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1.3 Sustainable development

In the world we live in today, it is not possible to discuss development without involving the concept of sustainability and sustainable development. Sustainability, like development, is a difficult concept to define.

The ecological science behind environmental sustainability and the forces that maintain or upset an ecological balance are not the subject of this module. This module is, however, concerned with the social and economic implications of 'environmental sustainability'; with the implications of failing to achieve environmental sustainability; and the relative costs and benefits of different strategies for pursuing environmental sustainability.

Environmental, social, and economic sustainability

Sustainability cannot be examined in isolation from social and economic constraints. In addition to environmental sustainability we also need to consider economic sustainability and social sustainability. But what precisely do all these terms mean? There are no short and simple answers to these questions.

Read the points listed below with a critical eye. Do you agree with them? Do you see any difficulties with them? Are there any particular aspects of the sustainability debate that you think they might fail to capture?

An activity is environmentally unsustainable if the environmental resources which are required to support the activity are either insufficient, or are damaged by the activity to such an extent that they are no longer able to support the activity.

An activity is economically unsustainable if the cost of the economic resources required to pursue the activity are greater than the associated benefits.

An activity is socially unsustainable if the social structures and/or behaviour that are required to support it, either do not exist, or break down as a result of the activity.

Conceptually, these statements may seem straightforward enough. However, determining whether or not an activity is environmentally, economically or socially sustainable may not be easy at all, since it can be quite difficult to predict what future impact an activity will have on environmental, economic and social variables.

In relation to economic sustainability there is also the question of how costs and benefits are valued. Something that is economically sustainable under one set of prices may not be so under a different set of prices. The key point, though, is that if costs exceed benefits, the incentives to undertake the activity in question will be lacking, and whilst subsidies might help overcome this problem, the subsidies themselves may not be sustainable if there is insufficient will on the part of those who provide them.

The concept of sustainability also raises the question of for how long something can be sustained, as well as for how long it needs to be sustained. Are 'sustainable' activities only those which can be sustained indefinitely? Should the notion of 'sustainability' deter all activities that can't be sustained indefinitely, even if some of these can be sustained for long enough to warrant undertaking them in the first place? For example, the exploitation of non-renewable resources, such as oil and other fossil fuels, cannot by definition be sustained forever. Yet few would contend that in the pursuit of sustainable development we should immediately abandon all use of these resources.

The issue of sustainability becomes particularly complex when we start looking at the sustainability of whole economies or even the global economy. In this case it is not sufficient to examine the sustainability of individual activities in the manner suggested by the points listed previously. Whilst an individual activity may itself be sustainable, it may have the effect of reducing the sustainability of other activities. For example, the use of a river as a sink for a factory's effluent could possibly be sustained indefinitely. However, this activity may seriously undermine the sustainability of other activities associated with the river, such as fishing, domestic water supply, or recreational activities. Moreover, if the other users of the river take effective action against the factory, its polluting behaviour may not be economically or socially sustainable.

The concept of a sustainable economy or society raises difficult questions about what sort of things society wishes to sustain, how they should be sustained, and what are the costs and trade-offs involved in doing so. Does sustainable development require us to conserve the ecological balance within all ecosystems at all costs, or can some ecosystems be sacrificed as long as a critical balance is maintained within the wider ecosystem?

The Brundtland Report

One of the most significant and influential contributions to the sustainability debate was provided by what has come to be known as the Brundtland Report.

1.3.1 The Brundtland Report

In 1983 the United Nations established a commission (The World Commission on Environment and Development) to investigate the relationship between the environment and the goals and processes of development. The commission was headed by Gro Harlem Brundtland and in 1987 published its findings under the title of Our Common Future*, which also came to be known as the Brundtland Report.

The report recognises that environmental and development concerns are closely interlinked

  • that policies aimed at fostering economic growth and development are not sustainable in the absence of efforts to protect and conserve the environment and
  • that efforts to conserve the environment, especially in poorer countries, are unlikely to be sustainable without proper attention being given to the needs of the poor and their relationship with the environment

How effective the Brundtland Report has been in bringing about real change is the subject of debate, as are its findings and recommendations. Nevertheless, the report was influential in drawing attention to the complex relationship between environment and development, and in highlighting the need for co-operation between environmentalists, on the one hand, and developmentalists, on the other. It also helped place the issue of sustainable development firmly on the international agenda, and few international statements on the environment or development are now made without reference to 'sustainability' and the issues raised by the Brundtland Report.

