Center for the History of Global Development

Sustainable Development

Industrialization and massive use of fossil fuels made large-scale poverty unnecessary for the first time in human history. In the course of the 20th century three goals emerged as broadly accepted central purposes of socio-economic development: to increase the material well-being of people everywhere, especially of the poor, to improve global equity and – beginning approximately in the 1960s - to safeguard the physical basis of all development by staying within the global environmental carrying capacity. The apparent inability of development theories prevalent in the 1970s to reconcile these goals gave rise to the concept of “sustainable development.”

Subsequent international development initiatives have alternatively adopted and discarded different elements of this concept. Alleviating poverty through economic growth has been the dominant goal to be endorsed, which has led to a perverted use of “sustainable development” into mere greenwashing. Safeguarding intact environmental structures, however defined, has received some attention, and more often lip service, and the issue remains pressing with mounting evidence regarding the degradation of key environmental contexts, especially with regard to climate change. The globalization of recent decades has profoundly changed the face of global socio-economic (in-)equality but has not erased any of its urgency as a social and moral challenge. Thus, thirty years after the creation of the concept of “sustainable development” its key challenge of reconciling three conflicting goals remains as relevant as in the beginning.

In this context, issues of global income (and, eventually, wealth) redistribution are crucial. If political pressure rises to address global inequality while growing environmental pressure is ruling out relying on permanent economic growth, the question of redistribution of existing wealth will have to become part of debates on future development. This connection seems to be something of an inconvenient truth. Proponents of sustainable development have largely shied away from discussions of redistribution while groups hostile to sustainable development and Agenda 21 have drawn on the subject alleged threats to people’s livelihoods.

Work on Sustainable Development follows various strands:

  1. Sustainable Development and Redistribution
    This project explores the historical background of shifts in global equality during the last 150 years and discusses proposals and practices designed to mitigate such inequality. The focus is on taxation and other forms of automatic financing and remittances. 
  2. Sustainable Development and UN Development Goals
    This strand looks at various Sustainable Development Goals.
  3. Sustainable Development and Critical Analyses of Economic Growth as a Developmental Concept and Practice
    This strand explores the historical record of economic growth as a develpmental concept and a practice, placing it in the context of alternative concepts such as sustainable development or degrowth.

Researcher:Iris Borowy