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Vol. 3 No. 2 - April 1997

Sustainable Development

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 gain.

 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:

         The main 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 India, 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.

         Technological progress should be efficiency increasing rather than resource use increasing. A governmental measure to limit the resource supply would induce this technological shift.

         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.

         Renewable 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 environment.

         Non-renewable 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 technological processes.

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.

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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