Applied Cosmic Anthropology
-Asian Social Institute (ASI)

critical issues in sustainable development


Paul J. Dejillas

Professor of Anthropology



In order to achieve that state of harmony between man and his environment, the global community has embarked on a four-decade journey aimed at furthering progress towards broad global sustainable development objectives. During the course of this 40-year period, a manifold range of sustainable development issues, which the World Summit on Sustainable Development-2002 labeled as critical, have been discussed, debated, deliberated, and negotiated. Many of these issues concern the ecological environment, some of which form part of the list of critical issues given emphasis in this course. But this course highlights other equally important issues which, though not directly visible, are also glaring manifestations of un-sustainability. These issues relate to the vanishing indigenous culture and indigenous technology as well as the easing out or marginalization of locally owned micro-enterprises and the local mass media.


A.    Critical Ecology Issues

  1. Environmental Issues. There has always been a struggle to balance the goals of economic development with the need to protect the environment. With world population growing and global climate change threatening to affect us all, never has that balance been more important. Today, the developed world uses much of the world's energy resources to fuel its modern lifestyle and contributes to the majority of global greenhouse gases. However, billions of people in the developing world crave the same material benefits, leading to such fears as resource shortages and increased global warming. Students will learn about the positive and negative effects of industrialization, and how international efforts, such as the Kyoto Treaty, are attempting to manage economic development in order to protect the global environment.
  2. Natural Resource Degradation. A closer look reveals that the layer of materials actually of use to living things is only a very thin film over the planet's surface. Within this limited stock of materials, any substances needed regularly must over time, be used again and again. Global statistics cited by the World Bank help illustrate the need for sustainable development: there will be two billion more people on the planet over the next quarter of a century; nearly two-thirds of the world's population living in water-scarce or water-stressed areas by 2025; food production needs to double over the next 40 years at a time when almost 23 percent of the world's agricultural land has been degraded; almost 12 million hectares of forest are lost each year; there has been overexploitation and decline of more than 60 percent of the world's marine fisheries; and small island nations are threatened with annihilation from rising sea levels due to climate change.
  3. Depletion of the Ozone Layer. The Earth's ozone layer protects all life from the sun's harmful radiation, but human activities have damaged this shield. Less protection from ultraviolet light will, over time, lead to higher skin cancer and cataract rates and crop damage. The U.S., in cooperation with over 160 other countries, is phasing out the production of ozone-depleting substances in an effort to safeguard the ozone layer.  In the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, nations agreed to improve developing countries' access to environmentally-sound alternatives to ozone depleting chemicals by 2010.
  4. Deforestation. Forests in the tropics have a rich biodiversity. More than half of all the plants and animals in the world are to be found in the rainforests. More than 3500 species of plants and animals! The constantly high temperatures and the continuously high humidity in the tropics make this biodiversity possible. The temperature is in most tropical rainforests between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, the forests are threatened. Worldwide only 20 percent of the original tropical forests is left. The main reasons  are the commercial logging and the cutting of trees by local people, who need plots for agriculture activities.
  5. Pollution. Certain amounts of pollution are cleansed by natural processes. But when we create waste which nature cannot handle, or which cannot be absorbed as fast as we create it, pollution builds up, causing problems which become more and more serious as the activity continues. Then, biological accumulation of poisonous and toxic substances begins to build in all life forms, from fishes, animals to man who eat them. The accumulation of toxins and poisons is more concentrated for larger ones. Small amounts of toxic materials, after being absorbed by tiny organisms, can accumulate in the flesh of the creatures that eat them. If these creatures are then made food for larger ones, the accumulated toxins are concentrated even further. Through this biological accumulation, some poisons, although thinly dispersed, can be found in dangerous concentrations -- for example, in the fish people eat from polluted water.
  6. Depletion of Non-renewable Reserves: Metals, Coal, Oil, Nuclear Energy. They can be very useful, even essential, for building a sustainable society, but if our way of life always requires that more and more of these materials be extracted, we will eventually run out. Dependency on more at that point would be disastrous. The Philippines possesses the following resources:

·         30 m hectares (74 m acres) = land area

·         10 m hectares = metallic mineral deposits

·         140,000 h (1.4%) = covered by mining permits

·         $840 billion = estimated value as of 2004 (more than 10 times our GDP.

