Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Driving forces

The problem of environmental degradation as a result of various development and other activities that constitute driving forces has to be understood as a basis for determining measures for ensuring sustainability. The driving forces considered here include:

agriculture, including livestock production and fishing
population explosion
fuelwood and energy management and associated deforestation
poverty and affluence urbanization
other miscellaneous activities and phenomena.

Holdgren, Daily, and Ehrlich (1995) recently included among driving forces: excessive population growth; maldistribution of consumption and investment; misuse of technology; corruption and mismanagement; and powerlessness of the victims. The authors also refer to underlying human frailties such as: greed, selfishness, intolerance, and shortsightedness; and ignorance, stupidity, apathy, and denial. These are among the miscellaneous activities and phenomena listed above but only modernization is considered in detail here, although they are implied when it is stressed that, for sustainable development, changes are needed in attitudes, lifestyles, morals, ethics, behaviour, and philosophy.


Modernization may be defined as a process of transformation of the way of life (culture, social and economic structures, and attitudes) from the characteristics of traditional societies to those dictated by changes brought about by industrialization, urbanization, trade, and communications. Of major importance in the modernization process is the West European influence, which was most pronounced during various periods of colonialism. This was followed by a period of political/ideological, technical, cultural, and other influences related to American/West European and East European aspects of modernization associated with the Cold War. With the end of communism, Westernization influences have become dominantly more American. However, it must be admitted that, just as with sustainable development, modernization has many interpretations. Its meanings and indicators range from its being equivalent to industrialization to a more complex process affecting all aspects of human life, with the indicators ranging from GNP, income, or number of cars per 100 people to combinations of major economic indicators ranging from life expectancy to numbers of scientists per 1,000 of population and quality of life indices. A few definitions of modernization are considered below to clarify the situation.

Todaro (1986) defines modernization as the transformations in attitudes, institutions, and ideologies that are associated with processes such as urbanization and industrialization, whose characteristic ideals include: rationality, which is the substitution of modern methods of thinking, acting, producing, distributing, and consuming for age-old traditional practices; planning or the search for a rational coordinated system of policy measures that can bring about and accelerate economic growth and development, with the plan period usually in units of five years; social and economic equalization aimed at promoting more equality or equity in status; improved institutions and attitudes, including changes that are deemed necessary to increase labour efficiency and diligence; the promotion of effective competition, social and economic mobility, and individual enterprise, raising living standards, changing outmoded land tenure systems, and changing educational and religious structures.

Hoogvelt (1982) defines modernization as a process by which developing countries were to be made either efficient producers and exporters of agricultural products and raw materials, or consumers of industrial products from the West, or both, thereby participating in world economic relations. Modernization started at the end of World War II in underdeveloped countries as a process in development activities regarded in liberal progressive circles as a necessary complement to the economic reconstruction in war-ravaged industrial countries and of a prosperous world capitalist economy based on free trade. In order to accomplish this goal rapidly, it was felt that fast changes from "stone age" to the twentieth century through the modernization process were necessary. According to the neo-evolutionary theory of development, modernization involved structural compatibility between certain primary consequences of modernization, consisting of advanced economic institutions (money markets, occupational specialization, profit maximization, etc.), and certain second-order consequences, consisting of Western "modern" political, social, and cultural institutions, with second-order institutions such as social mobility of individuals, nuclear family patterns, nationalism, formal education, a free press, voluntary associations, urbanization, and consumerism regarded as prerequisites for economic development. There was also some collusion of interests between Western international capitalism and the ruling elites of the new ax-colonial territories, who in many cases dictated the goal of development to be economic, involving the wholesale adoption of Western social, economic, and political structures. Traditional elements or counterparts of these consequences and characteristics of modernization, such as kinship and the extended family, were condemned as obstacles to development.

Until the second United Nations Development Decade, the above primary and secondary characteristics of modernization of the neo-evolutionary modernization theories led to the use of indicators for comparing developing countries that included such economic, political, and social factors as degree of urbanization, industrialization, political democracy, secularization, social mobility, occupational differentiation, free enterprise, and independent judiciary. The World Bank and other international organizations used these factors to outline the socio-economic programmes that contain these elements as a basis for qualifying for aid. Western technology, Western methods of production, and Western economic enterprises were also welcomed as vital agents of development.

