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Environment and Development

Summary and Keywords

The fundamental conflicts and contradictions between environment and development, and various theoretical and practical efforts to reconcile them, have been a prominent part of the history of development thinking since environmentalism emerged as a significant political phenomenon in the 1960s. The idea of development as change for the better resonates perhaps with all civilizations and across time. All civilizations have development myths which reflect a self-awareness that a particular culture had at some time in the past advanced from a more primitive, less developed state. But these cultural myths of development are only incidentally material or economic. More pronounced concerns over the environment and development emerged during the 1960s and the 1970s. These decades were marked by the emergence of widespread public concern about environmental problems of air and water pollution, and the growth of the environmental movement led to national environmental policy developments and international efforts on the environmental front. In addition, development, environment, and sustainability are all normative concepts with implications for ethics and justice. The vast literature on sustainable development has spawned a range of critiques from a variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives. The environmental justice literature developed after early sustainable development literature, and raises questions about intragenerational equity.

Keywords: environment, development, development thinking, environmentalism, development theory, environmental literatures, Founex conference, sustainable development, equity, justice


The modern idea of development, with its focus on high-level production and wide distribution of commodities, commands near-universal acceptance in the worlds of both politics and applied scholarship as a high-priority goal for all societies. Rist (2008:21–4) goes so far as to argue that development “is part of our modern religion” – “a belief and a series of practices” based on “widely shared, indisputable truths that have the character of myth.” Not surprisingly, then, the idea of development is not easily reconciled with other sets of ideas, such as those of environmentalism, that tend to call into dispute its accepted truths. The concept of environment is also almost universally embraced, at least superficially and rhetorically, and environmentalist beliefs support practices that also function as a kind of unacknowledged religion based on accepted truths with mythic qualities. The fundamental conflicts and contradictions between environment and development, and various theoretical and practical efforts to reconcile them, have been a prominent part of the history of development thinking since environmentalism emerged as a significant political phenomenon in the 1960s – and seem certain to remain part of the future landscape of international studies.

Early Development Theory and the Environment

The idea of development as change for the better resonates perhaps with all civilizations and across time. All civilizations have development myths (in the anthropological sense of myth) which reflect a self awareness that a particular culture had at some time in the past advanced from a more primitive, less developed state. These myths often present some evidence of environmental consciousness as well by offering moral arguments for stewardship or restraint in resource exploitation. But these cultural myths of development are only incidentally material or economic; rather, they tend to provide self-congratulatory accounts of intellectual, cultural, religious, and even political advancements.

Development as the conscious and self-directed pursuit of desirable social change, that is, some notion of development as “progress,” is a distinctly modern Western concept. Rist (2008) traces this meaning of development as part of a long Western history to the works of Aristotle and Augustine, before it received fresh impetus in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a concept linked to modernity. The idea of development as progress may be seen in the writings of classical economic theorists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, whose works advocated the rise of capitalism with private ownership of resources and accumulation of capital as an inevitable, natural, and necessary process. The central assumptions underpinning the capitalist world economy were not only that every society could aspire to a high level of economic growth and thus wealth but that it could be brought about by particular conscious, rational state interventions and non-interventions (Wallerstein 1995:108). These assumptions are also evident in Marx and Engels's theory of the development of social classes and productive forces (Larrain 1989; Rist 2008). The idea of development as constituting a transition between two ideal types of society – traditional and modern – may be seen in the work of leading nineteenth century sociologists, who espoused dichotomies between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (Tönnies); homogeneous and heterogeneous societies (Spencer); or mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity (Durkheim) (see Larrain 1989).

The contemporary understanding of development as modernization of national economies dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, and was linked to the anti-colonial struggle (Saldaña-Portillo 2003:18). Wallerstein, for example, argues that the clashing ideologies of Leninism and Wilsonianism both sought the “political integration of the periphery of the world system” and both were guided by theories that had national development as a central element (1995:109; see also Saldaña-Portillo 2003). Development from this period onwards focused on the engineered economic development of entire “peripheral” and “semi-peripheral areas.” The vision of a “development age” was clearly established by 1949, as evident in US President Harry Truman's Inaugural Address with its resounding call to end poverty and ensure peace, prosperity, and security world-wide (Rist 2008:71). Rist defines this distinct notion of development as consisting “of a set of practices, sometimes appearing to conflict with one another, which require – for the reproduction of society – the general transformation and destruction of the natural environment and of social relations. Its aim is to increase the production of commodities (goods and services) geared, by way of exchange, to effective demand” (2008:13). This kind of transformation and destruction also characterized both the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist model of development, which envisioned revolutionary leapfrogging from “feudalism” to “socialism,” over “capitalism,” and the Fabian socialist model of development that was influential in Britain, Africa, and Asia, especially India. It was true as well of modernization theory, the dominant theory of development of the 1940s–60s (e.g., Parsons 1951; Rostow 1960; and Huntington 1968), which took as a given the natural evolution of all societies into industrialized, modern societies. Modernization theory, which sought to identify social and institutional factors that facilitate development, perceived development as a linear, unidirectional, evolutionary process of change whereby societies evolve in several stages from a pre-modern stage to a modern one. Each “higher” stage is characterized by not only an improvement in the standard of living but also by the discarding of “primitive” traditional institutions for more rational, differentiated ones. New (and “better”) values of individualism, the replacement of ascribed status by one achieved through individual effort, and the separation of the private and public spheres (with the economy located squarely in the public sphere and the family in the private sphere) all characterize the arrival of modernity. With a specific focus on economic growth, Rostow (1960) identified five stages of economic growth that all societies pass through: traditional society; preconditions for take-off; take-off; road to maturity; and the age of high mass consumption. In sum, Third World countries’ continued “backwardness” reflects, for modernization theorists, the absence of modern values and appropriate economic, political, and social institutions. Together modernization theory and liberal economics provide the context for understanding the nature of development adopted in the Third World.

