The Myth of Sustainable Development

A poem by Nirmala Nair

They told me
Our life is no good
In the buntus,
In the villages,
Beyond the cities

Eating like my elders
Living like my elders
It took me a long time
To change the way I live.

But change – I did
To develop myself
My children
To become civilised
And modern

My elders
They tilled their soil
Waited for the moon
Listened to the birds
Looked for signs
In the meadows
When to sow
What to sow

No slave to money and machines,
They lived long and healthy
In the mountains and meadows
Valleys and creeks
With reverence to the sacred land
That nurtured their soul
That fed their body

My elders were called ignorant
Primitive backward
So they sent me to school
To become modern
To become a developed citizen

I changed my food
Eating food I no longer
know where from
Whose farm
No-name food
No-man’s land

Food fed by poisons
Shaped by machines
Smart slick packaging
Chemical colorants
Flavors artificial
Prolonging the shelf life

This food
The techno-food
It no longer feeds my soul
Only bloats my stomach
Sluggish and sick
A bundle of dis-ease
Dull death eyes
Drained of energy

GPs and medical-aid
Happy and smiling
Making a living
Pushing pills
On perpetually sick

Then came the day
When I was sent off to
Some big meetings
Full of experts and
Know-it-all talkers

By the time they finished,
I felt cheated and robbed
Pretending to be the experts
All they gave me was
The story of my elders

First they told my people
They were backward and primitive
They made my generation sick and lost
Then they stole the wisdom from my elders
Now they sell it back to my people
For a price, a big price
And call it
Sustainable development

Sadly, they can’t read the signs
They don’t follow the moon
Nor do they know
How to read the weather
From the blossoms on the meadows
Speaking of rain
From the berries on the trees

Tell me how they can sustain
This thing called Sustainable Development
When they know not how to sustain Life
When it has never been lived by
the experts peddling wisdom
with no heart

Nirmala originally wrote this poem in September 2004 as an input for a panel discussion on values and personal belief systems required to implement sustainable development at the South Africa + 2 Johannesburg Conference. She also shared it at the 10th anniversary ZERI World Congress in Tokyo and at a workshop in Bandung, Indonesia with Fellow Any Sulistyowati to an overwhelming response. She writes: “It seems to trigger some deep memories that we have lost in the pursuit of creating a development industry.” The poem has been web-published on many other sites and translated in many languages, including Japanese and Danish.