Thursday, 21 June 2012

Sustainability and the Oyster

Sustainability is à la mode in international development today. To give better educated locals some basic training in teaching, and send them off to teach children the basics (and train other teachers to do the same) would, I think, be viewed more favourably than enterprises like Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, a school founded by Oprah Winfrey that offers a high quality education to academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds in South Africa. In the first case, after an initial stint of training, the programme is self-sufficient – the impact is modest, but once it has begun, no more western assistance is required. Basic tuition can go on forever using the resources, skills and knowledge that the local communities can supply, and it can be gradually built upon in the future to make more substantial improvements.

There are a number of reasons why people who work in international development might be opposed to Oprah’s School. It is privately owned and funded; it is academically selective; unlike most schools in South Africa, Oprah’s school cost $40 million dollars to build, and consists of 28 lavish buildings spread over 22 acres of land. All things one would imagine to be ideologically repugnant to a rough, but largely accurate, caricature of a development worker. However, I think the objection to Oprah’s school that would rest most assuredly on their lips would be that development projects ought to be sustainable. Oprah's school breaks this conventional wisdom. Rather than relying on the human and financial resources that the more impoverished areas of South Africa can muster themselves, Oprah’s School depends for its existence upon the finite resources of a western backer

This fetishism of sustainability makes me recall the counter-example to the philosophy of utilitarianism - Haydn and the Oyster. Utilitarianism holds that happiness, or pleasure, is the single ultimate value, and all other things derive their value from how much pleasure they can produce in sentient creatures – the more pleasure, the better. Now imagine you are a soul in heaven waiting to be allocated a life on Earth. When your turn comes, the angel in charge offers you a choice between two lives, that of the composer Joseph Haydn, or an oyster. If you pick Haydn, you will meet with great success and honour in your own life time, creating and enjoying wonderful music. You will be cheerful, popular and derive much merriment from practical jokes and other horseplay. If you pick the oyster, your life will be filled with mild sensual pleasure, much like a human floating very drunk in a warm bath, but nothing more. When you pick Haydn, the angel sighs and says, “I’ll never get rid of this blasted oyster. Look, I’ll do you a special deal. Haydn will die at 77, but I’ll make the oyster life as long as you want. How about it?”

Naturally you stick with your choice of Haydn, despite the fact that over the course of hundreds of years there would be more pleasure in the life of the Oyster. I think the analogy to sustainability is apt. We tend to think that the pleasure involved in Haydn’s life – the enjoyment of classical music, friendship, love, the fulfilment of one’s most cherished life plans and projects – as being qualitatively different from the pleasure in the oyster’s life, though floating drunkenly in a warm bath is still very nice. Thus, one cannot simply tally up the pleasure in each case – it is apples and oranges. Similarly, in the case of the schooling, we tend to think (at least we certainly ought to think) that while learning to read and write is important, learning to appreciate poetry and art, acquiring the potential to produce a creative output of one’s own, and studying subjects like history where one develops an awareness of differing political, cultural, social and economic structures and their interrelationship, is far more valuable than a basic education, and not just because it is more of the same. If basic tuition and a high quality education of the sort you might find at a top western school or university were just two homogenous lumps of ‘education’, then we could say that the $40 million dollars spent on Oprah’s school would have been better spent on developing a sustainable program that gave many children a very basic education over a number of generations. Thousands of oysters would be better than a few hundred Haydns. However, I think that the knowledge and skills imparted to children at schools like Oprah’s are of an altogether different category than a basic educational program could deliver.

There is, of course, a sustainability angle to Oprah’s school. The Leadership Academy for Girls is supposed to produce South African leaders of the future. However, even if all of its graduates left Africa to work in top jobs in the developed world, my intuitive judgement, which is as good a guide as any when it comes to ethics, is that it still would have been much better than a nationwide program of basic education. By producing such a profound change in the lives of a few impoverished children, it would have added much more value to the world than a wider, but simpler program would have done.    

The reason that the Haydn and the Oyster case is analogous to the fetishism of sustainability is that sustainable development is often favoured because it produces change that lasts, thus providing more of whatever positive output that is sought when considered over the longer term. The Haydn and the oyster example shows that often, the quantity and longevity of a good thing is not the relevant question. A little of one valuable thing can be more valuable than an infinite amount of another, for the simple reason that there is no common measure of goodness, which is something that any reasonably adult moral outlook must recognise.

However, there is a disanalogy between the two cases. Another reason for favouring sustainable development is that it allows developing countries to escape a demeaning dependency upon the beneficent countries of the west, which has no parallel with the oyster case. Asking for development programs to be sustainable, then, is not a case of charging up a blind alley. However, it is important to recognise that sustainability is usually one of many competing values. Too often, the first question that is asked of a development program is whether or not it is sustainable, and if it fails this test, it is rejected out of hand. Sustainable programs are no doubt an important component in a package of support that should be delivered to developing countries, but if there is a choice between a sustainable program, and a one-off shot at improving the lives of a few people to a degree that would otherwise be unattainable, I see no reason why the former should automatically trump the latter. 

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