Type: Definition Essays
Sample donated: Henry Norton
Last updated: August 16, 2019
“It needs to be remembered after all that sustainable development and sustainability were not originally intended as ‘economic’ terms. They were, and remain, essentially political objectives, more like ‘social justice’ and ‘democracy’ than ‘economic growth’. And as such their purpose, or ‘use’, is mainly to express key ideas about how society – including the economy – should be governed” (Jacobs 1995, in Adams 2001: 171) Sustainable development can be defined providing for the needs of present generations without compromising on those of the future focusing on the three pillars of economic, environmental and social improvement. The focus around which recent development tries to operate, the pursuit of sustainability impacts on international agreements, national policies and strategies. Although ideally it would be compatible with a neoliberal pathway to growth and development, this essay will argue that the two more often come as compromise to one another in reality because of varying priorities in the modern world.
Through a consideration of the contentious definitions of neoliberalism and environmental sustainability, the successes and failures of the Sustainable Development Goals and other similar movements to marry the concepts, and alternatives such as Environmental Marxism this essay will prove how the two are nearly always incapable of coexisting. Since neoliberalism’s definition is “inconsistently defined, empirically imprecise and frequently contested” (Brenner et al. 2010: 184) it is necessary for this essay to understand its origins and aims in reference to development before attempting to pass judgement on the titular statement. First theorised by Adam Smith, Neoliberalism is a legacy of Enlightenment thinking. It preaches the prominence of the market, and promotes and normalises economic growth in order to address social and welfare concerns.
Dominant thinking assumes that markets are fair and efficient, with international ‘free’ trade: thus, the first problem of agreement to the question arises, in that the hypothetical theory of neoliberalism barely ever exists in real life. Neoliberalism encourages ’emerging markets’ through the ‘borrow/invest/export/repay model’ by withdrawing state intervention, liberalising trade relations, privatisation of government institutions and devaluing the national currency. However, these programmes have led to ‘widespread dissatisfaction’ (Parnwell & Rigg 2001: 206) as they arguably plays to the advantage of the developed world and private organisations, viewing poverty as the last unconquered market. In terms of environment, popular thinking seems to follow in a similarly disheartening vein, with many academics arguing that our current economic system lacks the capacity to talk about reducing consumption because our ‘extractivist mind-set’ of treating our land and people as resources to deplete and exploit has waged a battle between economy and life on earth. (quote from lecture) Whilst sustainability has become the dominant paradigm of development, on inspection of the data it is easy to believe that it has become merely a veneer for a less impressive truth. The emergence and evolution of the concept has grown out of increasing environmental concern for climate change and can be explained by the rise of international environmentalism and development studies in the mid 20th century (Elliott 2008, p. 14). From the Modernisation Theory to the re-emergence of neoliberalism and the view that policies such as the free market are the best way to initiate and sustain economic development in the periphery countries (Elliot 2008, pp.
21-26), our understanding of the concept has been shaped and improved through the passage of time. Yet, popular current thinking still faces much opposition. Environmental Marxists argue that a sustainable society is not possible under the neoliberal capitalist system (Castro 2004, pp. 215) because of opposing priorities (economic growth at the expense of the environment), whilst Post-development Theory (late 80s) contests the actual assumption that development is even a desirable process.
Instead, it views development as a reflection of the Western world hegemony over the developing world (Elliott 2008, p. 27)). The main issue in environmental sustainability centers mainly around the extraction of resource stocks since economic and environmental development/sustainability often come at opposition to one another in this regard. It is widely recognized that there is a negative relationship between possession of natural resources and development – the more a country depends on natural resources for economic development the lower the economic growth rate of that country seems to be. Thus, conflict often arises over possession of resources since they are often the sole source of income for developing countries. Elites (e.
g. foreign investors) tend to benefit from the extraction of resources in a way that is disproportionately felt by the local people. This enables a minority of people to waste resources and use them in an environmentally damaging manner whilst resulting in large numbers of people being confined in poverty with no choice but to exploit and degrade their limited access to resources in order to survive. These immoral inequalities are threatening the environment basis for livelihoods in addition to global sustainable development aims and will continue to do so unless they are effectively addressed (Elliott 2008, pp 45-56). Poor countries are often highly dependent on natural resources for their immediate survival needs, which leads to limited options in relation to management of resources. As unwilling agents of destruction, their actions are increasingly leading to the decreases in biodiversity, over-salinisation of soils and water logging due to increased irrigation and the decline and extinction of wildlife species (Udoh 1996, pp. 1-4) .
