Emerging Economies and the Oxymoron of Sustainable Development

Arve Hansen and Ulrikke Wethal, editors of Emerging Economies and Challenges to Sustainability, discuss the inherent conflicts of sustainable development and how their new book examines some of the questions surrounding the field.

More than 25 years since the World Commission on Environment and Development introduced the idea, the world is as far as ever from achieving the goals of sustainable development. However, in terms of economic development, much has changed in this period. In what is recognized as a significant ongoing global shift, a range of countries outside the ‘North’ – known as ‘emerging economies’ - have achieved rapid growth rates and are becoming increasingly important players in the world economy. Understanding the causes and consequences of this shift is the paramount contemporary challenge for development-oriented academic enquiry and policy makers alike. Several of these emerging economies have achieved their position through development strategies radically different from those promoted by the North, but the main questions remain: To what extent is sustainability integrated into the development strategies of the emerging economies, as opposed to development trajectories of the advanced capitalist countries? What does it entail for a country to be emerging? And, more fundamentally, does sustainable development still represent an oxymoron?

These questions mark the starting point for the newly published book Emerging Economies and Challenges to Sustainability: Theories, strategies, local realities. In the book, 12 emerging economies from Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa are examined. The cases have in common rapid economic growth and, as one might expect, they exhibit an increasing degree of integration into world markets. Many of them have also reduced poverty to a significant extent. But at what cost to the environment – local, national or global?

The resolution of environmental and developmental issues has never been more urgent than it is today. With the coining of the term sustainable development, it was emphasised that in order to provide ‘development space’ for developing countries, the affluent parts of the world would have to reduce their ecological footprint. After three decades of sustainability discourses there has been no reduction, but rather further increase in the ecological footprint of the North. In the same period, despite the lack of ‘development space’, emerging economies have developed at a very fast pace and are drastically increasing their demand for natural resources.

While development strategies among emerging economies have varied, the fundamental driving forces of economic development have not changed significantly. The continuing expansion of capitalism, and its dominating growth imperative, is evident across the world, and the emerging economies now play vital roles in meeting and fuelling a seemingly endless growth in demand for energy and natural resources. While, much of the global geographical rescaling is taking place outside the North, the advanced capitalist countries are still driving global environmental degradation, particularly if measured in per capita terms or from a consumption perspective. Even though some countries have managed to reduce emissions, the main reasons for this accomplishment have been processes of deindustrialisation and outsourcing of industry. What we have seen is thus a spatial relocation, rather than a reduction, of the environmental consequences of the North’s high consumption levels. In the South this has meant new economic opportunities and new environmental challenges, while allowing countries in the North to claim they are taking environmental responsibility without challenging high material and resource intensive living standards. Furthermore, the domestic middle-classes in the emerging economies are growing rapidly. According to the 2013 Human Development Report, more than 80 percent of the world’s middle class will be residing in the South by 2030, and account for 70 percent of total consumption expenditure.

It is evident from the case studies in this book that widely different realities are hidden behind the concept of emergence. So what does it mean for a country to be emerging, and how does it differ from being a developing country? Whereas previous conceptualising terms such as developing, less developed or Third World reflect a tendency of grouping together countries based on what they are not, the term emerging economies tries to designate certain common characteristics amongst countries within the South. However, the idea of ‘emergence’ is closely related to the world of finance, and has often been linked with market opportunities for global capital rather than development per se. Where an important logic behind the term developing countries was to raise development aid to the South, emerging thus seeks to attract investment. As such, emergence is cause and effect of the geographical expansion and deepening of capitalism, and the emerging economies represent new spaces of accumulation for global capital. As such, emergence primarily refers to the involvement of these countries in a shared process, and not a common economic strategy or level of economic development. Indeed, the financial world has played an important part in the construction of a ‘world of acronyms’, such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey), or VISTA (Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, Argentina), lumping together countries with often little in common other than potential market opportunities.

The growth imperative of capitalism leads to continued exploitation of land and resources. While the effects on the environment are apparent, understood and severe, very little has been done to mitigate them. Our cases show that while there have been some initiatives at the national level, we are far from any serious measures to handle the global challenge of sustainable development. The main reason for this is that serious action to promote sustainable development will in practice challenge economic growth. Sustainable development has rather been reconceptualised in contemporary development discourses as ‘green economy’, ‘green growth’ or ‘ecological modernisation’, based on the claim that the market can serve as a tool for confronting the challenges of sustainable development. These strategies, we suggest, mask a lack of political will (and/or capacity) to challenge the growth trajectories embarked upon.

The 12 cases in this book represent much development, but very little sustainability. Although their development strategies have differed, these emerging economies are not fostering any new development paths in terms of environmental protection. Despite the mainstreaming of sustainable development in development discourses, growth strategies pursued in emerging economies are resembling the cruder development thinking of the 1960s with economic growth taking the driver’s seat, and ‘catch-up’ with the North as the overriding goal.

With the marginalisation of alternative visions of development, the strategies of the emerging economies resemble the old modernisation logic of climbing up a linear path towards modernity. We thus cannot expect the emerging economies to transcend the environmental impacts of development. With a continuation of the status quo in the North, and development understood as economic growth and catch-up with the high-consumption societies of the advanced capitalist countries, sustainable development does indeed seem to represent an oxymoron.