Modernization theory was widely attacked by a number of scholars, including neo-Marxists and dependency theorists, who, far from objecting to development itself, argued that the unequal and exploitative relations in the existing world order distort the development process. Led by Raúl Prebisch, the executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), mandated with promoting development in the region, they came to challenge the doctrinaire view of development as achieved only by “massive transfers of (mainly private) capital, exports of raw materials, and the comparative advantage supposed to benefit all market traders” (Rist 2008:113). Dependency scholars (e.g., Frank 1966; Cardoso and Faletto 1979) offered a stringent challenge to modernization theory, critiquing the international system and identifying the relationship of exploitation between the “core and the periphery” as the primary barrier to real development in Third World nations. Similarly, the 1955 Bandung Conference offered a view of development that emphasized the importance of Third World nations relying on each other for scientific and technical assistance and expertise, rather than becoming dependent on First World nations for such knowledge. Yet, neither dependency scholars nor Third World nations challenged the goal of the development project itself – the aim to modernize, industrialize, and achieve economic growth.

Whereas economic theories – classical, neoclassical, Keynesian and post-Keynesian, as exemplified in the works of Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Keynes, and Friedman – focused on economic growth and accumulation as the key to ensure on-going market competition and wealth generation, modernization theorists recognized the significance of social, political and cultural contexts to development. Similarly, Marxist and neo-Marxist scholarship examined the structural conditions of production, and the alienation and exploitation of the working class, while dependency theories offered analyses of the causes for regional dependency and underdevelopment. In all of this work on development, though, little was said about the environment. The environment, when acknowledged at all, was seen as merely comprising those natural resources (i.e., the raw materials) that needed to be used in order to facilitate economic growth and mass consumption, both of which were deemed markers of “development.” The implications of the potential destruction or exhaustion of resources, the loss of biodiversity, or, more broadly, the ecological consequences of the development project remained external to the development vision of this period (see also Martinez-Alier 1987 and Haque 1999 for overviews of major schools of economic theory).

Early Environmental Literatures that Embraced and Rejected the Development Project

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by the emergence of widespread public concern about environmental problems of air and water pollution, and the growth of the environmental movement led to national environmental policy developments and international efforts on the environmental front. The West (First World) saw an explosion of social science scholarship articulating concerns around environment and development. At the same time, partly in reaction to the increasing attention being paid to environmentalist claims, another literature emerged extolling the virtues of unending economic growth and development, in societies both poor and already rich, unconstrained by environmental worries.

In the first literature, we can discern three dominant concerns: (1) there are inherent “limits to growth” of the global economy, population, and consumption; (2) self-interested individual behavior towards the environment results in a collective “tragedy of the commons”; and (3) the answer to these environmental problems lies in appropriate governance (see Conca and Dabelko 2004; Dryzek 2005; Dryzek and Schlosberg 2005, for an overview of this literature). Each of these has significant implications for understandings of development.

The idea of physical limits, derived from ecological ideas about the carrying capacity of particular ecosystems, turned the spotlight on the issue of population growth and the capacity of a country to support its population. These early ideas of “environmental limits” and concern about population growth permeate many environmentalist writings from the late 1960s into the 1970s. From Meadows et al. (1972) came Limits to Growth, a report using computer-based systems modeling to argue that the convergence of accelerating trends in “industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment” (p. 21) would result in reaching the limits to growth on the planet within the next 100 years, resulting in a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” (Meadows et al. 1972:23). To avoid the impending catastrophe, limits to both population growth and resource consumption (which implied limits to development via industrialization) were required (p. 23).

Distinct from these macro perspectives on the “consequences of environmental problems, the debate over causes crystallized around the powerful and controversial idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’” (Conca and Dabelko 2004:19). Hardin (1968), who propounded the notion of “the tragedy of the commons,” also believed that continued use of natural resources at then current rates would lead to the collapse of the planetary ecosystem, but his analysis focused on how rational actions of self-interested individuals could lead to a collective tragedy. Using the analogy of the overuse of a medieval English commons, Hardin argued that self-interest, coupled with a lack of regulation, led to problems of pollution and over-population. Hardin articulated his concern about population growth in the Third World in a later essay, “Lifeboat Ethics” (1974), where he argued against food aid for poor countries as that would only result in encouraging people to live and reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of their country. The fear of population growth in the Third World is evident also in Ehrlich's Population Bomb (1971) where he predicted that millions would die of starvation in the 1970s and 1980s because population would have outstripped food availability. Hardin's argument for a “lifeboat ethics” is reflective of other First World environmental scholars of that era, who could not envision the possibility that development could begin to transform the post-colonial social, political, and economic contexts of the Third World in an environmentally favorable way.

