The emergence of environmental debates in development theory over the last fifty years

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This essay looks at the background leading up to, and reasons for, the emergence of environmental debates in development theory over the last fifty years. It will illustrate the issues and discourses present in environmental debates, the actors and debators, and with reference to examples from both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, show how environmentalism challenges modern development theory. We start by looking at how environmental concerns, despite their historical presence in ancient philosophies and civilizations (Redclift, 1987), were marginalised through the creation and evolution of the post-war ‘development project’.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 marked the beginnings of major changes in the theory of development on a worldwide scale. The system of formal colonialism, which accounted for 84. 6% of the world’s land surface in the 1930s (Jones, 2001), broke down. The US was, by the end of the War, a major world power, holding 60% of the global industrial capacity and looking to secure access to a global market. Europe, Japan and Russia in particular had experienced large-scale destruction and needed to rebuild and strengthen their economies.

The ideology of economic development through industrialisation (Keynes’ system of global economic management) became the hegemonic model upon which the operations of governments and transnational corporations were based, overriding cultural, religious and social traditions. President Truman of the United States summarised the objectives of the development project in his inaugural address in January 1949, suggesting “a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing” and “a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge” (Escobar, 1995).

The environment was seen as an unlimited resource for mankind to exploit in the name of progress, and nature as an obstacle to development. Chinese governments of the 1950s proudly claimed that they had “finally subdued nature” by turning “desolate” natural grassland into fertile farmland (Qinghai Nongyeting, 1959, in Ho, 2001). Thus, fifty years ago, environmental debates were kept firmly in the background by the overwhelming desire for economic development.

Environmentalism has emerged as a mainstream concern in different ways across the globe, and the reasons for this will be discussed shortly. Ho defines environmentalism as “a form of voluntary collective action to protect the environment that ranges from the founding of NGOs and green political parties, to social resistance”. It comprises a set of beliefs or values, in this case concerning the Earth’s conservation and the development of mankind.

The emergence of environmentalism in the developed world can be seen from a sociological perspective in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943; Inglehart, 1990) – once people’s material needs of food, water, shelter and security have been satisfied, they develop post-materialist concerns such as social relations, self-esteem and quality of life (the latter dependent upon a pleasant environment). However, for many people the conservation of the environment is a material concern, as it provides them directly with their livelihood.

Alternatively, the rise of environmental movements in the industrialised countries is attributed by some to a post-industrialist recognition of the limits of economic growth and the need for sustainable development. In the West, the 1960s brought about multilateral challenges to development theory and old authoritarian structures. Widespread protest about social issues, for example gender and racial discrimination, forced institutions to drastically re-assess their methods and ideologies – at the same time, a growing environmental consciousness was taking hold.

New environmental problems such as acid rain, and the increasing threat of nuclear conflict and resulting pollution, could not be ignored or avoided even by the rich. Environmental disasters were broadcast to the world on an unprecedented scale by the media, as televisions became standard in Western households. In 1968, for the first time in history, humans watched pictures of the Earth from space – images that reinforced our understanding of the isolation of the planet, and our dependence on its ecological self-regulation.

More recently, scientific advances in measuring and monitoring global climate change brought global environmental change into the spotlight, and the rise of information technology in conjunction with a general cultural and economic globalization made it easier for environmentalists worldwide to communicate, share information, organise demonstrations and mobilise people. In the Communist states of the Eastern bloc, Russia and China, environmentalism was suppressed for much longer, as a combination of socialist ideology and inflexible policies constrained alternative thinking.

Environmental problems were dismissed as temporary phenomena that could be solved through scientific and technological measures (Ho, 2001), and those occurring in the Western world were regarded as “the organic defects of capitalism” (Komarov, in Blaikie and Broomfield, 1991). Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 with the declaration that “if people living in nature want to be free, they will have to use natural sciences to understand nature, to overcome nature and to change nature, only then will they obtain freedom from nature” (Mao, 1966 in Ho, 2001).

During the 1980s in Eastern Europe, environmentalism became one of many reasons for social resistance and protest against the Communist regimes. In China, however, alternating policies of tolerance and strict control of social organisations denied environmentalism the opportunity to openly confront the government, and so it remains a largely hidden movement, with many NGOs avoiding official registration (Ho, 2001). Unfortunately, over the last fifty years much of the developing world has been war-torn, and environmental concerns are often (understandably) neglected in these countries.

In Cambodia, for example, two decades of warfare and economic embargo left the country “in dire need of peace and reconstruction” (Le Billon, 2000). The transition from war to peace was based on the transformation of the forests from a hostile territory run by the Khmer Rouge to a resource for economic exploitation through the production of timber. This commodification of the environment is seen by many as an unsustainable path of development, but Cambodia does not have many options. However, it would be grossly inaccurate to say that the developing world is blind to environmental debates.

In many parts of Africa desertification is inextricably linked to famine and is an issue of major concern – nomadic farmers, for example, have long warned of (and suffered) the consequences of environmental abuse. Colonisers and travellers in the early 20th century wrote of the advancement of the Sahara Desert due to mis-management of the land, and by the 1970s desertification was an internationally recognised phenomenon. The first major milestone in the recognition of environmental debates by the governments of the world was the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 (Adger et al, 2001).

