Research Paper on Sustainable Development

This sample research paper on Sustainable Development features 4200+ words (14 pages) and a bibliography with 49 sources.

The idea of sustainable development dominates late-twentieth-century discussions of environment and development policy. It is a key term in international treaties, covenants, and programs and is being written into the constitutions of nation-states. An immense literature has gathered around it (Marien). Even those who reject the term must define their views in reference to it. In spite of this influence, serious empirical, conceptual, and normative problems must be addressed if the term is to serve as a comprehensive framework for efforts to sustain the biosphere and advance human fulfillment, economic security, and social justice throughout the world.

The Appeal of Sustainable Development

If the peoples of the world are to cooperate in solving their economic, social, and environmental problems, they must share a common understanding of the relationships among these problems and a common vision of a sustainable and just future. The economic expansion that began in the West several centuries ago has spread to embrace the world, transforming all societies in its wake and creating a global economic system and attendant monoculture with powerful human and environmental impacts. Given the dominance of this system, there needs to be a comprehensive policy framework to guide it—even if the framework adopted is critical of the system itself and seeks to redirect or even dismantle it.

Sustainable development is an appealing candidate for this office. “The key element of sustainable development is the recognition that economic and environmental goals are inextricably linked” (National Commission on the Environment, p. 2). This premise, bolstered by empirical claims that poverty and environmental degradation feed one another and that conservation need not constrain development nor development result in environmental degradation, has obvious political advantages. It allows persons with conflicting positions in the environment-development debate to search for common ground without appearing to compromise their positions. New coalitions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned for justice, population, environment, and development issues have formed under the flag of sustainable development. Business leaders have come forward to propose new business-to-business and business-to-government partnerships in the name of sustainable development (International Chamber of Commerce; Schmidheiny). In addition, sustainable development has broad moral appeal among those motivated by concern for present as well as future generations, since it purports to be the name for a process and a future state in which everyone and the environment as a whole will benefit.

“Sustainable” qualifies the idea of development. After World War II it was widely assumed that economic development would lead to greater freedom, justice, and security for the world’s peoples. When environmental issues first appeared on the international agenda at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the debate was whether—and how—concerns for environment and equity could be reconciled with economic development. In succeeding years, as economic development strategies failed to close the gap between rich and poor, within or between nations, and studies showed growth in world population and consumption approaching Earth’s biophysical limits, questions were raised about whether the theory of development could serve either human or environmental needs and whether it did not need to be modified to include ecological, political, social, cultural, and spiritual considerations.

By 1992, for most participants at the World Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio de Janeiro, these issues appeared settled. The principal agreement of the conference, Agenda 21, affirms that “integration of environment and development … will lead to the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can—in a global partnership for sustainable development” (United Nations, p. 15).

This research paper analyzes why the concept of sustainable development occupies the center of thought on development and environment policy, how it is being defined, what criticisms are being raised about it, and what kind of work is needed if the concept truly is to meet the needs of the planet.

Sustainable development nicely expresses the progressive evolutionary worldview that emerged in the West in the late nineteenth century, with all the presumed objective support of the natural sciences, and the positive attitude toward social change often associated with it (Esteva). This progressivist ideology recognizes the problems posed by the interactions of population growth, resource use, and environmental degradation but is guardedly optimistic about the capacities of modern societies to solve those problems, given public understanding, technological and structural improvements in keeping with sound scientific research, and strong political leadership. As the Stockholm Declaration affirmed: “[T]he capability of man to improve the environment increases with each passing day” (Weston et al., p. 344).

The discourse of sustainable development thus occupies a middle-of-the-road position between those perspectives that take an uncritically optimistic attitude toward growth and technological change and those that predict the inevitability of global collapse. It also confirms the liberal insistence that the meaning of the goal of human development, fulfillment, or quality of life be stated in purely formal terms so that individuals and groups have the opportunity to define it for themselves (Kidd).

