Skip to main content.

Sustainable Development ~ Maintaining Profits or Sustaining People & Planet

Author: Dr Eureta Rosenberg

( Article Type: Sustainable Development )

A tricky concept

Sustainable development is widely advocated as the way to deal with the issues that fill the pages of this publication. The concept is, however, hard to apply in practice, and easy to manipulate.

These days many promote ‘sustainability’, including some who are only interested in sustaining that which benefits them directly. But to make the world a better place for all, current practices must change. The term ‘sustainable development’ implies that some forms of development cannot be sustained (continued indefinitely).

Here we look at why we need a different kind of development, what sustainable development is about, and how the concept can be applied.

The greatest taboo

There is a powerful taboo against questioning development. If you do, you may be labelled a rich greenie or ‘to the far left’ with ‘pie in the sky’ views, or some other derogatory term suggesting that you are either foolish or selfish with no concern for the poor.

Why this taboo? Our world is in the grip of a powerful development myth. In its simplest form, this is a belief that simply increasing economic growth will create more jobs and wealth for more people, and everyone and the planet will be better off.

The dominant model of development is usually associated with these assumptions:

  • Poverty is best addressed by growing economies through accumulating wealth in the form of profits, which will eventually ‘trickle down’ to benefit the poor.
  • Growing economies through competitive capitalism is the only way to develop, as proven by the failure of socialism.
  • Wealth is best accumulated through industries and mechanisation; so industrialised countries are called ‘developed’ and those that are not (yet) industrialised and energy intensive, are called ‘developing’ (‘Third’ World).
  • Economic growth should be measured in terms of how much we produce and consume, and what we destroy in the process need not be included in the calculations, (see Topic ECONOMICS).

Should we hold on to these beliefs? A look at the ‘Reality Check’ box below suggests not.

Questioning development

Despite significant economic growth around the world, poverty, disease, unemployment and crime persist. This is reported in many national and international forums. Those who are already well-off do gain from capitalist economic growth, but very little ‘trickles down’ to benefit people in need.

At the same time, many of those activities which we call ‘development’ gobble up land, water and the diversity of life, and spew out pollution, sick people and degraded places. These unintended outcomes worsen poverty and create new health risks. Even those who benefit financially from economic growth find their quality of life spoiled by its ‘shadow side’ – crime, pollution and stress.

Development-as-growth has been sustained for as long as it has, by excluding the majority of the world population from its benefits, even as it used these (first slaves, then ‘cheap labour’ and ready markets, as well as the natural resources of the Third World) to create wealth.

Our current model for development is clearly not delivering the goods. And yet we cling to it… probably because it does (in some ways) benefit the ‘consumer classes’ in both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ parts of the world. There has also not yet been a historically proven, effective alternative. So the ‘economic growth’ myth has remained as the favoured model for everyone to follow.

One of the most dangerous aspects of our current model is that it is so resource-intensive that it cannot be multiplied on a big enough scale to benefit all people. We are already consuming more resources than the Earth can renew, and are actually overshooting its capacity by an estimated 30%. The bulk of this overconsumption is enjoyed by only 20% of the world’s population, who consume up to 80% of its resources. Scientists say that if we were to extend this consumption and the pollution that goes with it to the rest of the world (to those billions who are currently excluded from development benefits) we would need to have six Earths to provide all the resources and absorb all the pollution.

The track record of development as measured by economic growth Globally, there has been great economic growth. According to the UNDP consumption of goods and services in 1997 was twice that in 1975, and six times more than in 1950. Economic activity is now at an estimated $30 trillion annually. To what extent has this reduced poverty, inequality, crime or unemployment, and improved quality of life?

Poverty: An estimated 1 billion people still do not have the means to meet their basic needs. This includes 12 million children living in poverty in the USA , and 47 million in OECD countries. In India grain production increased by 149 million tons from 1951–99, but in 1995, while granaries overflowed, 350 million people could not afford the available food. In 75 of 100 ‘developing’ countries, the average person’s income today is lower than it was 10 or even 30 years ago. In South Africa, 33% of households are now povertystricken, compared to 28% in 1995. Equality: Worldwide, the income gap between rich and poor is increasing. The assets of the world’s three richest men are greater than the combined national product of the 48 poorest countries. In Nigeria 80% of revenues generated from oil stay in the country, but only a small elite benefits from them. In South Africa the richest 10% of households still account for almost half of total consumer spending; the poorest 10% of households account for just over 1%.