·         23 – mining projects as of 2004

·         37 – exploration projects as of 2004

The country ranks 3rd in gold deposits, 4th in copper deposits, 5th in nickel deposits, and 6th in chromite deposits. We have the potential to be among the 10 largest mining powers in the world. The Crew Gold Corp of Canada produces 40,000 metric tons of nickel in the past four years (2004) and brings revenues of $552 million yearly. It now eyes the Mindoro nickel mine which is estimated to produces 40,000 mt/yr for the next 30-40 years. Mindoro is rich in metallic nickel (2 m MT), cobalt (150,000 MT), and chromium. The other explorers are Sumitomo of Japan and Jinchuan of China.

  1. Energy. In the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, Governments agreed in principle to take action to help the poor gain access to affordable energy. Yet, there were no specific targets on things like boosting renewable and "green" sources such as solar or wind power, just wording to "substantially increase" the global share of renewable energy. Various Oil-Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations and the United States opposed targets while Europe and various environmental and development organizations wanted them. Definition of the term “renewable” also caused a stir because some wanted nuclear and hydro-electric power to be included in this definition while others did not. Environmental organizations in particular did not like the outcome of the Rio Summit.
  2. Use of renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal: forests, fish stocks, ground water, and soil fertility. As long as the rate at which they are used is not greater than the rate at which they grow or accumulate, the situation can remain viable. When the rate of use exceeds the rate of renewal, the stock will become depleted and problems will follow. If we maintain patterns of development which regularly destroy or significantly diminish the presence of other forms of life, we progressively undermine our own existence as a part of the global ecosystem. With the loss of species we also lose genetic possibilities for fighting disease, in people and in food crops, as well as potential new sources of food. One can also argue that other living things have their own right to exist.
  3. Biodiversity. If we maintain patterns of development which regularly destroy or significantly diminish the presence of other forms of life, we progressively undermine our own existence as a part of the global ecosystem. With the loss of species we also lose genetic possibilities for fighting disease, in people and in food crops, as well as potential new sources of food. One can also argue that other living things have their own right to exist. Conservation of biodiversity and the protection of ecological integrity should be a fundamental constraint on all economic activity. The non-evolutionary loss of species and genetic diversity needs to be halted and the future of evolutionary processes secured
  4. Climatic Change. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the Earth's surface temperature has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century, with accelerated warming during the past two decades. There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. Human activities have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere through the buildup of greenhouse gases – primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The heat-trapping property of these gases is undisputed although uncertainties exist about exactly how earth’s climate responds to them. Today, action is occurring at every level to reduce, to avoid, and to better understand the risks associated with climate change. Many cities and states across the country have prepared greenhouse gas inventories; and many are actively pursuing programs and policies that will result in greenhouse gas emission reductions.
  5. Desertification.  Human overpopulation is leading to destruction of tropical wet forests and tropical dry forests, due to widening practices of slash-and-burn and other methods of subsistence farming necessitated by famines in lesser developed countries. A sequel to the deforestation is typically large scale erosion, loss of soil nutrients and sometimes total desertification. Desertification reduces the ability of land to support life, affecting wild species, domestic animals, agricultural crops and people. The reduction in plant cover that accompanies desertification leads to accelerated soil erosion by wind and water. Desertification has been recognized at an international level as a major threat to biodiversity. Consequently, numerous countries have developed Biodiversity Action Plans to counter its effects, particularly in relation to the protection of endangered flora and fauna.
  1. Solid Waste Management. A sound practice in solid waste management can be conceived as a technology or policy that embodies a reasonable balance of feasible, cost-effective, sustainable, environmentally beneficial, and socially sensitive solutions to MSWM problems. Stated differently, sound practices function together to achieve defined solid waste policy goals, while appropriately responding to the entire set of conditions that constrain the choices available in specific MSWM decisions. The areas covered are: waste reduction; collection and transfer; composting; incineration; landfills; and special wastes.


