Cover Image
close this bookFood and Energy - Strategies for Sustainable Development (United Nations University - UNU, 1990, 81 pages)
View the documentPreface
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Analytical Framework
View the document3 Integrated Food-Energy Systems
View the document4 Alternative Urban Development Strategies
View the document5 Urban Agriculture
View the document6 New Rural-Urban Configurations
View the document7 The Challenge of Biotechnology
View the document8 Sustainable Development
View the document9 Conclusion
View the documentAppendix I: FEN Programme Activities
View the documentAppendix II: FEN Publications
View the documentReferences

8 Sustainable Development

A Normative View

Ecological security is now recognized as an important aspect of the governance of the planet, alongside peace and the reduction of poverty. The three objectives are closely interwoven. A challenging task facing the international community is to intensify the war against poverty while averting further disruption of global ecological balances, or as the Brundtland Report puts it, to satisfy the present needs of humankind without undermining the capacity to meet the needs of future generations (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987).

Poverty is both a cause and an effect of environmental destruction. In their struggle to survive, the rural poor are forced to live from hand to mouth. As pointed out by Idriss Jazairi (1989), President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), they are caught in a self-destructive trap in which their immediate survival depends on over-exploitation of fragile resources. Population growth, ill-conceived development strategies, increasing debt, declining terms of trade, and natural disasters provoke the overuse of productive soils, forests, and waters. Thus, reducing poverty is a direct way to ensure environmentally sound development.

The reverse loop is illustrated by the plight of the urban poor in Mexico City. Their poverty is made worse by the degraded environmental and health conditions prevailing in this city on the brink of ecological disaster. The situation in many other large Latin American cities is also deteriorating under the combined effect of inadequate housing, deficient sanitation, excessive concentration of polluting industries, and the dominance of individual cars in urban transportation.

The way out from the double catch of poverty and environmental disruption calls for more economic growth while changing drastically its forms, contents, and social uses. The normative concept of sustainable development, as presented in the Brundtland Report, reflects this double preoccupation incorporating almost two decades of a world-wide debate. Started at the Founex seminar in 1971, this debate was punctuated by several international conferences (notably those in Stockholm and Vancouver), enriched by the work of UNESCO, UNEP, and other specialized agencies, and nurtured by the reports sponsored by the Club of Rome and the manifold contributions of environmental organizations.

The question before us now is how to speed up genuine socio-economic development through engaging in a positive sum game with nature instead of continuing the predatory practices that deplete at an alarming rate the capital of nature and undermine the life-support systems. How can we replace the concept of domination of nature, central to our technological civilization, with one of symbiosis between society and nature?

Sustainability is a dynamic concept that takes into consideration the expanding needs of a growing world population, thus implying steady growth. It encompasses the new awareness of the limits of "Spaceship Earth" and of the fragility of its global ecological balances, a need-oriented approach to socio-economic development, and the recognition of the fundamental role of cultural autonomy. It has a double function: the direction in which to move and a set of criteria to evaluate more specific actions.

Time for Action

It is easy to dismiss sustainable development as one more utopia, arguing that entrenched vested interests press for more of the same, that is, savage growth and imitative modernization; that environmental protection is expensive and, therefore, should wait for better times; and that the present economic and social situation in many third world countries is too critical for implementing any such changes.

The conflicting interests around the choice of a development strategy should not be minimized, but neither should they lead to the circular argument that difficult political choices are not eligible for discussion because they are politically difficult! Priority for sustainable development cannot be argued on the grounds of narrow micro-economic calculation. It calls for a political decision based on a long-term view of the country's interest, its share of responsibility in the global management of the planet, and an appreciation of the positive externalities created for the population at large by arresting further environmental degradation.

This being said, the additional costs of sustainable development, as compared with the business-as-usual scenario, pose a problem in market economies. Companies resist the internalization of costs that up to now have been externalized and they seek public subsidies to cope with stricter environmental regulations. Hence the publicity given to those cases when the enforcement of such regulations imposes a real financial burden. In contrast, the successful instances of profitable shifts to low-waste technologies are publicized much less for obvious reasons. Yet the scope for a positive sum game, in which economic and environmental gains go hand in hand, is far from negligible and can even be increased through well directed research and experimentation.

