SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

“I believe that unless we adopt sophisticated aboriginal belief systems and learn respect for all life, then we lose our own, not only as lifetime but also as any future opportunity to develop our potential. Whether we continue our development, without an ethic or a philosophy, like abandoned and orphaned children, or whether we create opportunities to achieve maturity, balance, and harmony is the only real question that faces the present generation. This is the debate that must never stop.”
Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture

Economic development has failed the Developing World. Despite millions of dollars of aid, development programs, and specialists the Less Developed Countries have not progressed to the levels of the Developed Countries, and some have seen a tendency to decline. This begs the question, is economic development the answer to the problems facing the Developing World, or are there other solutions?

In an increasingly global economic system it is difficult to not stress the importance of economic growth, however the problem still remains of the millions of poor, starving, uneducated, and unhealthy people who fight for daily survival. Coupled with the human dilemma is also the problem of our polluted waters, air, and soil, the problem of diminishing natural resources, and the concern for future generations’ survival. Perhaps the answer, then, is not to completely abandon economic growth but to change the goals, and principles of its theories to better aid the people of our planet and the environment.

The answer is Sustainable Development. Defined, it seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising those of the future. However, it goes much deeper than that. Sustainable development seeks to provide a balance with society’s economic demands, and the requirements of the environment to maintain itself.

Nevertheless, economists and environmentalists have different views as to what sustainable economic development means. The economists’ viewpoint is regretfully anthropological, that is the state of the environment is only of concern where it applies to human use. The economists tend to see the environment as a collection of goods, which have demand functions, and supply functions. When the environmentalists speak of sustainable economic development they see the environment as a functioning system that must be maintained regardless of human demands or needs. The ecological perspective focuses on cycles and behaviour patterns within the biosphere. The environmental model recognizes that an ecological system is sustainable only if it is resilient.

There are two options for development. The development policy can focus on the national, federal level, or development policy can focus of the grassroots, community level.

National development policies tend to focus on growth within the economy, however the development policies of the past have caused enormous damage environmentally. The first concern of broad scale policy makers should be how much growth is possible. If the LDCs are to grow so to reach the same level of growth as the DCs, then according to the United Nations’ Commission on Environment and Development, the LDCs must grow by a factor of seven. However, even an expansion by a factor of four is impossible if, as some have said, the human economy occupies one-fourth of the global net primary product of photosynthesis. We cannot go beyond one hundred percent. Clearly the LDCs cannot reach our levels of growth without some change in the economies of the DCs.

Perhaps the most appropriate place for sustainable development work is in the communities and townships of the LDCs. The most important aspects of sustainable community development are the self-sufficiency factor, and the renewed self-worth that comes with the ability to provide for one’s family and one’s self. Community development is influenced by “bottom-up” techniques such as entrepreneurship, co-operation, indigenous knowledge, and ingenuity.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of bottom-up development strategy is that it does not see agriculture as backward to development and industry as progressive. Further, the objectives of community development often include a wider range of goals than traditional national development. Evidently the focus in regional development is on agriculture and agricultural products rather than industry building. However, traditional agriculture is not a sustainable development option. The world can no longer sustain the damage caused by modern agriculture, monocultural forestry, and the thoughtless settlement design, and in the near future we will see the end of wasted energy, or civilization as we know it, due to human-caused pollution and climate change from current methods of agriculture.

The key is to develop new forms of agriculture that provide for the maintenance of ecological systems, and to allow for immediate development; in other words, that fulfil short term needs, and ensure that a long term plan is established which will continue the self-reliancy of a community. The hope too is that a community that is self-reliant and stable will then be able to turn around and support national economic development.

Sustainable development has emerged as a solution, both to the human crisis and the environmental one. By definition, sustainable development may not focus exclusively on economic or anthropologic goals, but rather it may serve the ecosystems and the problems associated within. However, humans are an element of the ecosystem, and there is a place for human development within sustainable development. The sustainable development approach is now a necessity in our era of environmental destruction, it is applicable on both the national and local levels, and can provide the foundation for a growing economy.

Defining sustainable development

At the most basic level, we can attempt to define sustainable development by drawing upon the explanation offered by The Brudtland Report, which popularized the concept of development which is “consistent with the future as well as present needs.” Although broadly defined here, the notion of sustainable development has to do with the future, projecting or forecasting what the environment will be like in the future, and natural resource capacity in order that those resources may be available for use in the future as well as presently.