Dube (1988) observes that, following World War II and the escalation of the number of independent countries, modernization was born as a new development paradigm. At that time, as new independent states launched massive economic development and technical change programmes aimed at getting them in a few years to where their erstwhile colonial rulers had taken centuries to reach, the developed countries were forced by conscience and humanitarian interest, in addition to strategic power interests and promise of long-term economic gain, to extend their cooperation in a limited way. Modernization emerged as one of the formulations of social scientists aimed at evolving stable patterns of relationship that were mutually beneficial, with prospects of short-term and long-term national interest weighing heavily on both developed and developing countries. In putting forward the theories of modernization, social scientists were determined not to offend the sensitivities of the new nations. "Modernization" was invented as a more acceptable term to replace "Westernization." Because of its academic respectability, funds flowed easily to research on this new paradigm, and aid was extended to programmes aimed at achieving it.

Dube (1988) also notes that modernity was understood to be a common behavioural system associated with the industrial, literate, and participant societies of Western Europe and North America. Developing countries were impressed by the varying degrees of success of the countries that early in the twentieth century joined the race for industrialization, such as Japan (the first Asian country to do so) and Russia. The basic underlying assumptions were that:

1. inanimate sources of power could be tapped with a view to solving human problems and ensuring minimum acceptable standards of living, the ceiling of which will rise progressively;

2. both industrial and collective efforts should be channelled to achieve this;

3. to create and run complex organizations, radical personality changes and attendant social structures and values were necessary.

As to the nature of modernization, it is regarded as a process very similar to development (see table 7.2). However, although many of the attributes of the two processes - such as their being revolutionary, complex, systematic, lengthy, and phased - are acceptable, others are open to question, including the following:

some of the benefits have been widely diffused but large sections of human society often remain unaffected;

the extent of their being global is debatable;

although the world is increasingly being described as a global village on account of homogenization, the rise of ethnicities and pluralities of culture is tearing it apart;

whether the process is irreversible remains to be seen - the rise of fundamentalism and what is happening in the Soviet Union indicate that it is not;

whether the processes are progressive remains a matter of opinion, with individual alienation and social anomalies occurring and collective violence increasing;

although the benefits are substantial, the social cost and cultural erosion (coupled with environmental degradation) are escalating.

There are several dilemmas associated with modernization and development:

there are inequalities in wealth and affluence, with many countries not attaining high growth rates of GNP;

many countries (developed or developing) face cycles of recession, severe inflation, and growing unemployment;

the rationality of the system is in question, with current gaps in access to resources among countries and between men and women;

there is increasing violence and crime;

corruption is a way of life in many places;

the lifestyles of the affluent in developed countries are taking hold in developing countries;

there is misdirection of science and technology and even funds for development to military and disharmonious pursuits;

although developed countries spend billions of dollars on tools of destruction, they cannot devote 1-2 per cent of their GNP to development in the developing countries;

developing countries spend millions on military hardware while millions of their people die of hunger;

the world's finite energy resources of coal, tar, petroleum, oil, natural gas, and uranium not only are unevenly distributed but are becoming exhausted, while the capabilities for generating alternatives and their sustainable use vary from one country to another;

non-fuel mineral resources are also running out, as well as being unequally distributed;

world forest resources are disappearing fast and rapid loss of bio-diversity is also taking place;

billions of tonnes of soil are being lost to erosion and vast areas of agriculture are being degraded;

increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are causing ozone depletion and climatic change.

