What stands in the way of sustainable development?
A lot of what stands in the way of sustainable development is that many things that we call development aren’t really development. We have a good definition of development, with Amartya Sen, which looks at developing human capabilities through health and education. But even with this definition, you very quickly get back to the kinds of things that are associated with other forms of development, like electricity, which is what I’m working on currently because it’s very hard to have good health and good schools without electricity.
And so, if you’re going to have electricity, well then it has to be built somewhere, and so you need a hydropower dam or wind power. This creates trade-offs between the different definitions of development, and I think this is the reason why we’re having such trouble achieving sustainable development.
I try to highlight these trade-offs: that there are some things that are very good from an environmental perspective, but that are problematic from another perspective. For example, nuclear power is much better from a climate perspective than other alternatives, but it carries very real dangers that stick around for a long time. Even wind power has environmental problems at a more local level, in terms of the impact it can have on dunes, or birds, and other wildlife. And so I think the really tough questions for sustainable development are those places where you have to make difficult trade-offs.
Should there be a distinction between growth and development in order to achieve sustainability?
I think that’s the first step. You also have to ask questions like what kind of growth you’re talking about because all kinds of things can grow. Most of the time, this kind of question presumes economic growth – an aggregate increase in the total economy – and obviously that’s difficult to reconcile with elements of the environment. But in places, you do need that aggregate growth because there really aren’t enough economic resources to feed the population or provide them with health, education, etc.
Ultimately, we have to be careful with no growth arguments. In some places like Barcelona, or London, there are reasons to limit growth. But in the global south, where the no growth argument is mostly articulated, they need growth – so I think the question is what kind of growth, and for who?
Does sustainable development have any bearing on socio-economic inequalities?
It has a total bearing on it! In fact, it’s a cyclical relationship – the problems of sustainable development are made worse by inequalities, and inequalities are made worse again by the lack of sustainable development. I think it goes back to the question of who development is for? You realise that we have these fundamental inequalities, not only socio-economic, but gender, and life experience, and a long list, that I don’t think we can really address sustainable development.
One of the routes to sustainable development is through the mobilisation of local communities., for example, to resist a big hydroelectric dam. But I've been spending a lot of time in recent years talking to planners and development agencies, and I've come to realise that if a 3,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam is blocked in one place, they're going to go and find somewhere else where it will affect another community.
So, people need to think beyond the individual projects, but in much broader terms, such as the national planning process. Activists are beginning to think like this, and in Brazil, the environmental justice movements have been tracking projects as they leave places like Sao Paulo and Rio, and then go and support these communities. But while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that we electrify everything - because it's the one thing we know how to decarbonise - these big hydroelectric dams are going to keep showing up somewhere. These are the trade-offs I'm talking about.
What should every policy maker have at the front of their mind when working on sustainable development?
I tell my students, you need to think about the fact that most of the things you have learned about how to do development are probably not going to work so well as we enter this next phase of climate change. The whole basis of all economic activity and its environmental effects are now going to be different. Most of them will be worse, maybe a few will be better. But what works for us now, isn’t going to work for us in the same way in the future.
So we need policy skills that deal with unfamiliar situations that perhaps we’re used to dealing with once every one-hundred years, but not annually. So I think policy-makers need to be much more flexible and responsive, and accept that policy prescriptions of the past may not work in the future.