Sustainable development: economy, society, environment


An illustration of the concept of sustainable development

I have blogged far too little on sustainable development, a pattern which I hope to redress. This blog started out back in 2008, when I was beginning to turn my attention from the more traditional concerns of economics and development, towards incorporating environmental concerns. Not long afterwards I studied a masters-level module on SD with CeDEP, which runs excellent distance learning courses for postgraduates. This opened my eyes to new ways of looking at development and the environment, and how much can be learned from studying the two together.

Concerns about climate change, biodiversity loss, natural resource depletion and the health of the biosphere are ever-present. Sadly, the more immediate focus among politicians across the capitalist world has been restoring growth in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The issue of inequality within many of the richest nations has also been more to the fore, even if little has yet been done about it on the policy side. But in times of recession, the environment tends to take a back seat. Mainstream debates focus on growth at all costs.

There are some dissenters. Largely on the more left and green wings, sluggish growth is seen as an opportunity for public spending to promote the green economy, including an expansion of renewable energy production. This is a kind of ‘Green Keynesianism’, apparently a potential win-win for growth, employment, industry and the environment.

For those less familiar with the concept, SD as a process involves the promotion and balancing of the economic, the social and the environment. The three are seen as interdependent, and failure on any one can undermine the others. The economy is seen as part of society, which in turn is seen as part of the natural environment.

If society becomes too unequal, then this may undermine political or social stability and economic efficiency, as opportunities and success flow to a minority at top of the scale, creating underutilized resources and talent and possibly resentment and political protest. Preventing such problems is known as maintaining ‘intragenerational equity’ or equity within the current generation.

If economic growth damages the environment and depletes resources faster than they can be reproduced or replaced, then this will undermine the very basis of the economy. Parts or all of it may ultimately collapse. Preventing this process is known in the SD literature as maintaining ‘intergenerational equity’ or equity between the generations. This is one of the principles of SD: the next generation should be at least as prosperous as the current one, and this requires policies which encourage SD.

Having been strongly influenced by my studies in development economics, this blog has tended to focus on the upsides of economic growth as well as intragenerational equity or social justice. I have paid far less attention to intergenerational equity and concerns with the environment. But in the longer term, beyond the ups and downs of the business cycle, and even the necessary development among the poorest and neediest nations, the environment becomes the most important system of all. We, in our economies and societies, are part of it. If we destroy it, we destroy ourselves and all hope of continued survival and well-being as a species.

I have just finished reading the enlightening Enough is Enough by ecological economists Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill. They make the case for rich countries to move to the steady-state or zero growth economy, why it is necessary and how it can be achieved. They argue that we should be imagining and creating an economy where ‘enough’ (consumption) should be the goal rather than ‘more’. Greater social justice and environmental sustainability should be part of this world, with a focus on well-being, broadly defined. Poorer countries should be given space to grow and develop to some degree, and then move towards zero growth.

I am still digesting the two authors’ arguments, and will write more on these issues in future posts. Incorporating the concerns of SD into economics and political economy is surely vital, in order to promote greater intra- and intergenerational equity alongside economic progress. Whether or not this ultimately requires or makes possible a zero growth world remains to be seen.


5 thoughts on “Sustainable development: economy, society, environment

  1. How you intend to accomplish “intergenerational equity” — which you define as requiring future generations to be “at least as prosperous as the current one” — without ongoing positive growth is beyond me.

    That’s apart from my being highly suspicious of certain members within a contemporary generation arrogating the decision to themselves as to what is to be regarded as equitable from the point of view of future generations. When it’s not even clear who among us is entitled to propose what concept of intergenerational equity, how are we to make sure we have a proper guess as to the views of those not yet born. By the way, do you think buggy-builders would have considered auto mobiles and highways acceptable in terms of “intergenerational equity” – the whole concept seems to invite diachronic parochialism, i.e. the prejudices of those whose ideas we will find risible in a few years time.

    You write: “The economy is seen as part of society, which in turn is seen as part of the natural environment.”

