Sustainable Development Redefined – Dr Akmal Hussain

In Paris, two events – the recent terrorist attacks and the forthcoming Climate Summit – one of horror and the other of hope, signify the two principal challenges of our time: violent extremism and the environmental crisis.

The former threatens the fabric of society while the latter endangers the physical life support systems of the planet. It can be argued that each of these phenomena is rooted, although in different ways, in the exclusion of humanness in the systems of power and forms of production and distribution that have characterised capitalism over the last three centuries. It may be helpful to examine the environmental crisis and violent extremism in a new perspective on sustainable development.

The latest scientific evidence suggests that life on earth is threatened as a consequence of the particular forms of human intervention into the ecosystem since the Industrial Revolution. Within the capitalist mode of production there is a systematic tendency for an increase in the volume and range of commodities. This is because within a competitive framework, firms continuously expand production to increase profit, as an imperative of survival. At the same time the “production system not only produces goods that satisfy needs, but also the needs which these goods satisfy”.

The structural imperative for the continuous expansion of production and attempts to sell it has led to the emergence of a ‘consumerist’ culture in which the individual is driven by an insatiable desire to increase the acquisition of commodities. It is not surprising that for a long time within the capitalist forms of production and social life, nature was seen as an ‘exploitable resource’.

For over two centuries, the project choice of entrepreneurs and hence investment decisions did not incorporate social costs into the calculus of private profitability. Therefore, until recently, the impact on the ecosystem was not adequately taken into account in the overall process of technological change and economic growth. I have in my previous article in this newspaper identified the specific ceiling on carbon emissions that the world community must undertake for sustainable development. As Senator John Kerry in a recent statement pithily put it, “There is no point in development that ends up killing us”.

The evidence shows that the process of economic growth within this framework has involved an increase in economic inequality at the inter personal as well as inter country levels. For example, according to the Oxfam research institute the richest one percent of the world’s population has 48 percent of the world’s wealth. Similarly there is an acute inequality in the distribution of income.

Piketty in his recent seminal work has estimated that the monthly per capita income in North America is 1,620 euros while the monthly per capita income in Asia including China and India is 240 euros. The structure of inequality has resulted in the exclusion of the majority of the population in a globalised economy from the fruits of economic growth. Economic deprivation is accompanied by political exclusion of large sections of society from the systems of power and governance which shape their social, cultural and environmental conditions.

The rise of terrorism indicates that some strata of the deprived and excluded communities have embraced ideologies of hate and violence. Propounded in the garb of religion these ideologies drain out the spirituality of love and reduce religion to an empty form that is used as an instrument of monstrous brutality for the pursuit of power. Thus the ideology of terrorism is the antithesis of religion. The path to God in all religions involves a journey to the heart. As Martin Lings and Professor Hossein Nasr have argued, the heart, in both western and eastern traditions, is the instrument of experiencing the transcendent. We can know God through love.

The idea of ‘sustainable development’, which is now exercising the minds of public policymakers in view of the environmental crisis, was originally propounded in the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987. It may be helpful to revisit the concept as it was originally formulated in order to take up some of the implications that have now acquired a crucial importance. Sustainable development was defined in the WCED as “… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition has two conceptual underpinnings which have profound implications for economics and economic policy.

First, ‘sustainable development’ so defined involves a sense of responsibility for future generations in terms of pursuing the individual and collective welfare of the present generation in a way that the life support systems of the planet (fresh water, fresh air, fertile soils) are maintained for future generations to fulfil their needs.

This implies a shift away from the central proposition of conventional neo-classical economics – that the optimum outcome of the market mechanism requires that lifetime income of the individual be maximised. By contrast the above definition of sustainable development suggests that the individual must act today out of a sense of responsibility towards future generations. There is, therefore, recognition that the individual is part of a community that lives in history from generation to generation.

Second, it can be argued that since the concept of ‘sustainable development’ involves a sense of responsibility towards future generations yet unborn, it surely implies responsibility towards other members of the human community living in the present generation, who may be deprived of the ability to fulfil their needs. This again goes against the grain of neo-classical economics, which propounds the pursuit of individual welfare maximisation regardless of interpersonal considerations. Thus it can be suggested that, contrary to conventional economic theory but inherent to the idea of ‘sustainable development’, is a concern for equity. Therefore, if sustainable development is to be meaningful, equality of opportunity for all members of society must be built into the process of development.

The challenge before the world community is a planet in peril and societies ruptured by inequality and violence. It is time to re-conceptualise ‘sustainable development’ to include three dimensions of human existence: (i) developing forms of production, distribution and social life that are in harmony with nature and protect the life support systems of the planet; (ii) the value of the life of every individual must be recognised and this recognition translated into new institutional arrangements of economic and social equality; and (iii) opportunities of high quality education should be provided within every community on the planet whereby the individual can rediscover a sense of beauty and compassion towards all creatures and develop the capacity for creativity in various fields of human endeavour. Redefining and pursuing sustainable development in this way can enrich and sustain human civilisation.