Sustainable development

Sustainable development

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By Guillermo Castro H. *

The demand for development that is sustainable has become one of the most characteristic topics of the culture of our time, which at the same time raises apparently insoluble dilemmas, such as choosing between economic growth, equitable distribution of its fruits, or the conservation of natural resources for the benefit of future generations.

Darwin did not suspect what a bitter satire he wrote of men, and in particular of his compatriots, when he demonstrated that free competition, the struggle for existence celebrated by economists as the greatest historical achievement, was the normal state of the animal world. Only a conscious organization of social production, in which production and distribution follow a plan, can elevate men socially above the rest of the animal world, in the same way that production in general elevated them as a species. Historical development makes this organization more necessary and more possible every day. From it, the new historical epoch will be dated in which men themselves, and with them all branches of their activity, especially the Natural Sciences, will achieve successes that will overshadow everything achieved up to then. "
-Federico Engels: Introduction to the dialectic of nature-

«How can the rulers leave the universities, if there is no university in America where the rudimentary art of government is taught, which is the analysis of the peculiar elements of the peoples of America? … In the newspaper, in the chair, in the academy, the study of the real factors of the country must be carried out. Knowing them is enough, without bandages or ambiguities; because he who puts aside, by will or forgetfulness, a part of the truth, falls in the long run for the truth that he lacked, which grows in negligence, and demolishes what stands up without it. "
-José Martí: Our America-

The demand for development that is sustainable has become one of the most characteristic topics of the culture of our time, which - if we understand it that vision of the world endowed with an ethic according to its structure, as defined Antonio Gramsci- poses at the same time apparently insoluble dilemmas, such as the choice between economic growth, the equitable distribution of its fruits, or the conservation of natural resources for the benefit of future generations. In this sense, the problem of the sustainability of development refers us once again to that contradiction between human needs and capacities of the natural world, so characteristic in the evolution of our species, that it constitutes one of the great themes of environmental history, that which deals with the study of the interactions between human societies and their environment over time, and the consequences that derive from it for both.

Environmental history organizes this study into three levels of relationship: the biogeophysical, the socio-technological and the political-cultural, where the values ​​and norms that lead to reproduce or transform our forms of social relationship mature, and those that from our sociality we exercise with the natural world. The issue that interests us here is located precisely at this third level, as a fact of relationship with the other two, I insist, and not of isolated definition.

At this level of relationship, environmental history provides three elements for reflection that can be of great value for the type of interdisciplinary analysis that our problems of relationship with the natural world demand. First, that nature is itself historical - that is, that the natural world can no longer be understood without considering the cumulative consequences of human intervention in its ecosystems over at least the last hundred thousand years. Second, there is the fact that our knowledge of nature is the product of a history of culture organized around the dominant values ​​in the societies that have produced this knowledge. Finally, environmental history reminds us that our environmental problems today are the result of our interventions in the natural world yesterday, as they were carried out in the exercise of the dominant values ​​in that culture.

In this perspective, it becomes clear that the dominant values ​​in our culture are not enough to account for the crisis in which the forms of relationship with nature that that culture has been fostering over the last 500 years have come to end. Today, on the contrary, we find ourselves in a situation of extreme uncertainty, which is evident in expressions such as the one that affirms that we do not live in a time of change, but that we are immersed in a change of times. Hence, to use a phrase that was happy the day before yesterday, everything that recently seemed solid vanishes into thin air; The answers within our reach are deprived of the questions that gave them authority, and exceptions of all kinds accumulate in such a way that, far from confirming rules that we took for granted, they call attention to the need to create new ones. .

One of the great victims of this change of era has been the concept of development, the ideological underpinning of the period immediately prior to the crisis, which yesterday just offered us an essential frame of reference for any analysis of reality that aspired to the appearance of what integral. Today, development only retains some explanatory capacity - and, above all, some normative power - when it is presented as "human" and "sustainable", in a complex-seeming triad that, however, no longer designates a solution, but a problem: that of the original concept's inability to account for the conflicts in which the promise of economic growth with social well-being and political participation for all has come to flow, which until recently it wanted to express.

