Applied Cosmic Anthropology
-Asian Social Institute (ASI)

introduction to sustainable development


Paul J. Dejillas

Professor of Anthropology



In the past, sustainability has not really been expressed as an explicit goal of development. Over time, however, as industrialization progresses, man’s very own survival and existence has been severely threatened because of several factors: limitations and constraints of the physical environment to grow, rapid population growth, climatic change, natural disasters, scarcity and depletion of the world’s resources. All these factors have in turn contributed to the deterioration of man’s social conditions that give rise to such global problems as poverty, ecological degradation, inequity, social divisiveness, cultural disintegration, and disenfranchisement. To ensure and maintain man’s existence, global attention to development has, since the early 1990s, focused on sustainability as an explicit goal.


Conventional View of Sustainable Development


Today, the concept “sustainable development” has come to mean that state of living where man is in harmony with his environment. It is that type of development which, as global institutions advance, does not result in ecological degradation, in the disturbance of Nature’s biological diversity and life-support systems, in undermining its ecological social system, and in compromising the ability of the environment to grow and renew itself. It is pursued by many to ensure that the needs of the present and future generations are met fairly and equitably. Thus, in relation to his community and society, “living in harmony” suggests that man’s work does not result in social degeneration, political disenfranchisement, economic dislocation, widespread poverty, glaring inequality, cultural/tribal disintegration, and even religious persecution. It is believed that environmental and economic as well as political decisions affect each others and, thus, require that economic and political decisions adequately reflect environmental impacts, even as environmental initiatives need to adequately take into account economic and political consequences. Thus, approaches to improving man’s quality of life need to be coordinated and consistent. As one observer puts it:

A healthy economy is critically important, but inadequately regulated free enterprise shifts pollution and resource-depletion costs of manufacturing and development to poorer members of the community and to future generations (Beryl Magilavy)


The most commonly used definition of sustainable development is given in the Brundlandt Commission in 1987. Sustainable development is viewed largely in economic terms as “economic development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Since then, however, the definition has undergone several adjustments by incorporating several other features that are non-economic and non-material in nature to respond to an ever-changing and dynamic environment. As a guiding framework, sustainable development is now viewed as multi-dimensional, integrating various aspects of development that includes not only economic, social, environmental, but also legal, political, cultural, and even psychological factors. These various dimensions are viewed as inter-related and inter-dependent. As one author succinctly puts it:

If we would achieve environmental sustainability coupled with a continuation of present trends, where a small minority lives in luxury, partly at the expense of an underprivileged majority, this would be socially unsustainable in the long run because of the stresses caused by the institutional injustice. And an equitable, environmentally and physically sustainable society that exploits the environment at the maximum sustainable rate would still be psychologically and culturally sustainable … A just and fair society, for example, is likely to be more securely sustainable than a materially sustainable brutal dictatorship (Bossel 1999:2).


Thus, the concept sustainable development has been picturesquely described as that type of development which, as global institutions advance, promotes ecological growth, social cohesion and integration, empowerment, poverty alleviation, and cultural enrichment (Vangile Titi, Richard Strickland, Naresh C. Singh 1995). Ecological growth is necessary because of the constraint imposed by the physical environment in terms of available space, soil fertility, climate changes, availability of both renewable and non-renewable resources, waste absorption capacity, and the like (Bossel 1999). Social integration is also expressed as an explicit ingredient in sustainable development in view of today’s rapid population growth, ethnic conflicts, increasing alienation of the youth, massive unemployment, and civil disorder. Empowerment means “building the capacity of local, national and international communities to respond to a changing environment.” Meanwhile, the negative consequences of poverty and inequity are considered as contributory factors to social destabilization and erode the capacity of future generations to respond to their needs. Thus, it becomes all too-important for sustainable development strategies to combat poverty and injustice in society.


To address these various factors of development, some authors responded by going headlong into the issue of sustainability, confronting such questions as: How do we know that the world’s environmental conditions are deteriorating? How can we tell that we are on the path of sustainable development? These types of questions led to the development of appropriate indicators for sustainable development. Indicators provide information on what to sustain, to what extent, and on what time scale shall they be sustained (Bartelmus 2003:61). Their utility lies in their potential to turn the general concept of sustainability into action. Today, however, as rightfully observed by some authors, we are far from achieving this potential (László Pintér, Peter Hardi, Peter Bartelmus 2005). We say indicators because, as one author says, in real life situation, we usually need more than one indicator to capture all important aspects of a situation. “A single indicator can never tell the whole story” (see Hartmut Bossel 1999).


Before sustainability became an explicit goal of development, gross national product (GNP) and gross domestic product (GDP) were used as the primary indicators for measuring economic growth and progress. Over time, however, these indicators were found to be insufficient since, as it is observed today, they are able to measure other human needs like desire for peace, freedom, individual contentment, as well as other non-economic, non-material, and non-resource based psychological needs (Jerry Taylor 2002). Their failure to measure development, especially those non-economic dimensions of development, led to the development of alternative indicators. Two of these efforts are the Human Development Index (HDI) formulated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) developed in 1990 by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, and the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) developed and coined by economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb (Adam Mannis) in 1989. Haq’s HDI was used since 1993 by the United Nations Development Programme in its annual Human Development Report.. The HDI is an aggregage of three indicators: longevity (measured in terms of life expectancy at birth); knowledge (measured in terms of adult literacy and mean years of schooling); and command over resources needed for a decent life (measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per person after adjusting it for purchasing power). But while the HDI represents a distinct improvement over income figures as a measure of human well-being, some authors observe that “it so far says nothing about environmental degradation” (Adam Mannis). As a result, it can happen that “the HDI can rise through gains in literacy, life expectancy, or purchasing power that are financed by the depletion of natural resources, setting the stage for a longer term deterioration in living conditions” (ibid.).  


