Conscience-free views on the environment

The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Cities. First Edition - Environmental Assessment in Developing and Transitional Countries. First Edition
May 26, 2000

Both these books add an enormous weight of paper to an already heavy supply of material in these disciplinary areas. Environmental Assessment in Developing and Transitional Countries comes hot on the heels of the 934-page, Judith Petts-edited, Handbook of Environmental Impact Assessment (1999). And The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Cities adds to a mountain of writing on sustainable cities while contributing very little to the debate about cities that is well covered in publications such as Healthy Cities, Sustainable Cities, Edge Cities, Liveable Cities and Eco-Design in Cities .

Environmental Assessment in Developing and Transitional Countries dodges one of the main issues in the first three lines of page one. The authors say: "Environmental assessment (EA) is a widely used policy tool for reducing the negative environmental consequences of development activities and for promoting sustainable development." If this were the case, we would not have the rampant development of airport terminals and runways all over the world adding to the global inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, all backed by EAs that studiously avoid the largest and most significant impact of the development being assessed. Climate change is at, or near, the top of any list of issues central to the achievement of sustainable development and has received derisory attention from EA specialists at Manchester's Runway 2 and Heathrow's Terminal 5. The seriousness of the impact is simply inconvenient to those who wish to expand aviation. Thus on page six, we find that it is the purpose of EA "to assist in shaping the development process, not to prevent development from taking place". If we want to produce graduates and professionals with independence, integrity, rigour and an analytical approach, we must expose them to these fundamental conflicts and explore them in depth. If we really want to contribute to sustainable development, we need a new generation of EA professionals who are skilled in independent thought and able to point out which types of development are contrary to sustainable development and why. The alternative (and the view underpinning this book) is that all developments are acceptable as long as they are tweaked a little bit.

The lack of self reflection, criticism and evaluation continues through the text. There is a passing reference to economic arguments on valuing the environment but no attempt is made to show how perverse these valuations can be and how strongly they can tip a project in the direction of fruition when they are based on "funny" numbers and weak assumptions. The discussion of the impact on local people of a dam project in China shows a scandalous neglect of concern for what it means in that particular culture to be removed from the place where generations of your family have lived. The use of EA to underpin the abuse of human rights is another controversial area that students should be made aware of. The discussion of public consultation reminds us that the results of such consultation can be ignored by the "proponent" or "agency" but it does not explore what this actually means to the people being consulted and to the democratic validity of the process or ethical performance of the EA professional. Perhaps the "advanced" students whom the book is aimed at should be given some advance warning about the murkiness of the area they are getting into.

As is the case with other EA textbooks, the book expends a great deal of space retelling a familiar story and misses the opportunity to explore the really interesting, challenging and mind-expanding aspects of this subject area. It thereby does a serious disservice to the students and practitioners expected to use this book, and reduces the likelihood that we will have thoughtful and critical professionals advancing the objectives of sustainable development.

The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Cities is well suited to undergraduate students of geography, planning, development and economics, but it is not for more advanced study. Its strength lies in its middle section, "Different sectoral programmes that contribute to the achievement of sustainable goals in cities". The seven chapters in this section cover health, transport, production manufacturing, agriculture, buildings, planning and resources. The book also offers pointers to other material and key themes. Its weakness (as with Environmental Assessment ) lies in its failure to grapple with the sources of non-sustainability in cities. The affluent, whether they are in Los Angeles or in the new urban developments to the east of Calcutta, are going full steam ahead in their lifestyle preferences towards non-sustainability. Indeed, they are eroding the whole idea of the city and redefining geography, economics and society in the image of hyper-consumption and the "non-place urban realm". In a globalised, modernised, flexible, choice-rich world (for the minority), our analyses need a little more courage and a little less inventory.

John Whitelegg is professor of environmental studies, Liverpool John Moores University.

The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Cities. First Edition

Editor - David Satterthwaite
ISBN - 1 85383 602 8 and 601 X
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £48.00 and £16.95
Pages - 478

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