what’s Sustainable Development?

How do we
determine which
countries are more
developed and
which less?
Are you sure that you know what “devel-opment” really means with respect to
different countries? And can you deter-mine which countries are more devel-oped and which are less?
It  is somewhat easier to say which coun-tries are richer and which are poorer. But
indicators of wealth, which reflect the
quantity of resources available to a soci-ety, provide no information about the
allocation of those resources—for
instance, about more or less equitable
distribution of income among social
groups, about the shares of resources
used to provide free health and education
services, and about the effects of produc-tion and consumption on people’s envi-ronment. Thus it is no wonder that
countries with similar average incomes
can differ substantially when it comes to
people’s quality of life: access to educa-tion and health care, employment oppor-tunities, availability of clean air and safe
drinking water, the threat of crime, and
so on. With that in mind, how do we
determine which countries are more
developed and which are less developed?
Goals and Means of Development
Different countries have different priori-ties in their development policies. But to
compare their development levels, you
would first have to make up your mind
about what development really means to
you, what it is supposed to achieve.
Indicators measuring this achievement
could then be used to judge countries’
relative progress in development.
Is  the goal merely to increase national
wealth, or is it something more subtle?
Improving the well-being of the majority
of the population? Ensuring people’s free-dom? Increasing their economic security?
Recent United Nations documents
emphasize “human development,” mea-sured by life expectancy, adult literacy,
access to all three levels of education, as
well as people’s average income, which is
a necessary condition of their freedom of
choice. In a broader sense the notion of
human development incorporates all
aspects of individuals’ well-being, from
their health status to their economic and
What Is Development?
If  you think that the “simple” answer to this question is something like “maximizing people’s happiness,” think
of the different factors that usually make people feel happy or unhappy. Note that a number of special surveys in
different countries appear to show that the average level of happiness in a country does not grow along with the
increase in average income, at least after a certain rather modest income level is achieved. At the same time, in each
country richer people usually reported slightly higher levels of happiness than poorer people, and people in coun-tries with more equal distribution of wealth appeared to be generally happier.
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political freedom. According to the
Human Development Report 1996, pub-lished by the United Nations Develop-ment Program, “human development is
the end—economic growth a means.”
It  is true that  economic growth, by
increasing a nation’s total wealth, also
enhances its potential for reducing
poverty and solving other social
problems. But history offers a number of
examples where economic growth was
not followed by similar progress in
human development. Instead growth was
achieved at the cost of greater inequality,
higher unemployment, weakened
democracy, loss of cultural identity, or
ov erconsumption of natural resources
needed by future generations. As the
links between economic growth and
social and environmental issues are better
understood, experts including econo-mists tend to agree that this kind of
growth is inevitably unsustainable—that
is, it cannot continue along the same
lines for long. First, if environmental and
social/human losses resulting from eco-nomic growth turn out to be higher than
economic benefits (additional incomes
earned by the majority of the popula-tion), the overall result for people’s well-being becomes negative. Thus such
economic growth becomes difficult to
sustain politically. Second, economic
growth itself inevitably depends on its
natural and social/human conditions. To
be sustainable, it must rely on a certain
amount of natural resources and services
provided by nature, such as pollution
absorption and resource regeneration.
More ov er, economic growth must be
constantly nourished by the fruits of
human development, such as higher
qualified workers capable of technologi-cal and managerial innovations along
with opportunities for their efficient use:
more and better jobs, better conditions
for new businesses to grow, and greater
democracy at all levels of decisionmaking
(see Fig. 1.1).
Conversely, slow human development
can put an end to fast economic growth.
According to the Human Development
Report 1996, “during 1960–1992 not a
single country succeeded in moving from
lopsided development with slow human
development and rapid growth to a vir-tuous circle in which human develop-ment and growth can become mutually
reinforcing.” Since slower human devel-opment has invariably been followed by
slower economic growth, this growth
pattern was labeled a “dead end.”
