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November 26, 2020

Redefining sustainability

Opinion

November 26, 2020

It is believed, promoted and propagated by institutional donors, new bureaucrats, academics and politicians that sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The key word here is ‘need’ and the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given. So development, if it claims to be sustainable development, should cater to ‘needs’, particularly the needs of the majority – ‘greater good for a greater number of people’. And yet at the same time it is also true that the direction of development is dictated by the mode of production and its requirements and it changes as the mode and means of production change.

Sustainability in essence outlines the contours of symbiotic interaction between humans, society and nature. The interaction between humans and nature in which service capitalism is dominated by economic imperatives results in the commoditization (capable of exchange and ownership) of nature. As nature became commoditized, humans began to see themselves as outside of nature, or at the very least as elevated above plants and animals – anthropocentrism. Putting a price tag on natural resources and making them subservient to anthropocentrism is a lethal combination.

Anthropocentrism, in its original connotation in environmental ethics, is the belief that value is human-centered and that all other beings are a means to human ends. Environmentally-concerned authors have argued that anthropocentrism is ethically wrong and at the root of the ecological crises.

In an agricultural mode of development, capital intensive development ventures are initiated to connect the farmer and the produce to the market and vice versa, including dams, bridges, roads and irrigation channels. In contrast, service capitalism requires business houses, inter regional connectivity, iconic structures and digital infrastructure to allow free flow of capital, raw material, labour and goods.

However, it is to be noted that sustainable development cannot be understood without understanding the accompanying concept of carrying capacity, which in essence is the limit of a system, natural function, space beyond which it ceases to function.

So, if development wants to be sustainable development it should not exceed the carrying capacity of the functions it relies on. It is also a fact that the basis of the capitalist mode of production, surplus value, is disrespectful towards the carrying capacity. To add salt to the injury, the relations around production and between factors of production are not equal to say the least. So, development is also unequal and not sustainable.

Then there is a major assumption in the well-accepted definition of the sustainability of using available resources without compromising the needs of the future generations. It assumes that there is an equity and equality in the use of resources, irrespective of the financial status of the members of any given generation and hence tends to conveniently ignore the power differentials in the use of resources by the members of a generation. The very logic and operations of the market economy contain the seeds of the destruction of the term ‘sustainability’. The market encourages exorbitant consumption and equates it with economic growth whereas sustainability supplemented with carrying capacity demands treading with frugality.

On the one hand, we have the greedy market economy as the shepherd of development interventions, and on the other hand the planners of development have the mantra of sustainable development on their lips. This contradiction accrues to the advantage of international lending agencies that are steered by the champions of market forces and under the garb of sustainable development pressurize less developed nations to adopt unsustainable development ventures.

The call is to define sustainability in contextual terms, not to limit it to financial gains but to include the social and environmental context of a region.

The writer is a lecturer at in the Department of Architecture and Planning at NED, Karachi.

Email: [email protected]