Some of these scholars who propounded the idea of the tragedy of the commons also advocated policies to reverse overconsumption. Ehrlich, for one, was prominent in arguing that the net impact of population was amplified by technology and affluence, originating the IPAT formula of I (impact) = P (population) multiplied by A (affluence, i.e., levels of consumption) multiplied by T (technology). In several places he argued that in terms of impact many rich countries are more overpopulated than many poor ones. But many other authors have been relatively untroubled by the idea of reducing environmental impacts in poor places by limiting development – through constraints on both affluence and technology. In addition, IPAT has also been criticized for political naïveté on grounds it ignores development-significant issues of domination and distribution. Maniates (2002:60) argues that

IPAT amplifies and privileges an “everything is connected to everything else” biophysical, ecosystem-management understanding of environmental problems, one that obscures the exercise of power while systematically disempowering citizen actors […] “[S]ystem complexity” seems to overwhelm any possibility of planned, coordinated, effective intervention. Additionally, there is little room in IPAT's calculus for questions of agency, institutions, political power, or collective action.

He goes on to offer a variation to IPAT, namely, IWAC: environmental Impact = quality of Work × meaningful consumption Alternatives × political Creativity (Maniates 2002:62–3), as a way of arguing against conceptualizations of the environmental crisis that reinforce a tendency to individualize responsibility or to assume the perpetuation of existing systems of production and consumption.

Concern about the ecological consequences of the current industrialized economic system resulted in explicit attention to governance as a solution, notably in publications such as Goldsmith et al. (1972) A Blueprint for Survival, and Ophuls (1977) Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. Goldsmith et al. paid particular attention to the inequities created by consumption patterns of First and Third World countries:

The developed nations consume such disproportionate amounts of protein, raw materials and fuels that unless they considerably reduce their consumption there is no hope of the undeveloped nations markedly improving their standards of living. This vast differential is a cause of much and growing discontent, made worse by our attempts at cultural uniformity on behalf of an expanding market economy. (p. 33)

A Blueprint for Survival presented an environment and development vision involving a fundamental transformation of all societies into smaller, decentralized, and more self-contained communities that would minimize the environmental impact of humans. In contrast to this utopic vision, Ophuls (1977) offered an analysis of the current liberal democratic and capitalistic system as responsible for both gross disparities of affluence and the growing ecological scarcity confronting the planet, arguing that it needed to be wholly replaced by an authoritarian political system.

Manifestations of these themes can be seen in later works that focus on how the global problems of overpopulation, overconsumption, and inadequate adaptation to ecological limits could lead to collapse of societies and civilizations (e.g., Catton 1980 and Ponting 1991). Some (e.g., Diamond 2005) do recognize the complexity of the relationship between environment and development, and acknowledge that development – including mal-, mis-, and non-development from whatever cause – can have profound environmental implications and therefore needs to be addressed as part of any solution to the environmental problematique.

In contrast to this “limits” literature is a body of works marked by optimism about the state of the earth and the ingenuity of the human race, most significantly evident in a faith in technology to overcome environmental constraints. The development project, marked by capitalist economic growth, unlimited capacity for technological innovation, and the exploitation of nature, is embraced and celebrated by these scholars, a group dominated by economists, who also claim a scientific basis for their optimism. They reject the idea of any kind of a need for environmental constraints on economic growth, consumption, capitalism, or the realization of “human potential.” This literature initially emerged in response to arguments made by natural resource economists and conservationists who promoted a “gospel of efficiency” and ideas like sustained yield and resource planning (Hays 1959). A strong defense of economic growth was offered by Barnett and Morse (1963:101), who challenged the “historical development of the doctrine that natural resource scarcity and economic growth are in fundamental opposition to each other.” Going by the economic logic that the price of a good reflects its relative availability, economists have argued that increased scarcity of a product in the face of increased demand would result in a higher price of that product. Conversely, the fall in price of a good would indicate that demand relative to supply is falling. Barnett and Morse examined the price of “extractive goods,” including agricultural, minerals, and forestry products from the beginning of the twentieth century. In each case, with the exception of forestry products including timber, real price had fallen, indicating that natural resources have become more abundant over time. They therefore rejected conservationist arguments to limit resource use.

A sharp critique of Limits to Growth came from Beckerman (1974) who argued that not only were resources not finite, but that resource shortages would always be overcome by the “discovery and exploration for new resources, technological progress in finding substitutes, in developing new products, and in re-cycling, and so on” (p. 234). The “real issue” for Beckerman, as for later authors such as Simon and Lomborg, was development and all that it promised – education, health, housing, and overall improved standards of living for the world's population, including the already affluent.

For Simon (1981) and others, “there is no meaningful physical limit […] to our capacity to keep growing forever” (p. 346; see also Beckerman 1995). An important justification for this view that human wellbeing was on a consistent and inevitable upwards trend came from the use of global indicators, such as life expectancy, the amount of arable land and parkland, quality of air and water, and so on. This view of sustained growth and well-being is matched by denial of the existence of major global environmental problems, such as global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, biodiversity loss, and so on (see Beckerman 1995). More recent writers such as Lomborg (2001; 2007) acknowledge the existence of global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain, but argue that it is much more important to fight poverty, diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, and pollution than sinking billions of dollars into dealing with global warming.

Uncritical growth optimists acknowledge the need for Third World development in terms of economic growth, population growth, and meeting basic needs. Their uncritical faith in technological progress and in perpetual economic growth resonates with the development agenda of most governments.

