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Développement durable ?

Jean-Yves Martin

Introduction. Time and space of societies

Jean-Yves Martin

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1Since the beginning, the path of the human species on planet Earth has been characterised by a long movement of liberation from and mastery of natural conditions, overcoming the constraints of nature, whence the species emerged, and over which it always seeks greater control. This artificialisation movement, that has never broken with the predation of the beginnings, has speeded up during the contemporary period under the impulsion of the dominant–or avant-garde–fractions of humanity, which are inventive and always better equipped to capture resources, to the point of causing major imbalances. The latter affect the physical environment as much as societies and lead to wondering about the viability of this “development” and the reversibility of the negative effects that it has caused to the physical environment, the resources of the planet and the biosphere.

  • 1 In some regions, and in particular in sub-Saharan Africa the urban phenomenon–later than that of t (...)

2This pathway of liberation is classically described in the form of the three main revolutions in the way of life of humanity: settling, industrialisation and urbanisation. And then there are those who stress that a fourth revolution–that of information and knowledge –is in progress. Prehistorians report that the first human groups in the Palaeolithic lived immersed in nature and depended on it totally. By hunting and gathering, they ate what they could obtain in an uncertain and perilous quest for animal and plant species. The risks and dangers of this wandering were gradually reduced by the invention of tools and the development of techniques for domesticating animals and plants. The appearance of crop and livestock farming made possible the settling that began in the Neolithic. This led to the emerging of new forms of social and political organisation favouring or involving spatial concentrations. The first settlements with high population densities appeared at the end of the Neolithic (Castells, 1975). The existence of towns, the products of social differentiation and division of labour (Weber, 1958) that they helped to strengthen, preceded the industrial revolution. However, it was the latter, the result of several centuries of technical and organisational changes in agriculture and industry, that triggered the massive urbanisation phenomenon that is very recent at the scale of human history. Thus, the industrialisation of production, the spread of towns1 and the development of scientific knowledge and its applications, including new energy sources and remote communications, led to the culmination of the artificialisation movement in the contemporary period. The environmental crisis marks the limits of science and technical progress and calls them into question. Nature, which co-evolved during all these stages and sometimes adapted in a surprising manner, is displaying its resistance to domination and neglect.

3These stages punctuating the changes in relations between nature and culture are well known. They have been the subject of numerous analyses with regard to their meaning in the modes of reproduction of human existence. Less frequent mention is perhaps made of the decrease in the duration of the successive stages and hence the continuous acceleration of changes. Attention should also be drawn to the diversity of their evolution in time, the fact that behaviours and ways of life that are characteristic of one period can remain in the subsequent periods and finally that periods defined as different can coexist in the contemporary world. The movement of domination of nature has been neither identical nor simultaneous all over the planet. The Palaeolithic period ended in Asia Minor more than 10,000 years ago but still continued in certain polar and island zones in the nineteenth century, and practically nomadic groups living from hunting and gathering still exist (Léna, 1992) whereas others now live in a nearly dematerialised economy. Likewise, whereas it is agreed that the passage from prehistory to history was at the invention of writing–a major artificialisation phenomenon–it should be noted that societies with no writing still exist, even if they now form part of states, and that Unesco counted near 900 illiterate adults in the world in 2000 (Wagner, 2000).

  • 2 The poverty threshold: persons living on less than US$1.08 per day (1993 purchasing power as the b (...)

4The path of humanity and its continuous acceleration are leading today to a situation that calls for questioning and concern. Stress is laid on the enormous loading of the natural system and on the excessive imbalances that mark living conditions and the distribution of wealth in the world. In 1950, the world population was 2.5 thousand millions. In 2000, it was 6 thousand millions and mid-range scenario forecasts give 9.3 thousand millions in 2050 (United Nations, 2001). The developing countries accounted for 80% of this population in 2000 and will probably house 87% in 2050. Nearly a quarter (24.3%) of the world population lived below the poverty threshold2 in 1998 (World Bank, 2000), with the proportion ranging from 5% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to 46.3% in sub-Saharan Africa. Half of the population of the world now lives in towns which, in particular in the southern countries, cannot fully master all urban functions (dwellings, equipment, workplaces, transport systems) (Pinson, 2001). These marked inequalities in living conditions are accompanied by reports of the intensification of various types of pollution, the warming of the atmosphere, the increase in the number and intensity of natural catastrophes, the erosion of biodiversity, the emergence or reappearance of diseases, etc. Scientists propose explanations for the appearance of these imbalances.

