The discourse of sustainable development has been interpreted in various ways since it was introduced in the early 1990s. Since then, the government has generally seen it as a way to promote the importance of environmental agenda in development. However, it is clear that policy makers and the general public have understood the term 'sustainable development' differently. If you look at Jakarta, for example, in pursuing what it understands as sustainable development, government projects have neglected other important socio-economic dimensions of development. This affects those who have limited access to resource and knowledge most. So, broadly speaking, it is this discord between policy makers and the general public on defining sustainable development that poses a big challenge.
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.
There are many obstacles but some of the most important have to do with entrenched interests, political power and our (un)willingness to challenge a view of development based in consumption-fueled growth. When we discuss development, we tend to think of how to address poverty in the global South or make poor countries richer, but rarely do we think of fundamental changes that are required in the global North or redistributing political power/voice - including the power to define development and set priorities. That's because the latter options involve challenging our way of living in the global North and our power on the international stage.
Sustainable development has many definitions. I use the term in the sense of inclusive development. What stands in the way of inclusive development is fundamentally human greed. People form coalitions to reserve the privileges and benefits to themselves. This is something that exists in every society, some societies have managed looking ahead to make it harder to impose these restrictions. Make it harder for distributional coalitions to reserve benefits for themselves, and that makes it harder to put in place inequalities, or lasting inequalities. But fundamentally in every society, there are forces that try to generate inequalities. And it’s a never ending struggle to eliminate the inequalities, to undo the inequalities that have emerged, and to put in place general rules that would make it difficult though never impossible, for groups to establish rules that will give them advantages and disadvantage others.
One would like to answer: “political will”, but in fact it is the capitalist system that is causing our development to be unsustainable, as full commoditization leads to (profit-oriented) exploitation of our scarce resources, to the detriment of future generations. Political will is therefore by far not enough.