In fact, just twenty years ago, the "development decade" that should have occurred between 1970 and 1979 - so designated by the United Nations in the optimistic climate of the upward economic cycle that followed World War II - led to the "decade of development. loss "of 1980, which in turn opened the way to the processes of structural adjustment and reform of the liberal developmental state that characterized that of 1990. In this way, and in the span of two generations, the virtuous circle of liberal developmentalism characteristic of the The 1960s - in which sustained economic growth should have been translated into increasing social well-being and political participation - had become the vicious circle of mediocre and uncertain economic growth, accompanied by sustained processes of social deterioration and environmental degradation, with which this new century is inaugurated.

A couple of years ago, in effect, the World Environment Outlook 2000, of the United Nations Environment Program, pointed out two fundamental trends in our relations with the natural world. In the first place, it is said there, "the world ecosystem is threatened by serious imbalances in productivity and in the distribution of goods and services", which is expressed in a "growing and unsustainable gap between wealth and poverty. (which) threatens the stability of society as a whole and, consequently, the global environment. " And, immediately, it was said there that "the world is transforming at an increasingly accelerated rate, but in this process environmental management lags behind economic and social development" (1).

Beyond that, however, the picture hints at a greater evil. We are truly faced with a situation in which multiple premises, certainties and hopes that had played a leading role in the organization and continuity of a development culture that enjoyed broad hegemony in the academic circles have collapsed at the same time. and Latin American bureaucrats -in the ideological State Apparatuses, shortly- between 1950 and 1980, with roots that can even be traced back to the end of the 19th century.

This collapse has different expressions. Regarding the visible impact of the development that occurred in the region between 1930 and 1990, the geographer Pedro Cunill has pointed out that this period was characterized both by "a persistent tendency to concentrate consolidated and underintegrated urban landscapes" and by "an important spontaneous occupation from traditionally unpopulated areas, particularly in the interior and southern South America. " The environmental consequences of these geohistorical transformations, he adds, are expressed in "the end of the collective illusion of preserving Latin America as a territorial complex with virtually virgin spaces and unlimited natural resources." (2) His judgment regarding the future of the region could not be clearer: the transformations that occurred in the period, he says, "damaged, to the immediate future of the XXI century, a large part of the possibilities of sustained and sustainable development" ( 3).

On the other hand, with regard to the reflection that accompanied this process at the environmental level, Nicolo Gligo -when taking stock of the environmental perspectives and challenges that the end of the 20th century posed to Latin America-, points out the The need to break with a development style in which "the fundamental economic decisions of the countries of the region ... are born from the technocracies of the ministries of economy or finance ... where ... the environmental problem and that of natural resources is an externality that bothers, the one that must somehow be saved without obstructing the economic management "(4). This, he adds, gives rise to a situation marked by the conflict between an "explicit environmental policy [that] originates in the central environmental agencies of the public administration" and the "implicit environmental policies ... almost all of them related to economic growth" , which originate in other ministries or in the central power, and which are ultimately "those who rule the countries", generally privileging the short term over the long term in a way that leads to such implicit environmental policies "are of negative sign "(5).

In short, the environment has played a barely marginal role in development theory, where it occupies a subordinate position with respect to the priority given to economic growth. In this way, the environment has become the guest of the stone of development, a factor alluded to and avoided at the same time that, however, has ended up becoming the trigger for all the contradictions that this theory harbors within it. For the same reason, and beyond, this avoidance of the environment pointed to another one of more vast scope: that of the historical significance of postwar II liberal developmentalism, as a framework for the relationship between the human species and the natural world, such as it is expressed in the situation of sustained economic growth -although mediocre and uncertain- combined with constant social deterioration and social degradation, which characterizes the evolution of our countries within the world system from 1980 to the present day (6).

