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Student number: 1355795

Module: 7SSG5106 Development and Environmentalism in the South

Essay title: “Proponents and analysts of SD [sustainable development] need to
clearly reject the attempts to focus on economic growth as a means to poverty
removal and/or environmental sustainability” (Lele 1991: 618). Do you agree
with this statement? Explain your position.
Due date: 9 May 2014
Student number: 1355795
Word count: 2017 / 2,500

Since the 1990s, mainstream sustainable development discourses have focused on

sustaining economic growth (Adams, 2009; Banarjee, 2003; Bina, 2013). In the first part
of this essay, I will briefly outline the historical context that brought the concept of
sustainable development into prominence and its contested definitions. I will then
scrutinise the relationship between economic growth, inequality and environmental
quality based on existing studies. Finally, I will reflect on alternative development
paradigms and discuss the reasons I agree with Lele (1991)’s statement that sustainable
development advocates should not focus on economic growth as a means to poverty
alleviation or environmental conservation.

The rise of sustainable development

Discussion about sustainable development first emerged at the UN Conference on
the Human Environment held at Stockholm, Sweden in 1972 (Adams, 2009).
Subsequently, the publication of the UN World Commission on Environment and
Development’s 1987 report titled Our Common Future made the concept of sustainable
development mainstream (Redclift, 2005). Its definition is one of the most frequently
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present
without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
(Brundtland, 1987, un-paginated).
The report recognised the link between poverty and environmental degradation.
However, it was taken for granted that poverty, which exacerbates environmental
degradation and vice versa, could only be eliminated through economic growth (Adams,
2009). The report failed to highlight the global environmental and social consequences

Student number: 1355795

of Northern consumption demand (Banarjee, 2003). How would the affluent sustain
their ever-growing consumption rate without crossing environmental thresholds was a
question left unanswered.
In 1992, governments worldwide would declare their support for sustainable
development at the UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil. The Rio Declaration laid out 27 principles for sustainable development. The 600-
page Agenda 21 was supposed to be the action plan. One of Agenda 21’s key themes was
growth with sustainability. I cannot articulate the central underlying assumption any
better than Adams (2009): “Sustainable development was about tuning the economic
machine, not redesigning it”. Critical discussion on the relationships between economic
growth, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability was limited. Furthermore,
Agenda 21 was techno-centric. The efficient use of natural resources via rational,
scientific environmental management and eco-friendly technology was seen as essential
to achieving green growth. Despite that, developing countries never received adequate
financial and technical support from high-income nations to implement this
technocratic vision of sustainable development (Adams, 2009). Similar focus on
economic growth would continue to dominate the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable
Development at Johannesburg, South Africa.

Contested meaning of sustainable development

Sustainable development remains a contested concept. Connelly (2007) suggested
four different approaches toward understanding it. Governments tend to favour the first
approach, which is to present sustainable development as a straightforward concept.
The three circles (Figure 1) is one of the most common visual representations of
sustainable development (Connelly, 2007).

Student number: 1355795

Academics adopting the second approach would recognise the concept’s

ambiguity and then proceed to advocate for one interpretation of sustainable
development they favour the most (Elliot, 1994; Carley and Christie, 2000). Analysts
from the third approach would go further in examining the “strength” of different
sustainable development’s interpretations (see Figure 2) (Pearce, 1993; Baker et al,
Figure 2 (Source: Myerson and Rydin, 1996)

However, both the second and third approaches often end up conflating opposing
ideologies masked in the rhetoric of sustainable development (Connelly, 2007). The
fourth approach would scrutinise the ambiguity and disputes over the concept with an
underlying assumption that such contestation is inevitable (Haughton and Counsell,
2004). Academics from the fourth approach believe “sustainable development” is a
political concept like “democracy”. It has a commonly accepted vague core meaning but
how its ideals should be put into practice in different cultural, political, economic and
environmental contexts will always be contested (Redclift, 2005). I will now move on to
discuss a few ideologies that have been prevalent in debates over sustainable
development in brief to illustrate the deeper political struggles over the concept.

