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The Double Edge Sword of Growth and Development

Posted on the 15 March 2011 by 2ndgreenrevolution @2ndgreenrev

The Double Edge Sword of Growth and DevelopmentA few months back our Five Friday Facts came by way of a 60 Minutes story on Brazil (see the video clip below). Many of the facts touted Brazil’s progress in the area of clean energy. One that did not make the cut was the following fact, “Ninety percent of the roads in the country are still unpaved.” This stirred a discussion at 2nd Green Revolution about western style growth versus sustainable development. So far, the two have been relatively synonymous, but there is a movement toward true sustainable development.

The second part of the fact included the following tidbit, “in the cities there is not much in the way of public transportation.” The first part of the quotation – 90% of the roads are unpaved – brought up this question, “Is this a bad thing?” The argument goes something like this: paved roads allow for spreading of disease, increased pressure on the environment, and growth that leads to rapid commercialization and sprawl. The second part of the fact about the lack of public transportation led to more consensus about moving forward in the country. Public transit helps reduce congestion, pollution, and vehicular expenses to the individual, while opening options for commuting to those who might not be able to afford their own car. The lack of public transportation is a concern.  Here is a recap of the debate:

Justin Manger:  As a country develops (in the western paradigm/sense of the word), there is an opportunity to plan “better/smarter”. One of the benefits of Brazil’s growth is that it will allow them to leap frog over our mistakes. There is a need to balance growth and “progress” with all the concerns we in the developed world now have and have already gone through….i.e. the ability/need for developing countries to learn from our mistakes.

Eric Wilson: In “development” work, there is a distinct difference between growth and development. These two terms are not synonymous. Growth refers to the increase in money (or any other quantitative increase), while development is the improvement of a situation (i.e. better education or health care). Paving roads and building high rises would fall under the former, while ensuring that kitchens are properly ventilated and clean water is available lies under the auspices of the latter. David Orr uses the term “ecological economics,” which distinguishes between the development and growth, unlike “conventional economics.”

Justin: We could be just creating more buildings (quantitative) or we could be providing buildings that help provide a better life, education, health and so on (improvement of situation). A new high rise sprouts in Denver, with all the accompanying cars, services, goods, and transactions. People from Denver and other places with similar levels of lifestyle move in. Is this growth or development? A new high rise sprouts in Shanghai, with all the accompanying cars, services, goods, and transactions. People from rural China, with no or little access to health care, education, maybe clean water etc. move in. Is this growth or development? Both? 

Eric: This is growth (in both instances), but they do not exist in isolation of development. If growth alone dominates, then there is never an improvement in the situation. Development should not be confused with developing a plot of land. This may entail putting up buildings, agriculture, or a parking lot. One would say the land has been developed, but this use of the term is not the same as “development” in the sense of human development, which may be a better way of thinking about the term. Growth for growth’s sake is not sustainable. Just building more structures or roads will not accomplish much in the way of productivity for a society. A new school building may be growth and not development. However, educating or providing health care where it was previously unavailable would be development.

Justin: So then in the China example I just mentioned it’s development as well, because those with no or little access to health care, education, maybe clean water etc. move into cities and now have access to all of them.

Eric: Development doesn’t need to include growth. In your example you are talking about the two of them together, but development doesn’t need to coincide with growth.

Justin: Who gets to decide how a country should develop? Perhaps a more difficult notion is to wonder whether all countries should in fact be developed. Working off the previous definition – development as an improvement in one’s situation, not growth – it would seem to suggest that it is important. However, western style “development” under the current perception does not always, in fact, benefit developing nations. The disparity between wealthy and poor does not bode well for the long term success of a nation. Ulan Bator, Mongolia doesn’t have a McDonald’s, but it does have a Louis Vuitton. Is it better to have both? Only a McDonalds? Neither? Furthermore, the western rate of consumption cannot be sustained in a finite system.

Eric: To quickly answer your first question – who gets to decide – is at the heart of sustainable development. All stakeholders should be involved in the decision making, not just those in power, with the most to gain, or who have the loudest voice. You’re absolutely right about conflating western style development with sustainable development. Historically this has been the case, but it is not the way forward.

Justin: Fair enough. But A larger question in my mind – and this is blunt – is why should everyone develop? Is is better (or even our place) to go into Africa or Papua New Guinea to try to help and to build infrastructure, governance, schools, etc? What are our motives? It seems that some of the humanitarian efforts that go on are shaded in the ulterior motives of people not necessarily from those areas: to do feel good work, spread religion, spread democracy, develop markets, etc.

Eric: Growth and development are closely intertwined. What needs to happen is smart growth. When growth happens without development (i.e. growth for growth’s sake), we find ourselves on the least sustainable path. Growth is not inherently bad. It may be unsustainable in the strictest sense of the term. However, growth without development is a non-starter. If cities grow without consideration of how the society will improve, then the people will not benefit from any sort of “development” as I defined it earlier. Infrastructure improvements are important, but they do not always require “more”. Less is not more, but it can be better.


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