Table 7.2 The similarities between modernization and development

Modernization Development
1. Revolutionary process with significant technological and cultural consequences, e.g. rural agrarian cultures being transformed into urban industrial cultures 1. Same
2. Complex and multidimensional process with series of cognitive, behavioural, and institutional modifications and restructuring 2. Same
3. Systematic process with variations in one dimension producing important co-variations in other dimensions 3. Same
4. Global process, with ideas spreading from one centre of origin to other parts of the world 4. Same
5. Lengthy process with no known way of producing it instantly 5. Same
6. Phased process that, according to experience, involves known phases and sub-phases, namely: 6. Same, namely:
(i) traditional (i) underdeveloped
(ii) transitional (ii) developing
(iii) modernized (iii) developed
7. Homogenizing process, with advanced stages significantly narrowing differences between national societies and ultimately reaching a stage when the universal imperative of modern ideas and institutions prevails, and various societies are so homogenized as to be capable of forming a world state 7. Same
8. Irreversible process, although there may be occasional upsets and temporary breakdowns 8. Same
9. Progressive process regarded as inevitable and desirable, ultimately contributing to human well being culturally and materially 9. Same
10. Painful process and in some instances in the past built on painful and ruthless exploitation of segmeets of society, dividing or integrating peoples, and resulting in privileged or underprivileged people 10. Same for areas that have been under colonial rule
11. Multilinear and multi-path process, with societies not necessarily all taking the same route but some times alternative paths 11. Same
12. Cannot be visualized as continuous or unending path since they are conditioned by outer and inner limits and human perceptions can change and have changed course 12. Same

Source: Adapted from Dube (1988).

Dube (1988) identifies several factors that obstruct modernization and observes that many nations are torn between their allegiance to tradition and a commitment to modernization. Several barriers to modernization of an ideological, motivational, institutional, and organizational nature are encountered, as well as problems of a decline of the paradigm, ambiguities and inadequacies, environmental constraints, and global problems.

Modernization and sustainable development in Africa

Modernization has associated with it several benefits, including: education and educational infrastructure; applications of science and technology in banishing ignorance and superstition; improved health and sanitation; improved communications; improved water supplies; improved nutrition; and employment and high incomes. Most of these consequences, except that of high incomes, are very likely to enhance sustainability in development.

There are also many changes associated with modernization that have adverse effects on sustainability in development. These include: increased dependence on the West for what Africans wear or how they think; the importation of inappropriate technologies; a change in standards associated with lack of appreciation of traditional things; unsustainable lifestyles; and acculturation stress owing to massive exposure to Western media and communication channels to an extent that Africans are unable to fight back. It is a paradox, for example, that improved health and medical services, better sanitation, a decline in infant mortality, and longer life expectancy, which are associated with modernization, are causes of rapid population growth and its obvious adverse environmental and socio-economic consequences.

Modernization has made deep inroads into African culture and has also caused changes in attitudes and overall changes in lifestyles that are not as sustainable as some traditional African ones. Increased dependence on Western or imported clothes, food, and drink results in loss of income and foreign exchange needed for development. The importation and use of excessive amounts of certain pesticides, chemicals, and inappropriate technologies result in damage to the environment. Some technologies, such as agricultural and forest logging machinery, can do serious damage to the soil and vegetation. The emergence of a global culture has adverse effects on the attitude of the youth towards traditional African culture and sense of standards. In African culture, work is appreciated and a farmer has status depending on his productivity. With modernization, farmers have lower status irrespective of their productivity. As a result of modernization, indigenous knowledge is not appreciated or utilized, yet, without a good understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of indigenous knowledge, traditional resource management strategies, and technologies, African research and development activities cannot develop production systems for the location-specific conditions in Africa. Exposure to the media has significant effects on Africans and not only causes the development of unsustainable attitudes and habits but also causes acculturation stresses.

Agriculture, livestock production, and other driving forces

Modernization has been given detailed treatment here because it has an all-pervading influence on all human sectoral development activities, attitudes, value systems, and way of life. The other driving forces are only briefly addressed because they are covered in greater detail elsewhere in this volume. A summary of the environmental impacts of these driving forces is presented in table 7.3. Reference to this indicates that population is a major driving force because its rapid growth exerts considerable pressure on resources, renders sustainable traditional farming systems outmoded and unsustainable, and contributes to the adverse effects of urbanization, scarcity-triggered deforestation, fuelwood management, etc.

At the same time, such forces as commercialization of agricultural production, related market forces, and, more recently, measures necessitated by structural adjustment (SAP) often also cause exploitative damage to the environment and the resource base.

Levels of environmental effects of human activities and sustainability concerns

The environmental impacts of development activities occur at the local, national, regional, and global levels. Concern about them also occurs at all levels but the magnitude of the adverse effects of certain activities may be more seriously felt at one level than at the others. Similarly, measures to be taken in dealing with the problems caused by adverse environmental impacts may be more effective if taken at one level than at another.

