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The combination of these two critical concepts of development and some of their consequences may be pictured more easily by means of a simple visual model (Figure 12.1). Imagine a space which contains all possible human activities randomly distributed in a state of chaos. As a first step towards organizing this, imagine that activities are divided into those which do and those which do not contribute to human welfare. If we go further and arrange these according to some quantity of welfare which they add or subtract, then we can produce a vertical axis, which in principle measures welfare and can be called the welfare or human development axis. As a further step we can go back to the initial chaos and perform a parallel exercise using the criterion not of welfare but of the positive or negative effects of an activity on the environment. This gives us the horizontal environment or sustainability axis.

Figure 12.1 Sustainable human development

Figure 12.1 combines the two axes to produce a categorization of possible human activities into four types. In the SW quadrant are those activities which have negative impacts both on welfare and the environment; in the NW are activities which contribute to welfare but damage the environment; in the SE are those which improve the environment but at the cost of lower human welfare; and finally the NE quadrant contains those doubly blessed activities which have positive effects on both criteria.

Assuming that the axes are measurable, each human activity can in principle be located on this chart. The collection of activities in which human beings collectively engage today would be an area on the chart (or a point representing their average impact on welfare and the environment) as would be another set of potential activities which would be more in tune with the needs of sustainable human development. Any change of activities can be described as a direction of movement on the chart.

For the collection of human activities to correspond more closely than now to sustainable human development the desirable direction of movement is towards the North East. Actual movements may be the net result of numerous changes, each of which may go in a different direction on the chart. If more welfare for one deprived group inevitably also involves more pollution or the use of non-renewable resources (a NW movement) then for it to be consistent with sustainable human development there must be other compensating movements whose net effect is to produce change in a SE direction (lower welfare for others and measures to repair the environment). Many discussions about global environmental change have a frightening tendency to conclude that it is moving in terms of this chart towards the South West.

This model could only become more than a heuristic device to communicate concepts, relationships and stimulate debate if it were possible to quantify the axes in an operational way. Although I do not share all of the pessimism of some writers on the creation of complex indices which are meaningful Jacobs 1991), I acknowledge that at present it is probably better to try to judge reality through many indicators rather than bundling them up into one. Exercises in the production of indices, however - such as a recent one to produce an index of sustainable welfare for the US in which each assumption is clearly explained so that, even if the final index is hard to interpret, at least it is clear what has gone into it - have produced interesting results which, if nothing else, may have some polemical value (Daly 1989 and Daly and Cobb 1990).

The model or map also suggests a four-way categorization of the appropriate fate of existing activities in a future pattern of sustainable human development:

  1. activities which produce welfare in environmentally benign ways (NE quadrant) should be maintained, as should activities which produce necessary welfare by environmentally damaging means (NW quadrant) but for which no other method of production yet exists;
  2. activities necessary to produce an adequate level of welfare for deprived people (some of which might necessarily be in the NW quadrant), also new, environmentally friendly, welfare-creating activities in the NE quadrant and perhaps some environmental repair measures in the SE quadrant should be initiated; such activities might even include some which have in the past been abandoned but which now can be seen to have positive effects according to both criteria (for instance, forms of public transport and diet discarded in favour of the cars and beef);
  3. activities which produce no welfare and damage the environment (SE quadrant) should be suppressed, as should those NW quadrant whose welfare contribution is low or which could be carried out in other less damaging ways. The task of identifying activities which reduce welfare is often said to be too subjective to be possible; almost certainly, however, many activities would be condemned on these criteria with virtual unanimity;
  4. finally many activities should be transformed (almost entirely in the NW quadrant) so that their positive welfare contribution is not lost but they are carried out with less environmental damage; the role of new or neglected environmentally friendly technologies will be important in many of these cases.