B.    Critical Economic Issues

1.       Global Poverty.  As there is no commonly accepted definition of what global poverty means, people as well as organizations vary differently in their understanding of its meanings. The World Bank came up with a definition to mean one U.S. dollar per day, which is widely accepted because it can be used very easily to measure poverty levels and is easily understandable to the layman when used to compare poverty conditions of several countries all over the world. On the part of the government, it can also be used for planning and setting poverty-reduction strategies as well as for assessing their performances both at the national and international levels. Poverty condition at the global level is quite bleak: 1.3 billion people all over the world are living on less than $1 a day. The UNDP reports that during the 1990s the incidence of extreme poverty actually increased in Eastern and Central Asia, while the number of people struggling to survive on less than $1 per day continued to rise in South Asia and in Latin America and the Carribean.

2.     Inequality. The widening income disparity between the rich and the poor aggravates this gloomy picture. UNDP reports that in 1960, the 20 per cent of the world's population in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20 per cent. In 1997, this soared up to 74 times as much. In addition, 20 per cent of the population in the developed nations consumed 86 per cent of the world’s goods - the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. Unless world governments redouble their efforts at combating poverty, it is feared that poverty and inequality may still get worse in the years to come.

3.       The Global Financial System and the Exclusion of Micro-Finance Enterprises as well as Small and Medium-Sized Business Enterprises

Today, the world economy revolves heavily in the financial market, where transactions are done in currencies and traded in stocks, options, mutual funds, pension funds, futures, commodities, foreign exchange, and many other financial instruments. This mode of transaction is preferred by big investors over foreign direct investments because it merely involves the movement of money. There are no goods or people to be transported; no warehouses to be constructed; no huge labor inputs required; and no borders to be crossed. Only pieces of paper are exchanged. Besides, even if transactions are between two far-flung countries, it is speedy, instantaneous and has become a 24-hour activity; more importantly, it has minimal government supervision.


Poor countries open themselves to the global financial market because of the ability of foreign investors to boost up their cash-starved financial system. The availability of huge foreign capital, then, attracts local investors to secure loans for further investments for many reasons, e.g., relative low interest rates compared with domestic borrowing, great supply, and the encouragement extended by foreign banking and financial institutions. But bureaucratic requirements and red tapes are overwhelming and complicated to follow requiring the employment of technical experts like accountants and lawyers. As a result, only big national firms are able to access the huge bulk of available foreign capital. Small business enterprises, unable to fulfill the requirements, are compelled to go to other alternative forms of borrowings even as their inability to compete in the international financial market also forces them to go into marginal investment undertakings in the informal sector. Is their any possibility to increase the participation of small and medium-sized enterprises in accessing foreign capital and bring them back to the mainstream global financial market? If there is such a possibility, how can it be realized? What is in store of today’s alternative banking system like the Grameen Bank? These are some of the questions addressed in the discussion.


C.    Critical Social Issues

  1. Peace and Order. Violence and war are both real and potential. More than a quarter of the world’s scientific research and development budget is spent on defense and over half a million scientists are currently engaged in the development of new military weapons. The Strategic Defense Initiative research program spends $3.900 billion a year, while one average nuclear weapon test costs $12 million. As stated elsewhere in my work, arms build-up is reflective of the people’s culture of aggression, violence, fear, suspicion, and mistrust, manifesting itself both nationally and internationally in the form of ethnic disputes, religious war, cross-border conflicts, and terrorism. Deep behind the world’s worsening poverty is a culture of mistrust, aggression, and violence. In the end, poverty has degenerated into conflicts of faiths; people question their own faith and become highly vulnerable to other religious beliefs claiming to be more responsive to existing poverty conditions.
  2. Human Rights. Human rights are considered by many to be the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. However, there is little international agreement on exactly what human rights are and even less on how to enforce them. This show explores the origin of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and relates that despite this historic agreement, governments around the world not only discriminate against and often torture and imprison people without trial, but also do not respect their basic social and economic rights. Students will learn that while individual nations are ultimately responsible for protecting human rights, the United Nations and other organizations made up of ordinary individuals also play a strong role.