Within both these early literatures – environmentalist limits and unconstrained growth – environment and development were viewed as impulses inherently contradictory and in conflict. But early on there also were efforts to reconcile the imperatives of development with newly recognized environmental concerns. The earliest of these arose in the context of the 1968–72 preparations for the Stockholm Conference, when activists, politicians, and scholars for the first time began to grapple with the implications of environmental concerns for traditional development commitments.

Early Politics of Environment and Development

Following a Swedish proposal that the UN sponsor a conference on problems of the human environment, in 1968 the UN General Assembly had unanimously adopted a resolution that set in motion planning for a conference. As planning for the conference proceeded, Third World leaders and representatives began to express misgivings about the threat that the rapidly growing concern about the environment in the First World might pose for the developmental aspirations of the Third World (Castro 1972). Their concerns were addressed directly in what was perhaps the first international meeting to address environment and development explicitly, a conference of experts held in Founex, Switzerland in June 1971. A panel of 27 experts in economics, development planning, banking, social research, and ecology met and issued a report that “set the terms for the debate over relative priorities of ecology and economics,” concluding that “the kind of environmental problems that are of importance in developing countries are those that can be overcome by the process of development itself” (Caldwell 1984:46). The panel and study had been commissioned by the Preparatory Committee for the upcoming 1972 Stockholm Conference.

Seminars following up on the Founex report were held in Bangkok, Addis Ababa, Beirut, and Mexico City before the UN Conference on the Human Environment met (Caldwell 1984:46), and “Development and Environment” became one of six subject areas of the conference agenda. Strongly differing approaches to linking environment and development threatened the success of the conference itself. Concerted efforts to bridge or at least symbolically recognize these differences succeeded sufficiently that the 114 governments represented at the conference, a majority of them from the Third World, agreed to a declaration of principles and an action plan that recognized the environmental linkages of many social and economic problems and “introduced a new environmental element into the conventional interpretation of development” (Caldwell 1984:53).

The principal institutional achievement of the Stockholm Conference was the recommendation for creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which the UN General Assembly formally created later in 1972. Maurice Strong, secretary general of the Stockholm Conference and first executive director of UNEP, suggested the term “ecodevelopment” for the kind of ecologically sensitive development that some advocated before and during the Stockholm Conference. According to Caldwell (1984:72), UNEP was established to “assist the translation of the ecodevelopment concept into operational reality.” The “Cocoyoc Declaration,” adopted by a 1974 UNEP/UNCTAD Symposium on Patterns of Resource Use, Environment and Development Strategies (UNEP/UNCTAD 1975), provided an official statement of the concept. But ecodevelopment raised more issues than it answered, and it attracted only limited scholarly attention (Riddell 1981; Caldwell 1984; Glaeser 1984; Sachs 1984). Not only was its emphasis on “eco” widely perceived as threatening and unduly restrictive by advocates of traditional development; at the same time, it did not catch on in the popular, political, or scholarly imaginations of either the First World or the Third.

Early Third World Attention to Environment and Development

Nevertheless, many Third World scholars and a few activists and politicians took seriously the challenge to the development project raised by the Stockholm Conference, UNEP, and the advocates of ecodevelopment. Much of this new development literature emerged, at least partly, in specific national contexts of Third World countries. In an overview of developments in Indian social sciences, for example, Ramchandra Guha (1984) stated that the overwhelming tendency for economists was to ignore the ecological consequences of economic activity. Indeed, economists, perhaps as much as scientists, took on the task of overseeing and endorsing the modernization project for newly independent India, and little in their early works, from the 1950s through until the 1980s, challenged the agenda of national development. The numerous works by well-known economists such as Bardhan (1984), Srinivasan and Bardhan (1988), and Sen (1999), among others, demonstrate that no matter how divergent these authors’ prescriptions for development, the environment remained outside the core focus on economic development.

But there were exceptions to this tendency, including the Gandhian economist J.C. Kumarappa (1931, 1938, 1945, cited in Guha 1984) whose explicit incorporation of natural resource constraints in his advocacy of the “‘economy of permanence’ and a ‘village centred economic order’” (Guha 1984: 3) were taken up by Guha and others. Another such exception to the norm is the work of Singh (1976). These works challenged the dominant view of policymakers, development practitioners, and economists, of the perceived tensions between poverty alleviation and environmental protection, evident also in former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's words at the 1972 Stockholm summit when she asked “are not poverty and needs the greatest polluters?” (Adams 2008: 61).

In the early 1980s, however, scholars began to articulate visions of a symbiotic relationship between development and environment. In the context of India, the key works in this genre include J. Bandyopadhyay's India's Environment: Crisis and Response (1985); the landmark work by the non-governmental organization, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi, which, beginning in 1982, has published six citizens’ reports on the Indian environment (1982, 1985, 1991, 1997, 1999, 2007); and the work of Gadgil and Guha (e.g., 1995). The CSE reports represented a pioneering effort of reporting on the state of the environment from the perspective of the most vulnerable people in society. The first report in 1982 was reviewed widely in the Western and Third World press, and influenced the production of similar reports in a number of countries. At a time when poor people in the Third World were being blamed for environmental problems such as population growth and deforestation, the CSE reports insisted that the central principles of equity and justice must underpin the goal of environmental protection and development. The writings by Anil Agarwal, the late founder and director of CSE, challenged both the traditional development model of industrialization and elitist environmentalism that focused on conservation with little attention to livelihood issues. For example, he proposed the concept of a “gross nature product” to replace “gross national product” as a way of capturing the impact of economic growth on the environment and livelihood (Agarwal 2001). His 1986 essay, “The Fifth World Conservation Lecture: Human-Nature Interactions in a Third World Country,” published in The Environmentalist, identified the central importance of addressing social marginality and the power dynamics around access and use of nature in order to achieve equitable development.