    I am incapable of making sense of this statement. The natural environment does neither build bridges nor does it pontificate about “intergenerational equity”. Then who does? Certainly some entity that is clearly distinct from “the natural environment”.

    Man’s economic efforts and his social institutions are largely projects vitally needed to defend the requirements of our species against our biggest enemy: the natural environment.

    Fortunately, we have learned to keep that nasty beast at quite some distance from us, so much so that in our comfortableness some of us begin to form inappropriately romantic notions of “the natural environment”.

    • Thanks as ever for your critique of this post. I am still grappling with some of my reading on sustainability and ecological economics, so bear with me as I continue to explore some of these ideas.

      With regards to intergenerational equity: for sustainable development and ecological economics, the point is made that expansion in GDP beyond a certain point may have decoupled from growth in well-being and life-satisfaction, so while poorer nations may still want or need to grow, richer nations have less need to do so. If continued growth damages ecosystems and the environment on which we (and the economy) depend, then maybe less growth is necessary. I am not going to argue about whether slower growth or zero growth is part of the solution, as after all GDP is a human construct, flawed in its measurement and surely a limited indicator of progress. A greater range of indicators of human progress might be more useful to policy-makers and citizens than GDP alone. Although, as Marx said: ‘accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the prophets’. If indeed growth is inseparable from capitalism, and if that growth is unsustainable in the long run, then maybe there is little we can do. But I am more hopeful than that!

      If we are able to reform capitalism, prosperity need not necessarily mean ‘more and more’ consumption of material goods for ever. Technological change and productivity improvements would still likely continue and remain vital, but if resource depletion beyond the required rate of replacement or substitution is a problem, social or individual choices for more leisure and less work would for many improve well-being as productivity rises, so that incomes remain more stable. After all, it is rising productivity that makes rising GDP possible in the long run, and particularly in Europe, working hours have fallen over time even as incomes and wealth have risen. One can contrast this with the shorter holidays and longer working hours in the US. GDP might be larger but indicators of poverty, inequality, health and well-being may not be any better. Choices on the work-leisure balance would need to be made collectively in some way, while respecting individual freedoms. Of course, plenty of people would still want to work long hours, so this change could still be difficult and not inevitable.

      Decisions are being made all the time, whether by politicians, businessmen, academics, workers etc. that will impact on the future. You seem to be saying that the concept of intergenerational equity invites top-down decision-making which disregards the wishes and freedom of the majority of current and especially future generations. We are constantly making these decisions. If research finds that we need to alter course in order to safeguard the future of humanity, then part of the change will come from the decisions of policy-makers as much as from the rest of us. There is plenty of room in this for deliberation on such issues across society. This is not a particularly radical view, and tell me if I have misunderstood your argument.

      You also write that the natural environment is our biggest enemy. While I take your point that our human achievements protect us from many of the dangers that we would face in a rude state of nature, there is more to the environment than simply threats to humanity. We have transformed nature in many ways, but you cannot deny that we remain dependent on it, even if in a transformed state. In fact, the comforts that modernisation provides can produce a separation of humanity from the rest of nature. For example, our consumption of goods and services is often greatly divorced from the origins and conditions of their production. This can blind us to the exploitation and degradation of labour and the environment.

      In sum, I do find some of the ideas of the green movement interesting, but some of the proposed policies may well be unrealistic in the absence of some major crisis.

      • Thanks for your comment.


        “[S]eparation of humanity from the rest of nature”. That phrase summarises the fundamental misconception of greenism, its Gaia fallacy. The fact of the matter is that nature cannot be but a human concept. There is no such thing as nature outside of human notions of her. By putting nature above man, greens are disguising their true intention of putting their thinking above the thinking of anyone else; hence they are quick to try to criminalise objectors and refuse to discuss matters with people of differing views.


        You write: “You seem to be saying that the concept of intergenerational equity invites top-down decision-making which disregards the wishes and freedom of the majority of current and especially future generations. We are constantly making these decisions. If research finds that we need to alter course in order to safeguard the future of humanity, then part of the change will come from the decisions of policy-makers as much as from the rest of us. There is plenty of room in this for deliberation on such issues across society.”

