Updated: February 2, 2010 11:07 IST

Sketch for transition to a sustainable planet

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This book takes a hard look at what is wrong with the mainstream interpretation of development and explores alternatives to the develop-mentality. The unbridled consumption growth has resulted in widespread ecological destruction that is reflected in serious concerns about the climate change. Given the widely shared perception of development as growth of incomes, the challenge of meeting the aspirations of over nine billion people by the 2050s is indeed daunting.


It is contended in the book that, defined narrowly in terms of material wealth and assessed primarily on the basis of contestable parameters such as gross domestic product, ‘development’ has set societies on a downward spiral of self-destruction.

The Sustainable Development Commission has, in its latest report on the transition to a sustainable economy, estimated that, for stabilising the global climate, carbon intensity would have to be only six grams per dollar of output — some 130 times lower than what it is today. Expecting the efficiency improvements — advocated through slogans such as ‘low carbon, high growth’ path of development — to take care of this massive requirement will be nothing short of wild imagination.

The book has been divided into two parts, with the first tracing the roots of development ideology and narrating the adverse social and ecological effects of this dominant way of thinking, and the second exploring the alternatives to ‘developmentality’ and providing a sketch for transition to a sustainable planet. In any debate on sustainable development, the central question is whether natural (and other forms of) capital can be substituted by man-made capital, and the proponents of the so-called ‘weak sustainability’ argue, it can. Thus, as we deplete natural resources such as oil and minerals, sustainable development can be ensured if the resource rents are transferred to the next generations.

Pointing out the limitations of such arguments, the ‘strong sustainability’ school advocates preservation of key-stone species, and/or maintaining total complementarity between man-made capital and natural capital.

Drawing support for strong sustainability from a wide range of thinkers like Marx and the experiences of several ecological movements such as Chipko, the book makes out a case for the cutting-edge zero-growth ecological economic models together with a more participatory and inclusive decision-making process to enable transition towards a sustainable planet.

The main strength of the book is its comprehensive multi-disciplinary coverage. Interestingly it does not invoke the widely recognised ‘precautionary principle’ either against weak sustainability or in support of strong sustainability, although such invocation could have been attempted in both areas. It is also silent on some of the recent attempts to assess the human impact on the planet (e.g., Ecological Footprint Network, and Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) and guidelines for ensuring transition to sustainable economy (e.g., Sustainable Development Commission).

Collective thinking

The critical tone adopted by the author is rather unfortunate. Perhaps nobody (and no single discipline) has the complete understanding of the complex nature and its linkages. What has been theorised and practised by neoclassical economics is turning out to be environmentally blind, but that does not necessarily imply that intensions are questionable. It is also not true that the ecologists have a complete understanding of the issues or that they have universally acceptable solutions. What is needed is perhaps collective thinking rather than the dismantling of everything and starting from scratch.

The book is a must read for all those concerned with environmental and social dimensions of the current growth path. Had the use of jargon been kept to the minimum and the volume been less bulky, it would have been more reader-friendly.

BEYOND DEVELOPMENTALITY — Constructing Inclusive Freedom and Sustainability: Debal Deb; Daanish Books, 26 B, Skylark Apartments, Gazipur, Delhi-110096. Rs. 950

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