The Contrasting Meanings Of ”Sustainable Economic Development”
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The definition and meaning of sustainable economic development is an ambiguous one clearly evident by the lack of consensus among theorists and scholars in diverse and heated public forums. Several explanations have been offered in a bid to decipher what actually is encompassed by the concept but it appears there is little or no agreement on the meaning implied by the concept of Sustainable economic development. The problem is that the terminology is a fluid concept that differs remarkably from one people to another. As a result the term has over the past decades generated heated debates with weak sustainability theorists on one hand and strong sustainability proponents on the other hand. The challenge posed by the environment and socio-economic concerns while pursing economic goals has elicited mixed reaction among policy makers. This study takes a critical look at the suggestions offered in attempt to define and unravel the terminology with an in-depth analysis of the arguments provided through history to contemporary times.
This study will help policy makers to clearly understand how they should re-orientate their objectives towards attaining sustainable economic development. The term sustainable economic development is a difficult concept to decipher given the contrasting explanations given by academicians.
Background Analysis of Sustainable Economic Development
Fowke (1996, p. 60) has attempted to study about 80 different definitions of sustainable economic development. However the most renowned definition of sustainable development is one found in the Brundtland Report which was published by the United Nations during the 1980s a time when Gro Harlan Brudtland was the chair of environmental issues. WCED (1987, p. 80) defines sustainable development as ‘one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs’. This approach to sustainable development is highly disputed and has generated controversy among scholars and policy makers. It’s basis in lies in the environmental paradox which is less explicit rather than implicit. This crisis is the hollow that exists between human demand on the available resources present on the planet and t the ability of the planet to supply man’s wants (Cahill, 2001 p. 69; Goodin, 1992 p. 68).
Those who are concerned with bridging the gap between demand and supply propose that sustainable development should be initiated to either through cutting on human demands and/or increasing the capability of the planet to meet these requirements. This paradox explains the finite and infinite parts of life which sets the stage for discourses in sustainable development.
The question has been how to conjoin the demands with the supply which incidentally has elicited diverse and differing explanations to decipher the concept of sustainable development. The approach to this concept elicits two schools of thought with those who support the expansion of resources on one hand and those who advocate for less consumption on the other hand. The week sustainability adherents argue that more ways should be developed through for instance enhanced exploitation of renewable resources and technological solutions to reverse resource depletion. Whereas the strong sustainability supporters detest the protracted selfish consumption patterns and are calling for curtailed utilization of natural resources.
In other words, strong sustainability means that we adapt to earth ability or finitude. Moderate sustainability proponents combine tenets of strong and weak sustainability approaches whereby they seek to expand the available resources and at the same time conjoin with reduced demands on the ecosystem. In essence an environmental continuum is set with weak sustainability at one end, strong suitability on the other end and moderate sustainability proponents in the middle
A Weaker Sustainable Economic Development Approach
This school of thought rides on the comfort that they have a right to nature and the latter must provide the economic growth of the former. There any advance that results from interaction with resources is a progressive measure rather than depletion (O’Riordian, 1996, p. 76).
This view is anthropocentric in nature which gives no value to the intrinsic value of the environment. They are driven by the perceptions that humans exists separately from the environment and that resources exists exclusively for the purpose of humans who have a right to rule over nature. This approach has been supported by Judaeo-Christians teachings which call for the multiplication of mankind to fill and rule the earth.
This understanding underscores the fact that only mankind is sole source of importance but nature exists primarily to be dominated and exploited by man. Weak sustainability economic development theorists fail to urge for strong core values which address man’s attitude towards nature. There exists an implicit optimism among weak sustainability proponents with the confidence that solutions can be found for environmental problems which may arise in the course of exploitation.
For instance they argue that the technological progress will be able to enhance the capability of humans meeting their demands on earth. To them, technological development will offset any problems that are incidental to man’s utilization of nature. The pattern and direction of developments and demands heaped on nature need not change since mankind is aptitude enough to deal with its effects.
Further weak environmentalist argues that science has evolved through time and no doubt it will reinvent itself to bridge the gap between supply and demand for resources.
In spite of these, a closer look at weak theorists reveals that there are some who support the efforts that favor prevention than cure approaches to environmental concerns rather than a capitalistic tendency to exploit nature indiscriminately. In other words they accommodate environmental concerns through environmental agencies, efficient utilization of resources, environmental impact assessment appraisals and adjusting the economy to by factoring the environmental costs.
