Sustainable Development: A Flawed Concept?

By-Anil Sebastian Pulickel, NLSIU, Bangalore.

As I sat down to ponder what sustainability means to me, I allowed myself the liberty of a little nostalgia. The resultant trips down memory lane inevitably ended with images from my early childhood. I grew up in Kerala, India—a place that has often been described as “God’s Own Country” as a tribute to its natural beauty. Twenty years back, being a curious kid there meant that it was impossible to not have a special connect with the environment. This was a bond that was perhaps exemplified during the monsoon season. As the torrential rains would start and the mist would roll in, and as the townsfolk repeated their annual ritual of discovering that the public drainage system had failed yet again, the children rejoiced. Every walk back home from school through the muddy, waist-high water was a new adventure. The woodlands would come alive, and weekend treks there with siblings and cousins would be a source of aural and visual pleasure. Every time a snake would find its way into the house, there would be a gathering of relatives who would capture it and release it back into the wild. Amidst these experiences were learnt important lessons of appreciating nature and respectfully coexisting with it.

It was as I sat smiling to myself at these memories that a somewhat startling thought came to me. No doubt I am influenced by childhood experiences such as these, but perhaps the continued possibility of these experiences was what sustainability should mean, and what it currently does not. The popular understanding of sustainability as ensuring the equal ability of present and future generations to meet their needs sounds sagacious. However, this definition turns entirely on what these “needs” are understood to be. The unfortunate reality is that the current understanding of these needs tends to narrowly describe them in terms of measurable, tangible benefits. The need to ensure that the number of people living below the poverty line is reduced, the need to ensure that there is an improvement in the annual per capita earnings, the need to ensure that burgeoning populations have adequate space to settle—these are some of the needs that are universally acknowledged as sufficiently legitimate to warrant the utilisation of the environment. If I were to perhaps suggest that there could also be a countervailing need to let my children experience the joys of exploration and discovery of nature, not too far from the backyard of their houses, I would probably be derided as the self-centred undesirable who stands in the way of the alleviation of the misery of the masses.

Therein lies the problem. The current decisions as to which needs can reasonably authorise the destruction of the environment do not reflect the aspirations of many individuals and communities that are affected by these decisions. I believe that this is fundamentally a case of different approaches to the idea of conservation. Local communities such as the one I grew up in practiced conservation as a result of what bordered on a sense of reverence towards the environment. Temple traditions involved prayers to trees and rivers. The act of killing an animal except for sustenance mandated penance for the absolution of the sin. Local folk tales were replete with personified stories of humans and nature helping each other in times of need, out of mutual affection. I tend to view these traditions as manifestations of a deep sense of respect for the intrinsic value of the surroundings. Those were days when an ethic of not harming a life form, even when to do so would make no difference in your life, was strong. The enjoyment of the environment was not reduced to the destruction of it for furthering tangible ends of humanity; the peace and pleasure one obtains from closeness to nature was of itself of value.

The situation is drastically different today. The standard for deciding the boundaries of sustainability has now become one of practical utility. This practical utility does not encompass such intangible things as the enjoyment of the existential value of the environment. The general philosophy has moved towards what some scholars have described as the “conservation ethic”—that the environment needs to be preserved to the extent where not doing so might have tangible, adverse impacts upon us or our future generations. This modified philosophy is apparent in how it has become a common refrain in the politics of my country to portray the need for development as unquestionably overriding the need for conservation. It is also reflected in the international scenario, where negotiations between countries in the recent past have focussed on whether economic development is an imperative need that defeats requirements of conservation. In this changed scenario, it becomes a lot easier for the environment to be subject to compromises. It becomes a lot harder to raise demands to sustain the surroundings due to the value of letting them be there.

Seen in this light, it becomes clear that our conventional understanding of sustainability has been restricted in order to exclude from its ambit such notions as the need to preserve nature due to any intrinsic value. In fact, such has been the influence of this understanding that even communities that have traditionally not been bound by instrumental ethics when it comes to protecting the environment have been changing their policies. Kerala, in the recent past, has increasingly and aggressively promoted ‘measurable’ development projects at the cost of the destruction of the environment. The popularity of this concept is not difficult to comprehend. First, this model of ethics places man at the centre of the environment. Such anthropocentrism has historically appealed to the desires and emotions of humans. Second, within the context of the liberal values and human rights that are present in many countries, an approach that claims to be necessitated by the obligation to help people come out of their hardships seems completely consistent. In other words, the prevention of starvation appeals more strongly to our collective morality than the joy of walking through the woods.

At this juncture, it becomes necessary for me to clarify that I am not opposed to the noble goals of improving the lives of the poor and the destitute. However, I do advocate for a balancing test that will consider a wider range of factors, including the immense intrinsic value that many communities and people place on the environment. Sustainability contemplates the fulfilment of human needs, and there can be many forms that these needs take. For example, when deciding whether a forest has to be cut down to establish an industrial plant, if the valuable recycling of oxygen that the forest facilitates is considered as a factor, I believe that the intrinsic value that people may place on the existence of the forest must also be considered. This should hold especially in the case of local communities and their aspirations for their environments. To expand the scope of the considered factors would not be any more arbitrary. Instead, it would be recognition of the reality of the emotions of many.

Indeed, the value of preserving the environment without any consequent practical benefits has been indirectly and limitedly recognised in many parts of the world. When certain areas are declared as natural heritage sites and are ordained to be secured simply because they exist as a part of the common heritage of all humans, it is such an understanding that is seen to operate. I believe that this recognition should not be restricted to the territorial boundaries of such areas, but must be applied more broadly so that an appreciation for the intrinsic value of the environment becomes at least a factor that is considered while deciding whether an act is sustainable.

Such a modification of the parameters of judging whether something is sustainable intuitively seems to make the concept fairer. This is because this new understanding goes beyond current restrictions and seeks to fulfil even the needs of communities that see the environment as intrinsically valuable. Of course, any process that tries to adjudicate between conflicting needs would have to be subjective, and perhaps this subjectivity is enhanced when there are intangible factors also that need to be considered. It is undeniable that there are strong pragmatic reasons to stick with the status quo. However, even thinking about the alternative understanding has its benefits. At the very least, it exposes the serious conceptual compromises that are made in the current system of evaluating competing claims. But at a slightly more hopeful level, perhaps it can one day offer the basis for a new system of evaluation that acknowledges and rectifies the rampant exploitation of the environment that may be being permitted under the current weak standards to meet the requirement of “sustainable.” And such a new and improved understanding would, then, be what I understand to be truly meant by the term sustainability.

This essay is a Carnegie Council Award 2011 winning essay.


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