D.   Critical technology Issues

  1. Technology Issues. Advances in science and technology have transformed the lives of people all over the world. However, billions of people in the developing world do not have access to even the basics of technology, which contributes heavily to malnourishment, disease and political instability. Also, because of the growing "digital divide," many people are in danger of literally being cut off from the rest of the world. This show addresses the benefits and drawbacks associated with information technologies and smart weapons, explores the hopes and fears surrounding the development of genetically modified foods, and helps students understand the debate over lowering the cost of life-saving pharmaceuticals for the world's poor.
  2. Biotechnology and the Vanishing Indigenous Technologies. Biotechnology is a technique of modifying, altering, or combining the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of microorganisms, plants, animals, and man to produce new genes that can, among others, improve soil fertility, produce crops and livestock that are disease-resistant and more nutritional to man. The lecture will touch on the functions of the DNA, how genes are engineered, the benefits of genetic manipulation, and the effects of this new technique on the traditional methods of farming and health management, which are still preferred by local people in the developing and least developed countries.
  3. Sustaining Development through Rigorous Adoption of Indigenous Technologies. The rapid advance of biotechnology is also laden with great controversies and risks, primarily damaging to the developing and least developed countries. Critical issues arising from the study of genetics are commonly focused in the areas of use of genetic information, privacy and confidentiality, commercialization of products including property rights (patents, copyrights, and trade secrets).
  4. Genetically Modified Products and the Sustainability of Organic Foods. There are four major genetically modified crops: (1) soy and their derivatives (soy oil, soy flour, soy protein, and soy lecithin); (2) corn (corn oil, corn flour, corn meal, corn syrup, corn starch); (3) cotton; and (4) canola. But other genetically modified foods already flood our market: maize; corn; potato; soybeans; strawberries; sugar; canola; rice; citrus; tomato; wheat; melon; barley; cereal grains; cassava; fruit and nut trees; bananas; as well as animals, fish, and insects. The sudden appearance of genetically modified foods in the marketplace has resulted in a firestorm of public debate, scientific discussion, and media coverage. The discussion is focused on the controversies surrounding GM foods and crops: safety, labeling, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation.
  5. Medical Biotechnology and the Dying Indigenous Methods of Livestock Breeding. Medical biotechnology refers to the application of biotechnology to health and medicine. Its main concern is coming up with more nutritious foods as well as in disease healing and prevention. The discussion examines some of the most controversial areas of medical biotechnology, including such issues as in vitro fertilization, cloning (the manipulation and duplication of genes and genetic patterns), twinning, and cell fusion in combination with embryo transfer, stem cell research, xenotransplantation, and gene therapy and the ethical issues they raise. Against this backdrop, an examination is made into the more traditional methods of breeding such as hybridization and cross-fertilization.
  6. Agricultural Biotechnology and the Vanishing Indigenous Farming Technologies. Agricultural biotechnology is the application of biotechnology in crop production and livestock breeding. It involves inserting DNAs of insects, bacteria and plants, into other crops, plants, or animals to produce another gene that make crops more resistant to diseases, pesticide, herbicide, extreme weather condition; able to thrive in extremely hot, dry, and rocky terrains; tolerant to salt, drought, and frost; or another gene that can give longer shelf-life, have zero-fertilizer input, reduced maturation time, and increased nutrients and yield, as well as enhanced taste and quality of crops. Theoretically, it is now possible to produce one crop or animal that contains all or most of the basic nutritional requirement for man. In animals, the concern of agricultural biotechnology is better yields of meat, milk, and eggs; increased resistance and hardiness; continuous supply; as well as to produce organs for transplant purposes.
  7. Industrial Biotechnology. Its applications are in the areas of microrobotics, microminiaturized chips, wetware-based computers, biocomputing, and raw materials production. For example, it is now possible to produce insect-resistant cotton for clothing, plastics, and spider silk for bullet-proof vests. Biochips are microminiaturized chips (nanotechnology) for diagnostic purposes (high-volume, high-speed testing of disease characteristics), health, patient DNA profiles, and laboratory research. Microrobotics deals with the use of cellular and genetic molecules as machines. Bio-computing focuses on the use of cellular and genetic mechanisms as computers.


