Development Critique Previous - Next


No Sustainability Without Development

Sustainable development calls for the conservation of development, not for the conservation of nature. Alternatives within development are welcome; alternatives to development are anathema. Environmentalism is being reduced to managerialism.

By Wolfgang Sachs  
  "Development" is, above all, a way of thinking. It cannot, therefore, be easily identified with a particular strategy or programme, but ties many different practices and aspirations to a common set of assumptions. Whatever the theme on the agenda in the post-war era, the assumptions of "development" like the universal road, the superiority of economics, the mechanical feasibility of change tacitly shaped the definition of the problem, highlighted certain solutions and consigned others to oblivion. Moreover, as knowledge is intimately related to power, development thinking inevitably featured certain social actors (for example, international agencies) and certain types of social transformation (for example, technology transfer), while marginalizing other social actors and degrading other kinds of change.1

Despite alarming signs of failure throughout its history, the development syndrome has survived until today, but at the price of increasing senility. When it became clear in the l950s that investments were not enough, "man-power development" was added to the aid-package; as it became obvious in the 1960s that hardship continued, "social development" was discovered; and in the l990s, as the impoverishment of peasants could no longer be overlooked, "rural development" was included in the arsenal of development strategies. And so it went on, with further creations like "equitable development" and the "basic needs approach". Again and again, the same conceptual operation was repeated: degradation in the wake of development was redefined as a lack which called for yet another strategy of development. All along, the efficacy of "development" remained impervious to any counter evidence, but showed remarkable staying power; the concept was repeatedly stretched until it included both the strategy which inflicted the injury and the strategy designed for therapy. This strength of the concept, however, is also the reason for its galloping exhaustion; it no longer manifests any reactions to changing historical conditions. The tragic greatness of "development" consists in its monumental emptiness.
Development has come to be seen as the therapy for injuries caused by development.
"Sustainable development", which UNCED enthroned as the reigning slogan of the 1990s, has inherited the fragility of "development". The concept emasculates the environmental challenge by absorbing it into the empty shell of "development", and insinuates the continuing validity of developmentalist assumptions even when confronted with a drastically different historical situation. In Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book which gave rise to the environmental movement in 1962, development was understood to inflict injuries on people and nature. Since the "World Conservation Strategy" in 1980 and later the Brundtland Report, development has come to be seen as the therapy for the injuries caused by development. What accounts for this shift?

Firstly, in the 1970s, under the impact of the oil crisis, governments began to realize that continued growth depended not only on capital formation or skilled manpower, but also on the long-term availability of natural resources. Foods for the insatiable growth machine, such as oil, timber, minerals, soils, genetic material, seemed on the decline; concem grew about the prospects of long-term growth. This was a decisive change in perspective: not the health of nature but the continuous health of development became the centre of concern. In 1992, the World Bank summed up the new consensus in a laconic phrase: "What is sustainable development? Sustainable development is development that lasts."2 Of course, the task of development experts does not remain the same under this imperative, because the horizon of their decisions is now supposed to extend in time, taking into account also the welfare of future generations. But the frame stays the same: "sustainable development" calls for the conservation of development, not for the conservation of nature.
It is not the preservation of nature's dignity that lwhich is on the inter-national agenda, but to extend humancentred utilitarianism to postery.
Even bearing in mind a very loose definition of development, the anthropocentric bias of the statement springs to mind; it is not the preservation of nature's dignity which is on the international agenda, but to extend human-centred utilitarianism to posterity. Needless to say, the naturalist and bio-centric current of present-day environmentalism has been cut out by this conceptual operation. With "development" back in the saddle, the view on nature changes. The question now becomes: which of nature's "services" are to what extent indispensable for further development? Or the other way around: which "services" of nature are dispensable or can be substituted by, for example, new materials or genetic engineering? In other words, nature turns into a variable, albeit a critical one, in sustaining development. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that "nature capital" has already become a fashionable notion among ecological economists.3
In the eyes of developmentalists, the "limits to growth" did not call for abandoning the race, but for changing the running technique.
Secondly, a new generation of post-industrial technologies suggested that growth was not invariably linked to the squandering of ever more resources, as in the time of smoke-stack economies, but could be pursued through less resource-intensive means. While, in the past, innovations were largely aimed at increased productivity of labour, it now appeared possible that technical and organizational intelligence could concentrate on increasing the productivity of nature. In short, growth could be delinked from a rising consumption of energy and materials. In the eyes of developmentalists, the "limits to growth" did not call for abandoning the race, but for changing the running technique. After "no development without sustainability" had spread, "no sustainability without development" also gained recognition.

