Sustainability : Issues and Challenges for the Developing world

Yet another disappointing speculation by the world’s population as they helplessly await their inevitable fate of sustenance on this planet through decisions chalked out by Experts from Worlds Nations at the Summits on Climate Change beginning with RIO. Later at  Cancun. Mexico,  while the negotiators from 194 countries claimed to agree on an agenda that the UN world Secretariat said would set all governments ‘ more firmly on the path towards a low emissions future and provide support to developing countries for their actions on climate change,  the environment groups despaired on the failure of the talks on the most crucial elements of climate change actions  that is ensuring steep, legally binding cuts in emissions in GHG (Green House Gases) by industrialized countries. Infact they feared that Cancun text will provide a platform to abandon the Kyoto protocol, the global treaty  that sets  legal binding targets for cuts in emissions  on the industrialized countries.

The idea of sustainable development grew from numerous environmental movements in earlier decades and was defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission 1987) as: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This also contributed to the understanding that while  Sustainable development encompasses a number of areas and  practical issues  of development,  It highlighted Sustainability as the foundational philosophy that upheld the idea of environmental, economic , social progress and equity, all within the limits of the world’s natural resources.However, the record on moving towards sustainability so far appears to have been quite poor. This is in an age of immense wealth in increasingly fewer hands. The inequality of consumption (and therefore, use of resources, which affects the environment) is terribly skewed: “20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%” according to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report. While the Earth Summit in 1992 attempted to highlight the Importance of Sustainability, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit attended by 152 world leaders, enshrined sustainability in Agenda 21, a plan of action, and a recommendation that all countries should produce national sustainable development strategies. Despite binding conventions and numerous detailed reports, there seems to have been little known about the details to ordinary citizens around the world.

More than a decade since Rio, there has been little change in poverty levels, inequality or sustainable development, as the World Development Movement notes. “Despite thousands of fine words the last decade has joined the 1980’s as another ‘lost decade for sustainable development’ with deepening poverty, global inequality and environmental destruction”. In many countries — rich and poor — this is often because of a perception that sustainability is expensive to implement and ultimately a brake on development. Poor countries for their part usually lack the physical infrastructure, ideas and human capacity to integrate sustainability into their development planning. Besides, they are often quite skeptical about rich countries’ real commitment to sustainable development and demand a more equitable sharing of environmental costs and responsibilities. Many people also believe that environmental problems can wait until developing countries are richer. Ten years on, there is still no widely shared vision of what sustainable development might mean in practice. India sees the idea of a light ecological footprint as part of its cultural heritage. Japan, on the other hand, is debating whether the emphasis should be on the “sustainable” or on the “development” half of the equation.

Are we really surprised?  I am reminded of George Akerlof the Berkeley Noble Laureates remark  quoted by Eminent Social thinker and environmentalist Ramchandra Guha in his book How much should a Person Consume. Akerlof remarking of his fellow economists said that ‘if you showed them something that worked in practice  they would not be satisfied unless it was also seen to work in theory’.Lester Thurow  the MIT Economist later  picked up the same insight to declare that poor countries and Poor individuals are simply not interested with environmentalism. In the west the rise of the green movement  in the 1960’s was widely interpreted as a manifestation of what was called  ‘post materialism’. A paradigm shift founded on the   presumption  that with the growing  concern for environmentalism in the  North Atlantic world , consumer societies  collectively shifted ‘from giving priority to physical  sustenance and safety towards heavier emphasis on belonging, self expression and quality of life’ . Implying that a cultivated interest in protection of nature and softer options of leading life was possible only when the necessities of life could be taken for granted.  Western Chauvisim  and  the underlying ethnocentrism  totally negated the contribution of  traditional worldview of  indigenous communities that often displayed  nonmaterial  consciousness  and evolved institutions   compatible with  maintaining socio-environmental balance with human consumption For example The environmental wisdom of Hindus is still embedded in  the living  practices of Peasants in the countryside. The tribal pantheon displayed  a precocious ecological consciousness  manifest in their myths, folklore, ritual practices where as Professor R Guha  points out  Gods played with animals, humans attained salvation in the forest, animals displayed the highest degree of loyal  companionship etc etc.The Chipko movement  in Northern India marks the entry of poor into the domain of environmental consciousness. The 1970’s saw a barrage of popular movements in defense of local rights to forest, fish,water resources and protests against large Dams  among social categories that economist  identify as poor.


