Sustainable development is an oxymoron

  • 14/03/1994

You have talked at length on sustainable development. But your conception of sustainability seems to be incompatible with development. Could you explain?
For me, sustainable development is an oxymoron. Development with a capital D has for 40 years meant economic development. But in as much as development means giving a boost to GNP, development is intrinsically incompatible with sustainability. What has happened in the past eight years is, in a way, an attempt to come up with radical reforms using conventional means.

If one looks back at discussions on sustainability during the past eight years, especially the results of Rio, one finds that people don't look at conservation of nature, but instead seek to reinforce the idea that development means economic growth.

When you say people, who do you mean? Those who speak of the official discourse on sustainable development.

But isn't there a Western and a non-Western discourse?
When I say official discourse, I mean not only the Western discourse, but also the non-Western discourse, in so far as it is the government's view or that of experts. I am against the view of development given by the West. To explain this, I shall use the metaphor of racing. Development is a race between nations in an economic arena, where it is imperative for those who are behind to catch up. This has been the imperative of the past 40 years. The historical experience we are confronted with, given the ecological crisis, is that the race leads to an abyss.

But wouldn't you agree that the urge to catch up, the goals, the direction and the velocity of the race have also been set by this discourse? Yes, of course. However, despite the ecological crisis, people seem to think that this direction cannot be altered by either the North or the South. Any serious discourse about sustainability, which in the last instance means not taking out from nature more than its regenerative capacity, has to confront this reality and find ways of getting out of this race.

Isn't what you're saying paradoxical? The Southern countries suffer form poverty and malnutrition and all seriously aspire to overcome them. Would it be fair to ask them to curtail consumption when the North maintains or even increases its consumption levels?
The strategy of catching up with the North through economic growth has not mitigated poverty. Rather, poverty has been heightened by blindly following the path of accelerated economic growth. The civilisational crisis today is that the ideology and history of growth have transgressed the bio-physical limits of the planet, even though the majority of its inhabitants have been excluded from the profits. To get out of this, it doesn't help to say that "I haven't got all of my share of the cake as yet". It is important to preserve what we have.

I think the major shortcoming of the Southern representatives at Rio was that none of them asserted that the Northern model was basically wrong and hence unacceptable. As a Northerner, I would have liked to see the Southern representatives say, "The North's model is not for us, we will shed it". Because this didn't happen, the issue of sustainability didn't get addressed adequately.

Why didn't this happen?
Primarily because most of the people who are articulate on these matters follow the North's way of thinking. Ultimately, at the intellectual level, the North is a mind-set that is very much present in the South.

But this doesn't detract from issue of poverty and starvation. How do we tackle this problem?
The lesson of the last four or five decades -- the development decades -- is that if a dignified and secure lifestyle has to be increased, growth has to handled very carefully. Growth that undercuts the very security of life has to be avoided.

Are you suggesting a zero growth rate?
By this reckoning, quantitative measures of growth are not as important as the quality of the growth that is achieved.

What kind of quality would you like?
I would hesitate to answer because I am not entitled to comment on Southern economies. However, even within the North, growth is based on a catch up, keep up principle, which leads to lifestyles that are restricted to a few people. For instance, in Germany, not everyone owns a car because if everybody did, the whole country would be transformed into a parking lot.

Any new form of growth produces new forms and layers of relative poverty. Therefore, growth has to be handled very carefully. What's happening in Germany, and I suspect in many Southern countries, is that by pushing growth, a continuous modernisation of poverty is taking place.

Basically, a minimum level of growth is necessary to ensure a minimum quality of life. There is a lower limit to equality, which requires a minimum level of technological development to achieve social justice. But the experience of the North shows that there is an upper limit to justice and equality. Once you go beyond this, the possibility of an equal and just society is excluded.

Can you cite any examples of this?
The most conspicuous example is that of automobile use in Germany. Though most households have a car, it is normally available only to the male in the family, the one who goes to work. In the past 40-50 years, the quality of life for women, children, the elderly and those with less money has deteriorated continuously because of this. Mobility may have grown, but it has also been accompanied by the immobility of a large majority.

But in India, the problem is 40 per cent of the population is below the poverty line. In addition, one set of Northerners tells us that development and growth is the solution, while you, another Northerner, tell us that it is bad. What does one do?
In that sense, there's no North or South -- both are full of conflicts and both have people with different views and ideals. History is ultimately the story of these different aspirations, these competing conceptions of good and bad. There is no final Northern standpoint or Southern standpoint. What I am talking about is a minority Northern point of view.

I have taken on the challenge of trying to conceptualise a world that is sustainable and just. I firmly believe that this cannot be achieved by putting on a bit of green varnish on growth. It's the greening of the mind that's needed.

Growth brings about a negation of the individual, a uniformity not unlike that of hybrid tomatoes. Yet, many communities function by letting the individual flourish. Ideally, these could lead to a model of community-led growth, but how does one prevent this from slipping into the development model of the dominant discourse?
There's no easy recipe for this. A lot depends on how the technology and know-how of the local people are fostered. India is full of examples of this kind. Though I am against the North's model of technological development, I am not against technological development per se. However, it is ultimately the urban industrial sector that is using the forests and water resources. It's necessary then to be very careful of imitative economic growth.

Many friends have told me that several Indian poverty alleviation programmes did not eliminate poverty but undermined the bases on which a lifestyle of simplicity was built. This finally produced what is not wanted -- misery. Thus, the mistake of perceiving simplicity as poverty has had horrendous results.

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