Sustainable Development
Sustainable development is a term
widely used by politicians all over the
world, even though the notion is still
rather new and lacks a uniform interpre-tation. Important as it is, the concept of
sustainable development is still being
developed and the definition of the term
is constantly being revised, extended,
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and refined. Using this book, you can
try to formulate your own definition as
you learn more about the relationships
among its main components—the eco-nomic, social, and environmental factors
of sustainable development—and as you
decide on their relative significance
based on your own system of values.
According to the classical definition
given by the United Nations World
Commission on Environment and
Development in 1987, development is
sustainable if it “meets the needs of the
present without compromising the abil-ity of future generations to meet their
own needs.” It is usually understood that
this “intergenerational” equity would be
impossible to achieve in the absence of
present-day social equity , if the eco-nomic activities of some groups of peo-ple continue to jeopardize the well-being
of people belonging to other groups or
living in other parts of the world.
Imagine, for example, that emissions of
greenhouse gases,generated mainly by
highly industrialized countries, lead to
global warming and flooding of certain
low-lying islands—resulting in the dis-placement and impoverishment of entire
island nations (see Chapter 14). Or con-sider the situation when higher profits of
pharmaceutical companies are earned at
the cost of millions of poor people being
unable to afford medications needed for
treating their life-threatening diseases.
“Sustainable” development could proba-bly be otherwise called “equitable and
balanced,” meaning that, in order for
development to continue indefinitely, it
should balance the interests of different
Why is equity
important for
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groups of people, within the same gener-ation and among generations, and do so
simultaneously in three major interre-lated areas–economic, social, and envi-ronmental. So sustainable development is
about equity, defined as equality of
opportunities for well-being, as well as
about comprehensiveness of objectives.
Figure 1.2 shows just a few of the many
objectives, which, if ignored, threaten to
slow down or reverse development in
other areas. You are invited to add more
objectives and explain how, in your opin-ion, they are connected to others. In the
following chapters you will find many
examples of such interconnections.
Obviously, balancing so many diverse
objectives of development is an enormous
challenge for any country. For instance,
how would you compare the positive
value of greater national security with the
negative value of slower economic growth
(loss of jobs and income) and some, pos-sibly irreversible, environmental damage?
There is no strictly scientific method of
performing such valuations and compar-isons. However, governments have to
make these kinds of decisions on a regular
basis. If such decisions are to reflect the
interests of the majority, they must be
taken in the most democratic and partici-patory way possible. But even in this case,
there is a high risk that long-term inter-ests of our children and grandchildren
end up unaccounted for, because future
generations cannot vote for themselves.
Thus, to ensure that future generations
inherit the necessary conditions to pro-vide for their own welfare, our present-day values must be educated enough to
reflect their interests as well.
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The challenge is further complicated by
the fact that in today’s interdependent
world many aspects of sustainable devel-opment are in fact international or even
global. On the one hand, many deci-sions taken at the national or even local
level actually have international conse-quences–economic, social, environmen-tal. When these consequences are
negative, the situation is sometimes
referred to as “exporting unsustainabil-ity.” On the other hand, national poli-cies are often inadequate to effectively
deal with many challenges of sustainabil-ity. Thus international cooperation on
the wide range of so-called transbound-ary and global problems of sustainable
development becomes indispensable.
Arguably, the most critical problem of
sustainable development—in each
country as well as globally—is eradicat-ing extreme poverty. That is because
poverty is not only an evil in itself. It
also stands in the way of achieving most
other goals of development, from clean
environment to personal freedom.
Another, closely related, global problem
is establishing and preserving peace in
all regions and all countries. War, as
well as poverty, is inherently destructive
of all economic as well as social and
environmental goals of development
(see Fig. 1.2).
In  the final analysis sustainable develop-ment is about long-term conditions for
humanity’s multidimensional well-being.
For example, the famous Rio
Declaration, adopted by the United
Nations Conference on Environment
and Development in 1992 (also called
the Earth Summit, held in Rio de
Janeiro, Brazil), puts it this way:
“Human beings are at the center of con-cern for sustainable development. They
are entitled to a healthy and productive
life in harmony with nature.”
What are the
conditions for
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