French (2004, p. 72) and Carvalho (2001, p. 19) refute the claims that the existence of environmental agencies have done little and will be less significant even in future. They however support the argument that economic development should continue though with a renewed approach in dealing with environmental issues. Weak sustainability theorists believe that it’s possible to enhance the pace of economic growth by utilizing fewer natural resources coupled with a more equitable distribution of benefits and costs. This ecological modernization idea was coined by Dovers (1997, p. 309) and Fitzpatrick and Cahill (2002, p. 78). Indeed Roberts (2004, 28) argues that sustainable economic development is possible though environmental practices that are in themselves drivers of growth.
The idea of cost and benefit distribution has always been referred to as environmental justice. Agyeman and Evans (2004, p. 40) are proponents of this school and managed to evaluate the impact of environmental justice wave in the US which triggered the heated debate on sustainability in the United Kingdom. The environmental justice theorists tend to incline on the perceived link between nature and the socio-economic gap. Huaghton and Counsell (2004, p. 15) have studied the manner which sustainable development concept has been harnessed to justify their approaches. The tenets under these approach are; anthropocentric world view; growth oriented attitude to development; less consideration on changes in human demands; and that nature exists to be subdued by mankind.
The Stronger Sustainable Economic Development
Stronger sustainability theorists emphasize a change in the consumption patterns among humans (demand changes). They are driven by the perception that the Earth is finite and it’s necessary that humans rethink radically to reverse the demand side and change attitude towards the environment which is exploited at the expanse of economic development (McBurney, 1990, p. 22; Ekins and Max, 1992, p. 73; Goldsmith and Shiva1995, p. 87, Harrison1998, p. 185; Trainer, 1996, p. 46; Henderson 1999, p. 10; Lay 2001, p. 115). These scholars argue that the weak theorists are just after encouraging sustainable development at the expanse of core issues like environmental protection, longevity of Earth’s life and the ecosystem.
In other words the stronger sustainability proponent establishes a relationship between nature and mankind with their core course being the protection of the environment rather than mere anthropocentrism. They advocate nature’s biotic rights which reinstate the right and privileges of nature (Skolimowski, 1981, p. 28; Sessions and Devall, 1985, p. 45; Devall1990, p. 68; and Naess, 1986, p. 15).
To them nature has the innate rights to exist unmolested and does not need a justification on human grounds, privileges which are concordant with the inalienable peoples’ rights. However these eco-eccentrics face a stiff challenge because biotic rights are not recognized in the Diaspora (O’ Riordan 1996, p. 76).
Zimmerman (1987, pp. 22) resonates with strong sustainability theorists that anthropocentric view should be eliminated because of falling to recognize the intrinsic value of human nature. Sustainable economic development is strictly biocentrism egalitarianism which stresses the recognition of no-human rights of nature (Eckersley 1992, p. 57).
They criticize the rationale of economic development without due regard to nature. Material acquisition was originally a way of reaching the apex of well-being but now they are end in themselves (Drovers and Handmer 1998, p. 8; Robertson 1985, p. 46; Cahill and Fitzpatrick 2001, p. 42). They are calling upon the need for redefinition of wealth not as material well being but rather as wellbeing.
In essence they reminiscence Aristotle’s idea of chrematistics or money making in which case economic development and growth are seen as an enabling activity to well being and therefore production should channel resources towards use-values and in the end achieve satisfaction. Aristotle is very pathological in his view of materialism and says that it’s a misplaced approach to attaining economic wellbeing (Sayer 2001, p. 689; Pravdi 2001b, p. 95)
For strong sustainable theorists, in order to achieve sustainable development, there is an urgent need to shift the demands being leveled on the mother earth (Naess 1989, p. 21). There should be a balance in the social and economic aspects of life and by so doing destruction towards nature will be curtailed (McBurney 1990, p. 21; Pravdi 2001a, p. 228 Henderson 1999, p. 10; Ekins and Max 1992, p. 37; Robertson 1985, p. 46; Trainer 1996, p. 46; Douthwaite 1996, p. 230; and Roseland 1998, p. 72). They propose the employment of inward looking strategies and self reliance rather than the outward looking approaches (Morehouse 1997, p. 89; Robertson 1981, p. 87; Ekins and Max 1992, p. 38)
Unfortunately this stance by the biocentrism egalitarians has found little acceptance in modern globalizing world compared to the time during the environmental movement though its core values have not been blurred by anthropocentricism (Pravdi 2000, p. 120. They continue to underpin key issues in contemporary arguments and its no doubt they continue to influence immensely the direction of policy in the areas of sustainable development.
Buckingham (2004, p. 89) discussion of the eco-feminism origins underscores that their values are informed by deep ecological demands; the difference being only that eco-feminism tends to be deeper. Eco-feminists further argue that it’s something more than human centered-approach and has also to with andocentric male dominated environment.
