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In February 2018, Francisco Lozano Winterhalder – the RSA’s Connector in Barcelona, Spain – attended the second World Summit for Sustainable Development in New Delhi. Here, Francisco questions the efficacy of the technical proposals presented at the summit, advocating instead for a more holistic approach to sustainability.

This February I attended the second World Summit for Sustainable Development organized by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute of India) in New Delhi. Also in attendance were prestigious personalities and leaders in the field of sustainability; ministers (including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi), politicians and companies. Despite the positive attitude to change things held by those at the Summit, we know that the outlook for our planet in terms of sustainability is not optimistic.

At the Summit, a huge amount of technical, economic and political proposals were presented and discussed. But it is clear that they are not working well. Why? I had a short intervention as speaker insisting in that, in my opinion, Sustainable Development is necessary, but not enough. We need a more ambitious and wider holistic approach. Our species has survived until now, not due to simply our biological capacity to do so -we are extremely fragile-, but to an incredible tool called culture. I argue that culture is the key to our success and survival. However now, this fundamental element of adaptation is failing; we are at risk of being extinguished due to our own actions. Something is going wrong. I believe we have to review out culture(s) and discover which elements are destroying us and correct them.

In the opinion of the American anthropologist Marvin Harris, all cultures have two important aspects. One is the etic aspect, which is to say, the behaviour and performance of a concrete culture. Secondly, the emic aspect, which is the mental structure that provokes this behaviour/performance. I argue that something is wrong in our minds – emic aspects – and therefore this is where we should focus change. Doing this is fundamental to change our performance and our behaviour. Although the tools for the execution of these performances are necessary – the technical, the economic and the political –; without the correct hardware, the software does not work correctly.

In my opinion, the main goal of this revision must be the attainment of a universal ‘culture of life’. This does not mean homogenisation or to have a single culture all over the world, but the idea is to reach commonly agreed and universal cultural elements to save life, human beings and our planet. This culture of life has to balance our relationship with nature, our societies and each one of us (an approach to our health is an example of this). I have termed these three balances ‘peace with nature’, ‘social peace’ and ‘inner peace’. All three together comprise a form of utopia – but I believe we should strive for a utopian ideal. A utopian reference akin to a lighthouse in a dark night on a raging sea.

Culture covers all dimensions and knowledges of human existence; all is linked. We therefore must take into consideration religion, art, humanities. Religion in particular can be fundamental to preserving our planet. One example relates to the second most important environmental problem in Nepal: deforestation of the middle Himalayas. Traditionally, Hindu worshippers have brought their dead to temples to be cremated on wooden funeral pyres. With population growth rates increasing, this has led to increased rates or deforestation. Here, people are currently being convinced that electric cremation has the same result as a cremation performed with open pyres using wood from trees. Elsewhere, religion is contributing to the preservation of plants and animals which are sacred.

I believe we need a culture that distinguishes clearly between necessary means (money, economy, business) and truer targets (happiness, family, friends). All of these elements constitute the heart of what I have termed holistic and sustainable development; which integrates the traditional and reductionist concept of sustainable development. In a word, I believe in a form of development whose sole purpose is to increase the quality of life of all humans.

To summarise, the application of the classical concept of sustainable is not working. Why? Because it fails to understand that all is linked and so far we have only considered one part of the picture. The technical, economic and political impacts are incomplete without the addition of a cultural framework. To achieve this, I believe we must: change our minds if we are to change our behaviour; introduce sustainability into all aspects of education; never confuse the means with the goals; promote dialogue at all possible levels in order to create a consensus with the participation of all possible stakeholders; and always approach sustainability in a holistic manner. 

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