Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sustainability of Development

The semester passes quickly. In a couple of weeks, this subsection of my development studies course is all over, and next Friday I have to hand in the 'journal' which is made up by the last umpteen posts on this blog.

I've jumped about thematically, and have spent an inordinate amount of time on a couple of peripheral topics. I'll try and wrap it up in some kind of coherent way.

Within much of the standard development theory, a range of competing theories -- from both liberal/modernisationist and Marxist/dependency perspectives -- assume similar processes and results for development: urbanisation, industrialisation, economic growth and increased material consumption.

In the last couple of weeks we've been looking at critiques of those assumptions from the indigenous, rural, feminist, environmentalist, and postmodernist angles.

I'm just going to look briefly at one of those: the environmental perspective. This is often presented as the true full-frontal challenge to the 'development' paradigm. It worms its way into most debates, whether they be in the letters to the editor, blog comments section, and questions to visiting speakers (the Joe Stiglitz talk was no exception).

Let for a moment me take on the character of the environmentalist interlocutor.

All these arguments you're having, you the capitalists and you the socialists, they all assume that what we want is growth. As if there are unlimited resources and we can just keep on growing. We let me tell you, we live on a single planet with finite resources, and we just can't keep on growing forever...

Taken at face value, there's a lot there to nod sagely and agree with. We do indeed live on a physical world with finite resources. (We haven't figured out how to live anywhere else yet, and even if we could create some controlled environment on Mars, I know where I'd rather be). In just a couple of hundred years of industrial development, we've managed to make some significant alterations to fragile membrane of rocks and gases on which we live. About thirty years ago, we'd begun to punch a hole in the ozone layer. Now climate change is the dominant issue. Who knows what irreversible changes will eventually be seen in the world's oceans?

Preserving the environment and even rolling back some of the damage is an essential part of development. GDP per capita is an inadequate measure of human wellbeing, and no technological miracle in the near future will make it reasonable for replicas of Los Angeles to cover the planet.

Yet, I do have some problems with the attitudes that are lurking in this environmentalist objection. Firstly, there's a strong streak of pessimism about human potential and the ability to creatively overcome difficulties. Collective action to address the ozone problem was an example of what canbe achieved when needed. Climate change presents a far greater challenge, but we can only keep trying. Also, if the negative consequences of our actions are often unpredictable, so are the positive twists of fate: who in the 1950s and 1960s would have predicted the internet, or even the Green Revolution.

More importantly, I find the 'no more growth' to frequently be in bad faith. All too often, it is delivered by the 'we live a sustainable lifestyle with our olives and organic chickens in Martinborough, our solar heating panels and our Toyota Prius' set. If such people reluctantly acknowledge their inability to 'wean' themselves off all modern conveniences, they rarely accept that their position as privileged members of an interdependent capitalist society (computer programmer, consultant, boutique food producer) is the result of a centuries-long chain of specialisation, high energy use, and resource exploitation.

As I said in the 'why do I care' post, the freedoms they [I] have, and the ability to worry so much about future generations, are a direct result of the material prosperity which we have inherited from the resource-using technological development of the past. Making a choice to live a certain kind of life with the cushion of money in the bank and modern services at hand is entirely different from condemning people in developing countries to stick to their donkey-powered wells.

Of course the very same processes that built Sheffield and Los Angeles can't be repeated in exactly the same way all around the world. And the rest of the world has probably learnt enough not to want that (ok, China's current development pathway notwithstanding). But assertingthat 'sustainable development is impossible' is a unilateral declaration that progress has ended. This violates the Kantian or Rawlsian principle of integrity (if you didn't know your place within it, what kind of world would you wish for).

Witin the debates are about how the lives of the world's billions of poor can be improved, putting forward the 'no more growth' environmentalist objection is a little like saying 'I don't care'.

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