Is Development Unifying or Polarizing?

Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, declared that sustainable development IS the growth agenda for the 21st Century. Yet many are skeptical of the ability to merge the vast industrial and technology advancements with the necessity to live within our means. Others find this combination’s potential to be the most important and evolved of all human development to date. Their unification will require dramatic changes in mainstream mindsets regarding consumption, economics, and governance. Their polarization will lead to unbalanced growth that will not sustain itself in the medium to long run. Is there hope for unification of these two world views?

Difference Between Growth and Development

The distinction between growth and development has been the difference between sustainability and rise to crash systems. There are natural limits to growth that mainstream economics distorts with scarcity and cost being the limiting factors in place of a more comprehensive understanding of limits and defining “resources”. Regardless, a constant rate of growth is a very different goal than a constant rate of development. Development, in terms of human development, is better evaluated through human-scale development models like that of Manfred Max Neef or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. By removing products, resources, and prices from center stage and re-formulating our thinking to value human capital, we can start to envision different forms of development and cooperation in place of simple input and output models.

Two Competing Views

Proponents of growth models believe that the current state of human development in the developed world is irreconcilable with the state of human development that exists within nature’s means. This viewpoint often reveals prejudice toward one state over the other. For example, those invested in an industrialized society often frame the ‘other’ side as being outdated and their ways of life irrelevant to the developed world. Those invested in living within nature’s means often demonize the ‘other’ side as being built on incorrect assumptions causing them to carry out atrocious actions which harm the Earth they all depend upon for survival. What this type of polarization highlights, is the blind sightedness of each side. One cannot simply ignore the other, it cannot demonize the other, in fact they need one another to create a hybridized solution that merges the best of both forms of lifestyle with one another. With only one earth, limited resources, and climate change teetering on the edge of a severe tipping point, this unification is a necessity for development.

Two Unified Views

First, both sides need to recognize that they do not have all the answers. There is not a technological fix for addressing climate change on a global scale that will completely reverse the damage already incurred fast enough. With man’s ability to drastically alter the landscape, humans have become so powerful that we have forgotten our manners in a sense. With human-centric cities, jobs, and modes of communication, it is easy to forget about the extensive amount of inputs that are required to sustain our systems as well as its toxic outputs. Likewise, the developed world has greatly reduced rates of hunger, poverty, homeless, and reliance upon natural system fluctuations. By sharing the best of both worlds, the developed and the natural, development, in place of growth, can take on a whole new meaning. But it will require a concerted effort to work together and learn to value the knowledge of both sides of the system.

Ban Ki Moon highlighted this at the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) this year, stating:

"It is easy to mouth the words ‘sustainable development,’ but to make it happen we have to be prepared to make major changes – in our lifestyles, our economic models, our social organization, and our political life. We have to connect the dots between climate change and what I might call here, WEF – water, energy and food.”

By making sustainable development, the merging of both sides of the equation, a global priority we will be better equipped to handle the extreme importance of the next four years, which will determine the next 100 years of our ecological system.

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