The initial letters of this categorization spell MIST (rather the opposite of the effect intended). A clearer location of activities on this map and the application of the MIST principles are an exercise in Utopianism which is necessary if the sum total of human activities is to become simultaneously more productive of human welfare and less unsustainable. To carry out this exercise only in theory, however, is to have a kind of technocratic, experts' environmentalism. For principles to be translated into practice implies that people, communities and societies get results when they try to act on the principles. That outcome will surely require a radical redistribution both of economic and political power.


Defined as they have been here, both critical concepts (human and sustainable development) involve an improvement in the relative access to resources of excluded groups: the poor in the case of human development; future generations (and perhaps other species) in the case of sustainable development. Human development without attention to sustainability improves distribution in the present at the cost of worsening the distribution between present and future (the unborn subsidize the poor). At the same time sustainability without human development means maintaining the material levels of the over-endowed and reducing the levels of the poor, thus worsening distribution in the present (the poor subsidize the unborn and the rich).

There is a way out of this ugly contradiction: redistribution in the present. If the negative environmental impact of human activity, for which the rich of today are primarily responsible, is mitigated then any given improvement in the situation of the poor becomes more sustainable. To put the same point in another way: if negative environmental impacts are reduced then it will be more difficult to implement human development unless the rich (nations, classes and individuals) of today accept a disproportionate decline in their use of resources and production of wastes.

The conflict between the poor of today and the unborn exists to the extent that a real reduction in the negative environmental impact of the rich of today is not contemplated. Thus, human development is in danger of being unsustainable unless there is redistribution; and sustainable development is in danger of being anti-human unless it is accompanied by redistribution.

Looked at in this way, the two concepts of development and the two forms of redistribution which they imply are seen to be mutually reinforcing. Present and future justice demands that they be pursued simultaneously. They entail different (but not necessarily contradictory) kinds of changes. But they have one major common implication: to pursue
both together demands a considerable reduction in the use of resources and production of pollutants by the people, classes and nations which are now rich and over-endowed. It is the same people at the same time who are wastefully using the resources needed both by today's deprived and by the unborn. If the waste continues then either human development or sustainable development or both will not be possible, or at the very least will be more difficult.

The general desire for development, about which such disillusion has been generated, should then be replaced by one not for human development nor sustainable development alone but for sustainable human development in which both kinds of redistribution are effected. Large scale redistribution of the use of resources in the world seems to be a necessary condition for sustainable human development.

The historical moment when increasing numbers of people are reaching such conclusions has, ironically, coincided with a period of triumph for the ideology of the free market which tends to produce contrary effects. The recent ascendancy of free market ideologies is Reversely associated with the rise of environmentalist and welfare concerns. The 'all power to the free market' faction in the old debates about the route to development has held together because they argue that the new questions really make no difference. Since for them free capitalist enterprise maximizes growth and income, and that people on the whole in a market system get what they want, questions about the persistence of deprivation or the environmental depletion and pollution are not bothersome. This convenient aspect of their doctrines is certainly not the only reason for their remarkable spread during the 1980s; but, given the disarray and confusion which the new debates produced among their former opponents, it probably made a contributions

Related to the neo-liberal counter-revolution is a growing disillusion with mechanisms of redistribution in the world. The amount of international aid, except from a few countries, and for purposes which benefit the economy of the donor, is in decline. Welfare state measures which were established, and which really redistributed income when countries were poorer then they are now, are, by some wonderland logic, threatened because, now that those countries are richer, it is said that they can no longer afford them. There has been little sign of major
redistribution of income between countries. During the two decades from 1970 to 1989, according to Gini coefficients, overall world inequality either remained the same or worsened, depending on the method of conversion used. According to all methods, East Asia increased its share of the world's product faster than its share of the population while Africa's share of population increased while its share of world product decreased as did its absolute level of income per head. There is evidence of a major redistribution towards the rich in a number of developed countries (in Britain the post-tax personal income of the richest 20 per cent of the population has doubled as a multiple of that of the poorest 20 per cent since 1979 (Sandford 1993 quoting HM Treasury)) as well as in some underdeveloped ones, especially in Latin America (World Bank 1993). In the absence of major political change, therefore, we must at present acknowledge that the times are not very propitious for the major redistribution necessary as a concomitant of sustainable human development.