Many of these works that focused on equity and social justice recognize and celebrate traditional, precolonial institutions for resource management, and recommend the re-institution of traditional institutions that would allow local communities to regain control over common property resources. But, as Bina Agarwal (1998) points out, these authors show little awareness of the deeply oppressive nature of caste and class divisions in Indian society, where sexual exploitation and violence against women was also common. Those who advocate the revival of such institutions are oblivious to “the dangers of reproducing old hierarchies as well as creating new ones along gender, caste, and class lines” (p. 61).

A noteworthy contribution of many Third World scholars and activists, including Guha and Martinez-Alier (1997), Martinez-Alier (2002), and others is the articulation of the notion of the “environmentalism of the poor.” Challenging the widespread idea that environmentalism represents an ideology that emerges in the wake of affluence and development and thus is “post-material,” these Third World scholars have argued that peasants, indigenous peoples, and the poor, often the worst affected by the destruction of natural resources through development processes, have the greatest incentive to protect their resource base for their survival.

The conflicting perspectives on environment and development, starkly evident in the early scholarship on this topic and embodied in the debates at and following the 1972 Stockholm Conference, provide the context in which the paradigm of sustainable development emerged in the 1980s.

Brundtland, UNCED, and Advocacy of Sustainable Development

The concepts of sustainability and sustainable development, which were already in use during the early 1970s (Redclift 1989; Pezzoli 1997; Adams 2001), are sufficiently ambiguous and porous to lend themselves to the divergent agendas of environmental scholars and activists, policymakers, and development practitioners (see, e.g., Dryzek 2005 and Meadowcroft 2000).

The term “sustainable development” first received international attention in 1980 when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), declared the goal of “sustainable development through the conservation of living resources” in its World Conservation Strategy (IUCN 1980). This attempt to reconcile the competing goals of environmentalism and economic development received further impetus in the reports of international environmental organizations, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (see Redclift 1989; Adams 2001). But it was with the publication of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), Our Common Future (1987), also known as the Brundtland Report, that sustainable development became “the dominant global discourse of ecological concern” (Dryzek 2005:123).

The best known definition of sustainable development comes from the WCED:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of “needs,” in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization in the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

(WCED 1987: 43)

Indeed, since 1987, nearly all environment and development issues have been understood in relation to the concept of sustainable development. The concept proved enormously attractive to both the First and Third Worlds, as it provided a bridge between seemingly irreconcilable goals – development, environmental protection, peace and security, and social justice (Meadowcroft 2000; Dryzek 2005). By invoking a vision that addressed the three key aspects of social, environmental, and economic concerns simultaneously without prescribing a fixed action plan, sustainable development offered a compelling discourse for numerous global and national actors.

The rapid and dramatic discursive shift prompted by adopting the term contrasted starkly with the slow and barely discernable policy shifts undertaken by intergovernmental organizations such as the World Bank, UNEP, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); nongovernmental organizations; business organizations; national governments or their aid agencies; development practitioners; environmental activists; or scholars. Other concerns – particularly globalization, neoliberal structural adjustment policies, free trade agreements, and institutions – still continue to dominate the development literature.

Our Common Future was addressed to the United Nations General Assembly, which partly in response convened the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – the Earth Summit – in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to consider progress toward the goal of sustainable development (Adams 2008). UNCED produced a number of key documents, including the Rio Declaration, comprising 27 principles, including “the sovereign right of countries to develop” and “the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities for the global environment” (Adams 2008: 90); Agenda 21; and the Statement of Principles on Forests (see Pezzoli 1997). Like Our Common Future, Agenda 21, an over 600-page document presenting 120 initiatives to be implemented by the year 2000, gives primacy to economic growth, expresses faith in technology as a solution to our environmental and developmental problems, and calls for public participation as a necessary requirement for sustainable development (Adams 2008).

The Rio Earth Summit was followed a decade later by the Johannesburg Summit in 2002 – the World Summit on Sustainable Development. This was the last of the UN world conferences to deal with environment and development in a comprehensive way, and was much more about development than about environment. Among other things, the Johannesburg Summit recognized trade and environment as a key dimension of sustainable development, reinforcing the 2001 decision of the Fourth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization to put a few trade and environment issues on the negotiating agenda for a new multilateral trade agreement. The ideal of sustainable development continues to be little contested, but its meaning – such as in the perceived relationships of trade and environment – remains highly contentious. Nevertheless, since 2002 politicians and activists may have begun to understand, and act upon, environment, trade, and development issues in a more politically nuanced and strategic way (Najam 2007).

These political developments have been paralleled, and informed, by the emergence of the fields of environmental economics in the 1960s and, significantly, ecological economics in the 1980s (see Adams 2008 for an overview). Ecological economics addresses the links between economic systems and ecosystems and has driven efforts at implementing sustainable development. A key example of such initiatives includes the use of environmental accounting, such as the United Nations Statistical Division's System of Integrating Environmental and Economic Accounting (Adams 2008: 155).

Similarly, environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a potentially transformative policy tool that has sought to introduce ecological rationality into decision making processes on development projects (see Bartlett 1986; Bartlett and Kurian 1999; Bartlett 2005). EIA has been adopted by national governments and international development organizations albeit with limited success in ensuring environmentally sound decisions (Fox and Brown 1998; Kurian 2000).

