| Evolutions in Development Thinking & the Rise of a New Politics

Introduction – From Progress to Sustainability

Discussions about development and the world we live in are increasingly framed by arguments about sustainability.  Using research from my thesis as the basis of my arguments, I will explore several aspects of this “move towards a sustainable future”.  I do so under the overarching frameworks of Development Studies (Wikipedia – Development Studies) and Global Studies (Wikipedia – Global Studies).

I encourage readers to explore, even if briefly, the highlighted links if confronted by new concepts or terms.  To engage in a meaningful discussion about a sustainable future (which is the very point of this blog) means digging deep into issues and approaches, leaving surface discussions to mainstream media, pundits and politicians.  Many of the links will be to Wikipedia.  Although there can be errors, no other site can present such a wealth of introductory information.

What is sustainable development?  How do we define it?  Here at the beginning I borrow a definition that points us in a positive direction, with the goal of coming up with a more concrete and substantive definition in due course.  The following comes from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (http://www.iisd.org/sd).

“Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report (1987):

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

    • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
    • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

All definitions of sustainable development require that we see the world as a system-—a system that connects space; and a system that connects time.  When you think of the world as a system over space, you grow to understand that air pollution from North America affects air quality in Asia, and that pesticides sprayed in Argentina could harm fish stocks off the coast of Australia.

And when you think of the world as a system over time, you start to realize that the decisions our grandparents made about how to farm the land continue to affect agricultural practice today; and the economic policies we endorse today will have an impact on urban poverty when our children are adults.

This idea of sustainability has increasingly come to supplement the idea of progress as the model of human advancement, and what it means to be modern.

Within the development field sustainability is driven by a mix of ideological and practical motivations.  It is often concerned with the practicalities of how (solar/wind, for example), not what (energy).  It imposes limitations, yet opens up often suppressed opportunities.   In a general sense, the development field utilizes the idea of sustainability to attempt to provide the answer for three of the largest failures of the modern era: ecological destruction (the green economy), extreme poverty (inclusive economic growth) and corruption (democratic participation). Let me quickly note that this third failure, corruption, and it’s answer, democratic participation, are a much contested notion, and, using the definition of sustainability above, need not be an essential component of sustainable development. Later on we will explore how participation in development is increasing, even where democratic deficits exist.

Indeed, I argue that the ideology of sustainability, rather than being a homogenizing agent (creating a uniformity, or sameness) as Western notions of progress often do, points towards a more heterogeneous, diverse world.  This world involves multiple forms of participation, capitalism, modernity, and development.  The reason this is so will be explored in later posts, but suffice it to say that their are three main components.  First is our evolving understanding of risk, which includes our understanding that risk often rises from what we do not know and/or cannot even imagine (as Ulrich Beck argues). A second argument is that as we better understand complexity and risk, it becomes increasingly difficult to solve competing problems and negotiate between competing interests. The third argument is that technology allows for greater input and choice of outcomes. As more voices are heard, we should not expect just one coordinated outcome.

A few quick examples to highlight the case.

The clearest example of this is climate change arising from fossil fuel use. Modern, industrialized countries have grown their economies on the back of fossil fuel use, completely unaware of potential negative affects to the overall, global climate. We now ask, how can we solve this problem and move forward? Possible answers can lead us in two opposite directions, by either placing limitations on how we move forward (the Precautionary Principle in Europe) or taking a technologically pragmatic approach (solve each unintended consequence as it arises).

Can the world’s economies afford to place limitations during a period of slow growth? Should we trust technology to solve the problem? Are we willing to accept the unintended consequences of technological solutions? Yet what are the unintended consequences of placing limitations? There are always unknown trade-offs. How do we weight those trade-offs?

Later on I use the case of Lamu, Kenya to help illustrate the difficulty of negotiating between competing interests. We should expect that different countries will choose to pursue different routes of modernization. For example, chinese industrialization is still largely driven by coal. They have decided that the risk of climate change and ecological destruction is outweighed by the risk of being a poor nation. However, we might expect that Sub Saharan Africa nations may largely leap-frog to renewable energies, with tech and service economies, rather than industrial. There are myriad routes forward.

The result is an approach to development that is both more precautionary, and more diverse, driven by local and regional conditions.