Thurow’s claims as rightly critiqued by Guha’ s academic prowess is a significant insight  to understanding  the conflict of interest  displayed at all forums of negotiations and settlements that claim to reach unequivocal agreements on climate change,GHG emissions. This  ‘disciplinary chauvinism’ unfortunately forms the theoretical foundation of formal stands taken by International organizations dominated by Western dogmatism. The discourse of sustainability, its corresponding settlements, strategies, negotiations begin  from the idealism  underlying  the TBL model which brings us to the widely accepted  dominant categories of developing vs. developed, nature (Eco-centrism) vs. mankind (anthropocentrism) which we commonly encounter around us. It is   primarily a narrow purview driven by the challenges confronted by western societies. For Examples Global challenges like climate change, global warming and the corresponding regulation of Cap and trade, reduction in carbon emissions are seen as conflict in interest between the developed and developing .Corporate vs. NGO (Shell vs. Greenpeace over Brent Spar oil rig) is a classic example of contrasting stands over eco-centrism (nature) vs. Mankind (anthropocentric) .Copenhagen 2009 Summit on Global warming ended in a failure when the African nations walked out over a row of increase in global temperature from 1.5 to 2 C. All these point to   growing fractures in interests that impede the growth of a universal consciousness of sustainable living. In order to make sustainability an all-encompassing global world view, we need to address the unified challenges that confront the world as a whole, understanding that the developing world in fact  may have  units or pockets of societies that reflect characteristics that are closer to developed world and vice versa. In this sense challenges to sustenance cannot be compartmentalized and need to be viewed in a universal framework rather than a narrow perspective of interest groups.

Sustainability  conceived as a  triple bottom line model of development and locates it in the intersection of Society (people), economy (profit), environment (planet)]. Societies in rapidly developing countries that are yet to taste the full potential of capitalist growth many a time find it difficult to practically implement the TBL Triple bottom line concerns of sustainability . In fact most of them are already rich in this tripartite vision in their existing traditional structures but because those structures do not fit into the logic of capitalist growth, most of these societies are in dire straits of eroded socio-cultural values, economic insecurity, environmental degradation and a breakdown of local community support structures. They are scarred by the infusion of global capitalist market values that challenge their existence and local interests. Most traditional social structures caught in the dilemma of a choice between  fast growth  and   strengths inbuilt in community network  find themselves in a ambiguous phase of transition where these ties with nature and  community bonding is  broken in favor of commercialization and specialization  that are so intrinsic to capitalist vision.


Endeavours towards  a sustainable existence at a time when most of us are used to living in the most unsustainable ways  will have to first redefine values  underlying every  institution that has so far dominated  the project of Modernity for Humanity.  This is not  to say that we need to favour every step that takes us away from  technology, rational belief system and global orientation the primary contributions of Modernity ,  it just implies that  the very worldview of Sustainable life on earth presupposes a, rethinking  a, social reconstruction  of  the ways that we have implemented  modernity into our lives and into our society. The first step in this would be to  unearth  the  challenges in constructing a  shared vision of sustainability as an universal concern  transcending fractured interests of local/global, developed/developing, eco-centrism/anthro-pocentrism etc . In constructing  this vision we need to make a note that in debating  polarities  we may be losing precious time  which could be used to accrue  the maximum benefits  from what we know to be the greatest boon of modern life  namely Science and Technology, Rational value system, Democratic governance, economic and social affluence, Universal Justice etc

If  sustainability has to reign as a shared vision  and dominant world view  we need to engage in it from a bottom up approach  that involves  individuals in their private consciousness ,in reconstructing values that are privately  imbibed through a consciouness  that has begun to rethink values of growth and its meaning. Agenda’s and political forum of governance  that pride themselves as agents of  socio-political  control  is too narrow a platform  to implement  a world view that is so vast, diverse ,profound and all-encompassing . In order to do so Education  both primary and Higher is of vital importance because it is only through education  and Research  that social restructuring is possible at the most fundamental level.

Sujata Dutta Hazarika and Saurabh Garg