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close this bookSustaining the Future. Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 p.)
close this folderPart 2: Environmental issues and futures
close this folderTowards sustainable environmental and resource management futures in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe concept of sustainable development and its implications
View the documentDriving forces
View the documentLevels of environmental effects of human activities and sustainability concerns
View the documentConstraints on sustainable development in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentRecommendations
View the documentReferences

The concept of sustainable development and its implications


Sustainable development as a concept and development paradigm for lasting progress was originally defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) to mean "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED 1987). The Commission further added that "this concept does not imply limits - not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities." This definition implies that sustainable development involves policies, strategies, and programmes that do not make it more difficult for the development process to be continued by future generations than it is for present generations. It would appear that this definition emphasizes the objectives to be achieved rather than explicitly defining sustainable development.

One of the earlier concepts of sustainable development was advanced by Sachs (1973), who used the term eco-development. Eco development was defined to consist of strategies designed for particular eco-zones with a view to:

(a) making fuller use of specific resources in each eco-zone in order to meet the basic needs of its inhabitants while safeguarding the long-term prospects by rational management of these resources instead of their destructive exploitation;

(b) reducing to a minimum the negative environmental effects and even as far as possible using waste products for productive purposes;

(c) designing adequate technologies for achieving these goals. (Ominde 1977)

There does not appear to be any substantial difference between eco-development and sustainable development, both of which embody environmental concerns in development activities and programmes. The real difference lies in the fact that, whereas the former was a development paradigm born at the beginning of the period of environmental and "limits of growth" concerns, the latter came at a time when environmental activism and pressures from green parties all over the world necessitated not only a new development paradigm but a slogan and buzzword christened sustainable development.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP 1992) argues that the WCED (1987) definitions of sustainable development have been criticized as ambiguous and confusing because "sustainable development," "sustainable growth," and "sustainable use" have been used interchangeably even though they do not have the same meaning. "Sustainable growth" is regarded as contradictory in that nothing physical can grow indefinitely, while "sustainable use" is applicable only to renewable resources in terms of "using them at rates within the capacity for renewability." Based on these arguments, UNEP (1992) put forward the following relevant definitions:

Sustainable development means improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.

Sustainable economy is the product of sustainable development; it maintains its natural resource base and it can continue to develop by adapting to changing circumstances and through improvements in knowledge organization, technical efficiency, and wisdom.

Sustainable living indicates the lifestyle of an individual who feels the obligation to care for nature and for every human individual, and who acts accordingly.

According to MECCA (1992), sustainable development is said to exist if each generation per capita inherits a more valuable stock of capital (human-made and natural) than the earlier generations. This definition raises the question of what are valuable resources and the problem of how far one can be more specific about sustainability without bringing in value judgements on what is important for ensuring a given quality of life.

Recently, Benneh (1993) presented an African concept of sustainability that constitutes an extension of the WCED (1987) definition of sustainable development by emphasizing that sustainable development is not simply a question of managing resources in a manner that meets current needs while not making it more difficult for future generations to meet theirs. Rather, it is a strategy of resource management that regards the capital stock as a baton in a relay race handed down to us by our ancestors, and it is our duty to ensure that it is successfully transferred to future generations more or less intact and without much decline in value.

Although this concept, like the WCED (1987) definition, does not specifically indicate what sustainable development entails, it raises an issue that the WCED (1987) discussed but did not include or allude to in its definitions. This is the problem of transition, which takes into account the past, the present, and the future. It is perhaps the most difficult challenge and implication of sustainable development: it recognizes that maintenance of environmental quality, productivity potentialities, biological diversity, and resilience of ecosystems should go hand in hand with development activities, but it does not stipulate how the necessary changes from a past of exploitative squandering of the earth's natural resources and degradation of the environment to a sustainable future can be effected through the present period of transition when the necessary changes in attitudes, ethics, morality, culture, and lifestyles against the driving forces of polarization and momentum of the modernization process and other change factors discussed later will be made.

