Day 9 – New paradigms of sustainable development

Written by Laurene Bazman

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” – Keynes

On Wednesday 30th of June, our summer school begun with the analysis of three article which all address the new paradigm of sustainable development from totally different perspectives. One of them, written by Indur M. Goklany, who works for the US Department of the Interior, has caught my attention. In this article, Goklany addresses the fear of the neo-malthusim and brings some empirical arguments which contradicts this theory. First, unlike neo malthusisms prediction, the rate of populations’ growth is decreasing. Second, despite the historically increasing absolute number of population, there is still enough food to feed this population. Third, and probably the most important point,  Goklany highlights  that despite the unprecedented environmental changes that the world has to confront, human well-being has never been higher. In order to come to this conclusion, Goklany exposes a well known equation :

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According to this model, the increase of population will have a negative effect on the environment, which at the end  will also affect human’s well-being negatively. Nevertheless, Goklany don’t agree with this correlation, because human well being has never been so high despite the environmental deterioration.

Furthermore, the article addresses the disparity between developed and developing country by exposing a Knutzet courbe showing the environmental transition. The hypothesis is that the development procedure of a country begins with a very energy intensive transition, which will bring the required technology to resolve the environmental deterioration resulting from this process.

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Source: Goklany 2009

Per consequence, the key world of this article is technology. Indeed, technology is supposed to resolve the IPAT problem by reducing the environmental impacts.

I disagree with Goklany on several point. First, this article has been written from a very west-oriented perspective. The “trends” section submerges the reader with statistics showing a very positive side world’s globalization. However, a consequent part of the world’s population don’t fall under the well-being argument of this article. For instance, in some sub-saharian African countries, the poverty rate is still very important. In addition, global inequality is still very consequent. To say that technology is the most important solution in order to resolve this problem seems a bit too easy. I even go further and would pretend that what one can call the “technology myth” is a good excuse to continue with the growth-oriented neo-liberal economic model.

Second, during the lecture I’ve raised doubt  regarding the credibility of comparing the industrialisation that has happened in the developed countries with the one happening now in the developing countries. Once again, the article put the developed countries and their models in the center of the attention and tries to find a way which allows the developing countries to fit in the same model.

Moreover, the Knutzet courbe shows that pollution can be acceptable if it finally results in technological innovation and human well-being. Nevertheless, in my opinion, any model suggesting some kind of environmental deterioration, even if at the end it is supposed to be resolved, is not acceptable. In addition,  Goklany adreaaea the idea of adaptation processes that are made possible with new technologies. Nevertheless, to adapt to climate change won’t be enough if we want to stay below the symbolic 2° launched during the Paris agreement, we also need to mitigate our emissions. Per consequence, I’m convinced that this is is only possible if we totally change our development models. This statement was made independently by various experts we’ve met in the framework of the summer school. Indeed, we were all very surprised as Arthur Dahl, an environmental expert who has been part of the changes in the environmental governance from Stockholm 1972 to Paris 2016, confessed that a huge world crisis may be the only way to “save our planet”. In other words, new “green” technological innovations alone are not sufficient, the world needs an abrupt and unprecedented transition toward new models.

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After this quite theoretical morning, we went to the UN buildings to hear three presentations by UNECE experts. There we learned that there is still no commonly accepted definition of sustainable development, but what always comes up are three pillars which are to be balanced. These are economic, environmental and social.

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 However, over the past decade, the last point has been given less attention, indeed the link between economy and environment has been prioritize. This has been pointed out today by Gulnara Roll, who works on the Housing and Land management Unit Forest, land and Housing Division. As she explained, renewable and efficient energies are not affordable for all social group, especially not for the most vulnerable. Therefore it is necessary to guarantee a certain equity and equality in the development of new technologies, which until lastly wasn’t integrated in the private sector.

The social pillar has also been shown by David Erziger. Indeed, when it comes to environmental protection, it has a more important place in western country, simply because they can afford it. By contrast, countries whose economy mainly depend on coal production for instance can’t risk their economic program for environmental aspects. Consequently, the social pillar is one aspect of the role of international organizations which consists in facilitating the transition to a sustainable energy system. The urgent need to rethink our development and social models also came up during this presentation.  We definitely need a big transition in order to be able to stay under the 2 degrees, we can’t continue with business as usual.

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