Evolving from Sustainable Development to Sustainable Flourishing

Sustainable Development vs. Sustainable Flourishing
Sustainable Development vs. Sustainable Flourishing

There is No Point to this Blog Post

To most immersed in Western culture, this blog post has no purpose.  There is no need to evolve our understanding of sustainable human development.  The current, and many would say obvious, goal of sustaining human development is to raise the standards of living of everyone in the world as high as possible because this will lead to improved well-being.  Further, most would say, the way to do this is also obvious: the economy must be developed sustainably, it needs to grow forever, in order to generate the wealth required to raise the standard of living.  Further, they would claim that having a goal for humanity to maximize well-being, by sustaining human and economic development, is ethically sound. Thus, most would strongly support the UN’s overall agreed goal for humanity: Sustainable Development.

But what if this accepted wisdom was based on two false assumptions about the world and ourselves?

A Little History of Human and Economic Development

One might say that this accepted wisdom originated at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference where the post-world-war 2 commercial and financial arrangements were agreed upon by the 44 Allied Nations; institutions like the World Bank were established as a result.  To greatly simplify, the macro-economic wisdom that prevailed then was as follows:  The overall goal for humanity is to maximize well-being.  To improve well-being requires an ever-growing economy, an ever-developing economy, to provide food, jobs, material goods, and services.  Private business is the primary means to develop the economy.  But private business can’t or shouldn’t do many things required for well-being (think public transport or unemployment insurance or depending on where you are healthcare).  Therefore, governments must be ultimately responsible for well-being and pay for this via their income, the taxes on the wealth generated by businesses and citizens.  In other words, economic growth was understood to be a necessary precursor to human well-being, or even more succinctly, sustaining economic development is required to sustain human development.

For business this was tremendous… it had a clear goal… generate wealth.  And it was good for the government too… it too had a clear goal… tax and spend to enable well-being.  The two systems were quite segregated from each other; they could operate at arms-length.  Indeed they were so segregated a noted micro-economist (an economist focused on businesses, not on whole economies), Milton Friedman thought it a very positive thing to say “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”  In other words, let us business people worry about wealth generation, and you other folks in government worry about well-being.

(It is worth noting that in the late 1970s thru the 2000s there was a powerful political push to reverse this. To say the objective was wealth creation and this would somehow lead to well-being via ‘trickle-down economics’, rather than the earlier idea that well-being required wealth-creation to serve the objective of human development.  In recent years this thinking has receded somewhat – the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are perhaps an example of this.  So, for the purposes of brevity I’ve not explored this part of the history here)

Systems Thinking Highlights a First Flawed Assumption

But now let’s examine this system of sustainable economic and human development using a little systems thinking.  In this case, by asking the question what is the context for this system of sustainable economic and human development?  One key answer is that our planet Earth is the context for both economic development and human development.  Both types of development happen in the same ‘place’.  This means that how, where and what type of economic development happens will have an impact on how much, where and what type of human development happens (or doesn’t).

Unfortunately, back in 1944 systems thinking was just a glimmer of a thing.  So, the macro-economists at the Bretton Woods conference didn’t think to ask this contextual question.  As a result, a major flawed assumption was at the heart of what was agreed back then:  economic development happens in one place, and human development occurs in another place.

The results of this assumption only started to become apparent as the post-world-war 2 economy boomed.  We slowly discovered that how and where business operates can have massive (positive and negative) direct impacts on human well-being, and (usually negative) impacts on the natural environment upon which human well-being immediately and ultimately depends.

One of the first examples where this assumption was questioned was in the 1962 book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, which documented the death of birds as a result of eating insects contaminated with the pesticide DDT.  We discovered that how agribusiness conducted itself mattered to the health of the environment and hence on human health – although back then people definitely didn’t always understand the connection between environmental and human health.  As one example, poisonous pesticides making their way into food crops and then us humans.  We discovered that human development, human well-being, was reduced due to the unconstrained behaviour of agribusiness to economically develop, i.e. grow profitably, because they both happened in the same place, Earth.

Unfortunately, so deeply was this mistaken assumption embedded in the thinking of business and government that it is still with us today.   The 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are a wonderful gift we’ve given ourselves.  And, the majority of the seventeen SDGs are focused on human development, and protecting the environment upon which human well-being depends.  But one goal, goal 8, is focused on sustaining economic development and this is understood, usually implicitly, as the necessary precursor to realizing most of the rest of the well-being-focused goals.

