Friday, April 29, 2011

What "development" means for sustainability

I have written about the family of notions surrounding "development" on several occasions. Previous posts have talked about how the word is used as an adjective, e.g., "developing" countries, how tracts of land should be "developed," natural courses of "development," and how sustainability has come to mean sustainable "development" (here, here). I want to elaborate today on the arrogance of the word "development" when used in the context of describing countries, communities and just groups of people, and what this means for sustainability.

As you probably know, the meanings and connotations of words have a way of changing over time. The term "Third World," was initially used to describe countries that were neither leaning towards capitalism (and NATO) or communism (and the Soviet Union). Nowadays, many people in the West use that phrase to describe a country that is (according to Western standards) "undeveloped" or "developing." Furthermore, these "Third World" countries have economies that are "developing," according to Western-defined Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) standards.

There are several issues that come to mind because of these words and their connotations. First, it implies that Western standards are those that should be met. Since the standards on which countries want to be judged are these standards, it means that countries would prefer to graduate from being "developing" to being "developed." What does this mean for sustainability? What it means is that since the standards to be met are economic standards first and foremost, countries may lower their environmental standards so as to attract investments from "developed" countries. This most likely leads to the rapid and unthoughtful industrialisation of these "developing" countries. What it also means is that if there is any hope for a sustainable future, that necessarily comes from being "developed," i.e., if you are not developed, there are no standards on which a country can be judged to be "sustainable." This seems to me a different approach under which to view "sustainable development."

What the word "developing" connotes today is backwardness, and the sense is that there isn't much in these countries, and the people living in these countries are less fortunate than those that are in the "developed" world. But what this word masks, however, are the problems that come with being "developed," particularly under a capitalistic, competitive mindset. In my mind, there are very clear threads of reasoning that trace social issues such as the fracturing of families and declining neighbourliness and increased mental illness back to the very foundations upon which the country claims itself to be "developed." If you were to go to most any of these "developing" countries, I am sure you would find integrity in family life, and a greater spiritual and material contentment of the people. What does this mean for sustainability? It means that maybe these definitions aren't as clear cut as we think they are. Of course, while many "developing countries" are very polluted, many of them are not, and do not have to deal with toxic chemicals in their water; the serious environmental problems that we face here in the US, because of say, fracking (here, here), are just completely non-existent in these places. More importantly, what it means is that we shouldn't propagate the connotations of these words by using them in the manner that we currently do. It also means that maybe we shouldn't be using these words nonchalantly, and that we should be mindful of the full implications of using such words.

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