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Defining sustainable development

Auckland, New Zealand

The Editor

Re: Sustainable development ...– A serious problem of definition

I must thank both Mr S. Langitoto Helu ( We cannot blame the western world ) and Mr Jason Faletau ( . What is driving Tonga to economic stagnation?) for raising some critical questions as to the above-named matter ...– a matter I raised partly in one of my recent correspondences ( Senseless taxation robs Tongans of new-found freedom ).

Criticism of sustainable development

Please do not get me wrong. I am all for both preservation and conservation of resources, both material and human. Not only is it a necessity that we preserve and conserve both material and human resources, it is in doing so that provides us with the very foundation of our co-existence (and of our common survival). My criticism of sustainable development is to do basically with its sense of human one-sidedness or social biasness, as it centres merely on people rather than both people and environment. The human resources, it must be pointed out, constitute but a very minute part of planet Earth.

Human arrogance

How can we be so arrogant in regarding human beings as the centre of the Universe? This is clearly seen in the UN definition of sustainable development as development that " meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs". As a matter of definition, it is all about the satisfaction of the wants of people and needs of society! What about the needs of the environment? Should not they have been mentioned?

Defining sustainable development anew

If I were to re-define the highly popular yet extremely problematic UN definition of sustainable development, it would be something like this: Sustainable development is development that sustains balance in the ongoing conflicting relationships between ecology and society in the present, which at the same time makes better use of the lessons from the past as a guidance for the future of people and their environment, including the exchange relations between them.

Sustainable development and my general ta-va, time-space theory of nature, mind and society

By defining sustainable development afresh, I had to contextualise it within the Tongan ta-va, time-space sense. Uniquely, this Tongan spatio-temporal sense is plural, collective, holistic and circular in nature, as opposed to the singularity, individuality, "analyticality" and linearity underlying the Western characterisation of time and space.

This Tongan ta-va concept and practice is reflected in the manner in which the past, present and future are organised spatio-temporally. Accordingly, as I remarked upon in my last correspondence, it is thought that, contemporaneously, people walk forward into the past, and walk backward into the future, where both the truly elusive future and seemingly fixed past are constantly mediated in the ever-changing, conflicting present. From this so-called classical, realistic and aesthetic point of view, it seems that, in Tongan thinking and practice, there is simply NO future, only past and present.

Fonua vs. sustainable development

The beauty of the Tongan concept and practice of fonua is that, it philosophically recognises the historical fact that ALL things - in nature, mind and society - stand in relations of exchange to one another ...– relations which can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. It is in this conflicting context that either the so-called modern doctrine of sustainable development or the so-named traditional doctrine of fonua can be made an effective instrument for mediating the tensions between ecology and society in the name of balance.

Of the two resisting doctrines, sustainable development and fonua, I sincerely believe that fonua is by far a better instrument or model for an effective mediation of conflicts between ecology and society. Of course, the existence of the concept and practice of fonua is not a guarantee that all is well (The same applies to all types of constitution and laws or policy rules and regulations). No way! But, at least, there is something for people to strive for, especially by means of giving some balance to their conflicting relationships with the environment.

Tonga observes neither fonua nor sustainable development

Many, if not all, of the major developments in Tonga largely defy both fonua and sustainable development. The expansion of human settlement in the Fanga...’uta, Hala...’ovave and Popua areas, for instance, should have been regulated a lot more for the sake of the co-existence of ecology and society. The destruction of age-old landmarks ...– of great historic and archaeological significance such as sia heulupe mounds in these areas - is unthinkable, especially so when these could have been preserved for history...’s sake, not to mention its huge economic potential for the tourist industry.

With the extreme lack of policy regulations governing the squash pumpkin industry, there are grave concerns with the health and well-being of both people and their environment. We may be celebrating the huge albeit short-lived economic gains from this industry but we may not have been aware of its long-term adverse effects on both ecology and society.


My favourite philosopher John Anderson, following the wisdom of Heraclitos of Ephesos, once said something to the effect: There is no granting of a privileged position in reality to gods, men or molecules, with conflict everywhere and nothing above the battle. Historically speaking, this is the philosophical essence of fonua, and its strict absence in sustainable development reveals the vacuity in ideologically treating human beings collectively as the centre of the Universe!

...‘Ofa atu fau,

Dr ...‘Okusitino Mahina

Lecturer in Pacific political economy & Pacific arts


The University of Auckland

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