Are there surprises here, or just surprised? Already Sunkel and Paz -in Latin American Underdevelopment and Development Theory, that key book in the formation of so many social scientists in the region- warned us in 1970 about the internal ambiguities of the concept of development, and the ideological struggle -fight between programs long-term politicians - that raged within him. The crisis of development theory corresponds, in the geoculture of the world system, with the crisis of liberalism as "common sense" and the rise of the new conservative-neoliberal thought, on the one hand, and that of the new social movements, on the one hand. the other. In this perspective, as noted before, the so-called "sustainable development" has come to express, in the most fundamental way, the exhaustion of development theory in its capacity to offer a vision of the world capable of being expressed in terms corresponding to complexity. of the dangerous problems created by actually existing development (7).

Today, it is already necessary to transcend those games of allusions, elusions and illusions, to define development in the first place by its ability to promote in all human societies the exercise of the qualities that distinguish us as a species. Thus, having completed the cycle of the old theory that at the time seemed to express in a way both admirable and viable the best aspirations of the existing world in the mid-twentieth century, we must face the fact that development will only be sustainable for what human that is, and that "human", here, can only mean -if development is concerned- equitable, cultured, supportive, and capable of offering to its relations with the natural world, the harmony that characterizes the relations of its world Social.

This is what Manuel Castells seems to suggest - in an unsuspected, perhaps fortuitous coincidence, with the quote from Federico Engels that opens this article, when - when referring to the struggle for a more equitable relationship between humans and the natural world, which calls for "a notion broad that affirms the use value of life, of all forms of life, against the interests of wealth, power and technology ", it points out that:

“The ecological approach to life, the economy and the institutions of society emphasizes the holistic character of all forms of matter and of all information processing. Thus, the more we know, the more we perceive the possibilities of our technology and the more we realize the gigantic and dangerous gap that exists between the increase in our productive capacities and our primitive, unconscious and, ultimately, destructive social organization (8) . »

From us, on the other hand, this only reiterates, at the level of culture, the dilemma with which the very epoch was born from which now we enter the change of epochs that drags us all: the one that faced - and faces - the paradigm of our backwardness, which since 1845 demands to choose between civilization and barbarism, and that of a new development, synthesized by José Martí in 1891 when he observed that, in Our America, "There is no battle between civilization and barbarism, but between false scholarship and nature. "

Faced in this way, the problems posed by the development crisis at the cultural level could well be the spur we need to better understand this crisis, and the most appropriate ways to face it. The criticism of development theory in its inability to account for the environmental problems of our time, in effect, can only be made from a new effort to characterize and understand these problems in terms that allow the construction of the political solutions they demand, since We already have the scientific and technological resources, and the accumulated wealth necessary to face and solve these problems.

To do this, however, we must be able to face the pending task in all its political and social implications, precisely so as not to be knocked down by the truth that we may have missed "by will or oblivion," as Martí also warns us. Being overthrown, in effect, is the only thing we cannot afford in a circumstance that poses such terrible risks and bright hopes as those offered by the crisis we have reached in our relations with the natural world.

Here, the truth that cannot be missed is the one that refers to the contradiction that development presents us, as an organizational myth, in its close association with economic growth. This relationship, indicated and masked at the same time by the old theory of development, is the one that refers to the historical, specific character of that growth in this civilization, that is, to the incessant accumulation of profits as the primary objective of the relationships that Human beings establish with each other, and with the natural world, in the production of their daily lives. The conflict between human action aimed at the incessant reproduction of profit on a world scale, and the needs of the reproduction of life on a global biosphere scale, constitutes precisely the ethical core of sustainability that the crisis in which they have led to the relationships we have been building with nature over the last 500 years and, in particular, from the mid-19th century to the present day (9).

