Applied Cosmic Anthropology
-Asian Social Institute (ASI)

theories on development



Paul J. Dejillas

Professor of Anthropology


Theories on development now abound. In all this, the overriding theory is the Western neo-classical perspective that pervades in most contemporary interpretations of sustainable development. Some of the more famous neo-classical theories of economics that are used to analyze sustainable development include optimal control theory, optimal growth and development models, population growth theories, income distribution theories, growth theories, development theories, comparative static analysis, production function (environmental productivity), utility function, equity theories, etc.

Sustainable development and the interdependence of the economy and environment are concepts that grew out of the “Limits to Growth” debate of the early 1970s, which discussed whether or not continuing economic growth would inevitably lead to severe environmental degradation and societal collapse on a global scale. By the late 1970s, a resolution was reached when it was accepted that economic development could be sustained indefinitely but only if development takes into account its dependence on the natural environment. Since then, sustainable development has come to be understood as the interdependence of the economy and the environment.


Theories on Sustainable Development

There are emerging theories, however, that attempt to replace, reinforce, innovate, or question this theory because of the seemingly inherent conflict among the economic, social, and ecological dimensions seen by several theoreticians and practitioners. One of these theories is the so-called sustainable efficiency theory, which prescribes an interpretation of sustainable development with a Buddhist perspective of economics (see Geoffrey Lamberton 2005). This new perspective in fact “reinforces the view that neoclassical economic principles provide a barrier to achieving the social and ecological objectives contained within contemporary interpretations of sustainable development.”

Another framework deviates from the needs-based to the rights-based approach to sustainable development (Michael Redclift. 2005). This analytical attention to rights is linked to the neo-liberal economic agendas of the 1990s, and the growing interest in other areas like human security and the environment, social capital, critical natural capital and intellectual property rights. The increasing attention given to questions of biology and science-studies has strengthened this rights-based approach, as well as interest in the linkages between natural and human systems, including attention to questions of environmental justice. It is observed that the new material realities of science and the environment in the 21st century demand a re-engagement with their social consequences, something which is largely ignored by the (market) liberal consensus.

Another view questions the rhetorical workings of sustainable development as an ideological construct in contemporary global society (Timothy W. Luke. 2005). It suggests that this term is increasingly used as a label to place over modes of existence that are neither sustainable nor developmental. Yet, according to its advocate, “the rhetoric is also now a material culture of being that is created, carried and continued in the everyday practices of design, exchange and production.”

Still another view seeks to reinforce today’s theories on sustainable development by incorporating the concept of environmental stability into sustainable development (Miguel A. Santos. 2005). Its proponent proposes maximizing the inherent stability of the life-support system based on the idea, unanimously advocated by many scholars that the cornerstone of sound environmental management is an effective control of stability of the human life-support system. He then advances a new scheme or technique of classifying the stability of systems. In his view, “stabilizing energy is the energy available to do work, without compromising the integrity of the configuration. The anthropogenic processes of harvesting or using the system as a sink for pollutants are the counterforce that tends to destabilize the system. The basic conclusion is that if society is using a system, then the maximum energy of the anthropogenic processes cannot exceed the stabilizing energy. If this occurs, the system reaches its metastate.”

Another theory incorporates ideas from the disciplines of both environmental sociology and organization theory (Renato J. Orsato, Stewart R. Clegg. 2005). The advocates observe that “according to a specialized research area within environmental sociology - ecological modernization theory - the shift towards seeking to protect the environment constitutes a broadly emergent sociological phenomenon: the radicalization of modernity.” They, therefore, believe that the “understanding of the fundamentals of such phenomenon is … crucial for both the practice and theorization of organization and environment.” By delving into the main sources of dynamism that produced modernity the authors argue that a sustainable organizational practice depends on the incorporation of a special type of radicalism into ecological modernization.”

