Principles, Perception and Practice
By: A. Kumar, N. Singh, and M. Yunus
Recent views expressed by a
top-level leader accusing the environmentalists of obstructing the development
programs aptly sum the callous and ignorant attitude of political leaders
regarding this very sensitive issue. This was said soon after a study report of
the World Bank categorically stated 34,000 rupees in core losses due to
environmental decadence in India. This general notion is hard to erode, more so
because the prosperity of developed countries would not have been possible
without the exploitation of nature and its resources. But any developmental
process started with the philosophy of "conquering the nature" could yield
results no better than what is seen today. So is there a solution? There is in
fact, in the form of sustainable development.
But sustainable development which promises to be the
panacea for all developmental evils remains a broad and ill-defined term. Under
the prevailing understanding of the subject, there surely seems some
justification in the attitude of the leaders of developing countries, who
primarily see environmental issues as obstructions in the path of development.
And what is more appalling is that not only the leaders but even the
policy-makers at large, are unaware of this modern day jargon for development.
A better understanding of the
term sustainable development with all its attributes is essential and urgently
needed. The term was first used in the report "Our Common Future", given by
Brundtland Commission. The report defines it as follows, "Development should be
such that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of
the future generations to meet their own needs." Basically this definition is
ambiguous and leaves much for speculation. But the subject has surely been
deliberated further and some clear concepts have come off.
To understand it let us ask
ourselves some questions: how true is the development that we have seen so far
in the world? Can the same process be continued, if not, why? And lastly, what
is the way out?
Economic development defined
in real terms is "capital gain" or "income". Let us consider the Hicke's
definition of income, he says, "Income is the maximum amount that a person or
nation could consume over a period of time and still be as well-off at the end
of the period as at the beginning." Remaining equally well-off means
maintaining capital intact, so growth in Hicksion income is by definition
sustainable. Then why has the economic development not been sustainable. It is
basically because the capital that we have endeavored to maintain is the
"man-made" capital only. There is another very important but relatively
unappropriated category of capital, i.e., natural capital. Natural capital
means the nature and natural stocks that yield flows of natural resources and
services without which there can be no production. In practice, we do not
maintain this natural capital constant, instead it has been constantly on the
decline since the beginning of industrialization. So now if both the capitals
are taken into account for the "net gain", the natural capital inevidently goes
to a huge negative, henceforth resulting in a net economic loss rather than
This natural capital was
not taken into account earlier as the population was negligible relative to the
environmental resources used, so natural capital regeneration was either
automatic or perceived as unimportant because it was not a limiting factor.
Between 1950 and 1986, world population doubled and most resource consumptions
reached new heights. And thus the humanly directed flows of matter and energy
rivaled in magnitude to the regenerative capacity of the natural stocks.
Therefore, while in the past, the limiting factor in the economic development
was man-made capital, we are now entering into an era in which the limiting
factor would be the remaining natural capital. And as this natural capital is
very much depleted already, the older system of development cannot be adopted
by developing countries like India.
Absence of clean
technologies have resulted in producing large amount of pollutants or other
wastes which further hinder the continued use of same technologies and
processes for future development. Pollution-control simply consists in
diverting them to where they are likely to do the least harm or to dilute them
in atmosphere or in the seas. Thus pollution-control is only possible when
there are less pollutants, impossible when they are in huge quantities, for
there is no where to divert them to and nothing left to dilute them in.
So finally with the ongoing
style of development and its environmental repercussions, is there a way out?
The answer comes with sustainable development. To make this facet of
development a viable and pragmatically applicable hypothesis some solutions
through operational at the macro level should be adopted in every policy
decision. Some of these can be:
principle is to limit the human scale to a level which is not optimal should at
least be within the carrying capacity of the Earth and therefore, sustainable.
However, possibilities remain of substitutes between population size and
resource use per capita, hence sustainability is compatible with a large
population living at low levels of per capita resource use, or with a small
population living at high levels of per capita resource use. For a country like
the former is the only option feasable. Eventually population stabilization is
the ultimate necessity of sustainable development but until that is met,
recourse use minimization would be imperative for today's society.
progress should be efficiency increasing rather than resource use increasing. A
governmental measure to limit the resource supply would induce this
A micro level
program for pollution reduction at source would be to allow technologies with a
cyclic nature, either within the same unit or within a system of units. This is
a feasible option as the much discussed clean technologies are always hard to
materialize and thus cycling of by-products is easier than their complete
absence in a technological process.
resources, in both their source and sink functions, should be utilized n a
sustained yield basis and in general not driven to extinction, since they will
become ever more important as non-renewable resources run out. Specifically
this means that harvesting rates should not exceed regeneration rates, and that
waste emission should not exceed the renewable assimilative capacity of the
resources should be utilized at a rate equal to the creation of renewable
substitutes. The rates of return or non-renewable investments should be
calculated after subtracting the natural capital lost in them and thus arrive
on a realistic income. This will help in reducing their utilization in all
These operational principles
for a new development order present only a starting point and need to be
further refined, clarified and systematized. But these alone are a sufficient
political and social challenge to the present order. Top-level political
hierarchy genuinely interested in bringing about this paradigm shift is the
need of the hour.