive on a national level. As a consequence, their voice is heard much better in the international sustainability debate, which is highlighted by their increased visibility at Rio +20 as compared to Rio 1992.
The focus on sustainability is no less urgent than ten or twenty years ago. But the focus question is shifting. No longer it is: how do we prevent major problems, but: who will be best off when they occur? This requires investments in the future, which is precisely what developing countries are doing, aided by increasingly sustainable technologies. Up until now Europe has taken an essentially moral stance on sustainability; changing this towards a larger focus on self-interest might be recommendable.