Indeed, if economics is essentially the discipline that deals with the allocation of scarce resources between multiple and exclusive purposes, it is necessary to ask how the priorities that guide this allocation are established and exercised. In this sense, every economy finally becomes political and therefore moral, since the actual allocations of resources allow us to identify which interests are priority and which are not. The problem thus posed, how would an economy operate that allocates more resources to the reproduction of life than to the unlimited accumulation of profits? Who, and how, would be the protagonists of this construction of new priorities, and what would be the human organization capable of being guided by them?

We don't have answers to those questions yet, but we do have the questions. We can only transcend the past to build the future, facing the problems posed by the change from the era of economics to the era of ecology, to use the expression of our teacher and friend Donald Worster. This, in practical terms, means moving from the era of organized inequality on a global scale for the incessant accumulation of profits, to that of organized cooperation to ensure the reproduction of life on the scale of the entire biosphere. We have already passed, perhaps without realizing it, the starting point: we are beginning to understand the direction that will make our march fruitful. That, already, is a success in times like these.

(1), p.2
(2) The Transformations of the Latin American Geohistoric Space, 1930 - 1990. Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1996 (1995), p. 9.
(3) Ibid., P. 188. This, he says, occurs due to "the modalities of spontaneity in the establishment of forms of sub-integrated habitat; by the degrading intensity of the various uses of agricultural land and the plundering of forest, mining and energy resources, where everything is dominated by the desire for immediate profit ", with which" a prospective crisis of the Latin American landscape heritage is beginning. "
(4) "V. Perspectives and environmental challenges", in The Environmental Dimension in the Development of Latin America. ECLAC Book No. 58, May 2001. Economic Commission for Latin America, Santiago de Chile,, p. 227. This, moreover, in a circumstance in which economic growth is associated with the "entrapment" that implies sustaining the strategies of expansion of exports of raw materials and food from the region to the first world by resorting to "the advantages Spurious comparisons of cheap labor and undervalued natural resources ". The value of Gligo's reflections stands out even more, if possible, due to the fact that they were constructed by the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), within which the fundamentals of the theory and political practice of development in our country were forged. region.
(5) Ibid, p. 237.
(6) The depth and tenacity of this relationship can be appreciated, for example, in the contrast between the constant worsening of this situation and the hopes created by the calls to confront it (within the current world order) that were made in the first half of the 1990s, from the World Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, to the Social Development Conference in 1995, through the Beijing on Women in 1993, and the Cairo on Population in 1994.
(7) Beyond, even, the pious definition offered by the 2001 Human Development Report, prepared by the UNDP, by linking development with the (unlikely) possibility that each nation-state will "create an environment in which people can fully realize their possibilities and live in a productive and creative way according to their needs and interests "within the current world order. UNDP: Human Development Index, 2001, p. eleven
(8) "This, he adds," is the objective thread that weaves the growing connection of the social, local and global, defensive and offensive, vindictive and cultural revolts that arise around the environmental movement. This is not to say that new internationalist citizens of goodwill and generous have suddenly emerged. Not yet. Old and new divisions of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, and territoriality operate by dividing and subdividing issues, conflicts, and projects. But it does mean that the embryonic connections between popular movements and symbolically oriented mobilizations in the name of environmental justice bear the mark of alternative projects. These projects outline an overcoming of the exhausted social movements of industrial society, to resume, in historically appropriate ways, the old dialectic between domination and resistance, between "Realpolitik" and utopia, between cynicism and hope. "In:" The greening of I: the environmental movement ",
(9) In this regard, for example, the reading of McNeil, J.R .: Something New Under The Sun: an environmental history of the Tewntieth Century world is of particular interest. Global Century Series, 2001.

* Panama, 1950. Doctor in Latin American Studies, Faculty of Philosophy, National Autonomous University of Mexico, 1995. This document has been prepared from the presentation presented at the Regional Symposium on Ethics and Sustainable Development, held in Bogotá, Colombia, on 2 as of May 4, 2002, under the auspices of the Colombian Ministry of the Environment, UNEP, UNDP, ECLAC and the World Bank. Comments are welcome to [email protected] - Published in La Insignia and in

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