Other authors highlight the role unions and workers might play in fostering the principles of sustainable development. It targeted the movement's traditional focus on human rights, equity, democracy and fair, decent and sustainable employment. The international union discourse on sustainable development that preceded the WSSD (2002) indicated that unions see themselves as part of a social movement towards deliberative democracy focused on sustainable development (Delyse Springett, Barry Foster. 2005).

One model that seeks to innovate existing neo-classical theory on sustainable development is the so-called environmentally sustainable innovation, or eco-innovation for short (Tomas Hellström. 2006). This model analyses environmentally sustainable innovation from the perspective of extant theories of innovation. Some 105 venture concepts are analyzed in terms of Schumpeterian innovation type and innovation mode (radical-incremental and component-architectural). The author’s work confirms “a bias towards incremental process innovations, but points towards interesting characteristics in radical-architectural modes of eco-innovation, e.g. the tendency to combine hardware and software , or technology and social arrangements, the combination of generically diverse technologies and finally the eco-enabling of old technologies by the application of new ones.”

Other authors analyze the themes of “rationality and legitimation in the discourse of sustainable development” (Tomi J. Kallio, Piia Nordberg, Ari Ahonen. 2006). They start by constructing ideal types of interpretation of sustainable development (weak and strong) and rationality (value rationality and instrumental rationality) as conceptual and theoretical tools’ and use this in the context of sustainable development discourse. They explore the ways in which rationality and legitimation are constructed to support one's own interpretation, and, on the other hand, how the rationality and legitimacy of the opposing interpretations are nullified. We then discuss the basis of prudent decision-making, and the possibilities and problems that are bound up in the concept of sustainable development. Based on this perspective, the authors make a daring conclusion that when it comes to sustainable development neither societal decision-making nor the actions based on it is currently prudent.

Other theories make use of ethnography and meta-analysis based on the Kolb learning cycle to analyze sustainable development projects through story telling (Simon Bell, Stephen Morse 2006). This effort constitutes an attempt to find a means to represent multiple stories in the strong narrative of conventional sustainable development (SD) projects. The authors' experience of such projects in various parts of the world indicates that they have a tendency to arise from and reflect a dominant mindset, placing the SD project in what can be a working environment that is inimical to the very ideals that SD is supposed to represent. Short-termism and value for money drive project formats and objectives, whilst counter-narratives and alternative stories arising from stakeholders in such projects are often ignored. Yet these alternative threads often contain strong SD messages of their own and could, if effectively utilized, enhance the SD project process. This paper sets out the case for a new field - project ethnography - allied with the growing use of meta-analysis to compare project stories . The analytical model applied to compare projects is based on the Kolb learning cycle and involves a (3 × 4)-fold questioning of project conceptualization and roll-out.

Another theory highlights the importance of the “process-based,” rather than “fixed-goal oriented” approach to sustainable development planning and strategy (Ali Bagheri, Peder Hjorth. 2006). According to the advocates of this view, the prevailing approaches of planning and strategy making deal with the states of systems in terms of fixed goals; but these fail to acknowledge the process and nature of sustainable development. Using a system dynamics approach and relying on the concept of viability loops, the authors offer an alternative approach “to illustrate a practical implementation of sustainable development.” The approach argues that planning for sustainable development should be process-based - rather than fixed-goal - oriented. Unlike the traditional approaches of strategy making to set fixed goals related to either supply-side and/or demand-side management, the authors argue that triggering a social learning process with full involvement of all stakeholders and planners in the process is be the most suitable strategy for sustainable development. To this end, backcasting is recommended as a suitable tool and the process of model building is regarded as a means of learning rather than forecasting.

Other authors advance a new approach based on social choice theory and systems analysis (Sardar M. N. Islam, Matthew F. Clarke. 2005). The authors present a new measure of sustainability within a welfare economics framework. According to them, gross domestic product (GDP) can be used as an indicator of sustainability if the GDP estimates are undertaken within a cost-benefit analysis framework based on social choice perspectives. They advance that sustainability is dependent on a healthy and functioning socio-economic and environmental (SEE) system. Economic development can damage the SEE system through resource degradation, over-harvesting and pollution. The authors directly address the tensions between economic development and sustainability by undertaking a number of SEE-based adjustments to GDP based on social choice perspectives in order to measure sustainability. These adjustments include the environmental and social costs caused by economic development such as water pollution, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and deforestation. They conclude that, with increasing environmental and social costs of economic development, pursuing such extreme high growth objectives without due environmental and social considerations can threaten present social welfare and future sustainability.