5Historians describe the ebbs and flows of domination at the international scale and then point to the western expansionism in the last quarter of the second millennium that gradually imposed its mode of production and consumption on the whole world. This originated in the emergence of capitalism and the preponderance of cities excelling in ocean navigation and trade with distant places (Venice, Antwerp, Genoa and Amsterdam), but it was the start of the British and French colonial economies and above all the British conquest of the world, backed by the Industrial Revolution, that were decisive (Braudel, 1979).

6Physicists talk of “forcing”: “The planet Earth is presently submitted to increased forcing due to human activities which is beyond the limits of the natural variabilityas recorded over at least the last 500 000 years. The nature of the changes thus induced in the Earth's environment, their intensity, both in terms of amplitude and rapidity, are unprecedented in the history of humankind and probably in the whole history of the Earth.” (Mégie, 2002).

7Finally, economists have long stressed the change in modes of production with the rise of the tertiary sector of the economy in which added-value increasingly tends to concentrate. The financial value of secondary production, and a fortiori that of primary production, is steadily losing ground in the western economies (Fourastié, 1958). This major trend is a serious threat to the countries that are still little industrialised and whose export resources are based essentially on rent from staples. These countries are already among the poorest and the value of their production is decreasing steadily. UNCTAD recently showed concern: “Amongst the least developed countries, the incidence of extreme poverty is highest in those that depend on primary commodity exports for their economic survival and development... the percentage of people living on less than $1 a day in non-oil commodity-exporting LDCs has risen from 63% in 1981-1983 to 69% in 1997-1999... In 1999, the average real GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) was lower in non-oil commodity-exporting LDCs than it had been in 1970.” (CNUCED, 2002).

8These references highlight three fundamental causes of the environmental, social and economic crisis experienced by the contemporary world: the continued expansion of a production and consumption mode with little economising of natural resources, the forcing to which the physical systems and the resources of the planet are subjected and international economic and financial functioning answering only to the law of the market in the allocation of value and increasing the difference between rich countries and poor countries. However, the global awareness of the dangers to the planet and its inhabitants is on the rise. Its main subjects for concern are also evolving. About thirty years ago, sensitivity increased with regard to the physical and biological environment. This question was at the centre of discussions at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This led to the signing of several international conventions favouring environmental questions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), the Convention on Climate Change (1994), the Convention to Combat Desertification (1994) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997). The next conference–in Johannesburg in 2002–is not taking the environment and development as a title but merging the two questions in a new reflection and action approach targeting both movement and temporality for the evolution of the world: sustainable development.

9This concept hides a host of meanings that have been the subject of numerous studies over the past twenty years. The intention of the papers assembled in this book is to present several significant approaches that make it possible to question the social and economic realities of this sustainable development: the elaboration of questions, the evolution of concepts, the definition of conventions and policies, the emergence of new stakeholders and global and local contexts. They take into account the evolution of priorities that in the past ten years has brought to light a shift in concerns related to the degradation of the physical environment towards those related to societies and the persons of which they consist. Rather than an environment-resources-societies approach that has above all led to diagnoses concerning climatic and biological deterioration, emphasis is laid on a societies-resources-environment approach that would lead more to political and social diagnoses. This position is based on the current evolution of international relations marked by the antagonistic trend in north-south relations and the weakening of state powers. Special attention has been paid to the impact of local development policies and to the appropriation/instrumentation logic of the discourse underlying sustainable development. This choice explains the use of several disciplines, among which the social sciences are dominant. Anthropology, demography, economics, geography and sociology are thus represented, but specialists in agronomy, epidemiology and nutrition have also made contributions. The procedure consists of re-setting global, developmentalist logic with, theme by theme, the issues and sectorial effects. Recurrent questions run through the thematic analysis and string together, clearly demonstrating the interconnection of the problems of sustainable development.

