Sustainable Development: Ideology Considered

International Journal of Applied Sustainable Development (ISSN: 1742-2620) Volume 1 Issue 1

Michael G Dilcock, Earth Centre UK


Pell (1998) views the concept of sustainable development as:

. . . frequently and variously defined to suit different value positions.

The Earth Summit (UNCED 1992) relied on Bruntland’s definition:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which over-riding priority should be given;
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisations on the environment’s ability to meet present and further needs.

According to Smith (1991) there are within this definition at least four serious areas of consideration:

  1. a concern about the relationship between resource use, population growth and technological advancement;
  2. a concern about the production and distribution of resources of food, energy and industry amongst the developed, developing and underdeveloped nations of the world;
  3. a concern about uneven development, about the gross imbalances between rich and poor nations, about economic dominance and ideological differences;
  4. a concern about environments; degradation and ecological disaster.

In appreciation of this perspective, the concept of sustainable development can be viewed as a response to both ‘environmental’ and ‘moral’ imperatives. Such response requires the consideration of:

Sustainable development, therefore, recognises an inextricable link between a concern about human welfare and concern for the human environment. The approach advocated by Bruntland, offers a fundamental challenge to the materialist and consumerist values of the majority of the developed world. It is consistent with the recognised evaluation of pending environmental crisis. According to Clarke (1990):

Every form of life faces the challenge of reconciling its innate capacity for growth with the opportunities and constraints that arise through its interactions with the natural environment.

Schumacher (1973) is hailed by many as one of the first to clearly identify both the impending danger and the need for redress, although numerous others have since followed in his stead. It would appear that general agreement in support, rather than argument against, is the case. Consensus points toward a widespread belief that human existence faces an environmental crisis, that we are the cause of it, there appears no meaningful imperative for the species to change its behaviour to avert it, either for our own sakes, or those of others to come. The ensuing debate turns upon the scale of the problem that exists, coupled with the scale of the social, economic, technological and political change needed to tackle that problem.

The basic problem being; the human race is currently and increasingly living beyond the capacity of the planet. In terms of simply numbers, the planet’s population has risen from 1.7 billion at the turn of this century to an estimated 6.3 billion at its close. The constant ‘improvements’ in both science and technology have afforded an increased ability to extract wealth from the rest of nature. Ehrlich (1994) argues:

Today’s society is not sustainable (that is its impact is too high) by the simple standard that humanity is only maintaining itself by expending natural capital. The most important components of that capital are deep, rich agricultural soils, ice age water stored in aquifers, and biological diversity. The current human enterprise is steadily degrading natural resource stocks and flows and using up the capacity of ecosystems to absorb the inevitable wastes that result from those flows. Those processes can only lead to a steady deterioration in the lives of most people, followed, if the trends are not reversed, by a collapse of civilisation.

One might argue the human race has achieved that which would be considered ‘plague proportions’ in any other species and recognition is required, that historically, nature (the mother earth), will in time seek to address this imbalance in order to restore equilibrium, ‘the balance of nature’. This state of ‘environmental crisis’ is well supported. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1995) presents a consensus among 2,000 of the world’s scientists attesting that the world is warming up and that pollution is at least in part to blame. They collectively point towards a belief that the end of a period of 10,000 years in which a relatively stable climate has allowed human civilisation to flourish might well be coming to an end. Houghton (1996) in consideration of the fact that 54% (rising to 70% by the year 2025) of the world’s available fresh water is being consumed by man refers to the forecast of some scientists that wars over water are an inevitable consequence. In defining causality Oelschlaeger (1991) argues that, as hunter-gatherers, societies do not separate themselves from nature, but see themselves as part of it. It is unfortunately the case that the ‘progressive’ agricultural and technological societies would appear to have separated themselves from nature, both conceptually and practically. Such formidable evidence and opinion reinforces the idea that there must be a shift in our current relationship with nature and each other.

Pell (1998) in consideration of the work of Sarre et al. (1996) seeks to afford clarification to the case in point:

If the reader is in any doubt about the need for great caution in our dealings with nature, then it should not be forgotten that science tells us that early life forms themselves which removed much of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, creating the breathable oxygen laden atmosphere on which we depend; a process which science also tells us we are now rapidly reversing.

Pell’s assessment is further reinforced by appreciation of the work of Ehrlich (1994) with reference to Holdren (1991) which significantly aids in the presentation of useful formulaic rigour in exploration of the views of causality and the scale of behavioural change needed. The scale of humanity’s impact (I) on its life support systems is the product of the population (P) multiplied by per capita affluence (A) - or consumption, and some measure of the impact of technologies (T) employed to supply each unit of consumption, i.e. I = PAT. It was considered unnecessary in the context of this paper to consider the detailed rigour applicable to the formula construct. Suffice it to state, that it is interdependent upon Holdren’s ‘optimistic’ scenario anticipating population increase and stabilisation at the 10 billion mark by the year 2100, coupled with a projected closing of the rich poor gap and convergent levels of global energy consumption. Ehrlich’s identity stresses that in order to live in harmony with each other and the rest of nature, then mankind is duty bound to make enlightened, rational choices. The far-reaching nature of the issues affords a wide choice of responses to the social, economic and environmental ‘crisis’ which on examination, substantially aids in identification of the ideology of sustainable development. That ideology is the effective driver in support of those organisations/institutions seeking to strive towards a more sustainable world. As such it is deemed reasonable to expect any individual or collective intending to establish and move forward the ethos of Sustainable Development, to have, in the first instance, a ‘relative’ understanding of that which underpins their intentions.

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