Crime: Higher crime rates, including violent crimes, are associated with wider income gaps, in the West and elsewhere. The USA’s prison population has increased 800% over the past 30 years. All South Africans’ quality of life is affected by the effects of rampant crime.

Jobs: Economic growth is not solving unemployment; the global trend is towards ‘jobless growth’. Market economies do not have a natural tendency to create jobs, and with government control of economic affairs waning, and technological innovations favouring smaller numbers of skilled workers, job creation suffers. Trans-national companies control over 33% of the world’s productive assets, but tend to focus on capital-intensive industries, so they employ only about 5% of the global workforce. In South Africa the number of unemployed rose from 2.3 million to 4.2 million between 1995–2002, a period characterised – with the exception of 1995 – with better-than-expected growth.

Health: Despite medical advances, we cannot stop the spread of HIV/Aids, tuberculosis or malaria. There is a rise in diseases – ranging from allergies and diabetes to cancer – related to pollution, ‘rich’ diets and increasingly chemical environments. At the same time, more than half of all deaths among children can be attributed directly to under-nutrition.

Quality of life: Billions of people have no shelter, no adequate sanitation, no safe water supply. The lack of basic, relatively inexpensive facilities is still widespread in South Africa, despite it being one of the most developed countries on the continent. Some countries dump food in the sea to keep markets stable, while elsewhere in the world children die of hunger. And those with adequate resources do not necessarily enjoy a good quality of life. Spending on tranquillisers in the North matches total published expenditure on health in the 67 poorest countries.

We have only one Earth!

Having only one Earth does not mean that inequality and poverty should persist. Clearly, we need new ways to develop, that would stay within the limits of our planet’s capacity, at the same time bringing benefits in a more fair and equitable manner to all.

Among those who dared to question development-as-growth were environmentalists who called for it to slow down and scale down, within the limits of the Earth’s capacity to renew the resources that sustain both life and development. (An example is the 1972 Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth.) Others said that if we are to protect and improve life on Earth, we actually need more development.

Enter Sustainable Development

So the idea of ‘sustainable development’ was introduced, first in the World Conservation Strategy of 1980, and then in the Brundtland Report, produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.

The authors of these documents were among those who called for more development, to pay for environmental protection and reduce poverty. And here a great muddle started, because linking the two concepts – sustainability and development – opened the door for some to interpret the call for action as a call for more of the same development. They argued that where there is poverty and suffering, there is simply not enough economic growth. The track record of development-as-growth was ignored – along with its unsustainable environmental costs. So the focus of the idea of sustainability shifted – from sustaining living resources, to sustaining development.

There are other ways of thinking about development – as a kind of development that would sustain (nourish) people, including the poor, and at the same time not overshooting the Earth’s capacity to renew ecological resources. In Caring for the Earth, A Guide to Sustainable Living, a coalition of environmental agencies described sustainable development as ‘improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems‘. The Brundtland Report talked about ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs‘. These ideas really require us to think in a different way about the needs of the present, especially the plight of the most needy, but also beyond them, about the future. In this view, what we need to focus on how to sustain people and the planet – not following the old misleading path of ‘economic growth’ as we know it.

Having gained popularity at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) the term sustainable development is now widely used – and misused.

Applying the concept

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEA&T) built the idea of sustainable development into the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA). DEA&T identified three components to sustainable development: environmental, social and economic sustainability. This means a form of development that sustains the natural environment; looks after people; and ensures that economic welfare can be maintained. It would be to the benefit of People, Planet and Prosperity – which was our slogan for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002.

All three of these ‘principles’ must be part of every development decision. The politician who agrees to turn a nature reserve into a golf course because of the economic benefits, is ignoring the ecological sustainability of his decision. If privatisation of water resources helps us use the natural resource more sustainably, but users cannot afford to pay, it is not socially sustainable. An industry that hides its health impacts on workers, even as it educates children about nature, is simply trying to sustain itself and ‘business as usual’

how do we move towards a kind of development that will sustain people and planet and help all of us to prosper? There are no easy answers, but there are several worthwhile directions to consider.