In this paper, sustainable development is defined as consisting of policies, strategies, plans, production systems, and technologies used in executing projects and programmes aimed at satisfying real human needs in perpetuity while maintaining environmental quality, biodiversity, the resilience of ecosystems, and the welfare of all organisms by integrating conservation, management, and rational utilization of resources at individual, institutional, community, national, regional, and global levels. Conservation here, according to Jacobs (1988), is an indispensable part of a wide field known as "the wise utilization of natural resources" aiming at utilization ad infinitum. It aims at (a) maintaining essential ecological processes and life-support systems, (b) preserving genetic diversity, and (c) ensuring the sustainable utilization of species and ecosystems.

What sustainable development entails

Requirements for sustainable development, according to WCED (1987), include: a political system that secures effective citizen participation; an economic system that is able to generate surpluses and technical knowledge on a self-reliant basis; a social system that provides for solutions for tensions arising from disharmonious development; a production system that respects the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development; a technological system that can search continuously for new solutions; an international system that fosters sustainable patterns of trade and finance; and an administrative system that is flexible and has the capacity for self-correction.

Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living (IUCN/ UNEP/WWF 1991) enunciated nine principles for sustainable development:

Respect and care for the community of life.
Improve the quality of human life.
Conserve the earth's vitality and diversity.
Minimize the depletion of non-renewable resources.
Keep within the earth's carrying capacity.
Change personal attitudes and practices.
Enable communities to care for their own environments.
Provide a national framework for integration, development, and conservation.
Create a global alliance.

It is obvious from the above that sustainable development not only entails the embodiment of environmental concerns in development activities and technology use but also necessitates changes in attitudes, behaviour, philosophy, moral and ethical values, religious practices, and relationships among human beings and between humans on the one hand and organisms or things on the other at the local, national, regional, and global levels.

Implications and challenges in sustainable development

In addition to the above requirements for sustainable development, there are several implications of the sustainable development paradigm that pose serious challenges for mankind now and in the future. Some of these implications and challenges are discussed in Pearce et al. (1990), Goodland et al. (1991), and Sachs (1992). Only salient aspects of these are considered here.

According to Pearce et al. (1990), a key prerequisite for sustainability is maintaining the constancy of the stock of natural resources and environmental quality. But because this condition has already been breached, in that the environment in many situations has become degraded by human activities, the problem of maintaining the constancy of the capital stock is not just one of stopping further environmental degradation but undoubtedly one of enhancing the environment. The implications of this are addressed from different viewpoints by the Brundtland Report (WCED 1987), which stipulates that sustainable development requires non-depletion of the natural capital stock as indicated in the World Conservation Strategy (IUCN/ UNEP/WWF 1980), although WCED (1987) insists that, if needs are to be met on a sustainable basis, the earth's natural resources have to be both conserved and enhanced. Reasons for conserving the natural capital include moral obligation and the supposed mutual interdependence of development and natural capital conservation.

Goodland (1991) presents very convincing arguments and undeniable evidence to conclude that the limits of growth, in which the earth functions as a source of inputs and sink for waste products, have been reached and that options for ensuring sustainability in future are running out. Evidence for this conclusion includes: (a) over 80 per cent of the earth's net primary productivity is already being consumed to meet humans' food and other needs while population is still increasing, (b) global warming owing to increasing levels of carbon dioxide is already producing adverse climatic effects that threaten humans and various ecosystems, (c) ozone depletion is taking place owing to increasing levels of greenhouse gases (methane, CFCs, and nitrous oxide), which are eating up the protective ozone layer with adverse consequences for humans and other living things, (d) land degradation and loss of soil fertility and productivity make it difficult to produce enough food, feed, and fibre for rising populations of humans and animals, and (e) biodiversity has been lost with increasing deforestation, especially in species-rich tropical ecosystems, with loss of species estimated at 500 per annum.

Daly (1991) notes that the human economy has passed from an era in which human-made capital was the limiting factor to an economic development era in which increasingly scarce natural capital has become the limiting factor. He recommends that priority should be given to "qualitative development" based on more efficient use of energy and natural resources, an increase in end-use efficiency of the product through recycling, and the reduction of waste and pollutants.