Furthermore, what appears in the short term as a trade-off between an environmental gain and more growth often amounts to a choice between a preventative action today and a much more expensive remedial action tomorrow (and therefore to a trade-off between the present and the future, a dilemma constantly faced by planners).

Finally, the conflict between environmental and economic objectives disappears in all the actions directed at resource conservation, reduction of wastefulness, recycling, and maintenance of vehicles, equipment, and infrastructure. In macro-economic terms, the resources thus saved constitute a potential source of development, not to speak of the employment thus generated that pays for itself.

Scientific evidence increasingly points to the dangers involved in the Faustian bargain: our careless use of ever mightier technologies on a scale which now compromises global ecological balances. The time has come to redress the wrong done to the planet in order to preserve a niche for future generations. As already argued, global change must be addressed by a multiplicity of local actions with the main responsibility resting with industrialized countries. As for third world countries, the present crisis should be viewed as an opportunity to leap-frog into a sustainable development model.

Instead of reproducing the techno-structures of the industrial countries, third world countries should attempt to evolve new agro-silvicultural industrial patterns and rural-urban configurations by making better use of their renewable resources. In this way, they could transform into a permanent comparative advantage the primary biological productivity of their terrestial and aquatic tropical ecosystems.

An International Action Plan

There are a variety of ways in which the international development community and lending institutions could assist third world countries in their transition towards sustainable development. Some possible lines of actions are discussed below.

Whatever the speed of the transition towards sustainable development, the backlog of unattended environmental demands and damage already done by ill-conceived development projects is such that a substantial increase in the volume of resources available for conventional environmental projects is needed.

Environmental management of the "global commons" poses difficult institutional and financial problems. Yet sustainable development often depends on the good environmental health of the life-support system that constitutes the common heritage of humanity. A decisive improvement in this respect could be obtained by establishing an international environment fund financed by token user fees (Silk 1989) that could be used for implementing sustainable development strategies with special emphasis on energy conservation and reforestation programmes in both industrialized and developing countries.

Providing additional funding for environmental projects does not pose complex conceptual problems. In contrast, internalizing the environmental dimension in all ongoing and future development projects calls for a serious methodological effort. Environmental impact evaluation procedures are still far from satisfactory and many remain quite cumbersome despite the recent advances accomplished in this field by some international lending agencies. The project-by-project approach isolated from the broader context makes it difficult, if not impossible, however, to consider second- and third-level impacts and the cumulative and often irreversible processes occurring downstream. Many qualitative and social aspects are left out, and the purely formal participation of the people concerned in the assessment is largely ineffective.

Further methodological work should explore the following four directions.

  1. Differentiating the approaches depending on the size and type of the project, giving preference to comprehensive programmes rather than collections of individual projects.
  2. For large hydro-electrical, mining, and transportation projects and for other comprehensive programmes, instituting as a rule their evaluation in the context of explicit regional development strategies or plans.

All development planners should contemplate the lesson of the unprecedented ecological disaster now unfolding around the Aral Sea in the Soviet Union. It is the consequence of a series of upstream irrigation projects which diverted too much water from the Amu Darya and Sir Darya rivers. Each of these projects taken in isolation may have had a favourable cost-benefit ratio in economic terms. Yet their cumulative impact has been severely underestimated, ultimately resulting in a tragedy.

The Aral Sea has shrunk by two-fifths since 1960, leaving behind over 20,000 sq km of salty, man-made desert contaminated by agrochemicals. This has victimized over 3 million people and the rice and cotton crops for which these sacrifices were made are now showing signs of ecological strain themselves.

The Great Carajas project in Brazil is another case in point. It is being implemented as a succession of individual mining, transportation, industrial, agro-pastoral, and forestry projects (including the controversial use of charcoal for the production of cast iron). Its critics point out that their cumulative ecological effects are not being properly assessed and that it would have been much wiser to produce first a regional development strategy for the whole East Amazon.

  1. Improving the analytical tools and procedures used in the evaluation by interrelating social, economic, and ecological indicators so as to arrive at a satisfactory approximation of a "sustainable development conditionality" more acceptable to developing countries than the versions of conditionality now used by international lending agencies and donor countries.

In parallel, a systematic effort associating the member countries should aim at identifying the appropriate policy instruments and packages to implement sustainable development strategies in the context of "mixed economies". A better knowledge of the range of possibilities in this respect and of actual experiences-both positive and negative- is urgently needed.

The question of why governments and the international community have been so slow to implement the consensual resolutions arrived at in Stockholm almost 20 years ago must also be addressed. In order to understand and overcome these obstacles, more needs to be known about the functioning of the "conservative dynamism" of the vested interests and the "bureaucratic rings" that link private and public business.

  1. Insofar as sustainable development strategies must rely on a multiplicity of site-specific projects, genuine- not merely rhetorical - participation of the people concerned through, inter alia, representative citizens organizations is required at all stages of programme and project formulation, evaluation, and implementation.

This, however, poses difficult institutional problems. How to establish an effective dialogue between all the actors involved in grassroots projects? How to protect the non-dominant players from the pressures of the dominant ones (business and state)? How to identify the legitimacy of citizens associations in a pluralistic setup? How to enable them to take an effective part in project formulation and evaluation by giving them access to sources of technical expertise? How important for these grassroots organizations is access to sources of financing other than public subsidies? What kind of "banks for the poor" are required? What is the scope for the "social sector" (co-operatives, mutual aid, and non-profit associations) in the "mixed economy"?

Innovative Resource-use Patterns

While environmental impact assessments can stop environmentally disruptive projects or modify those that can be improved at some additional cost, they are essentially defensive techniques. Looking for new, environmentally sustainable, socially useful, economically efficient resource-use and management patterns is, in contrast, an approach aimed at exploring and expanding the space of positive sum games with nature. This could best be achieved through life-size experiments of integrated production systems adapted to the diverse ecosystems (arid- and semi-arid regions, tropical rain forests, highlands, estuaries, and aquatic ecosystems) and responding to the ecodevelopment criteria introduced above:

  • recognized social utility of the product mix and equitable distribution of the income generated, which in turn calls for managing the technological pluralism by resorting to "combined technologies", that is, making a catalytic use of capital-intensive techniques in some links of the production chain while privileging the labour-intensive ones in the remainder;
  • ecological sustainability of production with special emphasis on regenerative agriculture, agro-forestry, and aquaculture. Whenever possible, these primary activities should be combined with the production of biomass energy and an array of biomass processing industries (food and non-food);
  • economic efficiency, the aim being the intensification of resource use with out impairing the long-term productivity of the life-support systems.

A good starting point for the design of modern integrated systems is provided by the analysis of traditional resource management patterns, such as that done for the Spanish dehesa by Perez (1986). Priority should be given to agroforestry systems for tropical rain forests, given the urgent need to stop deforestation and the considerable time-lags required to develop suitable solutions for the millions of hectares that will need to be planted.

Rapid action is also required to arrest the destruction of mangroves and fragile coastal ecosystems. The best response would be to develop aquaculture-based production systems, the more so that the neolithic revolution has not yet been completed: hunting and gathering are still the dominant techniques used with respect to aquatic biological resources.

The shift to cultivation of aquatic resources could bring about a quantum jump. Many third world countries enjoy easy access to the sea as well as being well endowed with biologically fertile estuaries and lagoons, and inland water systems. Fish ponds are the least expensive method of reclaiming degraded agricultural land, at least in coastal areas, and large-scale production of solar dried fish could greatly improve the diet of the urban poor. Furthermore, the research required to sustain aquaculture programmes is less expensive than in many other sectors of the economy.

The fundamental importance of innovative thinking regarding resource-use patterns capable of harmonizing social. economic, and ecological concerns the very essence of sustainable development - cannot be overemphasized.