The main drive behind sustainable development is a goal to not risk incurring irreversible damage to the ecosystem, because of a recognition that the earth has a finite ability to support human life, particularly at current (at the time the idea of SD came into being) rates of consumption and damage to the environment.

Popularization of the idea

This very simple idea of exercising a sort of prudentialism also came to include a larger set of ideals, including equity ideals. It incorporated the idea of intergenerational equity, or the consideration that future generations also deserve to have natural resources available for their use. Along with intergenerational equity, equity between the wealthy and poor nations. Sustainable development came to include principles of making the disparity between North and South’s abilities to utilize natural resources less severe. Overall, sustainable development implied a need for limits on worldwide consumption of the earth’s resources.

The move towards sustainable development as a popular concept arose gradually with a paradigm shift from the dominant model based completely solely economic and industrialization-minded set of values. Studies analyzing and projecting trends in population, economic growth and natural resources suggested that the earth’s resources would no longer be able to support anthropologic goals, however, brought criticism to the original model which excluded humans from the laws of nature and relied solely on free market principles. Sustainable development was able to combine economically rational views with environmentally reasonable beliefs. It is precisely for this reason that sustainable development was able to gain a popular support and following, as a compromise between two objectives which originally seemed antithetical in nature and were formerly unable to reach many agreements with regards to creation of environmental regulations acceptable to both parties.

Whaling issues

Let’s examine the concept of sustainable development in terms of the international whaling regime. If we want to consider sustainable development, we should think about what the present and future concerns of both the economic and environmental side of the whaling issue. The economic concerns of the present and the future would be whether or not the whaling industry is able to continue hunting whales as their trade. Hunting whales presently, as well as not overhunting any whale species to the point of extinction, which would be an irreversible act and not beneficial economically, since those extinct whales would never again be available for future use.

Environmentalists also did not wish to see any species of whales extinct. Later on it became popular to protest for the complete abolition of whale hunting for moral reasons, but at the beginning of sustainable development, the main argument was for conservation of whales as a natural resource to be used by humans. The original concept of the International Whaling Commission was based on the idea of sustainable development. Whaling nations realized that exploitation of whales to the point of extinction would not be beneficial to the future of the whaling industry. However, the whaling nations intended to resume hunting as soon as populations rebounded enough, to the point at which hunting would again be “sustainable.” The IWC has since, however, with the addition of new (and non-whaling) states, become more focused on preservation of whales and thus not for sustainable development but a moratorium on whaling. The idea of sustainable development is also closely related to the Makah whale hunts, as one important reason the tribal hunts are viewed in a different light from that of commercial whaling interests is because the low volume of whales which would be killed as a result of the cultural hunts could be considered sustainable since it is such a small number. Commercial hunting, however, which could become much more difficult to regulate, particularly among several nations, is less likely to be sustainable, for reasons related to the problem of the commons with an increased number of state actors involved.

In terms of biodiversity...

Sustainable development arguments were also used with regards to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The attempt to defend biodiversity has the goal of maintaining the multitude of species of various living things, plants and animals alike. Obviously, the worst thing that could happen is extinction, because of its irreversible nature. In this sense, it is similar to the whaling debates. The importance of biodiversity for future concerns is related to the inherent value in biodiversity as well as the yet unknown but potential things in plant life which could be used for medicinal purposes, etc. Environmentalists, recognizing the interwoven nature of our earth’s ecosystem, aim to maintain biodiversity out of respect for the ecology and a desire to see the ecological system preserved. Speaking in terms of present environmental concerns of biodiversity issues, humans contribute to the loss of biodiversity through conversion of natural habitats, pollution, exploitation of resources and climate change. Economic concerns are mostly related to harvesting of these natural resources, often through large-scale industrialized agriculture or through the cutting of timber. The objectives of the treaty seem to have been closely-aligned with the principles of sustainable development. Countries hoped for conservation of biological diversity, the promotion of its sustainable use, and the equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resources.

Some concluding comments

Sustainable development seems to be a much better in comparison with the alternative, the former school of thought, the purely economic-based and much more short-term ideology. Some environmentalists may not be satisfied because it does not address whether or not certain uses of natural resources (e.g. whale hunting) are moral or not, but how to use them, and how to limit their use so as to not overexploit the resource. Sustainable development seems, however, to be the principle that is easiest to subscribe to because it allows for immediate economic development and fulfillment of short-term needs as well as consideration of a long-term plan to maintain ecological self-sufficiency into the future.

