Ideal balance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong has entered a new era, that of the politics of development (or 'd-politics'). Issues involving environmental protection, culture and heritage conservation are attracting more public attention and media limelight than traditional livelihood issues like housing and welfare. Quality of life, in both the material and spiritual sense, is the catchphrase. It is no coincidence that Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen chose a 'progressive view of development' as the first of five pillars of his re-election platform.

It is relatively easy to write a paragraph on sustainable development in a government policy paper. It's much harder to really transform how we approach development by changing our values and culture. Put simply, sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In real life, the process of identifying and meeting those needs is more complex and contentious.

Britain has adopted a framework of shared, far-reaching principles: living within environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; using sound science responsibly and promoting good governance.

Development and conservation may seem inherently contradictory in a zero-sum context, in which gains for one side mean losses for the other. That view would make sustainable development at best a half-way compromise - between intrusive development on the one hand, and conservation and 'green' concerns on the other - making neither side happy.

However, sustainable development sees development and conservation as not only compatible, but also fully complementary: conservation is realised during development, and development is facilitated by conservation. Some may regard this as too idealistic, but it is the only way to understand the term if we are not to pay it mere lip service.

Some see development in simple terms, as either evil or sacred. Conservation is sometimes seen as merely preserving the status quo. Such wide gaps in understanding can prevent both sides from breaking away from conventional notions of development and conservation, and abandoning such black-and-white thinking.

Development implies movement, change and transformation. Sustainability is not about suppressing change, but pursuing it with a positive purpose - producing more creativity, energy, diversity and opportunities for all.

It is not enough merely to expect the government to act and to legislate. The whole society must work together to change mindsets and ways of life. Everybody is concerned about climate change today. Lying at the root of the problem is a whole range of mutually reinforcing, cumulative actions by individuals, corporations and governments.

Car ownership and air travel are attractive and accessible, sharpening demands for more roads and air routes. Hence, we all contribute to the increased production of greenhouse gases. Our consumption pattern also has a bearing on the environment, in the way we use home appliances and consume food. The more intensive use of mobile phones makes our surroundings noisier.

If the government is committed to ensuring a good quality of life and wants the public to believe it takes sustainable development seriously, it must embrace the core values involved. It must not flinch in the face of external pressures; it shouldn't turn away when confronted with the costs of not fully exploiting so-called 'development potential'.

Government should be at the forefront of the campaign to change public attitudes and behaviour - to tell an inconvenient truth, as former US vice-president Al Gore puts it.

We hear businesspeople threatening to leave Hong Kong because of the air pollution. They blame the government for not working hard enough to bring back the blue skies. But they should also make sure their own companies embrace the values of sustainable development. The same applies to non-governmental organisations and political parties.

Like the old saying 'charity starts at home', sustainable development must also start at home.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank