Environmental activism has traditionally been concerned with “preventing harm”, particularly the harm that is associated with the side effects of social and economic activities. The solutions it advocates tend to be prohibitory: close down this, stop that, don’t do the other. In some cases, these are indeed the only viable courses of action – particularly in the face of lethargic government agencies, recalcitrant industries and entrenched interests. More often, simple alternatives are possible that reduce the negative impacts without losing many of the economic benefits.
Promoters of sustainable development seek to optimise more broadly the outcomes of economic activities by maximising their benefits and minimising their costs, both in the here and now and for the future. Instead of merely reacting to the actions of others so as to prevent harm, their efforts are directed proactively to “do good”. Sustainable development needs, however, more complex solutions than those offered by environmental activists. It usually requires a different set of technologies, institutional mechanisms and decision systems that lead to better overall results for all. Distributional issues further complicate the calculations: who gets the benefits and who pays the costs? Often a truly sustainable path needs a fundamental redesign of development choices – often involving hard social and economic decisions.
At the third end, actors such as government and business whose interests are vested in continuing the status quo resist the notion that there is any harm to be prevented or that there is any “societal good” that they are not already committed to producing. These are the dominant forces of society and their resistance to change is key in preventing the creation of a more socially just, environmentally sound and economically efficient society. Where it becomes difficult to deny the possibility that the existing course is not the best of all possible courses, they politely accept the need for change but subtly undermine it. Non-implementation of such change is usually blamed by everyone on “lack of political will” a catchall term that is entirely without meaning.
Sustainable development needs a holistic understanding of how the issues of economics, environment and society interact. For example, locking the solution for any economic/environmental problem into a single technology or mechanism entails its own problems of uncertainty, risk and the creation of new vested interests, particularly when the technology is unfamiliar or unestablished in the local economy. In principle, simplistic solutions to existing problems can be expected to end up by creating even bigger problems, often with longer gestation times and higher financial costs. Well known examples include DDT, the miracle insecticide and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), the miracle chemical compounds that made cheap refrigeration and air conditioning possible. Decades later, use of these substances – widely spread throughout the global economy – had to be prohibited for destruction of biodiversity and the ozone layer. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) violates the same kinds of natural laws and is likely to suffer the same kind of fate, and probably sooner rather than later.
Another source of sub optimal outcomes is the rather complex, expensive and therefore dysfunctional system set up for detecting, recognizing and dealing with emerging threats to the global environment. The process set up for negotiation currently cannot lead to outcomes that satisfy the criteria of equity, fairness or sustainability – or even of immediate effectiveness.
A third problem comes from compartmentalisation of decision making and even of thinking: looking at the economic, environmental and social issues separately and in isolation and basing decisions on only one or some of these. Just as environment is fundamentally important for the health of our citizens, so is the economy for providing livelihoods and fulfilling basic needs. The economics of investments in nature, institutions and social capital is as important as the creation of physical infrastructure and industries.
For sustainable outcomes, new mechanisms are needed for establishing the scientific validity of emerging issues and their implications, negotiating the rules and laws needed at the international and national levels to contain the threats they pose, designing economic and political decision systems that the appropriate societal trade offs between benefits and costs are made and the agreements arrived at are complied with.
Ashok Khosla is founder and chairman of Development Alternatives