Nevertheless, it is important that science be examined carefully and used with discretion, in order that nations may make provident policy decisions. Additionally, enforcement of international environmental regimes will be necessary to keep principles of sustainable development effective.

Sources: Lectures, Professor Kal Raustiala. Univ. of California, Los Angeles. Environmental Science M161/Political Science M122B
Haites, E. and M. Aslam. The Kyoto Mechanisms & Global Climate Change: Coordination Issues and Domestic Policies. Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 2000.
Mari Skare. "Whaling: A Sustainable Use of Natural Resources or a Violation of Animal Rights?" Environment. p.23-20, 30-31. 1994.
Sustainable development is an oxymoron. It is the idea that the economy can continue to grow without harming the environment. What is economic development? My simplistic answer is that it is what happens when the economy grows. The central question to me is: can the economy grow without increasing consumption? If the answer is yes then I'll shutup, but I believe the answer is "no" and this means that development is necessarily unsustainable.

Sustainability
The next most important question is: what is sustainable? Or more specifically: what is a sustainable economy? It is a manner of making a living in which consumption of resources is equal to or below that which the land has the ability to produce. The end result is a situation in which the ability of the land to produce either remains the same over time or actually increases. This means that there exists a natural limit to consumption. Push the system to far and it collapses, as our history has shown time and time again.

This also implies that unless a particular landbase has a population lower than it's ability to sustain, there can be no exportation of resources. Sustainability is all about the local landbase. Can a given region provide for itself without requiring the importation of resources? If not, chances are someone or something is being exploited. An economy characterized by the importation of resources is called imperialist or sometimes colonial. Feeding a population which has outgrown the ability of it's landbase to feed requires this population to either decline or pursue a program of conquest. Hence, an empire and civilization itself has its beginnings in the degradation of the land and is unsustainable. Desert dogs the heels of civilization. As evidence I submit the history of civilizations which is incredibly unstable in which huge empires are created and then subsequently collapse.

The lesson is that there exists natural limits to population. While a given population can out pace the capacity of it's landbase to sustain for a time, it does so at its peril. As the long term ability of the land to support a population declines rapidly. The key process here is erosion. Intensive agriculture destroys the soil through plowing, monocultures which decrease biodiversity of the soil, and population pressures which push farming into marginal land such as hill slopes which erode rapidly.

In conclusion, in any conversation about sustainability what is key is: a self-sufficient local economy in which the land is enriched with each passing year and which is able to keep its population within the ability of it's landbase to sustain. What I believe is important is the discussion on how to get there from here. What is clear is that we need to see a dramatic reduction in consumption and consequently a dramatic decline in economic activity coupled with a decline in the human population of a given landbase. The easiest and most realistic prospect is also probably very shocking: intentional economic collapse. Please discuss.


Sustainable development refers to the practice of adjusting our use of resources in such a way that the resources will still be available to future generations. For some resources this means reducing the amount we use, as with water and woodlands. In many cases we are 'using' resources in ways that are not obvious; we are using the air to dump waste in, reducing its purity, but not its quantity. Thus we must also look at keeping our resources healthy, to keep the Earth in a condition that is pleasant for future generations to live on.

Sustainable development is very dependent on the environment. Our most important resources, water, food, and energy, are all linked to the environment, and can all be affected in dramatic ways by changes in the environment. Cutting down a rainforest destroys the watershed, making a river seasonal rather than continuously flowing. Grazing too many animals on a piece of land kills the scrub grasses, allowing the top soil to blow away in the wind, and changing useful grazing land into a desert. Burning too much fuel spikes the carbon levels in the atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm, ice caps to melt, and sea levels to rise. All of these reduce the resources that are available to us.

The Economics of Sustainable Development.

The writeups above bring up a common misconception about sustainable development: 'because we clearly need to consume less to become sustainable, sustainable development measures must harm the economy.' This is supported by the 'off-the-grid' mentality we hear from many environmentalists, and seems to be common sense. But it stands in stark contrast to most realistic sustainable development plans, which require that people buy into new technologies, rather than simply discard the old ones. If there aren't strong markets selling new, environmentally friendly goods, there is no way to feed, house, and care for the 7 billion humans we expect to have by 2010.