Tinbergen and Hueting (1991) as well as Serafy (1991) consider equity issues, sustainability constraints under low rates of economic growth, uneven/varying population growth rates, and the effects of North-South trade on the environment and development in the South. Doubts are raised about the soundness of some WCED (1987) equity considerations in economic growth and the strategies aimed at increasing economic growth and development in developing countries going pari passu with lower non-increasing growth rates in developed countries in order to ensure that developing countries achieve higher per capita income and alleviation of poverty in order to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor countries. The fallacy in this is that, because growth in developed countries has naturally acquired momentum, it is very likely that its rate will continue to rise rather than decrease. Moreover, the intended objective can be achieved only if the developed countries transfer the resources needed to redress the negative effects of richer countries' arrested growth to the developing countries, thereby reducing poverty.

It is observed that the time-horizon of development should be taken into account, for some obvious reasons. First, sustainable development usually aims at a long-term time-frame of several generations, but politicians and policy makers plan on short-term time-frames of four to five years. Secondly, sustainable development that involves many generations or centuries cannot go on indefinitely where both population and per capita use of the earth's finite resources grow significantly. Even where population and economic activities remain static, the accumulation of pollutants and waste will continue to increase with the growth of entropy beyond nature's capacity for self-repair.

The principle of the free market mechanism as a way of creating certain optimal conditions has not often yielded the expected results in sustainable development because the blessings of free trade have associated with them (a) production pollution arising from the production process, (b) consumption pollution, which is the indirect effect of pollution produced by consumers in enjoying goods and services, and (c) negative impacts on the environment of the production process. Sustainable development cannot be achieved in a world where developed countries with higher technical skills for producing a wide range of technology selfishly focus on consumer goods and services instead of focusing on more basic improvements in using the world's resources to the benefit of the poor. Furthermore, sustainability cannot be achieved and inequalities eliminated through the trickle-down process from the developed countries unless the increasing ability to use resources more efficiently and to reduce waste and pollution is used to assist less fortunate people who cannot provide the minimum level of basic needs.

Liberalization and an increase in North-South trade and aid cooperation have not significantly contributed to equity and sustainable development, especially where the poor developing countries are tempted to exhaust their valuable natural reserves at lower prices in order to feed the trend-setting and unsustainable consumption patterns of the North in return for consumer goods and machinery. Such trade involves the depletion of natural resources by the sale of non-renewable minerals and harvests from soils, forests, and oceans, and the soils being increasingly used as the dumping sites of undesirable waste. Related to this is the fact that aid to developing countries to develop the same technologies that degrade the environment and cause the same pattern of polluting consumption as in the West cannot contribute to sustainable development.

Droste and Dogse (1991) observe that investments in education, science, and technology that contribute to human welfare and the decisions surrounding them are also often contributors to environmental problems. Examples include:

investments in short-term income-generating activities such as deforestation, intensive agriculture, and plantations, without concomitant investments in soil conservation and protection measures;

spending more money on combating pollution or on remedial measures than would be needed for preventive measures;

the use of subsidies, trade barriers, and various production technologies (including biotechnology) in the developed countries to produce surpluses that undermine the production of farmers in developing countries, making it difficult for the latter to compete or even ensure access to the inputs needed.

Constanza (1991) maintains that, to achieve global sustainability, it is necessary to switch from the concept of ecological and economic goals being in conflict, to one of economic systems being dependent on ecological life-support systems, and also to incorporate it into our thinking and actions at a very basic level. In other words, human beings must realize that:

(a) humans are only part of the subsystem in both local and global ecosystems;

(b) sustainability is a relationship between dynamic human economic systems and larger but normally slower-changing ecological systems in which human life can continue indefinitely, human cultures can develop, but the effects of human activities must remain within bounds, so as not to destroy the diversity, complexity, and function of the ecological life-support system.

It is necessary that the idea of economics being in conflict with ecology be replaced by one of the integration of conventional economics and conventional ecology into ecological economics, as shown in figure 7.1 and table 7.1. There is also a need to ensure continued adequate investment in natural capital and in finding ways of limiting physical growth so as to encourage development with an emphasis on qualitative improvement.

The above survey of the implications of sustainable development is necessary because it emphasizes that the problem is not mainly one of having a better definition of what sustainable development is. The main issue or critical factor is how to rehabilitate the natural resource base and repair the damage already done while not contributing to making things worse by continuing unsustainable living - locally, nationally, regionally, or globally. In this regard, it is also obvious that the greatest challenge is how to engender a transition that is steady, continuous, and on an even keel in all sectors at individual, community, national, regional, and global levels.