Can we understand the prospects of development without understanding its environmental dimension?

Image: future.agenda


Development studies aim to understand the root causes of poverty and its reproduction and how social inequalities emerge and are stabilized. This is a broad endeavour with a number of academic disciplines contributing, with quite a few success stories if we look at the economic and the social dimensions. However, while maintaining the focus on human wellbeing, we ought to change the mainstream understanding of this task and need to include the natural environment and its threats in the research on development.

In mainstream development studies, economists focus on economic structures and incentives that keep productivity and growth rates low, and at factors that make it difficult for developing countries to establish sectors with a higher valued added, either by integrating themselves in global value chains or into regional markets. They may also look at labour markets and at social policies in the broadest sense and their (in-)effectiveness in reducing poverty and inequality. Political scientists, for their part, are concerned with institutions and governance relations for similar reasons while other social scientists want to understand the social categories and processes that originate discrimination of specific groups of people and thus impact on their political and economic participation – understanding societal power relations is important to them.

How does the environment come into this line of research? The disciplines established subdisciplines that specialise on the environment. Some examples: economists look at efficiency in natural resource use and at the most effective policy instruments for decarbonizing production and consumption. Political scientists are interested in the negotiation dynamics of multilateral environmental agreements and institutions that facilitate their implementation, and in the factors that promote or hinder environmental policies and their implementation at national and local levels. Sociologists, in turn, analyse the distributive effects of environmental policies, be they global or national, or linked to external interventions by conservationists or development cooperation.

The mainstream perspective needs to shift

This specialization was helpful, but did not change the mainstream of development studies. Most research on poverty and social inequalities – be it in the North or in the South – ignores the environmental dimension of changes in human development. This is dangerous. The cumulative environmental impacts of human activity since the industrial revolution are likely to make the earth uninhabitable for the human species within this century if business as usual continues

Global warming due to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions reduces agricultural productivity in most regions of the world and increases water stress; increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events may have disruptive effects on infrastructures and stability of supply with food and energy. Global warming alone may thus lead to radical destabilization of societies that increasingly face situations of stress.

Adaptation to global warming is made more difficult by other environmental stressors such as decreasing availability of sufficient water in good quality; decreasing soil fertility; increasing loss of biodiversity; rising levels of pollution in the oceans (which also are increasingly acid due to rising absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere).

Development successes – and resulting challenges

In the last 20 years, the world has seen incredible rates of poverty reduction and of rising incomes for large shares of populations in Asia, and also in Latin America (less in Africa). This is what development studies and policies are about. At the same time, however, we have seen that the unmitigated environmental impacts that go along with the growth of production and consumption have added to the threats for global and local ecosystems and their vital functions.

Social environmental research has shown that those affected by socio-economic and political exclusion are generally more vulnerable to the effects of environmental pollution and change. We are facing a world where the advances in poverty reduction may fall victim to disastrous environmental change. As Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote the future of humanity as a species is in danger, and this is a threat that forces social science to also consider dynamics beyond power differentials between social classes, and between rich and poor countries.

Avoiding this scenario requires a drastic reduction of the environmental damage associated with human prosperity in high and middle-income countries, and prospectively also in poor countries where “catching-up” development based on conventional technologies cannot be relied on anymore. Strategies to address poverty and inequalities cannot ignore the sustainability of ecosystems and natural resources. At the same time, strategies for protecting the environment and the global commons cannot ignore the needs of poor people and countries.

Future strategies

Future strategies for ensuring human prosperity at global level will thus require considerable investment in research that improves understanding of the social practices, rules and institutions, and power relations that define human use of nature and the dynamics of its transformation (and this research in itself is subject to power relations). Social environmental research offers insights that are crucial for development studies in the 21st century – if we manage to understand development as being part of a transformation process that decarbonizes production and consumption, and that invests in the protection of ecosystems and nature-based solutions.

Three areas can be emphasised where research and teaching are needed but certainly there are more:

Transformation pathways and transformation governance (such as the work of Julia Leininger and Ines Dombrowsky with colleagues from “The World in 2050”), international cooperation for global sustainable development, and inter- and transdisciplinary research questions and methods.

This post is also published on, the blog run by the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes, EADI.


Image: Imme Scholz

Imme Scholz is Acting Director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

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