E.    Alternative Agricultural and Livestock Production Issues


  1. Organic Farming. Organic farming largely excludes synthetic inputs---pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers---and focuses instead on biological processes such as composting and other measures to maintaining soil fertility, natural pest control and diversifying crops and livestock. Organic agriculture gives priority to long-term ecological health, such as biodiversity and soil quality, contrasting with conventional farming, which concentrates on short-term productivity gains.
  2. Agroecology. Agroecology is a scientific discipline that defines, classifies, and studies agricultural systems from an ecological and socioeconomic perspective. It is also considered the scientific foundation of sustainable agriculture as it provides ecological concepts and principles for the analysis, design, and management of productive, resource-conserving agricultural systems. Agroecology integrates indigenous knowledge with modern technical knowledge to arrive at environmentally and socially sensitive approaches to agriculture, encompassing not only production goals, but also social equity and ecological sustainability of the system.
  3. System of Rice Intensification (SRI). SRI has been developed as a method of increasing rice production reportedly from 50% to 300% as testified by several farmers who practiced this method. The method involves several techniques starting from seed selection (where the best seeds are only used), making the nursery, planting the land, age of seedlings before transplanting, proper spacing, singular planting, water management (moist but not flooded), weeding (using an inexpensive mechanical weeder), and soil health through composting. Indonesian farmers who were using the SRI technique as introduced by ADRA reported they increased their yield from 7 tons per hectare before the method to 10 tons per hectare after adopting SRI techniques.
  4. Livestock Production and Animal Breeding. With the advances in biotechnology, livestock production and animal breeding can now be done applying several modern techniques like in vitro fertilization, cloning, twinning, cell fusion, embryo transfer, stem cell therapy for both embryonic and mature or adult, other than hybridization.


F.    Critical Cultural, Educational, and Mass Media Issues

  1. The Vanishing Culture of Indigenous Peoples. Today, we are witnessing the intensification and expansion of cultural flows worldwide, symbolically expressed in the form of languages, songs, dances, art, stories, legends, traditions, rituals, customs, mores, myths, poetry, and lifestyles. The net effect would be the rapid annihilation of all indigenous cultures all over the globe. UNESCO reported that half of the world’s languages are already struggling to survive; thousands of words and vocabularies had already been lost or forgotten. The same can be said of the other symbolic expressions of culture like dances, songs, music, art, legends, etc. Slowly, the national identity of many peoples in the world is vanishing.
  2. Genocide and the Culture of Violence. Genocide, the systematic destruction of a group of people, associated most readily with the Holocaust, tragically remains a major global issue today. Despite the lessons learned from planned exterminations such as the Armenian Massacre, the international response was limited in subsequent genocides in countries like Cambodia and Rwanda. It is imperative to understand what genocide is: its the nature and causes of the crime and how the world community attempts to monitor global conditions and prevent future atrocities.
  3. The Role of Mass Media in Sustaining Development. The mass media is most powerful in attracting and directing public attention, persuading in matters of opinion and belief, influencing behaviour, structuring definitions of reality, conferring status and legitimacy, and informing quickly and extensively. But what and whose interests is it promoting? Whose development is it sustaining? Who owns and controls the mass media?


G.  Alternative Paradigms Relevant to the Study of Sustainable Development

Students of Applied Cosmic Anthropology may be able to some theories expounded by some of the authors listed below that can be relevant and applicable to the study of sustainable development. Since this is beyond the scope of this course, the students are encouraged to explore these theories and examine whether this can be developed as alternative paradigms in viewing sustainable development.


  1. Hamilton, Clive. 1994. The Mystic Economist. Australia: Willow Park Press. Exposes the innermost core of modern economics and its influence on our lives. The book argues that economics, far from being the study of how to make us better off, reflects and promotes the very attitudes and behaviors that prevent us from living fulfilling and contented lives, and that unless we begin to struggle against both the economic thinking that dominates the outer world and the "economist within" we cannot turn from the path of ecological suicides.
  2. Johnston, Douglas and Cynthia Sampson (eds.). 1994. Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. New York: Oxford University Press. Explores the positive potential of religious or spiritual influences in politics, specifically in resolving conflicts. Presents case studies that span the globe (Europe, Central America, Asia, and Africa) to illustrate a broad spectrum of involvements by religions actors in politics and the application of religious factors to political problems.
  3. Ken Wilbur.

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