Simultaneously, there has been specific attention in the sustainable development literature to a range of environmental problems, in the wake of the Rio and Johannesburg Summits. These issues include, most prominently, desertification (Thomas and Middleton 1994; Mortimore 1998); tropical deforestation (Hecht and Cockburn 1990; Fairhead and Leach 1996); biodiversity conservation (Peluso 1993; Adams and Mulligan 2003); water resources, including dam building and the privatization of water (McCully 1996; World Commission on Dams 2000); and climate change (Agarwal and Narain 1991; Moomaw et al. 1999). Each of these issues has received significant academic and policy attention, and demonstrates how the concept of sustainable development has variously lent itself to applied policy analysis and environmental activism spanning from the grassroots to the global, as well as critical scholarly evaluation.

In short, there was an explosion of literature on sustainable development after the publication of Our Common Future and the 1992 Rio Summit, spread across different disciplines, and driven by differing agendas and theoretically diverse perspectives (see, e.g., Redclift 1989; Lélé 1991; Pezzy 1992; Dobson 1996; Pezzoli 1997; Jabareen 2004, 2008). This is reflected in leading efforts to summarize and synthesize. Pezzoli (1997:554) identifies 10 distinct literatures that examine sustainability: managerialism, policy and planning; social conditions; environmental law; environmental sciences; eco-design and the built environment; ecological economics; ecophilosophy, environmental values and ethics; environmental history and human geography/ecology; utopianism, anarchism and bioregionalism; and political ecology. Jabareen (2008), in contrast, identifies seven distinct metaphors that “together construct the knowledge map of sustainable development” (p. 636), constituting distinct knowledge domains: the ethical paradox metaphor; the natural capital stock metaphor; the fairness metaphor; the eco-form metaphor; the integrative management metaphor; the global discourse metaphor; and the utopian metaphor. Such reviews of the sustainable development literature capture the diversity and range of the scholarship on sustainable development, charting the movement of this concept from the margins of the debates around development and environment in the early 1980s to its centrality and dominance today (see the changing scope of William Adams's three editions of Green Development published in 1990, 2001, and 2008). Indeed, ideologically and in practice, sustainable development is shaped, on the one hand by mainstream concerns around “management, regulation and ‘rational utilization’” of the environment, and on the other by an ecocentric focus, “embracing ideas of bioethics, and the intrinsic values of non-human natures” (Adams 2008: 22). Overall:

Sustainable development is a deeply contentious term, marked by repeated attempts to salvage it and to savage it. It lends itself easily, far too easily perhaps, to the efforts of international agencies and nation-states to protect the natural resources base with the overt or covert intention of converting nature into capital. And yet it continues to offer those concerned with environmental sustainability a way of capturing the complexities and possibilities associated with a vision of a better, green future.

(Kurian and Bartlett 2003:2)

Equity and Justice Criticisms of the Relationship of Environment and Development

Development, environment, and sustainability are all normative concepts with implications for ethics and justice (Kurian and Bartlett 2003). The vast literature on sustainable development has spawned a range of critiques from a variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives. The environmental justice literature developed after early sustainable development literature, and raises questions about intragenerational equity, which is underemphasized in sustainable development literature because of its emphasis on long term maintenance or intergenerational equity, which may be possible to increase in spite of extreme intragenerational inequity. Some scholars argue that, in its origins, sustainability was “a discourse of resistance” with a commitment to social justice that has been undermined and displaced by a hegemonic pro-growth discourse (Carruthers 2001:93). Too often the assumption in the sustainable development literature is that poverty per se, in terms of resource availability, causes environmental problems rather than looking for causes in issues of access, control, and management of resources (Forsyth and Leach 1998; see also Scott 2006).

Critical analyses of the idea that sustainable development offers a definitive reconciliation of environment and development fall into at least four categories: (1) economic critiques, (2) feminist critiques, (3) cultural critiques, and (4) environmentalist critiques. All address what they regard as fundamental inconsistencies and misconceptions, and all also address ethical and justice considerations.

Economic Critiques of Development

A sustained critique of simplistic conceptions of development has come from Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who has argued for the centrality of values in understanding development. Beginning with his work on social values and development (Sen 1984) and continuing with his work on the “capabilities approach” to development (Sen 1985), and his significant effort to place freedom, dignity and well-being at the heart of economic development (Sen 1999), Sen has provided pathbreaking challenges to simplistic conceptions that equate economic growth (measured by GDP per capita) with development. Yet environment per se has remained outside his core focus.

The field of ecological economics offers another critique of traditional economic development, one focusing on its deficiencies in ignoring ecological systems as natural capital and assuming the fungibility of all physical resources (see Daly 1977; Costanza 1991; Pearce and Barbier 2000). Daly's (1977) idea of “steady-state economics,” in line with the ideas prominent in the 1970s of “limits to growth” and “zero growth,” challenged the commitment of conventional economics to perpetual growth. Daly argued that ecological limits mean that it would be impossible to extend the high-consumption economy of the US to the world population; hence the balancing of justice and sustainability requires wealthy societies to cut consumption, while poor societies cut population and raise consumption to the new, “reduced” level of the rich countries. More recent thinking about accounting for natural capital and ecosystem services raises questions about how much of the traditional development project results in a net increase in either wealth or well-being (Costanza et al. 1997; Prugh 1999). Some of those societies traditionally thought of as poor and underdeveloped may be, in terms of access to important ecosystem services, much richer than held by traditional accounting and others more impoverished. Full accounting to include depletion of natural capital and the value of ecosystem services may show conventional economic development leading to decreases in net wealth.