Environmental Marxists views capitalism as the root of these problems, as poverty are where the issues begin. The political challenge needs to be accepted by leaders from both the developed and developing world in order to fully integrate the economic, environmental and social objectives of sustainable development (Adams 2009, pp. 2-5), the selfishness of countries and immediate survival needs of individuals is often putting a break on progress towards these goals. The Rio Conference of 1992 is one such example of a thwarted attempt to improve our current environmental degradation in harmony with neoliberal development. ‘Agenda 21′ was the goal created to promote environmental sustainability and economic growth by mutually enforcing one another. Whilst it is the first of its kind in recognizing the possible of both occurring at the same time, it has been criticized as being a list of good intentions rather than actions, and not threatening the developed countries’ political and economic priorities (Carruthers 2007, p.292). As a result, the Agenda did not achieve the progress it expected due to a lack of financial support and its failure to resolve disputes between developmentalists and environmentalists and led debate to intensify.
After the relative failure of Rio, a new set of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were created. These build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and include 17 aspirational ‘Global Goals’ with 169 targets between them, to be met by 2030. However, they have been criticised for ignoring local context & promoting “cookie-cutter development policies” (The Economist). However, they do seek to achieve environmental sustainability whilst following a neoliberal pathway to economic growth. Although poverty often forces people to degrade their environment to survive, leading countries to focus on economic growth at the expense of the environment, the SDGs seek to flip the priorities to place environmental needs at the forefront of action. The mainstream approach focuses on ‘global’ environmental issues rather than inequalities between countries.
With better planning, governance and economic techniques, problems are expected to be solved through technological means and market intervention. For example, the greening of the World Bank (WB) by engaging with environmental NGOs : a lesson in bureaucratic survival (Sheehan 2000)? However, the WB’s dismal record in financing environmental destruction means that it has had a high failure rate by own criteria. Various other bodies also criticise the mainstream approach: it ignores the role of culture, and individual national standpoints on the meaning of sustainable development, instead taking the perspective of the Western World. There are also issues in the measurement of improvement, e.
g. the health goals, where there are inaccurate systems of recording such as national census. Not only this, but the ambitious goals are likely to lead to disappointment and lack of motivation if there is failure to meet targets. In addition, only two indicators, 25 and 26, of MDG7 specially address resource conservation, a major issue in environmental conservation .
They, perhaps wrongly, assume that resource loss while ignoring the value of other productive landscapes such as rangelands and coastal strips which also have large amounts of biodiversity and in some cases more potential to contribute to poverty reduction. Instead, indicators need to be expanded considerably to reverse environmental resource loss and greater integrated and concerted action is required between the conservation and development communities in order to simultaneously achieve the global imperatives of poverty reduction and environmental sustainability (Roe 2003, pp. 56-71). Motives of the developed world in relation to meet the goals has also been questioned – they seem desirable as it will stabilize the ongoing and unmoderated processes of neoliberal globalization, although evidence and many academics have highlighted that it is virtually impossible to achieve sustained growth and egalitarian, pro-poor and rights driven development within contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Furthermore, they ignore issues of structural inequalities and therefore do not recognise the need for a new framework to replace the ‘neoliberal straitjacket’.
In opposition, Environmental Marxism, or development from below rejects top-down, techno-centric, blueprint approaches to development. Advocates decentralisation, participation and community development and using ‘indigenous’ rather than ‘scientific’ knowledge. According to Adams ‘it represents the possibility of challenge to the dual hegemony of the bureaucratic state and corporate power, a solidarity of citizens engaging with each other and with nature for mutual benefit’. In attempting to prove the relative success or failure of the SDGs, it is useful to extrapolate to see the development and progress in effect and provide relevance to theory. Ghana is a useful example in this case as the country has made considerable efforts to accelerate the economic development of the country, whilst still facing the environmental instability. Ghana has achieved considerable economic growth during the past two decades and the country attained the status of a low-middle income country in 2011. Overall, substantial progress has been made in achieving macro-economic stability and poverty reduction goals (WB 2011).
