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A Modest Case for Unsustainable Development

19/08/2013 17:17 BST | Updated 19/10/2013 10:12 BST

The central question of the Post-2015 process is how to protect the successes made in poverty reduction and replicate this in the environmental sphere so that development is truly sustainable. This can't be answered, however, unless a few basic issues are resolved.

Just naming something 'Sustainable Development' does not make it so. Because the development and environmental industries (and their supporters in government) use the phrase there is an assumption that great thought has gone into the concept. But 'Sustainable Development', as originally used in The Brundlandt Report, is a quarter-century old idea. Incidentally, Sub-Saharan Africa's economy has quadrupled in size during this period (and would be even further ahead if it hadn't been through a number of shocks in the 1980s and early 1990s) even as the development community has struggled to define what sustainable development meant or how it may be achieved.

'Sustainable Development', which is seen as the basis for a Post-2015 development framework, has devolved from an important idea to a catch-all banality. It has become an unfortunate repository for so many unstructured, and at times actively contradictory, ideas that it has become an overly-politicised cliché that sheds about as much light as Hard Working Families or The Squeezed Middle.

There is a temptation to assume that all good things go together and that development is therefore sustainable, just as a sustainable economy must be one that gets consistently richer. China may offer clues about the former; Costa Rica the latter. Just as poverty has become to be recognised in recent years as multi-dimensional (ironic, given that income is the principal measure of poverty in the Millennium Development Goals), so too is sustainability. So a sustainable Indian economy is on a very different trajectory to a sustainable British economy, and both should be recognised as cyclical rather than linear processes.

Cliché absolves the user from having to address philosophy or semantics. Sustainable Development therefore becomes synonymous with development that protects the environment, or that minimises external threats, or that progressively incorporates Things We Like and rejects Things We Don't. (The imprecision that accompanies cliché is yet another of its disadvantages.)

As such we forget about why we want development to be sustainable. Call it the economic laws of gravity, call it common sense, but we just feel that there is a healthy rate of growth which if unmet leads to poverty and when exceeded leads to environmental and social harm. It is the ability to defer gratification, and accept 'sustainable' progress in one year in order to safeguard similar progress in the next, that instinctively leads us to intellectually and practically support sustainable development.

It is virtual apostasy in both environmental and development circles to criticise the concept of Sustainable Development, but what sort of record does it have? Sustainable Development didn't prevent a rich-world financial collapse. Nor does it seem to be behind the growth rates in much of the poor world that the development community now claim as a vindication of poverty-reduction targets. If anything, Unsustainable Development seems to be winning: not an oblivious race to the environmental bottom, but a conscious decision by rapidly developing countries to escape the poverty trap before resources are exhausted and environmental feedback absorbs excess capital.

Sustainable Development as a concept (which is different from sustainable development as practice), may represent the linear thinking that got us into our current predicament, rather than the sort of systemic thinking required to conceptualise our challenges as complexly reinforcing and inter-related. The sort of thinking that might get us out of the current situation.

It is as if sustainability can be plotted on the X-axis of a graph, and development on the Y-axis, and 'Sustainable Development' is some sort of line of best fit. This way of thinking sees development as a planned act, and if some magical formula can be found to adjust the graph then Niger will inevitably become Switzerland, as if geography, biology, physics and history played no part in the process. It is not the idea that Niger could become Switzerland that is in question so much as the idea that this is some sort of planned and technical feat. To be sure, I am not doing Niger down, it is just that assuming that a technical solution awaits Niger, rather than the dirty, excruciating experience of every other country that has made the development transition, is both anti-evidential and ahistorical.

If sustainable development really is the aim, then democracy needs to be a larger part of the conversation. China would define its development as sustainable in its own way, in that it has lifted 800 million people out of poverty at the same time as strengthening the position of the Chinese Communist Party. Would a member of the Politburo describe that as anything less than sustainable?

As a more obtuse example, the North Korean regime has managed to keep itself in power for sixty years despite bankruptcy, a slave-based economic model, the collapse of Marxist-Leninism globally and the presence of the US Eighth Army on its southern border. Any one of the Kims' acolytes would presumably argue that this was sustainable. Few gave that model much of a chance, yet sixty years later here we are. There is a tendency to confuse stability with sustainability.

Sustainable development - in both senses - doesn't occur just by accident. It implies bargaining. It implies making deals, and sometimes one group will be screwed over so that another can make a short-term gain. If China is to lift 1.4bn people to the same living standards as 400m Europeans, both history and physics suggest it will do so by burning less carbon per person in the long run than Europe did. It will also ultimately despoil less wilderness, use fewer materials, and ultimately (I am willing to bet) guarantee more human freedom than Europe's development project. If that seems an extreme statement, remember that our period of major development ended in 1945, that's not when it began.

We developed through grinding, dirty effort, and a lot of lives along the way were nasty, brutal and short. There were also the small matters of slavery and empire, not to mention world war and genocide. This is simply the mathematics of the demand for development meeting environmental supply. And when, in the future, Niger and other African nations join Europe and China in the first world, they too will have to be cleaner, greener and freer, or they will not get there at all. There is just no other way to square the circle.

This is the logic of the development project. Adam Smith laid out 250 years ago that industries grow and wane by innovation, substitution and efficiency, and that the same rules essentially apply to nations too. All things being equal - a proposition that the rest of the social sciences may have something to say about - these basic rules haven't been repealed. All industries, and nations, will exhaust supply unless innovation, substitution or efficiency intervenes.

As the world congratulates itself on successful Millennium Development Goals, and prepares to transition to the next big idea, let's remember that history doesn't end, that sustainability is not synonymous with living happily-ever-after, and that democracy and the right to escape poverty shouldn't just be limited to a lucky few.