Constructing Utopias: The Case for Sustainable Development
Human life is defined by the search for “a good life”. It is unsurprising, then, that for as long as civilizations have existed, philosophers of all sorts have pondered upon the possibility and construction of utopias. The exact structure of these utopias can vary from Marx’s model featuring absolute equality in the distribution of power to Plato’s dystopian (by modern standards) model featuring rigid class structures, philosopher kings, and the idealization of pure rationality. A common prerequisite exists for all of these models: these “societies in equilibrium” must be at peace both externally and internally. To rephrase the statement above, they cannot be fighting any wars, with foreign nations or with their own citizens, that may threaten its state security. Consequently, peaceful societies are produced through a balance of power: when citizens of differing socioeconomic backgrounds are all content with their relative positions on the social hierarchy, when citizens are satisfied with their rulers’ philosophies, when other nations do not feel strategically or defensively inclined to provoke wars with the home country in question, conflict is unlikely to arise. Achieving this balance of power should be the primary strategic goal of all nations. At such a transformative time in human history, with the democratic system becoming an unquestionable model for success, with the world becoming increasingly aware of the West’s past crimes, with Earth being more likely than ever to disappear with the drop of an atomic bomb — the technicalities with which we achieve this balance of power should be every academic’s primary focus of research.
Such strategies will differ by the decade, the country, and the specific political leaders in consideration. In a country that places strength of character as the highest form of individual achievement, the state may use propaganda to idealize the character of its working class to prevent internal rebellion (cultural-revolution China comes to mind). In another that idealizes liberty and meritocracy (thus validating the individual and creates hope for climbing the “social ladder”, the state may create policies that perpetuate this philosophy, even if such the practice of such policies will harm the citizens that the philosophy was meant to endorse (cue Republican America). However, one measure of societal progress and prosperity — and, often, of peace — is universal despite cultural differences: material well-being.
Increasing the material well-being of societies, as well as identifying the optimal allocations of a society’s material wealth, are timeless problems responsible for the creation and exploration of economics, the applied study of progressing closer to human utopias. Economists used to believe that institutions, natural resources, location, and culture distinguished rich nations from poor nations. Many of these initial claims are still true as proven by years of hard data and quantitative analysis. However, as we enter the twenty-first century, new planetary dangers — specifically, climate change and the myriad other earth science problems it has brought along as a result of it — are posing immense threats that may not be immediate, but will seriously threaten civilization itself if not mitigated. Developmental economists have a mission not just to improve the economic well-beings of societies, but to do it in a way that respects these planetary boundaries. The task of sustainable economic development, defined by the IISD as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, will prove to be the problem of this generation.
The economic development model of the twentieth century has been consistent: as demonstrated by England, the US, and other parts of the Western world, countries must undergo an Industrial (and now, an additional Technological) revolution to grow into a full-fledged developed economy. The problem, however, is that undergoing an Industrial Revolution requires the use of fossil fuels and an unbelievable quantity of other natural resources such as sand, water, and iron ore. Irresponsible usage of these resources can harm the earth in all sorts of ways: air and water pollution, perhaps the most well-known consequence, directly affects a country’s health standards; overfishing (to support a growing population) can be dangerous to waters and the sustainability of a country’s food resource; the emission of greenhouse gases increases the rate of global warming, which acidifies oceans, contributes to the alarming pace of animal extinctions, and puts many human communities in danger. The Western world took these risks in the twentieth century, and the world is experiencing the consequences of it as we speak. If the many yet-to-develop nations embark on the same path to economic development, within a century there may not be an Earth to speak of in our solar system. Just sixteen years after the start of the twenty-first century, developed countries are attacking developing countries with claims of being irresponsible consumers, while developing countries are accusing developed countries of being hypocrites who are unwilling to take responsibility for their past actions. People will suffer the natural consequences of these economic decisions, but before that, World War Three may break out as the imbalance of power between developed and developing nations goes beyond its tipping point. If that happens, any hope of creating the utopia that humans have so longed for will be crushed under the harsh realities of war and internal turmoil — all added to the environmental pressures posed uniquely by these developmental paradoxes of the modern age.
Like other “hot issues” of our time, sustainable development is fuelled by the basic human desire to create an environment representative of “the good life”. But unlike most “hot issues”, it concerns not merely the sociopolitical, scientific, or economic aspects of constructing a utopia. It is the true example of an interdisciplinary field. As of now, I have discussed the scientific and economic approaches of sustainable development. It is, however, evolving into an increasingly popular political and social philosophy that advocates for quality education, gender equality, individual freedoms, and improved welfare. All of the causes described above serve to support a nation’s economic development by improving the quantity and quality of a nation’s human capital, which is critical to the success of any developing economy. Quality education increases the literary and technical capabilities of the future workforce; gender equality ensures that every capable human is welcome to contribute to the growth of nation; individual freedoms are the best prevention to internal rebellion; improved welfare ensures the ability of each and every individual to produce economically to the fullest of her extent. Additionally, government investment in human capital improves both the relationship between citizens and state and between states. To allude to Switzerland, a nation famous for its impressive human development accomplishments, its progressive policies supporting all four principles mentioned above have contributed to both its incredibly peaceful politics both nationally and internationally. Of course, people are not machines dedicated to the sole purpose of economic output; however, economic prosperity has proved time and time again to be critical to the creation of utopias — the ultimate purpose of all of man’s historical struggles against the world, God, and himself.
The story if sustainable development is not merely another subjective, value-based call to action; it’s a serious application problem that encompasses all the most important problems of our time, anchored on the universal human desire to live “a good life”. It’s the coalition of what all of the most critical issues of our time are stirring to accomplish, and it impacts not just the world that exists within human reasoning, such as ethics and religion, but life and death itself.