Ideologies in sustainable development

Adams (2009) observed that ideas from market environmentalism and ecological
modernisation have dominated mainstream sustainable development thinking. Free
market thinkers and neoliberal economists believe the market is more efficient than the
state at mediating the relationship between nature and societies. They believe societies

Student number: 1355795

can put a price on environmental ‘goods and services’ to be included in cost-benefit

analyses of economic development. This has led to the emergence of ecological or
environmental economics in the 1980s. However, ecological economics have been
influenced by different school of economic thoughts including Keynesian, Marxist,
Develepmentalist, Institutionalist and more. Consequently, which environmental ‘goods
and services’ can be priced, how this can be done, preferably by the market or the state
remain matters of hot debate (Neumayer, 2010).
Ecological modernisation can be understood as an extension of market
environmentalism (Adams, 2009). It favours technological development, economic and
managerial reforms over a major restructuring of the global and national capitalist
economies. It depoliticises environmental and development issues. The belief that
scientific or economic rationality is sufficient to solve global environmental woes
caused by political and corporate power abuses is naive. Critics have highlighted that
the quest for environmental sustainability through ecological modernisation has merely
seen industrialised countries dumping their polluting industries, externalising the
environmental cost to the Global South (Banarjee, 2003; Redclift, 2005).
On the other hand, radical environmentalists have drawn on socialism, feminism,
anarchism and deep ecology to challenge mainstream capitalist vision of sustainable
development (Adams, 2009). Eco-socialism offers powerful critiques against capitalist
societies’ relationship with nature. It points out that capitalism views human labour and
natural resources as mere commodities to be exploited for profit. Löwy (2005) believed
capitalists’ insatiable demand for profit exacerbates social inequalities and would result
in ecological catastrophes. Bahro (1984 as cited in Adams, 2009) commented that
European capitalists from the 18th and 19th century had externalised the environmental
and social costs of industrialisation to their colonies. Developing countries today do not
have that option.
Eco-feminism exposed the patriarchal roots of capitalism and mainstream
development thinking that marginalised both nature and women (Sargisson, 2001).
Meanwhile, eco-anarchists have enriched sustainable development debates by
popularising ideas about decentralisation, participatory democracy, humanistic
technology and the possible creation of self-sufficient, egalitarian economies (Bookchin,
1979). At the same time, deep ecologists rejected mainstream anthropocentric vision of
sustainable development and the separation of humans from nature. They believe all

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species on Earth are created equal. Nature is not just a ‘capital’ to pursuit human
economic development. It has intrinsic values that humanity must learn to appreciate
and respect (Naess, 1973).

Economic growth, inequality and the environment

What is the relationship between economic growth, inequality and the
environment? Russian-American economist Simon Kuznets once posited that economic
inequality tends to widen as a country industrialises but would decrease again as the
country becomes fully industrialised (Chang, 2014). His theory is famously known as
the Kuznets curve (Figure 3). Is it true that the poor must become poorer and the rich
even richer before economic development through industrialisation reaches a tipping
point where wealth would finally trickle down to the masses?
Figure 3 (Source: Chang, 2014)

Kuznets’ theory has since been refuted with East Asian countries’ actual economic
development experiences (Stiglitz, 1996). Economic inequality and poverty actually
decreased as countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan began to industrialise.
Stiglitz (1996) believed this was because the governments had reinvested the wealth
from economic growth to provide affordable education, better healthcare and improve
other public services. Chang (2014) added that the states had also implemented land
reforms that protected small farmers and economic policies that shielded small-
medium enterprises from competition with large, multinational corporations.
Meanwhile, Grossman and Krueger (1995) had also attempted to apply the
Kuznets’ curve to explain the relationship between economic growth and