10The strategic question of sustainable development is that of its regulation-both global and local (Tubiana, 2000). We know that the first attempts at international regulation correspond to the creation of the League of Nations, founded in 1920 to foster peace and the development of co-operation between peoples. We know that it was far from coming up to the hopes placed in it. It should also be mentioned that although President Wilson initiated it, the United States was not a member. On the subject of global measures to combat the greenhouse effect, this should be compared with the continued refusal of a number of countries to ratify the latest attempt, the Kyoto Protocol (1997). This is just an illustration of the complexity of the setting up of these regulations. Whether it concerns the conservation of biodiversity, local rights of access to natural resources, the fair regulation of trade, in particular for agricultural products, the movement of persons ... and viruses or the balancing of market rules, this question of regulation is addressed in over half of the contributions (Aknin et al., Aubertin, Cormier-Salem and Roussel, Michon, Courade and Delpeuch, Vidal and Gonzalez, Hours).

11The organisation of political, economic and social regulations is all the more difficult because globalisation opens frontiers and enables more and more stakeholders to seize public things, thus weakening the state, especially in poor countries. While the most powerful countries can free themselves of common rules, the least well-endowed countries suffer the appearance of these new non-state or supra-national stakeholders. International development agencies profit from their extraterritoriality to increase their influence in national territories. Furthermore, non-governmental organisations that are sometimes–even frequently in southern countries–expressions of western countries while affirming that they stem from the national civil society, get around and weaken public power in the exercise of its rights (Aknin et al., Dubois and Mahieu, Aubertin, Cormier-Salem and Roussel, Cambrézy, Metzger and Couret, Michon, Hours).

  • 3 Speech by José Carlos Carvalho, Minister of the Environment (Brazil) at the Organisation of Americ (...)

12This weakening of the state is perhaps one of the main obstacles to the implementation of sustainable development and especially the fight against poverty. The waves of structural adjustment plans (SAPs) and the procedures for the management of multilateral and bilateral debts (the HIPC Initiative and strategic frameworks for combating poverty) have not operated in favour of the “social sustainability” of development (Aknin et al., Dubois and Mahieu, Aubertin, Michon, Courade and Delpeuch, Schlemmer et al., Hours). In a recent statement, a Brazilian minister pointed out that the Latin American and Caribbean countries have displayed negative indicators for twenty years and that the severe structural adjustment programmes and debt servicing together with volatile capital and the opening of markets to products from the rich countries–with nothing in return–have prevented social and environmental investments in the developing countries.3

13The social question and the problem of the environment lie at the heart of north-south relations. The situation of the poor, indebted, adjusted countries means that their priorities tend more spontaneously towards the ending of poverty and maximum exploitation of their natural wealth rather than towards environmental protection, even if this wealth does not benefit everybody. This is made all the more true since they are pushed by the demand market dominated by the northern countries, the largest world consumers of these resources. A debate is thus born: development in the south, sustainable development in the north? Can sustainable development with strict protection of the environment and its resources be achieved in the south? Might development in the north be “non-sustainable”? (Aknin et al., Dubois and Mahieu, Aubertin, Metzger and Couret, Courade and Delpeuch).

14Beyond the question of carbon dioxide emission and the greenhouse effect, numerous initiatives are devoted to the protection and conservation of the environment and its resources. The notions of public goods, common goods and global goods stem from these. Paradoxically, these conservation initiatives have been inspired by the rich countries, with a desire to impose them on the poor countries and recommending the forbidding of the use of areas and of species. It has also taken the form of the imposing from outside of natural parks and protected zones, in particular through action by conservationist organisations, sometimes to the detriment of local populations. The questions of community appropriation and management thus emerged, with their succession of misappropriation and political manipulations, in particular with reference to tropical forests, whether as sources of timber or of plants with therapeutic properties. The questions were also asked in terms of heritage, whether natural or referring to knowledge of nature–local knowledge or urban architecture (Aknin et al., Aubertin, Cormier-Salem and Roussel, Cambrézy, Metzger and Couret, Michon, Courade and Delpeuch, Lescure).

