Bridging the Gap: The Need to Unite Global and Grassroots Approaches to Sustainable Development

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By Sophie Wenzlau

“Human actions are rapidly approaching or have already transgressed key global thresholds, increasing the likelihood of unprecedented ecological turbulence,” according to a report co-authored by scientists from the STEPS Centre, Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Tellus Institute. The report cites an urgent need to promote Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) uniting global and grassroots approaches to sustainable development.

The international community has neglected to emphasize community-led responses to sustainable development (Photo Credit: Antonio Lacerda/EPA)

At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, officials endorsed a document, Agenda 21, emphasizing the need for community-led responses to sustainable development challenges. However, in the 20 years that have since passed, local responses to sustainable development challenges have seldom been acknowledged at the international level.

In general, high-level international panels on sustainability have promoted development from the top-down, focusing on, “particular forms of technological fix, whereby advanced science and engineering are harnessed towards solutions that can be rolled out at a large scale—whether in biotechnology (to produce high yielding crops to feed 9 billion people), or geo-engineering and low carbon energy technologies (to mitigate climate change).” The international approach has tended to ignore small-scale, grassroots innovations. It has, “related only sporadically, if at all, to the array of innovative grassroots initiatives springing up in farms and forests, villages and municipalities, factories and homes,” around the world.

According to a press release from the STEPS Centre, “the targets, indicators and approaches being used to pursue progress towards sustainable development at Rio+20 are counterproductive,” because they rely on large scale technological solutions. Scientists at the STEPS Centre, Stockholm Institute, and Tellus Institute, are actively promoting the idea that the principles of sustainable development should emphasize a diversity of solutions, embracing both small-scale grassroots and large-scale technological innovations in a multidimensional way.

To effectively address food insecurity, for instance, these scientists suggest the dual promotion of large-scale innovations, like plant breeding and biotechnology, and small-scale innovations, like soil and water conservation education for indigenous farmers. They recommend dialogue that brings farmers, scientists, businesses, and policymakers together, for they believe it can help, “to clarify the roles of these different innovation pathways in addressing diverse national and local sustainability priorities.”

According to Professor Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, “science, technology and innovation can help avert catastrophic developmental and environmental damage. But only if we move beyond outdated notions of whose innovation counts, to empower the vital contributions of poorer people’s own creativity in building green and fair economies and contributing to resilient socio-techno-ecological systems.”

Sophie Wenzlau is a research associate with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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