The 1980 IUCN World Conservation Strategy introduced the idea to mainstream political discourse that economic development and environmental conservation are not necessarily mutually exclusive, a theme that now permeates into development plans at all levels. In 1987 the UN World Commission on Environment and Development prepared a report entitled Our Common Future, also known as the Bruntland Report, which “launched to the world the strategy of sustainable development as the great alternative for the end of the century and the beginning of the next” (Escobar, 1995).

The UNCED Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the largest ever gathering of world leaders, with 113 countries represented) produced agreements on climate, biodiversity and forest issues, and Agenda 21, a global consensus and political commitment on environment and development co-operation, which is applied right down to the local level. “There have been a number of sustainable development initiatives since Rio (at international, national and local or NGO levels), many of which would not have happened without the stimulus of UNCED” (Reid, 1995).

However, much of the promise of these initiatives has not been fulfilled, and efforts to preserve the environment have repeatedly been frustrated by the U. S. At Rio in 1992, and again at Kyoto in 2001, the U. S. refused to ratify any agreement committing them to cut carbon dioxide emissions. This series of summits initiated the global environmental management discourse, a view whereby external policy interventions can solve global environmental dilemmas (Adger et al, 2001).

However, it is important not to overlook the effect of populist discourse on the emergence of environmental debates. The increasing awareness over the last fifty years of governments and international institutions such as the World Bank to environmental issues did not come about by accident. Debates in these circles were stimulated by local and regional protest at pollution and destruction of the natural environment, from atmospheric pollution in towns and cities to the extinction of rare species in the rainforests. In the West, public demonstrations directly challenged the authorities.

In the East, environmental disasters such as Chernobyl, the Aral Sea and the Danube Basin (Ho, 2001) stirred up an undercurrent of unrest. Individual writers contributed to the debate, for example Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (about the effects of pesticide use in agriculture). Social movements organised on a local to regional scale, for example those in Uttaranchal, India during the late 1970s, and Chiapas, Mexico in 1994-5, forced governments to take notice of the destructive effects development projects were causing on the environment.

The decline in official direct intervention by the state in development matters during the 1980s and 1990s saw a general shift in development towards grassroots approaches – this led to an explosion in the number of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) being established across the globe. NGOs and pressure groups vary enormously in terms of their size, aims and nature – some have strong links with central or local government, and may even be partly government-organised (for example the Beijing Environmental Protection Foundation in China (Ho, 2001)), others are autonomous.

Their organizational structure may range from informal, voluntary and democratic to professionalized, paid and hierarchic. They may operate on a local, regional, national or even international scale, for example Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (regional), Surfers Against Sewage (national) and IUCN (international). Their methods may be confrontational or co-operative, although there is growing recognition amongst the leaders of NGOs that it is important to their cause to be able to provide a solution to an environmental problem rather than simply drawing attention to it.

Surfers Against Sewage have been particularly successful in both capturing the attention of the UK government and public through media-friendly demonstrations (dressed in wetsuits and gasmasks), and formulating viable solutions to combat the problem of untreated sewage entering the oceans and inland waters (Garner, 1999). Equally, many governments have seen the advantages in devolving responsibility for the environment to cause-specific NGOs.

The politicisation of environmental debates cannot necessarily be seen as a benefit to the environment, as it is apparent that government-implemented environmental policies can often lead to further problems. In Mali, for example, rural domestic firewood use is routinely stressed by aid donors, forest authorities and external consultants as one of the main causes of deforestation in the region (Benjaminsen, in Adger et al, 2001). Recent research in fifty Malian forest villages has shown that in reality, domestic firewood is predominantly fallen, dead wood, and as such, is of little significance to the overall forest budget.

Only where commercial exploitation of the wood takes place does the forest suffer depletion. However, on account of the official bodies, and in order to demonstrate environmental concern to the international community (in the hope of project funding and foreign aid), in 1986 the Malian government imposed strict forest laws. These banned all bush fires and introduced fines for unauthorised dry wood collection – ignoring the fact that the farmers and pastoralists depend on bush fires for the management of pastures at the end of the rainy season.

As we have seen, environmental debates have become increasingly recognised on a global scale over the past fifty years – in some countries this environmentalism is officially recognised and incorporated into policies and laws, in others it is still played down as a minor concern. There exists at present a conflict between the views of different groups as to the ways in which environmental problems should be addressed – whether as part of an integrated, globally managed scheme or specifically targeted by single-issue groups or projects.

Generally, all voices are forced to use the vocabulary of the dominant discourse (Thompson and Rayner, 1998 in Adger et al, 2001) – but “large international NGOs have also adopted the narratives and rhetoric of the populist discourses in promoting people-orientated conservation and development projects and in forming alliances with indigenous peoples’ organisations” (Brown and Rosendo, 2000 in Adger et al, 2001).

The hegemony of Western development theory in organisations such as the World Bank and United Nations tends to promote ‘top-down’, managerial strategies for environmental conservation, but it is vital to appreciate the perspectives of the local people – often the most successful environmental projects are initiated from the grassroots.

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