15The term “resources” is one of the most frequent in discussion of sustainable development. The very extensive character of the notion means that a priori disparate components can be incorporated by linking them in development problematics. It refers to both the physical and biological elements that are usable in nature, such as areas sought by refugees, accumulable, transmissible intellectual elements formed by knowledge–oral, scholastic, technological and scientific–or elements that can be termed affective and that form a social link, the latter often being the ultimate protection in the face of poverty. The notion of resources is also associated with that of potential (exploited or not), capacity (a major concept in analyses of poverty) and finally access, fairness and sharing (Dubois and Mahieu, Aubertin, Cormier-Salem and Roussel, Cambrézy, Michon, Picouët and Sandron, Courade and Delpeuch).

16The risk of irreversible erosion or of the exhaustion of resources is often mentioned in discussion of sustainability. Human inventiveness can transform much potential into resources and, for example, improve animal or plant species by breeding them. It is capable of modifying the genes and creating chimeras but it cannot recreate what exists. However, this does not prevent the wish to patent living material and thus place life in the goods category. This mercantile approach is invading the entire resource sphere, including knowledge and its transmission, and regulation by the market alone is tending to become dominant in all human activities. Might sustainable development therefore be at the mercy of the market? (Aknin et al., Aubertin, Courade and Delpeuch, Schlemmer et al., Hours).

17Other risks are also mentioned. These are related to the vulnerability of the human species in relation to various categories of parasites whose harmfulness can be activated or reactivated by the unprecedented intensification of world trade and the increased movement of people, animals and goods. They are also related to the imbalances in these exchanges and the extreme industrialisation of the manufacture of foodstuffs (Courade and Delpeuch, Vidal and Gonzalez).

18Finally, some of the contributions to this book concern representations, with created ideas of reality that can be erroneous. This concerns stereotypes of the link between poverty and the degradation of the rural or urban environment, with poor people being responsible for both their misery and their degraded environment. It is also the case of prejudices concerning the links between population pressure and the state of the environment or sustainable development, that can be questioned as a new ideological construction (Cambrézy, Metzger and Couret, Picouët and Sandron, Hours).

19The book is organised in three main sections: Doctrines, Practices and Appraisals. Doctrines. Might sustainable development be a religious phenomenon ? Does not the new universal doctrine that it may represent call for belief in its worth, its effectiveness and its ability to withstand the test of time ? Is it not accompanied by a procession of thurifers (international agencies, NGOs) and fundamentalists (conservationists and liberalists), heretics and profaners (the major 'polluters' who use the environment as a foil)? Can it belong to another discourse than a moral one? For this, it is necessary to find the origin of the concepts–sustainable development, social development, biodiversity, local knowledge–and the way in which they are elaborated and transformed and in a way deconstruct them to better rebuild them. Practices. For sustainable development not to be reduced to a moral discourse or a representation, it must also be a determination applied in local contexts. Examination of the latter in relation to the situation of refugees, the management of urban environments, the use of forest and the relation between population and environment in arid areas shows the gap between this supposed determination and actual practices. Appraisals. Here, transverse themes at the world scale are used rather than doctrines to reshuffle the cards of sustainable development, to question its main global issues and to show the inherent risks in globalised trade, such as nutritional insecurity, emerging virus diseases, the uneven distribution of knowledge and the ideological trap of sustainable development.

20Finally, different approaches are presented in the annexes: the degree of coverage of research themes in forestry and questions of sustainable development, the evolution of the share of sustainable development in World Bank publications, a critical look at the economic analysis of environmental questions and the extent to which sustainable development is taken into account in the strategic frameworks for combating poverty.

21We can thus ask questions about sustainable development and its many meanings, its realities, its difficulties of implementation and its contradictions in the space and time of societies. Asking questions of sustainable development also means calling it into question.



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1 In some regions, and in particular in sub-Saharan Africa the urban phenomenon–later than that of the northern countries–owes its appearance and development to the political, administrative and commercial functions introduced by colonisation more than to industrialisation.

2 The poverty threshold: persons living on less than US$1.08 per day (1993 purchasing power as the base).

3 Speech by José Carlos Carvalho, Minister of the Environment (Brazil) at the Organisation of American States (Third Meeting of the Inter-American Commission on Sustainable Development, March 2002).

© IRD Éditions, 2002

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