We do not need to consume less. We need to consume different. As a planet, we are critically short on fresh water, soil nutrients, wood, hydrogen, elephants, and fossil fuels. In the coming decades we will find ourselves short on many other things, quite possibly including food. This is really bad for us humans, but even taking all these shortages as fact, we cannot make any real predictions on the state of the economy in the coming years or decades. The economy really doesn't care what we can or cannot buy, all that matters to it is that we buy something.

There are different ways to illustrate this idea in practice. It may help to think of a new market, potentially worth trillions of dollars, the carbon credits market. This is a new market that sells... a planted tree? If there is a high demand for saving the Earth, industries based on organic farming, ecotourism, and yes, planting trees can both stimulate the economy and provide sustainable development.

Of course, basing your hopes of the future on the altruism of mankind is really a very bad idea. You might instead focus on the people spending money on iGoods. Offices are going paperless, fewer paper books, magazines, and newspapers are being published each year, mp3s are killing off the CD industry, and people who once went out cruising the strip are now staying home and playing MMORPGs. Technology is constantly making our old way of life obsolete, replacing material goods with a series of 1s and 0s, and this is often a good thing. When humans are finally uploaded, the Earth will be free.

You might even envision the upcoming crunch as a wartime economy, where employment is at an all time high, everyone is motivated to make sacrifices for the good of our cause, and profits are high. This could happen, and is an example of how sustainable development and a healthy economy could go hand in hand in the short term, but it is isn't actually very likely.

In reality, we are relying on all three of these, in combination and in addition to other factors, to help pull us through the coming decades. We hope that we can telecommute to an Earth-friendly job, eat organic soy beans, and bask in the glory of our own personal rainforest (out back, behind the biosphere, see?) Whether or not this will be achieved before the end arrives is still an open question. But it very well could happen.

Sustainable Development and Other People

Tens of thousands of people are already starving every day in Third World countries. It is clearly not that big a deal to the average American or Australian if countries like Rwanda, Sudan, and Burma are having trouble keeping themselves fed. (Sadly, I am not being sarcastic, merely stating a observed fact). One resource that is generally a focus of sustainable development plans is the elusive resource of 'human rights'. It is generally assumed that as long as we are sorting out the world we should go ahead and get all world governments to treat their citizens in a humane and ethical manner. While the First World doesn't technically need Somalia to be healthy and happy in order to obtain its own sustainable development, it's always a goal that Somalia and the like should be provided for.

This puts sustainable development programs in an awkward position; do you focus on the thousands of people who are dying daily from easily preventable causes, or do you focus on that ass with the air-conditioned Hummer? Both are critical, but maybe the starving baby should get precedence... Unfortunately, there will always be starving babies, and trying to save them all will only distract you from the real task.

As peak oil comes and we are forced to find other energy sources, one of the first sources that many countries will look to (and are already planning on) are ethanol and biodiesel. Unfortunately, these are made from grain alcohol and vegetable oils, meaning that our farmland will have to be used to produce both food and fuel. This will in effect tie food prices to fuel prices, and since there is not enough viable cropland to provide for our current levels of consumption in both of these areas, prices for both will be very high.

If the price of food on the world market goes higher than it is now, even more people will starve. Hunger leads to rioting and failed states; it also leads to refugees, worsening the problem in the wealthier countries. Matters are even worse if things come to outright war. And Pakistan, a country at high risk for becoming a failed state, already has nuclear weapons.

We currently have the technology available that would prevent the 'peak food' catastrophe from happening in First World countries. These countries will surely adopt these technologies, although they may be slow in doing so. But the world economy is very much threatened by countries like China and India, who are major players in the world market and are also facing major problems in the near future, as their food production falls below the level needed to feed their growing populations (even without using food crops for fuel). If major grain exporters (like America) were to stop exporting, the consequences would be dire.

This is an acute emergency, not a chronic one. We will have to make some major changes or face the consequences, but these changes will start moving us in the direction of a long-term sustainable economy/ecology. We are now passing peak oil, but we could reverse that by simply using less oil. It would not be a long term (i.e. sustainable) solution to our fuel problems, but we aren't in a position to scoff at short-term solutions at the moment. Making very fuel efficient cars will slow the coming crises, even if they are burning fossil fuels. Buying more energy efficient appliances will help stabilize carbon emissions, even while we still rely on carbon producing energy sources. Taking shorter showers will slow the draining of aquifers, even if you are living off of a fossil aquifer. Changes like these can give us time to adapt at a more comfortable speed, and put off disaster until we find better ways of preventing it.

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