So now we know, sustaining unconstrained economic development such that the vital life-giving systems of our planet are irrevocably damaged, will, over time, reduce human well-being, not enhance it.  In other words, unconstrained sustainable economic development will not lead to sustainable human development, rather the reverse.

A Second Flawed Assumption: Everyone Wants to Develop in the Same Way

Recently I wrote a blog post that explored the impacts of the ideas of modernism.  Specifically, how modernists believe that to perfect ourselves we humans must all become alike, living together in a single global culture, on a single globe, in a single global village.  (See that blog post here)

From this, it is easy to see the second flawed assumption in the thinking about sustaining human development. The working definition of human development is based on this modernist idea.  Most of the time people talk about human development, again frequently implicitly, mean development that will lead to a global homogenous human culture where we are all alike.

Examples of this view of human development in practice include the processes of colonization to make the colonized like the colonizer, the growing hegemony of modernist business practice, the growing influence of modernists’ consumption-based definition of well-being around the globe, and the growing impact of a single modernist culture (think Hollywood).

But peoples everywhere know for historical, cultural, practical, and spiritual reasons they are not the same and cannot be made the same as everyone else.  Difference and diversity are a strong source of identity and meaning-making.

As a result, over recent decades, as the push for a single global culture grew ever stronger, we have seen significant pushback from a large number of groups and cultures around the world.  They are demanding development that respects difference and diversity fundamentally at odds with the idea of a single global culture.  Prominent amongst these are the numerous indigenous-led initiatives to reclaim their culture, land, spirituality, and language, and various separatist movements around the world (the split in two of Czechoslovakia, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Brexit, etc.) and the anti-free-trade, occupy and anti-globalization movements.

Towards a New Systemic–Amodern Understanding of Human Development

So perhaps there is a point to this blog post!  Don’t these two flawed assumptions at the heart of our current definition of sustainable human development suggest that it is time for a new understanding?  An understanding of human development that is based on systems thinking and one that is amodern, breaking free of the hubris of modernist assumptions.

What if our definition of human development recognized we, each of us, exist within a tiny 6km high critical zone where all life occurs – from the soil under our feet to about 6km up – the height we can survive unaided?  What if our definition of human development recognized that biophysical diversity is seen as something to work with not against?  And, what if our definition of human development celebrated human diversity as a strength to be recognized and encouraged?  (For more on the critical zone read the 2nd part of  my blog post to explore what could come in place of modernism.)

Such a definition of human development would celebrate and encourage the diversity of our planet, ourselves, and all life.  It would recognize there are many valid ways for people to know the land upon which they live – different systems of spirituality, different cultures and practices – science and traditional.  It would explicitly recognize all life occurs within and is based on the finite resources of the critical zone.  It would recognize all life is dependent upon the processes within the critical zone, such as climate regulation and water cycling, ensuring they function optimally for human and other life.

Rethinking Economic Development

So now we understand that the systems of economic development must occur in service of this new definition of human development.  If we truly want widespread human well-being, we must recognize that economic development happens in the same place, the critical zone, as human development. We must recognize that as a result, economic policy and operating businesses have massive potential to directly enhance and harm human development – directly influencing human well-being.  We must respect and celebrate diversity and differences of culture and spirituality.  And, we must respect and celebrate the diversity of all life in all places.

In short, we need to fundamentally shift our understanding of economic development to recognize that it happens within and for the benefit of society.  That society is pursuing human well-being as its goal.  And that society exists and is dependent upon a thriving environment.


Sustaining the Result We Want: The Possibility for Flourishing

Perhaps to help us make this dramatic shift in thinking we need some new language, language that makes this new understanding explicit. Language that moves away from the old terms sustainable (human and economic) development and its flawed assumptions about what, where, and how well-being arises.

What if our goal was to sustain the possibility for human and all other life to flourish on our planet for generations to come, enhancing the beauty, integrity, and resilience of living communities (adapted from Dr. John Ehrenfeld and Michelle Holiday)?  What if everyone got to define for themselves what flourishing meant to them in their diverse places, cultures and spiritualities? What if we understood the result of our journey as humans, human development, was to strive to ensure human and all life had the possibility to flourish for generations to come?    In short, what if said what we want is sustainable flourishing

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