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environmental quality. They found that levels of air and water pollution would rise
during industrialisation but eventually decline. Grossman and Krueger (1996) believed
cleaner technologies and environmental policy reforms are key to the improvements.
However, subsequent numerical studies had found that the environmental
Kuznets curve is only applicable to some environmental indicators such as air quality
and the rate of deforestation (Neumayer, 2010). It cannot be used to generalise the
relationship between economic growth and environmental quality (Stern, 2004). Access
to clean water and sanitation generally improves and rarely decline as per capita
income increases (Neumayer, 2010). On the other hand, municipal waste and
greenhouse gas emission tend to grow and rarely fall as per capita income rises.
Ultimately, whether economic growth increases or decreases economic inequality
and environmental quality depends on politics. Examples from East Asia have shown
that economic growth can reduce poverty provided that the state implement welfare or
protectionist policies that safeguard interests of the poor and powerless (Chang ad
Grabel, 2014). The same applies to environmental sustainability. Studies have found
that countries with more political freedom or stronger environmental advocacy groups
tend to have better environmental governance and performance (Neumayer, 2010).

Alternative development paradigms

Neoliberalism has established itself as the dominant paradigm of development
since the 1980s (Hague, 1999). Neoliberal regimes tend to favour privatisation,
deregulation, trade liberations and welfare cuts. Hague (1999) warned that the rolling
back of the state threatened to further exacerbate poverty and environmental
degradation in developing countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Yet, mainstream
sustainable development thinking backed by UN agencies and the World Bank do not
challenge the neoliberal development paradigm (Adams, 2009). Consequently, their
pursuit of sustainable development remains narrowly focused on economic growth
while paying lip service to environmental sustainability and reducing global inequality.
Morse (2008) proposed that sustainable development thinkers should engage
with post-development theories that surfaced in the mid-1990s. “Development” as a
concept itself needs to be critically unpacked. How do we conceptualise human
progress? Does modernisation equate industrialisation and Westernisation? How do

Student number: 1355795

these processes actually contribute to sustainable development’s normative goals of

achieving social justice and environmental sustainability (Banarjee, 2003)?
Bina (2013) observed that there are currently three parallel discourses in
sustainable development: business-as-usual, ‘greening’ or ‘all change’ (Figure 4). I think
this competition of ideas is actually healthy. The paths toward sustainable development
would involve substantial reforms, potentially radical changes to our current global and
national political economies. Therefore, it is unsurprising that political and economic
elites from both the Global North and South would favour maintaining the status quo.
After all, they have benefit from the neoliberal development paradigm. Despite the
inertia, sustainable development proponents can draw inspirations from countless
social, environmental and indigenous movements worldwide to enrich their advocacy.
Figure 4 Categorisation of policy responses to the financial and climate crises (Bina, 2013)

The world has agreed broadly at Rio about what sustainable development should
aim for: economic growth with environmental sustainability and social justice.
However, I believe the aims should be even broader to include a society’s cultural and
spiritual development. As Jasanoff (2002) suggested, we have to reconnect development
goals to our social and cultural worlds. How a society can put these ideals of sustainable

Student number: 1355795

development into practice will vary depending on its political, social, cultural and
environmental history.
Those who search for a ‘one-size-fit-all’ development model from neoliberalism or
socialism will never find one. There is no magic solution to poverty, climate change or
industrial pollution. Government and citizens could and should always look to other
societies and countries for inspirations yet remain mindful that what work for others
may not work for them. In addition, there is a wealth of existing ideologies and
philosophies across different academic disciplines on the meaning of human existence
and the ways societies should interact with each other and nature.
Be it sustainable development or participatory democracy, these concepts have
emerged from diverse peoples’ aspiration for emancipation and equality. Before some
of us in the academia decide to reject these concepts because they have been “hijacked”
by vested interests, we should bear in mind that displaced indigenous people, the urban
poor and marginalised social groups worldwide are hanging on to them in search of
justice. The least we can do for them, and ourselves, is to continue challenging
mainstream growth-centric, neoliberal development paradigm with reformist or radical
interpretations of sustainable development.

- ends -


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