The world has been increasingly moving in the direction of sustainability.  Sustainability is not the cause or reason for this movement, but instead reflects the current world we live in, and helps provide guidance in moving “forward”.  Sustainability helps us challenge perceptions of the world we live in.  Localist movements (Wiki), small-scale organic farming, and even the rise of religious fundamentalists look like repudiations of Progress (regressive, backwards movement), but make more sense as an exploratory form of sustainable development.

Localization movements attempt to address the needs and limitations criteria of sustainable development as defined above.  But do they?  What are the trade-offs?  The debate continues, and we will come back to it later.  What about green technologies, which drive the political dialogue currently?  If sustainability is only the evolution of green technologies, then it is no different than progress.  Thus this definition is insufficient.

How we define sustainability is essential in how it guides us forward.  But I am getting ahead of myself already.  Sustainable development is the goal of my work, and where we are headed.  Yet the transition is from Progress to Sustainability, so first we must ground this exploration in a historical view of Progress and it’s relationship with development.

Note: The following section includes many of the key points from Robert Nisbet’s article (1979) The Idea of Progress .  You can read the entire article here (well worth it, approximately 20 pages).

Development: Roots in Progress

Development has traditionally been embedded in western, secular (Wiki) notions of progress and modernity, both of which sprout from the same roots.

In his essay, The Idea of Progress, Robert Nisbet (1979) lays out the arguments for and against progress quite succinctly.  First, he argues, “In its most common form the idea of progress has referred, ever since the Greeks, to the advance of knowledge, more particularly the kind of practical knowledge contained in the arts and sciences.”  Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, during the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns in France in the late 1700’s, argued that “the human mind is as good today, as rich in reason and imagination, as ever it was in the past.”  Therefore, “…if men today are as well constituted physically and mentally as were the men of antiquity, then it follows that there has been and will continue a definite advancement of both the arts and the sciences, simply because it is possible for each age to build upon what has been bequeathed to it by preceding ages.”

Nisbet cites Georges Sorel’s The Illusions of Progress, to show how the conclusion can be superficial.  If we build upon knowledge of the previous ages, then we are always advancing in knowledge.  Therefore, Sorel argues, it should hold true that “We, as a human race, know more than did our primitive forerunners: ergo, a seventeenth century dramatist is bound to be greater than one of the fifth century B.C.” (My note: Where art thou, our modern Shakespeare?)

Needless to say, the modernist view became dominant: mankind has advanced in art and science, is now advancing, and will continue to advance during a long future ahead, and that this advance is the result solely of human causes.

Beginning with Turgot, and further explored by the Enlightenment thinkers, is progress beyond the arts and sciences, now applicable to the whole of culture.  Hence we see Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the first economics treatise, but also focused on, “…a natural order of the progress of nations…Smith’s “invisible hand” is as much directed toward the mechanics of progress through time as it is the stability of the economic system.”  Rousseau, in his Third Discourse on Political Economy and Social Contract shows “…how progress [is] achieved—through the instituting of the general will and, with this, complete and enveloping social equality.”

Besides furthering ideas on progress, Smith and Rousseau remain influential as early theorists on development and political economy.  Their works are some of the earliest to point out the failures of Progress (Smith focusing on the dislocations of the industrial revolution and the resulting squalor and poverty, while Roussaeu emphasizes the negative impact of private property and the rise of social inequality).  Progress remained future oriented, with Smith and Rousseau placing the inequities of their times “…in a developmental context, one that when properly aided by human action, will yield a golden future.”

The paradox of progress surrounded all of the early thinkers.  Violence and exploitation unfolded in the world around them, but the idea of progress never wavered.  If rational thought, building off previous knowledge could be applied to the human situation, the outcome would be progress.

As Mario Blaser (2009) pointed out, with an active idea of progress the modern, industrial West represented a higher stage in a process of unending evolution, with the ‘traditional rest’ residing at various stages of earlier evolution (located closer to nature).  This linear, evolutionary trajectory, “…justified treatment of the Other, along with nature, as objects amenable to being disciplined and reformed according to the designs of the modern West” (Blaser, 2009 p. 439).

In the next post we will begin to explore how development has actually occurred over-time, dispelling the idea of this linear trajectory of progress.