It is easy to think that there is a conflict between the goals of development, which are often thought of in economic, industrial terms, and protecting the environment. This apparent conflict is illusory: if development is concerned with alleviating poverty and inequality, protecting the environment is an urgent imperative. Looking after the environment is an indispensable step towards realising the goals of development.
Development is fundamentally concerned with helping people improve their lives. This has often been conceived of in terms of industry, seeking to improve working standards and production rates in less economically developed countries. The efforts of poorer countries to find a place in the global economy have led to a promotion of environmentally damaging industries, whose costs could outweigh any benefits. Development, if conceived of in basic economic terms, seems to have totally different, irresolvable aims from those of protecting the environment. Economic interests tend to resist any restrictions aimed at environmental gains, as they will generally be costly and likely to reduce any profit margin. The strong resistance with which any measures attempting to combat climate change have been met by corporate business is testament to this. Environmental groups, correspondingly, have a tendency to treat the realm of industry with a large degree of suspicion. The two sides are rarely in accordance.
Development institutions sometimes utilise quite a narrow definition of economics, when really the factors affecting poverty or wealth are complex and intricately linked to the environment. Big business in economically impoverished countries has great power over the citizens and workers, who are generally ill-treated and not in a position to influence their personal lot, let alone the environmental impact of a giant corporation. Often businesses take advantage of a state’s poor economic circumstance, imposing poor working standards and poor environmental practices. Trade accords such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade tend to depict environmental laws as illegal barriers to commerce.
With this in mind, it seems that the enemies of development and the enemies of the environment are not as disparate as they might have appeared. The forces of the world that work against equitable wealth distribution and decent living standards are the same forces that work against a sustainable, healthy environment. Poor workers and the natural world are both viewed fundamentally as resources to be exploited for private gain. Structural inequities are equally damaging to the goals of development and of protecting the environment; they threaten the achievement of a global consensus on issues such as the environment and development and, without a global consensus, much progress is paralysed.
The environment needs to be taken seriously as an issue for development for the simple fact that it has a serious impact on the quality of people’s lives. Sustainable development is defined by the World Conservation Union as ‘improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems’. The second part of that definition is almost axiomatic; the quality of human life cannot be improved apart from within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems, at least in the long term. If development organisations seriously want to help those that cannot help themselves, they should start with the environmental issues that demand frightening urgency.
The world's poorest people are already being, and will continue to be, hit hardest by climate change; by floods, droughts, and diseases. The effects will be so catastrophic that much of the good that has been done in the name of development will be reversed. If development agencies want to help those blighted by poverty and injustice, the biggest threat currently facing them is an environmental one.
Equity seems to be a prerequisite for sustainable development. The people of Sumatra and Borneo are cutting down their rainforests, releasing 13-40% as much carbon dioxide as the whole world’s fossil fuel consumption, not out of choice but necessity. They are cutting down trees because they are impoverished, because they have been exploited for commercial profit and because they have no other option. Until that inequality is addressed, the environmental impact will continue unabated.
It is perhaps equally true that sustainable development is a prerequisite for equity. If the environment continues to be assaulted at the current rate, the inequality amongst members of the earth’s global community will worsen. The poor will get poorer, because extreme climatic impacts have a disproportionate effect on those that lack the wherewithal to ameliorate its effects. Development can no more afford to ignore the pressing issues of the environment than can the environment afford to ignore the pressing issues of development. Both perspectives are facing the same crises in the same world, and must work together for the common good of mankind. If development is not sustainable, then it is not development at all.