Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

“Sustainable development is not just a way of doing…it’s a way of being, it’s a worldview."

Marina Silva

Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Development in Brazil

Brazilian Senator Marina Silva discusses the civilizational crisis of sustainability

Brazilian Senator Marina Silva spoke at Brown University on Thursday about her work to promote a just, peaceful and sustainable world. Silva is a former Environmental Minister of Brazil and has twice been a Brazilian presidential candidate. She has received many awards and honors in recognition of her efforts, including “Woman of the Year” from the Financial Times in 2014 and the 2009 Sophie Prize for environmental and developmental work. 

Silva began her remarks by noting that this is a very complex time for Brazil, one “which obviously has repercussions in the idea of changing a sustainability model” for the country. She then discussed the definition of sustainable development as she sees it, saying that while the U.N. works with four classic dimensions of sustainable development—environmental, economic, social and cultural sustainability—she believes that there are three additional dimensions—political, aesthetic and ethical sustainability.

Silva explained that in terms of the political dimension, “there is no way to make all these changes…if we don’t have a good base of political sustainability.” She defined political sustainability as “institutionalizing the procedures making virtuous people make virtuous enterprises” and called for the creation of “a new vision” and “new structures” that could change the attitudes of citizens in general as well as those of elected officials.

Silva noted that only a proactive citizenry could decide to make sustainable development a political priority. Discussing her successes on deforestation and the protection of the Amazon as environmental minister, Silva explained that “this is not something one person can do…this is a cultural change.”

Silva’s second additional dimension was aesthetic sustainability, or the idea that certain things ought to be preserved not for monetary or material value, but simply for their beauty. Before the World Cup, there was a suggestion to turn Brazil’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain into gravel for the games, recalled Silva, saying that “a model that cannot preserve…world heritage” is not a sustainable model.

The last dimension was ethical sustainability. “We have technical solutions for most of the problems already,” explained Silva, but such solutions are insufficient on their own. Mobilization of resources, a supportive citizenry and the ability to make decisions based on the values of sustainability are necessary to make use of those tools. 

“Sustainable development is not just a way of doing…it’s a way of being, it’s a worldview,” Silva said. For a long time, “sustainability was almost a figurehead on the bow of the ship, but it has to be the motor, the engine, in the back, in the stern, of the ship,” she articulated.

Silva attributed mercantilism with the rise of the desire to do rather than to be, saying that, while older societies sought to define themselves by being, today, “we make and consume, make and consume. It’s a black hole.”

“What do we want to be as the human race?” asked Silva. The answer, she hoped, was sustainable.

Of today’s sustainability problem, Silva declared that we had reached a point of “civilizational crisis,” where “it could be a one-way road” that “could get to a point of no return.” Furthermore, she added, “there’s a good chance of that.”

As a result, she explained, this is a problem that won’t take one individual, one group or one party to solve. “It has to an effort of civilization as a whole,” since “there’s no place in the world where you can hide” from the problems of sustainability. 

Brazil has an important role to serve in resolving the crisis, because of the country’s great ecological diversity and natural resources. Silva urged Brazilians to make decisions with sustainability development in mind in order to break the dangerous paradigm of environmental destruction. She described the country as at a crossroads, where years of progress were being threatened by “political unsustainability” and an economic crisis.

Silva further suggested that the country take steps to generate safe and clean energy, combat its corruption problem through preventative measures, continue to roll back deforestation, grow the forest service and protect the Amazon. All decisions, though, will soon need to be driven by the idea of sustainability. “If we have ideals we can identify with, we can move obstacles. If we do not, the mountains cannot be moved very easily—it becomes hard to even climb them,” she explained. 

Silva concluded her comments with the hope that Brazil would rise to the challenge of sustainability, noting that, though the road may be long, it is certainly traversable. “I’m not an optimist, nor a pessimist. I’m persistent,” she said. 

 

--Lauren Sukin