It is, of course, very difficult to quantify the amounts by which pollution and resource depletion need to fall and so the degree of redistribution which is necessary. But in some areas research which enables us to make more reliable calculations is accumulating rapidly. The enormous data base on carbon emissions produced by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center in the United States has been widely used to spell out the dimensions of the problem. Figure 12.2 presents relatively well known figures for CO2 emissions per head for various developed and underdeveloped countries. Some climatologists have argued that to stabilize CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere it will be necessary to reduce the average level of per head emissions to about the current level of India in this graph. If such an aim is deemed to be necessary then the transformation in the lifestyles of rich countries (and in the way in which poor countries try to change theirs) will be profound, for many people, perhaps, unthinkably so.

Such data as these have had the effect of presenting in a very dramatic way the scale of the task and also the relative division of current responsibility for the problem. If it is the moral duty of the polluter to change then such figures as these can perform an important political role in weakening the bargaining power of the great polluters. The battle over international redistribution will be in part a battle over indicators and their interpretation (Agarwal and Narain 1991 and World Resources Institute 1992).

27 The value of the Gini coefficient for world distribution of GDP based on country totals changed as follows:

Basis of conversion (number of countries) 1970 1980 1989
Market exchange rate (178) 0.669 0.679 0.729
Purchasing power parity (117) 0.554 0.562 0.564
Price adjusted exchange rate (178) 0.697 0.694 0.695

Source: United Nations (1993), p 20, Table 2.

Source: World Resources Institute, World Resources 1992-93, Table 24.1

Figure 12.2Production of CO2 from industrial sources, 1990

Rescuing the Baby

If inequality and how to end it are questions central to the achievement of sustainable human development, we must go beyond defining concepts and attempt to give them concrete meaning. We must look to the causes of the persistence of inequalities. That surely means that we must go back to the debates about development which the new concerns have partially ousted. The rejectors of 'mutual benefit' analysed the obstacles on the route to development. Although the debates about destination have questioned their concept of development, the same or related obstacles also stand in the way on the road to sustainable human development; many of the arguments of the rejectors of mutual benefit are still valid in relation to redefined objectives.

An essential part of most rejectionist analyses of the world was that various mechanisms in the world economy produced a systematic transfer of value from poor countries to rich countries (through unequal exchange and the false invoicing of exports and imports by multinational companies, the repatriation of profits, the service of the debt and so on). In so far as this transfer of value exists (and each item has provoked controversy) it constitutes a perverse redistribution of income which can only worsen the conditions for achieving sustained human development. Regardless of one's assessment of the overall argument there is no doubt that the transfer of resources from poor to rich has on some counts risen in recent years. The two most notable items here are the enormous service of the debt since the early 1980s (Sutcliffe 1993a) and the sharp adverse movement in the terms of trade of primary products since the mid-1970s (Maizels 1992).

These events can only have had negative environmental impacts in the poorer countries. Not only do they drain resources which can in principle be used for constructive purposes, including environmental improvement, but they also tend to produce a race to acquire foreign exchange either to pay debt service or to compensate for declining export earnings. This race can lead to the development of new environmentally unsound activities such as the production of some commercial agricultural export crops or overfelling of tropical forests for timber exports; and they may discourage necessary protective investments (Cruz and Repetto 1992). They also lead to a desperate desire to reduce costs and to become more competitive which among other things may encourage a lax (cheap) environmental protection regime. And they have probably led to overexploitation of some non-renewable resources resulting in the excessive rundown of reserves and lower prices which might disguise situations of shortage (Bunker and O'Hearn 1992). This is an argument against those economists who argue that price signals will control any tendency towards the excessive depletion of non-renewable resources.