Table 7.3 Major driving forces and some of their main environmental impacts

Driving forces Some of the main environmental impacts
1. Agriculture, livestock production, fishing and hunting Under high population pressure and intensification of farming, traditional farming systems become out moded, causing land degradation including erosion.
  Increasing livestock numbers beyond carrying capacity also cause land degradation.
  Cash cropping can result in excessive deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and environmental pollution.
  Mechanical clearing and excessive tillage cause land degradation and erosion.
  Land degradation causes expansion of farming and grazing often into more marginal areas, resulting in more deforestation and land degradation.
  Deforestation and damage to vegetation cover in farming and grazing, in addition to unregulated fishing and hunting, result in rapid loss of biodiversity.
  Burning of vegetation in farming and pasture management produces greenhouse gases, which pollute the air, smoke, and suspended particulate matter.
  Ruminants produce methane, which pollutes the atmosphere.
  Intensification of farming without adequate fertilizer/manure application causes land degradation, while excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides also causes environmental pollution.
  Soil erosion and excessive runoff cause siltation of streams and rivers, with adverse effects on aquatic resources.
2. Population growth Rapid growth intensifies pressures on resources, resulting in excessive deforestation and environmenal degradation because sustainable traditional farming systems cannot cope.
  Population growth drastically reduces available land per capita, resulting in removal of all natural vegetation and loss of biodiversity of plants, animals, and micro-organisms. This either eliminates national parks and reserves or causes sharp declines in areas available.
  High population pressure on forestry and fishery resources also causes serious loss of biodiversity.
  Population concentration generates enormous amounts of waste, which pollutes the environment, while concentrations of livestock also degrade the environment.
3. Industrialization Some industrial technologies and processes cause atmospheric pollution, with greenhouse gases, acidrain, and loading of the air with suspended particulate matter.
  Undegraded plastic products produced by industry constitute a major environmental hazard.
  Industry produces enormous quantities of solid and liquid waste in addition to toxic chemicals, which pollute the environment. Some of these hazardous wastes in developed countries are transported to Africa.
  Industrial accidents (such as the one that occurred in Bhopal in India) endanger life and property in addition to destroying the environment.
4. Urbanization Urbanization causes climatic, hydrological, geomorphological, vegetational, and environmental quality changes.
  The production of large amounts of liquid and solid waste, in addition to contaminants, causes pollution of land, water bodies, and atmosphere.
  Urban transport produces greenhouse gases and smog.
  Urbanization increases flooding and lowers water quality and hydrological amenities.
  Urbanization increases crime rates and drug traffficking and breeds slums.
5. Fuelwood and energy management Over 80% of the energy in Sub-Saharan Africa comes from fuelwood and biomass.
  The collection of fuelwood and charcoal to satisfy this demand results in rapid rates of deforestation, which exacerbate the environmental degradation caused by forest clearing for agriculture, pastures, ranges, and other land uses.
  The making of charcoal and burning of fuelwood produce greenhouse gases and particulates that pollute the atmosphere and contribute to climate change and ozone depletion.
  The building of large dams for hydroelectric power results in eutrophication. Sedimentation behind dams for irrigation increases the incidence of parasitic waterborne diseases such as bilharzia, aquatic weed problems, etc.
6. Poverty and affluence The poor have limited access to resources and wreak havoc by exploiting the environment to the extent that there is rapid irreversible degradation.
  The poor, who cannot purchase inputs for farming, mine the soil, thereby causing land degradation.
  The poor cannot afford to provide sanitation services, with the result that land, water, and atmosphere are polluted.
  Affluence causes people to destroy the environment through the excessive use of chemicals and pesticides and the maintenance of unsustainable livelihoods.
7. Other miscellaneous activities and phenomena Examples of miscellaneous factors that also have adverse impacts on the environment include greed,
  excessive consumption patterns, war and social conflicts, etc., which result in environmental degradation and damage to life and property.

Local impacts

Certain effects of human or development activities may be highly localized. For example, if a whole tree falls in a tropical forest it knocks down or carries with it broken branches of surrounding vegetation or lianas and may smash and kill several small seedlings, herbs, and shrubs that are in its way. Within the damaged area, called the chablise, some light is allowed into the canopy. Within a short time most of the non-woody and succulent material decomposes and releases nutrients to the soil, from where they are recycled in a more or less closed cycle. Within a few years the chablise is covered by vegetation and there is no movement of materials outside the ecosystem. Similarly, a small clearing in the forest for shifting cultivation may have only a limited localized effect and even the gases produced in the slash and burn clearing do not travel very far away since the volume of the gases produced may be very small.