Buckingham claims that this attitude towards the environment is an extension of the existing male dominance towards women (Merchant 1980, p. 46; Robertson 1998, p. 32; Robertson 1991, p. 33; Easlie 1981, p. 30; Buckingham 2004, p. 88). Buckingham (2004, p. 89) through her scholarly work has been able to underpin major issues in the area of sustainable economic development by injecting the gender clause into the argument. Besides the elaborate environmental justice, she adds the question of gender further strengthening the impact of eco-feminism on the history of sustainable development.
A Glimpse at the Modern Sustainable Economic Development Debate
Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development underpin three pillars; both social and economic development and protection of nature (United Nations 2002). The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) was coined by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) making it then most accepted approach in understanding sustainability (GRI 2002, p. 45)
These GRI guidelines ensure that firms not only accounts for their financial performance but also take into account the associated social and environmental performance. Therefore a sustainable economic development approach encompasses the balance of the above three core values. However TBL framework says little on the ways of implementing these concerns. The pattern of implementation becomes more of a people oriented values than a standardized approach to realizing their fruits and as result most organizations are skewed towards economic concerns at the expense of environmental and social concerns.
TBL therefore grossly fails to state the miniature values with that can be measurable and be reported objectively. Values can’t be captured by quantitative data making subjective concerns difficult to measure. Pravdic (1997, p. 95) critiques the misuse of the term Sustainability (SB) with its offshoot Sustainable Development (SD) in different aspects of life ranging from legislative activities, politics and policies. He attributes this to the lack of breakthrough in the discourse of sustainability. Hales and Allen (2002) concurs that there is no standard means of measuring subjective progress which makes sustainable development hard to achieve.
This is what makes economic goals worth pursing because they are measurable. And without an assessment methodology of these subjective concerns than unintended risks and results are likely to occur and lead to wasteful investments. Further complexion is cast by the fact that key stakeholders have failed to institutionalize sustainable development in their thinking (Warburton 1998, p. 80). In essence sustainable economic development does not take care of all fundamental environmental calamities making them less significant in the eyes of globalization leading to adverse neglect of the bio-system (The Economist 2001, p. 15; WCED 1988b, p. 89).
Munro (1994, p. 6) stresses the need for the utilization of these terms but discourages their use for particular vested interests as clearly depicted by the owners of technology. Shrybman (1999, p. 270) criticizes the World Trade Organization for using these terminologies to propagate its global trade agenda at the expense of strict environmental concerns
Fieock and Stream (2001, p.320) underscores the growing danger of global environment which is being neglected unlike economic development which has received priority among many nations. These scholars concede that sustainable economic development has only benefited the developed nations because they are in a position to harness technology which is beyond the reach of underdeveloped countries.
Moderates like Ekins and Max (1992, p. 73) advocate for the acceptance of principles both under the anthropocentrism and egalitarianism. He accepts sustainable economic development if and only if the population growth rate is controlled, utilizing technology to increase resource supply and social transformation of life. Constanza (2000) employs a sociological worldview rather than a political connotation to analyze the emerging collision. And doing so technological optimists argue that technical progress will reverse any anticipated problem whereas technological skeptics hit back that it limits the ecological capacity to be sustainable.
Buckingham (2004, p. 89) suggests that like any other goals, sustainable development is not an endpoint in itself but a guide on achieving greater constructive changes. But politicians have used it as a goal that is finite even one that is operations. Frazier (1997, p. 187) argues that sustainable development is objectively undefined, infinite and contradictory. It lacks the tools to combat poverty and regulate the environment.
Five years after the World Commission on Environment and Development adopted Gro Harlem Brundtland version of sustainable development, 100 leaders of governments converged in Rio de Janeiro under the auspices of UNCED address the issues socio-economic development and environmental protection. They devised action plans which factored environmental protection into economic development given the fact that they are mutually independent and must therefore support each other.
The issue of sustainable economic development will continue to elicit mixed reaction on its definition and practicability especially in the current wave of globalization. The term globalization encompasses a myriad of issues with some being objective while others subjective.
The subjective aspects of sustainable economic development is difficult top underpin given that it’s not measurable (the environmental and social aspects). This has made the pursuit of skewed economic gains a more practical approach among many theorists hence trampling on the biotic rights of nature. Either school of thought is faced with challenges on implementation but all portent various repercussions on the future of the planet. In this case strict egalitarians have a point here since the pursuit of economic gain at the expense of environmental and social concerns will put them in jeopardy. The stronger sustainability theorists seem to be speaking some fundamental truths since pursuit of economic agenda imposes limits on the biosphere, technology is further aggravating the environmental problem, and the increasing population growth is a time bomb to the ecosystem. Therefore egalitarian ethics and redistributive justice is the only way to go if we have to evade the impending ecological apocalypse.
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