Ecological sustainability

A first principle for sustainable development is that any development activity should help to sustain (and not harm) our natural resources. Both scientists and ordinary people have noticed that the Earth’s life-support systems are taking strain – once fertile areas can no longer sustain people; global fishing stocks have been depleted; the atmosphere, water courses and our food supplies have been polluted. It is difficult to determine how much of this kind of development the Earth can take. It is also hard, for each activity, to predict its impact on ecosystems. For this reason, we need to apply the ‘precautionary principle’, which states: Don’t proceed with a development until we are reasonably sure that it won’t have negative impacts; if we cannot be sure, then don’t proceed! There is also much that we can do to restore our environments, which in turn opens up many new development opportunities. Examples include organic farming, de-contaminating the soil and re-growing forests. On a macro-scale, if we are to sustain the planet, we must reduce population growth and change our patterns of consumption (see Topics POPULATION and CONSUMERISM).

Social sustainability

This second principle implies that a majority of people must benefit from development – not just a lucky few. It calls for fairness in the access to and benefits from the Earth’s resources.

As we saw in ‘Reality Check’, our world is far from fair. The majority of the global population do not have access to resources; these same people suffer disproportionately from pollution, resource depletion and land degradation. How do we work towards greater equity, environmental justice and social sustainability?

South Africa has taken a huge step forward by abolishing unfair apartheid laws and instating a democracy that recognises equal rights. However, inequalities remain in the way people participate in the economy and benefit from it. On a global scale there are calls for fairness in international trade regulations, which currently benefit the wealthiest nations and discriminate against less powerful ones.

But there are also economic injustices within each country. We therefore need to review our economic policies and practices in terms of their ‘people impact’. To what extent do they reduce the appalling income gap in South Africa? What best supports the livelihoods of the majority? A few capital-intensive projects or many smaller, job-intensive ones? A weaker rand or a stronger rand?

Of course, people’s wellbeing is not only dependent on jobs or income – social sustainability also involves education, health and a healthy environment, security, opportunities for relaxation and spiritual renewal, and people’s right to participate in decisions that affect them. This includes the right to information about the environmental health impacts of development activities, and the right to legal action if such activities prove to be harmful.

Economic sustainability

This principle should be about economic activities that sustain people and planet – not about maintaining an economy, especially one based on development-as-growth, which – as noted – harms the planet and fails to benefit the majority of South Africans.

Sustainable Development calls above all for reforms in the manner that we conduct our economic activities. Numerous measures have been proposed including:

  • Removing unfair trade barriers – Economists estimate that this would allow poorer countries to generate a total income three times the sum of official development aid;
  • Removing Government subsidies that harm the environment and the poor;
  • Upholding the polluter pays principle – those who do harm, must pay for redress;
  • Instituting clear paths of responsibility and liability – for example, a CEO should be liable for the accuracy of a company’s environmental reporting;
  • Shifting the tax base from labour to resource use – in other words, rather than taxing us on what we earn through the work we do, tax us on our impacts and what we consume;
  • Price products not only on what value has been added to them, but also in terms of what value they have deducted from the common natural resource base;
  • ncrease resource productivity – create wealth with ever fewer resources.

On a micro-scale, the question is not what constitutes a ‘sustainable business’ – how to sustain ‘business as usual’ is taught in any business school and does not require a new concept. The question is, what kind of business will sustain people and planet? Hard, truthful answers will require many companies to change either the nature of their business, or the way in which they go about it. Examples include more responsible waste management, cleaner production, recycling and energy efficiency (see Topic CONSUMERISM).

The Jo’burg Summit (WSSD) and beyond

In their policies, decision-making and on platforms such as WSSD it appears that the South African government’s interpretation of sustainable development focuses on generating greater economic growth. In this they are supported by business and industry. ‘Poverty alleviation’ is frequently put forward as the basis for decisions, ranging from how we manage protected areas to what we do about waste.

It is certainly critical to recognise the scale of human hardship in our country, and finding sustainable ways to help the needy to build a better life, should indeed be a priority. But such efforts may be futile, if the government and other powerful players:

  • Choose to ignore the need to sustain our ecological resources, as if this were separate from and secondary to the process of sustainable development.
  • Fail to consider the disappointing track record of the development-as-growth model, from the point of view of the poor.

We noted at the start that sustainable development is a tricky concept, hard to define and easy to manipulate by vested interests. If we do try to pin it down, we find it very challenging to put into practice, for it involves a new ethic, radical changes and long-term thinking. Most of us, including our politicians and partners in business and industry, focus primarily on short-term interests. It is hard to think of future generations if their interests conflict with one’s current power base and ecosystems don’t vote. Sustainable development will also require political sustainability – more sustaining forms of public and corporate governance that will prioritise the welfare of the least powerful amongst us, and of the only planet we can offer our children.

Associated Organisations:

Children's Eco Training , Eagle Bulletin , 2BGREEN