Human Development and Sustainability (1)

Eric Neumayer


The literatures on human development and sustainable development, or sustainability for short, have long been separate. This is surprising. On a very fundamental level, human development is what sustainability proponents want to sustain and without sustainability, human development is not true human development. As UNDP (1994: 13) and Anand and Sen (2000: 2030) rightly emphasise, universalism, which can be traced back to Kant (1785), is at the heart of the concept of human development and universalism requires granting the same kind of attention to future generations as to the current one. If human development is about enabling people to lead long, healthy, educated and fulfilling lives, then sustainable human development is about making sure that future generations can do the same. But in some sense adding ‘sustainable’ as a prefix is superfluous, since human development without being sustainable cannot be true human development.

Sustainability and human development

As mentioned in the introduction, human development is in principle what sustainability proponents want to sustain. This may require some further explanation. After all, if the term “sustainable development” is further specified, it is usually done so as “sustainable economic development” rather than “sustainable human development”. However, properly understood there is no real difference between economic development and human development. Providing people with the capabilities to fulfill their needs, wants and desires stands at the heart of true economic development. This is clear in the most commonly cited definition of sustainable development as “development that satisfies the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987: 43). However, it is also at least compatible with a definition of economic development as being sustainable “if it does not decrease the capacity to provide non-declining per capita utility for infinity” (Neumayer 2010: 7), which is a common economic definition of sustainable development. In fact, with their respective emphases on capabilities, ability and capacity, human development and sustainable development share the basic view that development is about enabling people. Since people derive utility from many things other than income, economic development must be about much more than raising per capita income (Layard 2006), covering instead items such as health, education, autonomy and freedom as well, which all contribute to human development.
The analytical focus on consumption is potentially dangerous if it detracts from the fact that development is about much more than consumption. Moreover, the sustainability debate at times regards essential items of human development, such as education to lead an informed and self-determined life, merely as instrumental, as capital with which future flows of utility can be produced. The literature on human development with its emphasis on the multiple dimensions of development, acknowledging that income is an important determinant, but also going far beyond it, is very pertinent here. The same applies to its emphasis on education and health not just as instrumentally productive, but valuable and therefore desirable in their own right (UNDP 1994; Anand and Sen 2000). It serves to remind proponents of sustainability that the debate about what should be sustained is as important as how to sustain it.
Moreover, the literature on human development is very clear that people must have freedom and choices to fulfill their needs, desires and wants – or not. This is compatible with a definition of sustainable development as non-decreasing capacity to provide non-declining per capita utility for infinity quoted above. In other words, it is compatible with the so-called capital approach to sustainable development. However, sustainability is sometimes defined as non-declining per capita utility as such. While this appear as only a small semantic difference, human development serves to remind sustainability proponents that people are real people with freedoms and choices, not social welfare state clients who are allocated a certain amount of utility by the omnipotent social welfare planner.
Lastly, and following from the first point, the literature on human development reminds sustainability proponents that intra-generational equity is as important as inter-generational equity (UNDP 1994; Anand and Sen 2000). The Brundtland Commission was very clear about this. Directly following from its definition of sustainability quoted above, it argues that ‘overriding priority’ should be given to the ‘essential needs of the world’s poor’ (WCED 1987: 43). Yet, the majority of the sustainability discourse tends to neglect, if not outright ignore intra generational equity issues.
What then is needed is an open discussion of how intra- and inter-generational equity issues are linked with each other, complement each other, but also, at times, can conflict with each other. Does redistribution to the current poor harm the future by boosting current consumption spending and reducing investment for the future? Anand and Sen (2000: 2038) believe this is not necessarily the case if assisting the poor helps them build up human capital, which will then also benefit the future. However, not every policy will have a double benefit for both intra- and intergenerational equity. Some are worried that, for example, increased spending on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take financial resources away from assisting the poor of today (World Bank 2010). This is a huge, largely unaddressed, research area, which needs to be tackled in the future, and no easy answers can be given here. A frank and open discussion of the links, complementarities and conflicts will also go some way in addressing the criticism of vagueness laid against the concept of sustainable human development.
Sustainability proponents can be roughly divided, for analytical purposes, into those adhering more to a weak and those adhering more to a strong sustainability paradigm (Neumayer 2010). Weak sustainability (WS) is built on the assumption that natural and other forms of capital are essentially substitutable and that the only thing that matters is the total value of capital stock, which should be at least maintained or ideally added to for the sake of future generations. Strong sustainability (SS) rejects the notion of substitutability (of natural capital) and holds that certain forms of natural capital are critical and that their depletion cannot be compensated for by investment into other forms of capital, such as man-made (manufactured) and human capital.
Natural capital encompasses everything in nature that provides human beings with well-being, from natural resources to environmental amenities and the pollution absorptive capacity of the environment. Man-made or manufactured capital refers to the physical means of production (factories, machineries etc.) and infrastructure. Human capital covers knowledge and skills. I have argued elsewhere that existing empirical evidence appears to support the nonsubstitutability assumption of SS more strongly with respect to the role natural capital plays in absorbing pollution and providing direct utility in the form of environmental amenities, whereas empirical evidence appears to support the substitutability assumption of WS with respect to natural capital as a resource input into the production of consumption goods.

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