The Daly-Cobb ISEW is more comprehensive in the sense that it considers some environmental issues, such as depletion of nonrenewable resources, loss of farmland from soil erosion and urbanization, loss of wetlands, and the cost of air, water pollution as well as global warming and ozone layer. Developed based on the ideas presented by Nordhaus and Tobin in their Measure of Economic Welfare, the index is used mainly in the United States. It evolved from the idea of a Green National Product to replace the Gross National Product (see Cobb, Clifford W. and John B. Cobb, Jr. 1994) and later developed into the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), when GDP is corrected by subtracting (rather than adding) social bads (like cost of pollution clean up or car accidents), and adding (rather than ignoring) the value of unpaid services (e.g., in households and communities).


Even with all these additions and revisions, the overall goal of sustainable development remains insufficiently addressed, the main reason being that they still fail to really recognize the interconnection and interrelatedness between and among the economic, social, and environmental factors of development. As one author observes, for example, “it says nothing about how much of the grain consumed was produced unsustainably - by eroding soils, depleting water supplies, and the like” (Adam Mannis). It is in this context that several studies and researches on sustainable development indicators have emerged in the 1990s. Two global events triggered the concern for the promotion of sustainable development. The first was the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio when, after identifying the overriding crises of our time, it initiated the process of transition from failed promises toward sustainable development. The second event was the 1995 World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) when it offered “a vehicle for galvanizing the transition and pursuing the path toward sustainable development” (Vangile Titi, Richard Strickland, Naresh C. Singh. 1995). Yet, so little has been achieved, many observed, and much still remains to be done to address the social and environmental ills of the world, whose inhabitants are already plagued by acute problems of poverty, inequity, ill-health, social injustice, social dissent, and cultural integration. It is in this context that studies on sustainable development indicators emerged.


One such study on sustainable development indicators is the one done by P. Hardi and T. Zdan (1997). The authors advance a holistic view for analyzing sustainable development applying the systems theory and the structured approach. In their view, assessment of progress towards sustainable development should include a review of the whole system as well as its parts; above all, it must also consider the well-being of social, ecological and economic subsystems.


Another study done by Hartmut Bossel (1999) uses a combination of models that include the author’s basic orientors (1977), Max-Neef’s theory of psychological and social needs (1991), Thompson et al’s. cultural theory (1991), Luhman’s social system theory (1997), and Müller and Fath’s theory of ecosystem properties (1998). Using Bossel’s model as the basic, the orientors are identified to include existence, effectiveness, freedom of action, security, adaptability, coexistence, and psychological needs. In each of these orientors, the corresponding problems and indicators are identified for monitoring the progress for the viability of a family. This is reflected in the table below. Indicators for dynamic systems in a dynamic environment are also identified using the same framework and process, leading to the formulation of a general scheme for identifying indicators of viability.


Finding Indicators for the Viability of a Family


System Performance

Possible Indicators


Is the system compatible with and able to exist in its particular environment?

Availability of shelter, clothing, food, water, sanitation, life expectancy


Is it effective and efficient?

Work hours necessary for life support, efficiency of resource use

Freedom of action

Does it have the necessary freedom to respond and react as needed?

Income level, job opportunities, health, mobility


Is it secure, safe, and stable

Safe neighborhood, savings, insurance, social security scheme


Can it adapt to new challenges?

Education and training, flexibility, cultural norms


Is it compatible with interacting subsystems?

Social skills, compatibility of language and culture

Psychological needs

Is it compatible with psychological needs and culture?

Emotional stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, family quarrels

Source: Hartmut Bossel 1999.


Sustainable development indicators continue to change and grow in view of the changing conditions in a dynamic environment. In 2005, a study on sustainable development indicators was done by László Pintér, Peter Hardi, Peter Bartelmus (2005). Commissioned by the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development (UNDSD) in preparation for its expert meeting in December 2005, this study, titled” Compendium of Sustainable Development Indicators Initiatives,” was released, offering probably “the most ambitious database to date to keep track of SD indicator efforts,” totaling 669 entries. The indicators provide information on locally relevant aspects of sustainable development viewed from the perspective of the people and from their own indigenous values. Their potential to track sustainable development progress not only in a wide range of settings, but also down to the smallest political unit in the village is becoming promising. We are confident that more indicators that are relevant, meaningful, and effective in promoting sustainable development will continually emerge in future researches and studies on the subject.


Furthermore, aside from the systems approach, there are other conceptual frameworks used for developing and applying sustainable development indicators. In their own way, each of these frameworks helps “focus and clarify what to measure, what to expect from the measurement and what indicators to use.” They differ essentially in the way they identify what the main dimensions of sustainable development are, the inter-connectedness of these dimensions, they way they categorize the critical issues to be investigated, and so on (ibid.). Some the most commonly used frameworks are: (1) pressure-state-response (PSR); (2) human well-being or ecosystem well-being; (3) issue-oriented or theme-based frameworks; and (4) capital-accounting based frameworks centered on the economic and environmental pillar of sustainable development. Thus, as a result, there are today several indicators set and conceptual frameworks used for monitoring progress towards the attainment of sustainable development. For a discussion on the use and development of these conceptual frameworks and their corresponding sustainable development indicators, see the work of László Pintér, Peter Hardi, and Peter Bartelmus (2005).

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