Another work attempts to clarify and translate the concept of sustainable development into an analytical framework that can be used in the development of sustainable economic policies (John Pezzy. 1992). This work warns that development strategies and programs which do not take adequate account the state of critical resources---forests, soil, grasslands, freshwater, coastal areas and fisheries---may degrade the resource base upon which future growth is dependent. The author, then, attempts to analyze the concepts of sustainable development, sustainable resource use and sustainable growth in terms of conventional economic analysis, to examine why free market forces may not achieve sustainability, and to explain how policy interventions may help or hinder the achievement of sustainability.

Other authors use the systems approach for analyzing sustainable development (P. Hardi and T. Zdan 1997). In their view, assessment of progress towards sustainable development should include a review of the whole system as well as its parts; consider the well-being of social, ecological and economic subsystems … and consider both positive and negative consequences of human activity in a way that reflects the costs and benefits for human and ecological systems, both in monetary and non-monetary terms. In this respect, there is a need to identify the major systems that are relevant in the context of sustainable development. The authors identify three major systems: (1) human system, which include individual development, social system, and government system; (2) support system which covers the economic and infrastructure systems; and (3) natural system which refers to the environment and resource system.

Under these three major systems of sustainable development are six subsystems: individual development, social system, government, infrastructure, economic system, as well as resources and environment. Individual development includes the areas of civil liberties and human rights, equity, individual autonomy and self-determination, health, right to work, social integration and participation, gender and class-specific role, material standard of living, qualification, specialization, adult education, family and life planning horizon, leisure and recreation, and arts. Social system covers the areas of population development, ethnic composition, income distribution and class structure, social groups and organizations, social security, medical care, and old-age provisions. Government as a sub-system of sustainable development deals with public administration, finances, taxes, political participation and democracy, conflict resolution, human rights policy, population and immigration policy, legal system, crime control, international assistance policy, and technology policy. Infrastructure covers the areas of settlements and cities, transportation and distribution, supply system (energy, water, food, goods, services), waste disposal, health services, communication and media, facilities for education and training, science, research and development. The economic system focuses on the areas of production and consumption, money, commerce and trade, labour and employment, income, market, and inter-regional trade. Lastly, resources and environment is concerned of the environment, atmosphere and hydrosphere, natural resources, ecosystems, species, depletion of non-renewable resources, regeneration of renewable resources, waste absorption, material recycling, pollution, degradation, and carrying capacity.


Theories on Development and Applied Cosmic Anthropology


Still, a more basic issue to consider is what is development? And what do we want to sustain in development? Applied Cosmic Anthropology, by virtue of the principles it espouses, views all theories of development (including sustainable development), whether existentialist, psychological, developmentalist, or mystical as parts of a single holistic process. It considers each of the theories, with their different stages and formulas for human development, as various aspects of one whole reality. Since Cosmic Anthropology is an applied science, for most of its investigation, it has to deal necessarily with data and information that can be observable, differentiable, quantifiable, and measurable. Such data and information may be sourced out from either or both the inner and outer dimensions of reality. Traditionally, the inner reality is the realm of the psychologists, philosophers, existentialists, and the mystics or spiritualists, while the outer reality is conventionally the domain of the sociologists, economists, political scientists, etc., as well as the physical scientists. Applied Cosmic Anthropology, like the other disciplines in the social sciences, is interested in both dimensions.

It is advisable for the students of ACA to have an overall view of the various theories on development now vying for global power today and assess whether or not a coherence and unity, or equilibrium and balance, can be achieved by inter-relating all these developmental theories.

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