The Meaning of Sustainable Development

Mainstream thinking on sustainable development views it as a form of societal change that adds the objective or constraint of resource sustainability to the traditional development objective of meeting basic human needs (Lele). “Mainstream thinking” refers to those ideological frameworks typical of international environmental agencies such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); international development agencies, including the World Bank; research organizations such as the International Institute for Environment and Development; and NGOs such as the Washington-based Global Tomorrow Coalition.

The concept of resource sustainability originated in the late nineteenth century in the context of renewable resources such as forests or fisheries, where it informed such ideas as maximum sustainable yield. When the language of sustainable development came into international usage with the publication by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), UNEP, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of the World Conservation Strategy in 1980, this original meaning was retained but broadened to include the maintenance of ecosystem carrying capacity and the management and conservation of all living resources as a necessary prerequisite to development. Thus a clear line of intellectual (and often institutional and professional) descent runs from Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, and other turn-of-the-century advocates of the resource conservation ethic in Europe and the United States, to contemporary mainstream thought on sustainable development. Pinchot’s utilitarian notion that “conservation … stands for development … the use of natural resources … for the greatest number for the longest time” remains at the root of contemporary thinking on sustainable development (Pinchot, pp. 42–48).

It is possible to interpret sustainable development literally to mean sustaining indefinitely the process of economic growth, change, or development. But this viewpoint is not representative of the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, prime minister of Norway, the group most responsible for marshaling the data, argument, and political influence necessary to put the term on the agenda of international debate. In the commission’s view, although a new era of more efficient technological and economic growth is needed in order to break the link of poverty and environmental degradation, “ultimate limits [to usable resources] exist” and indefinite economic expansion is therefore impossible (World Commission on Environment and Development, pp. 8–9).

Nonetheless, like the goal of equity, the prerequisite of ecological sustainability is often either downplayed or presumed, as in the classic definition offered by the World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, p. 43). Ecological sustainability is more likely to be mentioned in a list of requirements of sustainable development, such as those composed by the organizers of the Ottawa Conference on Conservation and Development in 1986 (Jacobs and Munro):

  • integration of conservation and development
  • satisfaction of basic human needs
  • achievement of equity and social justice
  • provision for social self-determination and cultural diversity
  • maintenance of ecological integrity

Issues of Sustainable Development

For many critics, sustainable development lacks clarity of definition, including criteria for and examples of successful achievement (Yanarella and Levine). As early as 1984, UNEP Executive Director Mostafa K. Tolba lamented that sustainable development had become “an article of faith, a shibboleth; often used, but little explained” (Lele, p. 607). A recent survey of the literature on sustainable development found that “case studies are surprisingly few and often hard to come by” (Slocombe et al.). It is notable that the second version of the World Conservation Strategy, Caring for the Earth, acknowledges the ambiguity of the term, and places its emphasis on “building a sustainable society” (IUCN, UNEP, WWF, 1991).

For other critics, the concept of sustainable development is all too clear and fundamentally mistaken. Negative critiques of sustainable development cluster around its (1) empirical accuracy; (2) idea of justice; (3) idea of sustainability; (4) economic assumptions; (5) view of science; and (6) metaphorical and spiritual assumptions.

Empirical Accuracy

The empirical basis of sustainable development thinking is criticized both for its analysis of the problems of poverty and environmental degradation and for its proposed solutions to them. Thijs de la Court and Richard B. Norgaard (1988a), among others, argue that mainstream thinking typically ignores the two major factors responsible for both of these problems—the shift of local economies to production of exports for the world market and the adoption by traditional societies of the values of Western urban and capitalist society. Thus global free trade, the solution often offered by sustainable development proponents as the way to greater integration of the local community into the world economic system, will only intensify the problems, lending support to massive, hierarchically managed, capital-intensive industrial projects— dams, plantations, factories, urban settlements—that destroy the diversity and integrity of human communities and environments alike (Sachs). Nor will most of the other policies typically promoted in the name of sustainable development be of much help: more scientific data, more efficient technology, improved managerial capabilities, and more effective environmental education. Much more fundamental and difficult actions are necessary, such as community control of the economy, land reform, changes in cultural values, and reductions in the consumption of industrial commodities and in birthrates (Lele).

