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.