Feminist Critiques of Development and Environment

A close examination of issues linking women, environment, and development in the Third World illustrates many of the problematical ethics and justice dimensions of sustainable development generally. Most development literature ignores feminist concerns, as does most environment and development literature, even though feminist critiques raise troubling concerns (Kurian and Bartlett 2003). Nevertheless a small but significant body of work focuses on the relationships and links between women/gender and development. This scholarship straddles a number of ideological and philosophical strands, including ecofeminism (drawing on radical feminism); women in development or WID (liberal feminism); women and development or WAD (Marxist feminism); gender and development or GAD (socialist feminism); women, environment and sustainable development or WED; and women, culture and development or WCD (see Bhavnani, Foran and Kurian 2003b, for an overview). While all of the works in these various strands focus on Third World women's experiences with development, not all recognize the significance of the environment. Indeed, much of the WID, WAD, and GAD scholarship takes traditional ideas of development as a given, attempting only to address the inequities of development experienced by women (Boserup 1970; Tinker 1990). Where environmental degradation is recognized as an issue, there is a tendency among WID practitioners “to disproportionately implicate women in environmental degradation […]” (Zein-Elabdin 1996:933). Poverty here is seen to push women into environmentally destructive practices. This, of course, ignores the fact that much of current environmental degradation is a consequence of the very development promoted by the state and development agencies. For the most part, WAD scholars too treat the environment only as a source of resources – not very different from the WID model or even from traditional developmentalism.

The emergence of GAD studies since the late 1980s is positive in that gender analysis recognizes gender differences in access to and control over resources and by so doing has the potential to meaningfully integrate environmental concerns. Yet, with few exceptions, this potential remains unrealized. For most, the practice of gender analysis has meant a continuation of an acceptance of the traditional development agenda.

The WCD approach offers a fresh perspective on understanding how Third World women resist and challenge the conditions they face (Bhavnani et al. 2003a). Scholars of the WCD genre recognize that development needs to be tied to the notion of creating ecologically rational and socially just societies. They also see that attaining these goals has material implications for women in the Third World and for the way they come to terms with culturally defined ideas of sustainable livelihoods.

The most sustained attention to the linkages between women, environment, and sustainable development (WED) has come from scholars who examine the significance of women and of gender relations to issues of environmental sustainability. Among the theoretical perspectives found in this genre, of particular significance is B. Agarwal's (1992) conception of feminist environmentalism. Agarwal argues that women's and men's relationships with nature are shaped by the specific ways in which they interact with the environment (p. 126). She maintains that since the processes of production, reproduction, and distribution vary by gender and class (among other categories), it follows that women and men experience and understand the environment differently, and hence are likely to define and be affected by it differently. Furthermore, “the differences in divisions of labor, property, and power which shape experience also shape the knowledge based on that experience” (p. 126); hence women's knowledge of the environment is distinct from that of the men of their class (p. 126; see also Fernandes and Menon 1987; Shiva 1988). Because women play a crucial role in most societies as food producers, providers, and managers, and in Third World countries poor peasant and tribal women are traditionally responsible for fetching fuel and water as well as much of the cultivation, environmental degradation is likely to affect them in specific ways not experienced by men.

Other scholars focus on the institutional contexts that frame issues of gender and the environment (see Leach 1994; Zein-Elabdin 1996). Mikkelsen's (2005) work deserves particular attention for its specific focus on indigenous women in the “women-environment” literature. She points out that women and indigenous peoples have both been depicted as:

being closer to nature, more spiritual in their dealings with the environment, and consequently both victims of environmental degradation and at the same time important actors for ensuring alternative models for sustainable development. Indigenous women can consequently be seen not only as doubly oppressed but also as doubly idealised natural resource managers […] It seems as if their position as both women and indigenous have somehow made them doubly invisible as both groups in general have been treated as homogeneous entities. (pp. 11–12)

Clearly there is no one theoretical conception of women and the environment among these authors. However, they do share (1) a concern for rural Third World women as the worst affected by environmental and development crises, and (2) a focus on environmentally sustainable development from the perspective of women. Despite differing emphases, feminists all agree that the mainstream discourse of sustainable development fails by not acknowledging the significance of gender (Harcourt 1994a; Braidotti et al. 1994; Masika and Joekes 1997, for example). For Harcourt (1994b:22), the feminist approach to sustainable development is not about articulating any one right approach to development; rather, it seeks to identify ways to bring about change as defined by both the people living in the area and by relevant outsiders. The scholarship draws attention to women's eroding access to natural resources, especially to land and forests (see, e.g., B. Agarwal 1992, 1994, 1998; Jiggins 1994) as a result of modern development. The introduction of modern agriculture practices in Africa, for example, has destroyed indigenous ways of life (Momsen and Kinnaird 1993) and adversely affected women's access to land (Jiggins 1994).