Their open and liberalized trade regime continues to make progress in simplifying the tariff system and non-tariff regulations – one of the main aspects of neoliberalism. However, whilst the country’s commitment to achieving greater economic growth and the MDGs is undeniable, Ghana’s progress in addressing the environmental pillar of sustainable development has been mixed and in many cases it appears that the country continues to prioritise economic and social development over ensuring environmental sustainability. Due to the reliance on natural resources for the population’s livelihoods, the acceleration of economic growth through current unsustainable practice has inevitably degraded the environment and has serious implications on the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The effective balance in the formulation of both international agreements and national policies and strategies is crucial in ensuring that equal progress is made in achieving the objectives of the three pillars of sustainable development. In relation to the SDGs, Ghana has become the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve Target 1 as it halved the proportion of people living in extreme poverty from 1992 to 2006. However, the decline could be significantly less as a consequence of the economic, food and energy crises between 2006 and 2008. On the other hand, these improvements are not reflected in the provision of health and other social services as the country still faces massive disparities. In terms of environmental sustainability, Ghana still faces enormous challenges, despite their recognition of the concept as an urgent issue.
Non-sustainable management of soils is having serious implications; rapid erosion, desertification, loss of productive capacity and fertility loss. Freshwater resources are also under increasing risk due to malpractice and general over-exploitation of the land has led to a decrease in biodiversity. Current rates of destruction will lead to further food insecurity and increased rural poverty. The current strategy, the GSGDA, has expanded the integration of the three pillars and focuses on addressing the intra-generational component of sustainable development. It emphasises the necessity to integrate the pillars at all levels; policy, programmes and projects (Ecoecon Consult Ltd. 2011, pp. 10-12).
However, there is a lack of commitment to these issues at the highest level, inadequate vertical and horizontal coordination with other strategies to ensure full integration of the sustainable development pillars and a lack of participation in plans and programmes. The country’s current development pattern is placing the environment under extreme stress; this is having further negative effects on the country’s economic growth as poor management of natural resources is estimated to cost the country at least 1.1% of GDP every year (Government of Ghana and EC 2007, p. 3).
Using the specific example of deforestation, we can see in point the clear discrepancies between Ghana’s environmental policies and strategies and the execution of these at ground level mainly due to a lack of human and technical resources (bribery and corruption). This is highlighted by the persistence of deforestation (third highest rate in Africa) and the increasing propensity for soil erosion due to the degradation of forests and poor land management (Mongabay 2011, NDPC 2010, p. 45). Ghana remains dependent on cutting down forests to fuel wood production, for for agriculture, cocoa cultivation and providing pasture for livestock.
Indirectly, loss of international trade, misguided policies and rapid population growth also add to the problem. The effects of such exploitation are biodiversity loss, soil erosion and silting of rivers. It is estimated that Ghana’s current tropical rainforest is 25% of its original size and if present rate of destruction continues, could be gone within 40 years (Teye 2005, pp. 9-10). Ghanaian police come under criticism as in general they have been lukewarm or uncooperative toward environmental issues and often fail to make arrests.
Furthermore, the developed world supports Ghana’s timber industry – half exported to Europe (furthers economic growth). It is argued that the encouragement and assistance provided to Ghana and other developing countries to achieve further economic growth in an environmentally-friendly manner may be more for the benefit of neoliberal capitalism and the developed world than improving conditions for the current and future generations of the developing countries (Saith 2006, p. 1195). Whilst the interdependence of economic growth, environment sustainability and social development has been widely recognised by academics (Telegraph), because of the investment needed into long term over short term goals, the successful implementation of such policies are lacking, despite the benefits they could bring. To bring the argument back to the titular question, neoliberalism development and environmental sustainability may work in theory, but countries have to be willing to properly implement the international agreements, national strategies and policies placed upon them. For many developing countries, where society’s poorest depend on the exploitation of natural resources to meet basic needs, the overhaul needed to the economy and social structure simply prevents too big of a challenge.
Environmental issues need to be part and parcel of poverty reduction, the former will not come until people’s livelihoods rest less immediately on the extraction of resources around them. The SDGs seem to show that at policy level there is a limitation to achieving further economic development whilst guaranteeing sustainability of environment – prioritising poverty reduction and economic growth over environment, and the inevitable trade-offs such as seen in the example of Ghana are to be expected – despite their impressive economic growth on a neoliberal pathway, environmental sustainability is still impossible because of their priorities and implementation. Furthermore, it is of critical importance that cultural identity is retained and targets are met in a faster manner. Yet it must be recognised that the SDGs provide some new and radical aims, and must be accepted as ‘the beginning of a process, not the end. It is an intention, not a route map’ (Adams 2001: 383 ). In conclusion, while considerable efforts and progress have been made in adopting an environmentally-friendly pattern of development it has been highlighted that further actions and commitments are required by both the global community and effective implementation at ground level in order to ensure that equal priority is attributed to both environmental issues and economic development, only then will neoliberalism and environmental sustainability unite.