* WCED (1987) Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press.

Source: unit author

In the Brundtland Report sustainable development is defined as development which

'... meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs ...'

WCED (1987) p. 8.

This much quoted statement illustrates an important principle of sustainable development, which is that of inter-generational equity. Intra-generational equity has long been recognised as a goal of development. What the Brundtland Report makes explicit is that future generations have as much right to fair treatment as current generations.

Growth and sustainability

Much of the literature and debate about sustainable development is concerned with the relationship that exists between economic growth, on the one hand, and sustainability, on the other. Analysts are greatly divided on this issue, especially with regards to long-term growth trends.

Most of the arguments revolve around the forms of development that are compatible with 'sustainability' and those which are not. There is a widespread view that at the global level past and present patterns of economic growth are environmentally and socially unsustainable. This view is especially strong amongst environmentalists and political activists, but also exists within development agencies and academia (see for example, Jackson 2009). Its essence is that continued growth will result in escalating ecological breakdown - above all because of the potentially catastrophic impacts of anthropogenic climate change (see Daly 1996 p. 253 and Meadows et al 2004 p. 362).

There is still uncertainty about how much global warming is likely to occur in response to different rates of greenhouse gas emission, as well as about the physical, economic, and social impacts of different climate change scenarios. Nevertheless, there is a consensus that if CO2 emissions continue to grow as they have done in the past the resulting climate change will cause massive social upheaval and bring to an end the increasing levels of consumption that have been a feature of global economic development over the past century or more. Such effects will be felt locally, nationally and globally although the worst of these effects are expected to be felt by the poor, especially those living in developing countries.

Many of the concerns about the sustainability of growth also relate to income distribution and poverty, both of which could be made worse if the more pessimistic predictions about climate change prove to be true. Those who link current patterns of growth with increasing inequality and deepening poverty see increasing social unrest and instability as a further threat to sustainable growth.

The triple-f crisis

Sustainability is typically associated with a degree of stability, whether in relation to the economy, environment, or social relations. The late 2000s and early 2010s has been marked by considerable instability. In economic terms that instability has manifested itself in sharp movements in the prices of food, fuel and financial assets. Together these shocks have come to be known as the triple-f crisis. Some see sharp rises in food and fuel prices as marking the start of new era of growing scarcity, both of food and fossil fuels. The scarcity is linked to both supply and demand factors with rapid economic growth in emerging economies, especially China and India, helping drive up the demand for both food and energy in the face of supply constraints.

As emerging economies industrialise their demand for energy increases. So, too, does their demand for grain as meat and dairy products (which require large amounts of grain to produce) begin to feature more prominently in people's diets due to rising incomes. The increased demand for grain also drives up demand for energy as agricultural production becomes ever more dependent upon fossil fuels, especially in the production of fertilisers. This dependence may explain why food and energy prices are more closely aligned than was the case in the past (Arshad and Hameed, 2009) (see 1.3.2).

1.3.2 International commodity price indices (1960-2011)

(based upon World Bank indices deflated by US CPI (BLS) 2005 = 1)

Source: compiled by unit author using data from World Bank (2012)

On the supply side, many interpret rising prices as an embodiment of concerns about the potential effects of global warming on global food production, and about diminishing rates of growth in food production as existing agricultural technologies begin to reach their full potential, as water scarcity increases, and as existing agricultural land is damaged by salinisation and over-intensification or is lost to urban development.

It is not just rising prices that are a problem. Sudden and sharp falls in prices can also cause difficulties when it comes to planning economic activity. Many critics of capitalism in its current form point to growing price volatility as evidence of its unsustainable nature and call for reforms that will reduce such instability.