Social Justice

Most pronouncements on sustainable development hold that social justice, especially in the form of equity between wealthy and poor nations, is essential to the process. Critics contend that these ideas are seldom explicated in any detail, however. The issue of population stabilization is generally avoided, conflicting claims of intragenerational versus intergenerational equity are not addressed, and fundamental civil and political rights are seldom mentioned. In keeping with traditional development theory, there is abstract emphasis on meeting basic human needs and, in recent years, participation of all stakeholders, but it is seldom clear what these needs are, which ones should have priority, what kind of participation is required, or how sustainable development will result in greater justice or environmental protection.

These questions have become especially acute in the sphere of gender. One of the primary challenges to mainstream thinking on sustainable development has come from the international women’s movement through organizations such as INSTRAW (United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women) and ecofeminist theoretical perspectives, such as those of Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies (Braidotti et al.). Within the women’s movement there is widespread recognition of the deepseated patriarchal assumptions in development discourse and the connections between the destruction of nature and the exploitation of women and other marginal groups in the development process. Mainstream sustainable development theory does little to change this. Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development adopted by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, retains a patriarchal orientation, evident in its failure to recognize the special role of “subdominants”—women, people of color, children, native and indigenous people—in each of its seven major themes (Warren). In order to address this problem, the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO) and other organizations have argued for the need for women to gain control over natural resources and the benefits that are derived from them and for recognition of women’s special knowledge and skills in environmental care.

Idea of Sustainability

Environmental ethicists and scientific ecologists are critical of the idea of sustainable development because of its reductionist approach to environmental values. Discussions of sustainable development typically assume that what needs to be sustained is human use, especially human agricultural use and industrial production. Yet instrumental value is only one of the many environmental values that need to be sustained in the complex interplay of human enjoyment, respect, use, and care of nature, and there is empirical evidence that singleminded pursuit of instrumental value through such policies, for example, as “maximum sustainable yield” seldom succeeds (Ludwig et al.). Agenda 21 is criticized for its exclusive concentration on the need to sustain the environment for human use. Chapter 15, for example, argues that the primary reason for preserving biodiversity is that it provides a potential source of genetic materials for biotechnological development (Sagoff ). This emphasis reflects a strong anthropocentric value orientation, explicit in Principle 1 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development” (United Nations, p. 9).

In an unprecedented policy decision in 1991, the Ecological Society of America challenged the widely held assumption that what ought to be sustained is human use of the biosphere. It set the goal of a “sustainable biosphere” as its priority for research in ecology in the closing decade of the twentieth century, thus implying that the biosphere has value in and for itself and that above all else this is the value that must be sustained (Risser et al.).

Failure to recognize that nature has value of its own (as well as for the sake of humans) has serious practical consequences. Not only does it inhibit acceptance of the idea of sustainable development by many environmental and religious groups whose traditions embrace a more generous understanding of nature’s values, but it eliminates consideration of those meanings of sustainability having to do with the way life nourishes life—with sustenance. Certain methods of subsistence agriculture, for example, built up over many generations, especially by women, simultaneously nourish human communities and the soil, yet fail to receive public recognition and support (Shiva).

Economic Assumptions

Criticisms of the economic analysis and prescriptions of sustainable development thinking have been suggested above and may be summarized under two primary headings. First, and most generally, are those criticisms that find in the idea of sustainable development only another example of the triumph of homo economicus in modern society. There is a prevalent assumption that sustainable development is equivalent to sustainable economic development. Thus economists at the International Institute for Environment and Development argue in circular fashion that their “sustainability paradigm,” a version of the “conventional economic paradigm, illustrated by utilitarian benefit-cost analysis,” if modified to allow for the concept of intergenerational equity, is preferable to the “bioethics paradigm” that recognizes intrinsic values in nature, because, among other things, the latter “inhibits [economic] development” (Turner and Pearce, p. 2).

