What is Development and Does it Promote Environmental Sustainability?

Q: What is development and does it promote environmental sustainability?

Diverse views are associated with a concept of “development”. Some define it is a process of directed change, and associate development with a country’s growth of GNP. Development is that sense perceived as process of acquiring wealth or economic growth. One of definitions of development says that development is, actually, a way of thinking. Hence, to some people it means injuries to people and nature, while to others it means a cure for the injured people and nature.

While some perceive that development can eradicate poverty, to others it brings poverty. For some, development contains hope that society can prosper by the superiority of economics and advances in technology while to the others it means society’s marginalization and degradation.

The reason that development is thought of in different, often opposite ways, can perhaps be explained by the fact that while a process of development benefited a small group of expropriators, it has done so at the harm of larger part of the population by depriving them of their basic rights. Thus, the process of development is, in this sense, associated with the growth of world inequalities as it brings luxury to one group and fight for survival to everybody else.

This is also suggested by the fact that the wealthy 20% of the world population consume 80% of the world’s resources. It can be said, therefore, that their “ecological footprint” is much larger than their own territories. Besides bringing inequalities among people, development has also detrimental effect on environmental sustainability. Rich countries produce 90% of the world hazardous waste and emit “luxuriously” high emissions of CO2 per capita. The environmental effects are well-known: depletion of non-renewable fuels, degradation of soils, loss in biodiversity and climate change. The environmental crisis from depletion and pollution and social justice crisis from dispossession really require an alternative definition of development, one without attributes of economic and expansionistic.

In order to achieve more justice in development many “development strategists” tried to balance the issues of ecological footprint and current development tendencies. Thus, they advise that the poor countries should grow, but they must not follow a road taken by the rich. This kind of thinking, although implying limits to growth, does not imply that justice in development could preferably be accomplished by richer countries achieving  moderation in development, while fair development strategies should focus on “lowering the top” instead of “lifting the bottom”.

A seemingly hopeful formulation of development came in 1987 WCED report “Our Common Future” which advised that if development was to be sustainable, it must meet the needs of present generations without compromising future generations to meet their own needs. But, while WCED’s report recognized scarcity of atmosphere and the need to balance human extraction with regenerative capacities of nature it did not attempt to reveal a fundamental conflict over the development issue.

Thus, the report justifies further economic growth by asserting that it is the poverty which is responsible for environmental degradation and that the cause and effect can be eradicated by “rapid rise in per capita incomes in the Third World”. The commission also adds that it is necessary that “declining growth…be reversed” (Bruntland, 1987). Therefore, instead on focusing on reformulation of development practices today, their assertion implies that the environment was damaged by poverty, and not vice versa, and that environment can in reverse be protected through further growth. In that sense, sustainable development can be equally called sustainable economic growth. So, one’s expectations that WCED can bring development towards the right directions fall, because WCED just advises how to grow even further. A stronger dose of the old fashioned development, therefore, cannot offer solutions to the problems it created.

In order for development to be sustainable, an alternative formulation of development is needed, one that may not imply violation of the Earth’s carrying capacity and would simultaneously address social equity and environmental sustainability. An alternative view may be associated with the traditional nations of commons that include “enoughness”, practical reasoning, subsistence, free discussion, regard for the environment as the source of multiple benefits and the refusal to accept environmental degradation at any price. So, there is a way to associate development with “growth”, but, as Wolfgang Sachs (1999) suggests, with the growth in “well-being” instead of “well-having”. In that way, development can be a source of the world’s happiness instead of being a root of the current crisis.

Main References

Agarwal, A., & Narain, S. (1991). Global warming in an unequal world: A case of environmental colonialism. In Global warming in an unequal world: a case of environmental colonialism. Centre for Science and Environment.

Bruntland, G. (1987). Our common future: The world commission on environment and development.

Lohmann, L. (1990). Whose common future?. The Ecologist, 20(3), 82-84.

Sachs, W. (1999). Planet dialectics: Explorations in environment and development. Zed Books.


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