Integral to some rejectionist accounts of the world has been the notion of unequal exchange through which, it is argued, rich developed countries have in the long run received imports from poor countries at prices below their values. Hardly ever has this argument taken into account the considerations now commonly raised by ecological economists that the extraction of non-renewable resources has always taken place at a cost far below its real cost since the natural stock of the material is not valued. In this sense the ecological argument vastly strengthens the argument for the existence of unequal exchange since poor countries have for centuries depleted their non-renewable resources, largely for export to the developed countries, and in so doing have literally given away a part of their patrimony (Martinez Alien 1987).

Thus ecological arguments strengthen some aspects of the rejectionist (or, if you like, dependency theory) analysis of the world; and at least important parts of this analysis remain, therefore, a necessary foundation for understanding the obstacles to sustainable human development. If development needs to be redefined, then so equally does underdevelopment. We are now witnessing a rapid accumulation of writings which in effect demonstrate how environmental and welfare deterioration have been and are in many cases the consequences of inequalities in the international distribution of wealth and power. The development of underdevelopment has also been the development of unsustainability. Hence the new debate should not be allowed to displace completely the old one. In the rush to reexamine dependency theory and criticize some of its undoubted limitations, the baby of rejectionism should not be thrown out with the bathwater of actual existing development.


I have argued that the tacit accords with which development was approached have been shattered by the persistence of extreme mass privation in an ever more developed world and by growing evidence of the environmental destructiveness of actually existing development. Out of a response to these two contradictions of the process a different concept of sustainable human development is being constructed which suggests directions of change which are radically different from the directions suggested by more traditional concepts of development.

The old map of development is now difficult to use when choosing the direction in which to proceed. Some of the environmentalist critiques of actually existing development imply that it is difficult to know exactly where we are on the map, concretely how close we are to an ecological precipice. If the starting point is in part indefinable, the destination is also in many ways mysterious. But we can say that a more rational concept of development directed towards equalizing welfare and sustainablility will be radically different from every one of the five shared assumptions of the tacit accords mentioned earlier.

1. The present nature of the developed countries is not an appropriate destination. Their level of resource use and the volume of contamination which they produce are the main generators of the global environmental crisis. Despite their prodigal use of resources they are unable to meet the human needs of large sections of their populations. The globalization of the characteristics of developed countries would surely make the planet uninhabitable.

In terms of the level of the use of resources per head a destination appropriate for the whole world must be much closer to the existing situation in most underdeveloped countries than in developed ones. As a way of illustrating this point Figure 12.3 compares the durability of various natural resources assuming that the world consumes them at the actual rate per head - of the United States, of the world and of China. The dates are not to be taken seriously since they are based on present estimates of reserves which may change for many reasons.

But what is to be taken seriously is the striking difference, shown implicitly, between present levels of consumption in the US and in China (countries chosen to represent the developed and
underdeveloped world respectively, and because they have comparable statistical coverage).

Current underdeveloped country levels of consumption, if generalized, would evidently be dramatically more sustainable that those of developed countries. There are other respects, too, in which underdeveloped countries often, if by no means always, offer a better model than developed ones: for instance, the persistence in some places of more sustainable forms of agricultural production and healthier vegetable-based diets which are less costly in resources; there are some examples where common rights are better maintained; and others where mechanisms of social solidarity and redistribution are more intact.

Source: calculated from World Resources Institute, World Resources 1992-93, Tables 10.2, 21.5

Figure 12.3 Hypothetical life of known reserves of raw materials, 1990 based on alternative rates of consumption

Actually existing development has been so far from sustainable human development that such a destination is likely to be at least as distant from the present location of the developed countries as from the underdeveloped ones. Development in this sense is something which has not yet occurred anywhere and which is, therefore, a valid objective in both developed and underdeveloped countries.

2. The traditional concept of development tended to assume that welfare would be a by-product. This becomes less convincing by the day. Improving human welfare on a permanent and secure basis seems to demand that it is clearly defined and is made into a primary objective of development, again in both developed and underdeveloped countries. Economic and productive change then becomes a byproduct of the pursuit of welfare improvement.

