Sustainable Human Development: Beyond the concept

In response to Stefano Prato's post on 'Sustainable Human Development: Searching for a new agenda'

by Sanjay G. Reddy 


Sustainable human development has become an empty mantra. Those who invoke it alert us that they are not oblivious to certain concerns, in particular those relating to the need to avoid unjustifiable damage to the environment which sustains human life, and the need to ensure a development path which brings about the expansion of real human freedom for as many as possible (not merely expanding the means to such freedom). Real as this achievement is, the slogan appears unfortunately to have served more often than not as attractive clothing. It has rarely been an instrument for conceptual and practical discrimination -- helping us to make sense of which development paths are to be desired and which not.

The idea of sustainability cannot be understood without reference to an end which is (or ends which are) to be sustained. Implicitly, that which is not captured by these ends can be sacrificed, and indeed must be sacrificed if doing so can help to further the specified ends or their sustenance. It follows that it is crucial to specify the ends in an appropriately inclusive manner, if the concept is not itself to engender inadvertent harms. We may hence make sense of the charge that sustainability has often been conceived in an anthropocentric manner, focusing on the conditions for sustaining and extending the satisfactions which human beings derive rather than upon the conditions for sustaining ecosystems and the diverse forms of life within them (viewed as ends in themselves).

It is equally important to have a sufficiently wide understanding of the constraints which are imposed upon human action, and thus upon sustainability, by the ecosystem itself. Many approaches to sustainable development, especially those championed by economists, have presupposed a high degree of substitutability between distinct resources employed in human economic activity and in creating the conditions for the enjoyment of human life. This empirical postulate may be false. For example, the conditions imposed upon the continuance of human activity by thermodynamic balance (the net extraction of energy by human beings from the ecosystem for their own purposes) or by the limited supply of specific indispensable resources (such as clean water) may be severe.

These are rather basic conceptual concerns. They point, however, to the excessive degree of abstraction in many attempts to understand sustainable development, and the conceptual and practical errors which can result. More perniciously, this very abstraction makes the concept both inoffensive and suitable for 'hijacking'. It is quite clear that to take sustainable human development seriously today we must grapple with the concrete conditions for the maintenance and betterment of human life, as well as of a healthy ecosystem generally. These concern, for example, the management of climate change, deforestation, depletion of groundwater, erosion of the quantity and quality of soils, the extinction of species, and so on.

Addressing meaningfully the challenge of sustainable human development today requires taking these individual concerns seriously and understanding their inter-linkages, to one another as well as to livelihoods and existences, especially of the poor and weak. The assumed substitutability of certain essential resources for others, aided by techno-fixes which will be invented in the future, can no longer provide confidence, in a situation in which the very existence of human beings and indeed of life as we know it is increasingly at risk. Sustainable human development is therefore as a concept in itself both too little and too much. It is too little because it cannot guide us sufficiently in addressing the real questions we face, for which understandings of ecology, science, society, and morality, are indispensable, and it is too much because its rhetorical efficacy masks what it cannot deliver.

We must move from the portmanteau concept, appealing as it has been, to a set of regularized practices and understandings, which we attempt to embed in all of our endeavours and institutions. In doing so we must straddle the trenches which divide disciplines, nations and persons. Nothing less will be adequate.


Sanjay G. Reddy (Dr.) is Associate Professor of economics at The New School for Social Research, New York. Personal website:


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