National and regional impacts

Most environmental effects that might attract attention or have impacts at the national level start in a small way locally and then gather momentum to become important at both national and international levels. For example, many river basins cut across several countries. According to UNEP (1992), the proportion of river basins in Africa that are international, out of a total of 56 river basins, is 26 per cent, compared with 22 per cent in Europe, 19 per cent in Asia, 17 per cent in South America, and 16 per cent in North and Central America. It is obvious that in such river basins as in the Niger and the Nile, development activities and natural disasters such as floods upstream may have trans-boundary effects along the river basin. Although small isolated forest fires have only local effects in Africa, during the dry season north or south of the equator fires in hundreds of small clearings produce smoke and gases that combine to contribute a considerable amount of greenhouse gases, which in turn gather momentum to have regional impacts. When they join jet streams in the upper atmosphere they may have global effects. It is obvious from this example that some of the environmental impacts, whether local or regional, are related to time. For example, whereas Africa's contribution to the global load of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases constituted less than 100 million tonnes in 1900, by 1980 the CO2 released by burning fuelwood and by deforestation, which minimizes the sink capacity for CO2, amounted to about 700 million tonnes per year (see fig. 7.3).

The activities and impacts of tropical deforestation also occur at different levels. In fact, Wood (1990) observes that "at the local level deforestation primarily affects shifting cultivators and a growing population of rural peasants" but "the same problem multiplied over thousands of locations and combined with extensive logging can exacerbate the global issue of accelerated build-up of carbon dioxide." Wood (1990) likens the environmental politics of deforestation, consisting of four expanding layers of eco-political interaction at local, national, multilateral, and global levels, to the four sides of an upside-down pyramid (fig. 7.4). Each of the sides of this "upside down pyramid" -number of actors; number of political jurisdictions; complexity of ecological cause and effect relationships; and institutional obstacles to enforcement -represents an attribute of the deforestation problem that is compounded as it moves up the hierarchy. Thus deforestation not only becomes more complex ecologically as it moves from the local level to the global but also becomes more intransigent politically.

Fig. 7.3 Annual carbon release for the biomass system of the world's four major regions, 1900-1980 (Note: Whereas Africa's CO2 emissions from petroleum fuels in the 1980s were low - 0.25 tons/capita, equivalent to 8% of the figure for the United Kingdom - its CO2 emissions due to deforestation were about 700 million tons, or 1.5 tons/capita, at a time when such emissions were negligible or negative for European countries. Source: G. Leach, Agroforestry and the way out for Africa, in M. Suliman, ea., The Greenhouse Effect and Its Impact on Africa, London: Institute for African Alternatives, 1990)

A peculiar kind of trans-boundary environmental impact involves locally generated toxic waste in developed countries, which is transported across the seas to be deposited at minimum cost in some developing countries. This made it a global problem and the United Nations had to step in and formulate a convention to deal with such wastes.

Problem of transmission of cultural behaviour and standards at the international or global level

An aspect of modernization that could have very adverse effects on sustainability is the globalization of culture and economy that has exposed Africans and some indigenous peoples to advertisements via global television, video, radio, newspapers, and other media. Not only is it possible to advertise by television and radio, but fashion shows and behaviour patterns of people in Europe and America are projected to Africans in their own bedrooms, thereby making them interested in the material luxury consumption propensities of the North.

Fig. 7.4 Hierarchy of eco-political interactions in tropical deforestation (Source: Wood 1990)

Not only fashion but also criminal acts and lifestyles that are by no means sustainable are being "marketed" through the media. There is no doubt that the lack of strong cultural discipline in Africa as compared with Asia is one of the reasons that the level of savings in Africa is much lower than that in Asia. Although we have considered environmental impacts that start locally and gather momentum at the regional level to become global and affect millions of people physically, there is also a situation where people's attitudes and cultures are altered at the global level, and whereas certain global conventions have been passed to combat the former situation, it is not so easy to inculcate sustainable lifestyles or attitudes in the face of market forces and the globalization of culture that have become or are fast becoming deeply entrenched.

Contents - Previous - Next