Perhaps the most striking feature of this literature is that it explicitly eschews the traditional development model. The concept of sustainable development is, for the most part, evaluated from a feminist perspective. The commodification of nature, the ensuing destruction of subsistence economies, and the negative impacts of these on women are explored. Yet, women are often constructed as victims, seen only in terms of an environment that is changing and beyond their control by many of the scholars in this model. Even when women's agency is analyzed, there has been a tendency to describe women's (and peasants’ and indigenous people's) connection with nature in simplistic terms. Overall, it is evident that there are sharp divergences in terms of theoretical perspectives, policy relevance, and sensitivity to the nuanced and varied nature of the relationships between women, indigenous peoples, natural resource management, and development.

Post-Development/Cultural Critiques of Development

Among the most radical critiques of development are those that wholly reject the traditional development project itself. These are sometimes grouped together under the umbrella terms “post-development,” “alternative development,” or “neo/populist development,” to name the most prominent (see, among others, Esteva 1992; Escobar 1995, 2007; Rahnema 1997; Ziai 2007). Drawing on Foucauldian poststructuralist theoretical perspectives, post-development critics, such as Escobar (2007), focus on development as a cultural discourse and interrogate how and why “Asia, Africa and Latin America came to be defined as ‘under-developed’ and so in need of development” (p. 19). These scholars reject the development project as a fundamentally flawed and violent manifestation of the project of modernity, calling instead for “trajectories that are multiple and lead to multiple states” (Escobar 2007:29): “This would involve […] imagining beyond modernity and the regimes of economy, war, coloniality, exploitation of people and nature and social fascism it has brought about in its imperial global incarnation” (p. 29).

For many post-development scholars, sustainable development is “a cruel deception,” “simply […] another example of Western Hegemony […]: nice sounding words and ideals, but in fact nothing more than business as usual given that ‘progress’ equates to consumerism, industrialization and inevitable pollution” (Morse 2008:343). While cautioning about its “extreme populism” – namely, “an assumption that the local is always right,” Morse (2008) argues that the post-development critique “can provide an essential counterweight and warning as to the dangers of Western hegemony over sustainable development” (p. 348).

Overlapping to an extent with post-development critiques are the works by Bhavnani et al. (2009a; 2009b) and Bhavnani et al. (2003b), which place culture, women, and subaltern publics at the center of the development project. These works seek alternative visions of development that articulate “the labor, cultures, and histories of women and men outside the mainstream frame of development [to offer] more helpful insights to ameliorate injustice and inequality, the ultimate goal for all forms of development” (Bhavnani et al. 2009b:27).

These critical perspectives on development, with a primary focus on the most marginalized sections of society, recognize the ways in which resource exploitation and destruction are a fundamental part of the modern development project. In their analyses of resource wars and the strategies of resistance of the poor, these scholars illustrate how taken-for-granted terms in the lexicon of development and environment, such as “needs” and “development” are culturally bound, and understandings and applications of “sustainable” are culturally variable.

Tensions are caused by the dynamic character of all cultures and all environments. Traditional notions of economic development assume that only change in the direction of increased material wealth is good, whereas cultural and environmental conservationists tend to assume that cultural change, especially toward globalized norms, as well as landscape and ecosystem change are all bad, although they are often willing to accommodate limited change that increases material wealth. Therefore, ironically, conservationists place themselves in the position of joining with the developmentalists they criticize so severely in defining any change that does not produce more wealth as bad. Yet we know that all cultures and all environments are dynamic and ever changing and that most of these changes do not normally result in generation of material wealth per se.

Environmental Critiques

Some environmentalist literature is highly critical of sustainable development, contending that it is an oxymoronic concept that privileges development, development inevitably being environmentally harmful (see, e.g., Worster 1993; Harrison 2000). For these critics, focusing on sustainable development facilitates avoiding consideration of unpleasant truths and the inevitable tradeoffs between industrialism-consumerism and environmentalism (see Chatterjee and Finger 1994; Princen, Maniates, and Conca 2002). They believe, as Worster (1993) argues, without an acknowledgment that the “progressive, secular, and materialist philosophy on which modern life rests […] is deeply flawed and ultimately destructive to ourselves,” the goal of environmental sustainability will never be attained (p. 143).

Indeed, not every environmental problem is a concern for sustainable development. Every human activity has consequences for the environment, and some of these consequences may be substantial or severe – say, the extinction of a species or the destruction of a unique landform – yet may have no discernable implications for the sustainability of development however greenly that might be understood. What sustainable development seeks to conserve or sustain is not any particular environmental condition or asset, but the process of development itself (Sachs 1993:10; Langhelle 1999:134). The only core value of environmentalism that must necessarily be embraced by sustainable development is farsightedness, which presumably is essential for sustaining anything (Ascher 2009). Nearly all of the scholarship on sustainable development begs the question of what the actual limits to growth might be. It assumes the desirability of some further economic growth, growth that would greatly increase the standard of living of the world's poor without requiring reduction of the wealth of the world's wealthy, and would accommodate continuation of ongoing population trends. The inherent ambiguity of the term sustainable development encourages believing that it is possible to have one's cake and eat it too, i.e., continued economic growth, at least for a few decades, without long term environmental harm. To the extent that sustainable development addresses the possible long term conflicts among these assumptions, it does so with a further assumption, namely, that economic growth does not necessarily require physical (material) economic growth (that is, ever continuing “angelization” of an economy is possible) (Daly 1977, 1993). None of these assumptions have been demonstrated to be possible at levels of material well being that many in the modern world would consider reasonable minima (Daly 1996).


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                We thank the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, for support for this project, and Jeanette Wright for exemplary research assistance.