The second sort of criticism concentrates on the failure of sustainable development thinking to challenge the assumption that economic growth can break the link between poverty and environmental degradation. Although the Brundtland commission recognized “ultimate limits,” it nonetheless recommended a five- to tenfold increase in global economic productivity to reduce poverty and provide the resources for environmental protection (World Commission on Environment and Development). Ecological economists such as Herman Daly point out the biophysical impossibility of such growth and the need to arrest, or even reduce, the total “throughput” or flow of matter-energy, from natural sources, through the human economy, and back to nature’s sinks. They believe that a strict distinction should be made between growth, defined as “quantitative expansion in the scale of the physical dimensions of the economic system,” which cannot be sustained indefinitely, and development, defined as the “qualitative change of a physically nongrowing economic system in dynamic equilibrium with the environment,” which can be so sustained (Daly and Cobb, p. 71). In their view, limited progress can be made in arresting economic growth by enforcing accepted maxims of sound economics, for example, increased resource efficiency and environmental accounting to show how income is actually a drawdown of natural capital or stock resources. Such measures alone, however, will be insufficient without redistribution of wealth and income between nations and classes, as well as population stabilization.

View of Science

Mainstream sustainable development thinking is dominated by the policy languages of science, economics, and law. Typical of such discourse is the view that science can provide a value-neutral definition of sustainability acceptable to persons with widely differing value perspectives (Brooks). But critics point to hidden norms in scientific methodology that support the status quo and are inconsistent with the personal and political transformations needed for justice and care of Earth. Moreover, only a very narrow range of considerations can be scientifically determined, thereby effectively eliminating challenges to established value judgments. In addition, the use of risk analysis focuses on involuntary costs that ecological changes may impose on society rather than on what should be the most important concern: the altering of ecosystems that riskfree business-as-usual will effectuate (Sagoff ). Donald Ludwig, Ray Hilborn, and Carl Walters (1993) argue that the history of resource exploitation teaches the necessity of action before scientific consensus is achieved and that while science can help recognize problems, it cannot provide solutions. They caution that spending money on more scientific research is often a way to avoid addressing problems of population growth and excessive use of resources.

Metaphorical and Spiritual Assumptions

Some critics consider the concept of development a dangerous mystification of history and do not believe adding the adjective sustainable appreciably alters the difficulty. Biologically speaking, development means progress from earlier to later, or from simpler to more complex, stages in the growth of an organism. In post-World War II development discourse, it was used as a metaphor for the transition of traditional societies into modern industrial societies (leading to distinctions between “underdeveloped,” “developing,” and “developed” societies). Used in this way, the metaphor implies a step forward in a linear progression, a natural, organic flowering, rather than a deliberate, culturally specific invention. It also implies that the most modern nations, such as the United States, are the most civilized and therefore models to imitate. Adding sustainable to development only confirms these biological connotations and hence strengthens its potential to obscure differences among cultures and the drawbacks of modernization.

But more than a misplaced analogy is at issue. Development is a powerful secular religion, in the words of Peter Berger, “the focus of redemptive hopes and expectations” (Berger, p. 17). Viewed in these terms, development means more than an improvement in material living standards. Development as religion means that human fulfillment is to be found in activities that improve material living conditions, for oneself and for others. Development as religion is a messianic mission to bring the fruits of material progress to the world, and it is questionable whether the idea of sustainable development substantially changes this. To depart from the religion of development would require defining the ends of development in terms of qualitative, as well as quantitative, goods—goods such as truth, beauty, freedom, friendship, humility, simplicity. Not only are such moral and spiritual goods the most worthy ends of human life; they may be the only way to empower persons to reduce their consumption, limit their procreation, and live sustainable lives (Goulet, 1990).