        So what need is there for a new concept, a new approach called “intergenerational equity”? Well, as is their habit, from arguing generalities that most people can agree with, the greens proceed to demanding totalitarian solutions (no wonder the movement has its origin and achieves its greatest political influence in Germany).

        The totalitarian slant has to do with “the separation of humanity from the rest of nature”, the green “Gaia” fallacy, see above. From a green perspective, there is something outside and above humanity and human discourse, Gaia, and he who does not defer to it is evil and must be forced into compliance. At this point the greens start shooting with hugely exaggerated and false claims about dangers to the environment; historically proven all to be false (remember acid rain and the ozone hole). The trick is to make people fear imminent apocalypse; that’s the most effective way to achieve compliance and gain power – undisputed, total, totalitarian power.

        Open discussion is a phenomenon utterly alien to the greens. Discussion on Global Warming is closed; the verdict is final. Science has come to a standstill; it has reached its ultimate destination. The world is at peril and only the greens know how to safe it. No room for idle discussion. That is the style in which the greens seek to establish “intergenerational equity”.

      • You make some interesting points. Aside from my reading I haven’t engaged with many greens, although I know a few committed individuals. If they have a totalitarian bent, they do not seem aware of it, so their heart is surely in the right place. And being averse to open debate is certainly not unique to greens. It also remains the case that the majority of scientific evidence supports the notion of climate change, and the scientists themselves are surely still open to debate in their continuing research. Those who have a stronger political agenda may be more selective in their use of evidence in accordance with their prior and possibly more rigid values and beliefs, although we are all guilty of this to some degree.

        Re Gaia: I thought it was more to do with seeing man as part of ‘mother nature’ rather than being below it. Yes nature is a human concept, but so is all language and the naming of subjects/objects/processes. We create words and other symbols to aid understanding and further our aims in life, some of which involve and require transforming, caring for and sustaining our environment. As a species we have developed tremendous knowledge, power and influence, subject to particular limits. These developments can have creative or destructive consequences. It is surely increasingly up to us to consciously manage our relationship with that which sustains us. How to go about it does remain a matter for continued debate, so I am at one with you there.

  2. The scientific consensus is a political fabrication. There is ample and sad evidence of this, Only consider the IPCC reports: there is a short preface for the media and the public, concocted by politicians, and then there is the report itself, which often contradicts the hyped political summary – including statements that underscore predictions such as those politically pushed in the executive summary are in fact impossible to make.

    This is typical of the whole “the science is settled” hurry of the political activists.

    Apart from there being thousands of serious scientific challenges to the simplistic apocalyptic message of “the settled science” version (which has shifted from “global warming” to a still vaguer “climate change” phraseology, according to which everything that is disliked is caused by/due to climate change, including warmer temperatures as well as colder ones).

    If there were a consensus (as in the case of, say, the effects of gravity) it would only be worth anything if it was based on freedom of science and expression.

    Shockingly, I know a number of scientists in person who tell me that they do not dare express their views on the matter as they fear or have experienced personal and professional reprisals. The witch hunt logic is: Let’s send the “climate deniers” to prison, or at least shut them up and deny them professional standing – the science is settled after all, and the world will perish if their views prevailed.

    Also, climate science is a very young, insecure, and incomplete subject, to treat it as a settled science as some physicists used to treat physics (even then several hundred years old) shortly before Einstein turned up, is utterly misconceived. At best there is climatology, here, and the political correct new climate “science”, there, – the former contradicting the latter, as in the case of the effect of higher temperatures on the incidence of tornadoes, which should diminish according to the former (owing to physics) and increase according to the latter (owing to sensationalist effect).

    It becomes more difficult to argue scientifically when the “science” is dominated by political beliefs, power and strong economic interests (public funding).

    However, he who does look at the true science quickly discovers untenable propositions at the very core of the politically fabricated consensus – thus, the whole idea that CO2 drives temperatures is contrary to the evidence – it is the other way around.

    I strongly recommend listening to the scientists in the following documentary:

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