3. The new critiques of development undermine in various ways the idea that the appropriate unit of development is a country or nation. In so far as development is the fulfilment of social need it has many appropriate units: the individual, the family, the village, the city, the social group identified by ethnic origin, sex, sexuality, age and so on. While it is appropriate that the government of states assume important tasks in promoting human development, neither the power of the state nor the average material level within a country are appropriate indicators of development. Sustainability also imposes duties on national governments but it also points to other needed levels of analysis. The notion of sustainability can be applied locally, globally and anywhere in between Jacobs 1991:96 8). Perhaps the most resolute decisions in approaching sustainability need to be taken globally; some actions of a single nation state may be pointless unless they are part of general enforceable international agreements. And the same applies to local in relation to national decisions (discussed by both Sen and Cavendish elsewhere in this volume). Sustainability, to make sense, requires action and change at all these levels together. 4. The old development debate assumed that in some way or other universal development according to the old model was possible. It now seems clear that it is not. The implication of this is that as long as the developed countries maintain their unglobalizable way of life they will in both open and hidden ways prevent development elsewhere. 5. The fifth shared assumption of the debate must therefore be abandoned along with the fourth: that equalization of development levels could occur without a major reduction in the resources used by the rich and developed. If sustainability makes it clear that such a redistribution must take place, the abandonment of the second shared assumption suggests that to reduce resource use and pollution is not necessarily to reduce the level of fulfilment of welfare, though it may involve reduced material production and reduced GDP (see the chapters by Ekins and Jacobs and Glyn).

Even in the absence of such a redistribution, it still makes sense for the people of underdeveloped countries to try to construct forms of sustainable human development. They can at least make gains in relation to welfare and local sustainability. But they can hardly be expected to make material sacrifices in order to contribute to global sustainability when this is continually undermined by the ways of life of part of the population of the rich developed countries.


The extreme degrees of material inequality which exist in the world today, both between and within nations, is both a strength and weakness of the quest for sustainable human development. It is a strength because it means that there is scope for a considerable amount of redistribution of resources, as a result of which simultaneously a very small minority lose part of what they have, the deprived majority may have more of what they need, and the overall amount of resources used may be reduced, thus allowing more for the use of future generations. The weakness is that it is the very same minority which monopolizes most of the political and military power and the economic wealth which it uses to maintain its share.

There seems no sign that this minority, any more than any other in history, will voluntarily relinquish its privileges. So it seems impossible to imagine that the world can go far towards sustainable human development without destroying the power and removing the wealth of this minority. Sustainable human development is thus a task demanding radical mass political action. If we think of vehicles and routes, of maps and destinations we are in danger of reducing the problem of development to a technocratic one. While it is important to know the relationship between actuality and objective possibility, in other words to have a sense of destination, there remain the questions of the vehicle and the route (the appropriate socio-economic systems and policies) and perhaps above all the question of the driver (how a development process is managed and directed politically). These questions are closely related. The idea of human development logically requires popular participation, democracy, equity and justice both as part of the destination and part of the conditions for the journey. In other words development is not just the destination; it is also the process of reaching it.

If that is clear for the human part of sustainable human development it may also be true in a different way for the sustainable part. Part of the cause of unsustainability is the exclusion of the majority from taking a full and informed part in decisions about economic activities. The environmental knowledge of people who live and produce in very 'underdeveloped conditions' and their ability to live in a complex symbiosis with the environment is often very remarkable and contrasts with the ignorance and hostility to the environment often produced by development.

The political basis of the concept of sustainable human development which I have tried to outline in this chapter must appear to be a surrealistic alliance between those who are excluded from the benefits of actually existing development: unborn generations and the living poor and disposessed. But surreal does not necessarily mean illogical. The only hope for a radical redistribution towards the future is a radical redistribution away from the rich in the present. If greater equality in the present is one of the traditional concerns of red politics, greater equality between generations is an essential characteristic of the new green politics. But not all reds are yet green; nor do all greens look as if they will become reds. The future of sustainable human development depends on a more thorough mixing of colours.


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