The Future of Sustainable Development

Given the value placed upon unthrottled economic growth in industrial and nonindustrial societies alike, acceptance of the goal of sustainable development, even in a weak sense, is a remarkable and positive step (Marien). Moreover, acceptance of the idea of sustainable development in international circles and by the government, business, and NGO leadership of many nations, north and south, means that there now exists an opportunity for dialogue and new social compacts between diverse political constituencies. It is possible to argue, therefore, that the idea of sustainable development offers a realistic way of effecting a potentially radical transformation in global environment and development policy. The question is whether (1) these diverse constituencies can be engaged in a process of mutual inquiry, criticism, and discussion that will lead, step by step, toward improvements in the empirical, conceptual, and normative adequacy of the idea and in meaningful attempts to embody it in practice; and (2) an international political constituency, uniting mainstream and marginal groups and actors, can be mobilized to challenge the entrenched powers that will inevitably be threatened by changes in policy. There is also the question of whether these things can happen quickly enough, before disillusionment sets in and a fragile consensus is shattered. There are several ways of advancing this kind of agenda over the next decade. Empirical understanding of sustainable development will improve with a more issuedriven and democratically structured scientific approach that recognizes the uncertainty of facts, conflicts in values, and the urgency of decisions. Such an approach needs to be transdisciplinary and practically focused on the dynamics responsible for poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation and on how these dynamics may be changed without economic growth through resource depletion. It requires analyses of factors such as human motivation and ownership patterns, neglected in most studies to date. Studies of alternative development policies in the Indian state of Kerala present good examples (Franke and Chasin).

Empirical adequacy also will improve through initiatives such as those now underway to design quantitative “indicators” of sustainability (Trzyna), especially those indexes that can challenge, and eventually replace, the Gross National Product (GNP) as the measure of economic and social wellbeing. For example, Daly and Cobb (1989) propose an Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare that measures not only levels of consumption but also income distribution, natural resource depletion, and environmental damage. Macroeconomic criteria and indicators of sustainability have been proposed in areas such as population stability, greenhouse gases, soil degradation, and preservation of natural ecosystems (Ayres). Specific moral and material incentives to meet these criteria are also being developed (Goulet, 1989).

The conceptual and normative adequacy of the idea of sustainable development will improve as it is expanded to include the full range of moral and public policy criteria necessary to sustain the biosphere and advance human fulfillment, economic security, and social justice throughout the world (Corson). Such a redefinition of the goals of sustainable development will need to include (1) development conceived primarily as improvement in the quality of human life; (2) sustainability conceived as the sustainability of Earth’s biosphere, with protection and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity and sustainable use of renewable resources contributing to that end; (3) the transition to a steady-state global economy by reducing consumption among affluent classes while at the same time promoting economic growth in poor communities to meet basic human needs and provide the resources necessary for environmental protection; (4) redistribution of wealth and income between rich and poor nations; (5) population stabilization and eventual reduction to more optimal levels; (6) guarantees of basic human rights, including environmental rights, to all persons, with special attention to the empowerment of women and children; (7) new nondominating and nonreductionsitic ways of producing and transmitting knowledge of the environment and sustainable livelihood; and (8) freedom for local cultures, Western and non-Western, to pursue a variety of alternative visions and strategies of sustainable development.

The philosophy of sustainable development will also improve as discussion moves beyond the confines of economics and resource management into larger multidisciplinary and public arenas. Most mainstream thought on sustainable development has taken place without the benefit of philosophy, theology, the arts, or humanities and with only limited benefit from scientific ecology. Yet intellectual leaders in these fields, from diverse cultures and faiths throughout the world, have been trying to understand the meaning of just, participatory, and sustainable ways of life for several decades (Engel and Engel). Citizens also have substantial contributions to make to an enlarged understanding of sustainable development, as the peoples’ alternative treaties signed at the NGO-led Global Forum at Rio de Janiero demonstrate (Rome et al.).

Nowhere is the challenge to mainstream sustainable development thinking more difficult—or more fateful— than in the area of comprehensive spiritual values and morals. In 1987 the U.N. Commission on Environment and Development concluded that “human survival and wellbeing could depend on success in elevating sustainable development to a global ethic” (World Commission on Environment and Development, p. 308). Faced with the prospect that the mainstream interpretation of sustainable development might well become a global ethic, critics argue for what they believe to be more adequate understandings of human nature and destiny, calling instead for “authentic development,” “just, participatory ecodevelopment,” or simply “good life.” Sustainable development need not be anthropocentric or androcentric; it may be theocentric or coevolutionary (Norgaard, 1988b), a human activity that nourishes and perpetuates the historical fulfillment of the whole community of life on Earth.

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