Thursday, January 15, 2009

Critical Review of SD in Lele 1991.

In my first month of grad school I did a web-of-science search for "sustainability" and I sorted by times cited to find the prominent literature in the area. A paper written in 1991 by Sharachchandra Lele for World Development entitled Sustainable Development: A Critical Review had been cited 160 times and I decided to read it. Given the assignment of trying to define sustainability, I thought it would beneficial to re-read it and review it here. I find this paper provides more honest and constructive criticism than the paper by Taylor, which I still plan on finishing.

Anyways, let's begin. In the abstract Lele states
A review of the literature that has sprung up around the concept of SD indicates, however, a lack of consistency in its interpretation. More important, while the all-encompassing nature of the concept gives it political strength, its current formulation by the mainstream SD thinking contains significant weaknesses...It is suggested that if SD is to have a fundamental impact, politically expedient fuzziness will have to be given up in favor of intellectual clarity and rigor.
I agree with almost all of this, and I find it interesting that in 1991 people were already trying to balance the warm fuzziness of the idea of SD, and actually making hard policy recommendations. To be effective, SD must find a balance between being a nice catch-phrase that everyone nominally supports, and being an overly-rigorous doctrinaire movement that cannot gain mainstream support. The majority of the paper is spent exploring that balance.

Lele begins by attempting to define SD. He uses the following diagram to explore what is meant by the term. He reviews a number of definitions, including the currently well accepted WCED definition
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
Instead of hand-waving this definition away as Taylor did, Lele actually goes into the operational objectives set by the WCED:
  1. reviving growth
  2. changing the quality of growth
  3. meeting the essential needs for jobs, food, energy, water and sanitation
  4. ensuring a sustainable level of population
  5. conserving and enhancing the resource base
  6. reoreinting technology and managing risk
  7. merging environmental and economics in decision making
  8. reoreinting international economic relations
Lele takes this to me the mainstream thought in SD with the addition of a ninth objective, namely "making development more participatory". Lele believes the strength in this formulation is it's ability to build consensus among seemingly separate groups. He phrase is thusly:
The current state of scientific knowledge (particularly insights obtained in the last few decades) about natural and social phenomena and their interactions leads inexorably to the conclusion that anyone driven by either long-term self-interest, or concern for poverty, or concern for intergenerational equity should be willing to support the operational objectives of SD.
This ability for broad consensus is one of the strengths of SD, but Lele does not gloss over the theories weaknesses either. He believes the mainstream thinking in SD has weaknesses in three areas.
  1. its characterization of the problems of poverty and environmental degradation
  2. its conceptualization of the objectives of development, sustainability and participation
  3. the strategy it has adopted in the face of incomplete knowledge and uncertainty
The mainstream thinking in SD according to Lele believes that poverty leads to environmental degradation and that environmental degradation in turn leads to poverty. Lele believes in feedback loop is overly simple, and he proposes a more complex relationship.This diagram shows the fundamental relationship between access to resources and poverty. It agrees that there is a negative feedback loop between poverty and environmental degradation, but neither is the primary sources of either. This diagram rightly shows that increasing the impoverished access to resources would be the best way to eliminate poverty. It also indicates that reducing overconsumption in affluent areas would be the most effective way to reduce environmental degradation. These more realistic relationships take away some of the warm and fuzzy consensus of SD, though. There is not necessarily a consensus to decrease consumption in developed areas and to increase the impoverished areas access to resources. Due to these complex relationships, Lele states:
Removal of poverty, sustainability and participation are really the three fundamental objectives of SD.
Notably lacking is the need for economic growth. Lele explains this because he believes that economic growth may arise from SD, but it is not an objective of SD in and of itself. This is because it is unclear the economic growth encourages sustainability or reduces poverty in and of itself. I tend to agree with this. Especially, if one accepts that overconsumption by affluent areas is a leading cause of environmental degradation, and that environmental degradation in turn promotes poverty. It seems obvious that economic growth in and of itself is not an objective of SD. The right kind of economic growth is necessary to promote SD.

Lele then says that any reasonable definition of sustainability must answer
What is to be sustained? For whom? How long?

We'll leave things at there for right now. I'll go through the final recommendations and conclusions in another post.

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