Thirdly, environmental degradation has been discovered to be a worldwide condition of poverty. While formerly the developmentalist image of the "poor" was characterized by lack of water, housing, health, and money, they are now seen to be suffering from lack of nature as well. Poverty is now exemplified by people who search desperately for firewood, find themselves trapped by encroaching deserts, are driven from their soils and forests, or are forced to endure dreadful sanitary conditions. Once the lack of nature is identified as a cause of poverty, it follows neatly that development agencies, since they are in the business of "eliminating poverty", have to diversify into programmes for the environment. But people who are dependent on nature for their survival have no choice other than to pursue the last remaining fragments of its bounty. As the decline of nature is also a consequence of poverty, the poor of the world suddenly entered the stage as agents of environmental destruction.
The type of thinking which received blessings at UNCED: the world is to be saved by more and better managerialism.

Whereas in the 1970s, the main threat to nature still appeared to be industrial man, in the 1980s environmentalists turned their eyes to the Third World and pointed to the vanishing forests, soils and animals there. With the shifting focus, environmentalism, in part, took on a different colour; the crisis of the environment is no longer perceived as the result of building affluence for the global middle class in North and South, but as the result of human presence on the globe in general. No matter if nature is consumed for luxury or survival, no matter if the powerful or the marginalized tap nature, it all becomes one for the rising tribe of ecocrats. And so it could be that, among other things, an "Earth Summit" was called to reach decisions which should primarily have been the concern of the OECD - or even the G7.

The persistence of "development", the newly-found potentials for less resource-intensive growth paths, and the discovery of humanity in general as the enemy of nature these notions were the conceptual ingredients for the type of thinking which received its diplomatic blessings at UNCED: the world is to be saved by more and better managerialism. The message, which is ritually repeated by many politicians, industrialists and scientists who have recently decided to slip on a green coat, goes as follows: nothing should be (the dogmatic version) or can be (the fatalist version) done to change the direction the world's economies are taking; problems along the way can be solved, if the challenge for better and more sophisticated management is taken up.

As a result, ecology, once a call for new public virtues, has now become a call for new executive skills. In fact, Agenda 21, for example, overflows with such formulas as "integrated approach", "rational use", "sound management", "internalizing costs", "better information", "increased co-ordination", "long-term prediction", but by and large fails (except for some timid phrases in the hotly debated chapter "Changing Consumption Patterns") to consider any reduction of material standards of living and any attempts to slow down the accumulation dynamics. In short, alternatives to development are black-balled, alternatives within development are welcome.

Nevertheless, it was an achievement for UNCED to have delivered the call for environmental tools from a global rostrum, an opening which will give a boost to environmental engineering worldwide. But the price for this achievement is the reduction of environmentalism to managerialism. For the task of global ecology can be understood in two ways: it is either a technocratic effort to keep development afloat against the drift of plunder and pollution; or it is a cultural effort to shake off the hegemony of ageing Western values and gradually retire from the development race. These two ways may not be exclusive in detail, but they differ deeply in perspective. In the first case, the paramount task becomes the management of the bio-physical limits to development. All powers of foresight have to be mustered in order to steer development along the edge of the abyss, continuously surveying, testing, and manoeuvring the bio-physical limits. In the second case, the challenge consists in designing cultural/political limits to development. Each society is called upon to search for indigenous models of prosperity, which allow society's course to stay at a comfortable distance from the edge of the abyss, living graciously within a stable or shrinking volume of production. It is analogous to driving a vehicle at high speed towards a canyon either you equip it with radar, monitors and highly trained personnel, correct its course and drive it as hard as possible along the rim; or you slow down, turn away from the edge, and drive leisurely here and there without too much attention to precise controls. Too many global ecologists - implicitly or explicitly favour the first choice.



1 For these reasons, I do not follow proposals to make a distinction between growth and development. It seems to me that "development" cannot be purified of its historical context. For a distinction, see Herman E. Daly (1990) "Toward Some Operational Principles of Sustainable Development", in Ecological Economics, Vol.2 1990, p.1.

2 World Development Report 1992 (1992), Oxford University Press (for the World Bank), New York, p. 34.

3 See for instance Salah El Serafy, "The Environment as Capital", in R. Costanza (ed.) (1991) Ecological Economics: the science and management of sustainabitily, New York, Columbia University Press, pp. 168-75.

Wolfgang Sachs edited "The Development Dictionary" and "Global Ecology" published by Zed Books. He is based in Germany. This article was first published by The Ecumenical Association for Church and Society, Brussels, in an Occasional Paper entitled "Critical Reflections of the Culture of the West" (1995). Part three will appear in the next issue.

Previous - Next