Moving to a low-carbon economy

Whilst there is now much agreement on the goal of reducing CO2 emissions, there is far less agreement on the processes needed to achieve this goal. Few would dispute the need for greater energy conservation or the imperative of shifting the global economy out of fossil fuels and into renewable energy. However, controversy quickly emerges over the speed at which the transformation needs to take place and on the question of which sources of renewable energy are most sustainable. Nuclear energy is particularly controversial, although many pin their hopes on a future in which the world's energy supplies are met by nuclear fusion which does not suffer from the same limitations as fission technologies with regards to safety and the availability nuclear fuel.

Probably the biggest disputes, however, are over the sort of economic institutions and structures that are needed for the move to a low carbon economy. Is continued growth needed in order to bring about the necessary technological transformations, and if so how should that growth be driven? A central question concerns the extent to which change should be driven by governments. Opinions divide between

In addition to the above two, on the whole reformist, perspectives there are other more radical ones that question the future of global capitalism itself. Many (although not all) in this camp look instead towards a future involving much greater localism, greater national and local self-sufficiency, and ultimately a less consumerist culture than the one that has driven global economic growth in recent decades. How one might arrive at such a radical alternative to the present capitalist system is, however, unclear.

Global consumption patterns

Consumption lies at the heart of the sustainable development problem. At a global level consumption of natural resources is growing at an unsustainable rate. It is also highly skewed, with rich countries consuming a disproportionate amount of the earth's resources. In the pursuit of sustainable development there is clearly a case to be made for curbing the consumption of the rich whilst increasing the consumption of the poor. In the world's rich and/or rapidly growing countries excessive consumption poses the most serious threat to sustainable development; whilst in poor countries it is the lack of consumption that is the main problem.

In the latter, poor people are often unable to consume even the most basic of necessities. This represents a failure of development, but can have damaging environmental consequences too, as poverty often forces people to degrade their environment just to survive.

Measuring prosperity

As we noted earlier, GDP is the most commonly used measure of prosperity. However, if prosperity is also a function of environmental quality, then GDP suffers from some obvious weaknesses. A large proportion of the income measured by GDP is earned by exploiting and mining natural resources and the environment or involves damage to the environment. GDP does not account for the depreciation of the natural capital that is used to generate it, or for the damage caused by pollution, including the effects of greenhouse gases on global climate change. For some countries, steps have been taken to develop a parallel set of national accounts that do incorporate changes in environmental capital. However, the approach is still in its infancy and GDP remains the most widespread and influential indicator of an economy's performance.

There is also increasing interest in the measurement of happiness, following some evidence that reported happiness (what people say about their own happiness) does not actually rise once a certain level of income has been reached. The idea that societies should be seeking out increases in Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP (see Layard 2011) has gained increasing traction, at least conceptually, although the problem of how to measure happiness in an objective and policy-useful way remains unsolved.

The great recession

The unsustainable nature of past patterns of economic growth was the focal concern of the Brundtland Report in 1987, and is a concern that has certainly not diminished since that time. Politicians and the international community talk more loudly than ever about poverty and the need to address environmental and social issues. However, the political and economic difficulties of implementing the necessary policy reforms are substantial and it remains to be seen whether these can be overcome.

The global economic shocks of 2008 and the 'great recession' that followed it, with its epicentre at the heart of the world's richest economies, have thrown into question the sustainability of deeply entrenched development models based upon free markets, but have also added greatly to the political and economic challenges of bringing about change. The great recession has had profound effects not only on the livelihoods of millions of people, but also on the debate about economic development and how it should be pursued.

The debate is very divided. Many see the crisis as evidence of the failure of markets and the laissez-faire capitalism that held sway before the crisis, and as an opportunity to try out new alternative models. Yet there are others, especially in the United States, who blame the crisis on excessive government interference in markets. Whichever view one takes, the high level of public sector indebtedness and the need to cut budget deficits is putting pressure on governments in many rich countries to reduce their role in the economy. Whether the private sector does actually step in to take their place as an employer and supplier of services in areas that were previously the state's responsibility remains to be seen. The future of development thinking is likely to be influenced to some degree by the social and economic outcome of these upheavals.


Another impact of the great recession has been to hasten the convergence that has been taking place between the economic power of the world's richest countries and the emerging BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China). Whereas in the past the mainstream paradigm for development was always based upon western models, western dominance in setting the agenda is likely to diminish in the future as the BRICs become increasingly influential in international decision-making (Birdsall and Fukuyama 2011).