The Problem of Sustainable Development

The problem of sustainable development comes from Marxist theory of ‘over-production’ and ‘uneven-development’. Over-production is caused by capitalism’s need to create ‘surplus-value’. Capitalist society is structured around wealth accumulation. This causes a host of problems. The greatest is ‘uneven-development’ where wealth is accumulated in capitalist cities, while in pre-capitalist countries wealth is extracted. This is accomplished through exploitation of natural resources and human labor. The solution to uneven development is ‘sustainable development’. Capitalist (surplus-accumulation) countries should develop more efficiently, minimizing the exploitation of the environment. Exploited (surplus-generating) countries should develop minimizing exploitation of human labor and impact to the environment. This theory would result in a kinder, gentler form of capitalism. One that doesn’t exploit but shares its wealth and protects the environment.

Sustainable development was advanced by the United Nations first in Agenda 21 in 1992. Since then it has grown into extensive social and environmental policies. Currently the U.N. advances 17 sustainable development goals which include climate action, ending hunger and poverty, and sharing industry and innovation between rich capitalist nations and developing ones. The intent is to have rich countries develop more efficiently with minimal impact to the environment, while paying for poor countries to modernized without destroying the environment. The problem is that sustainable development sustains over-production and over-consumption. It is more efficient over-production, but over-production none-the-less. It provides limits to consumption but does not offer solutions or rethinking of supply side production. Natural resources and human labor are still exploited, but limits are placed on exploitation. It is a kinder, gentler exploitation, but exploitation none-the-less. We must rethink sustainable development.

The problematic of sustainable development is: how do cities in the developed and undeveloped world grow without destroying the environment? The Western model of a modern industrial city is not sustainable in a post-industrial age. Coal fire plants, industrial factories, skyscrapers, endless highways and traffic jams are not sustainable. The over-production and over-consumption of capitalism is not sustainable. If the undeveloped world looks to the modern capitalist city and adapts this model it will certainly destroy the planet. If China, India, and Africa with its billions of people create modern cities with coal fire plants, and industrial development, the damage will be irreversible by 2050, and by 2100 most of the world’s population will live in unsustainable cities.

The danger has never been greater. China has disregarded sustainable development and instead has copied Western style industrial development. They model cities on American capitalist production and consumption. They built thousands of coal fire plants, millions of tons of concrete and steel, and polluted the atmosphere more in the last 20 years than the United States has in the last 120. Since 1950, this has lifted the undeveloped country of 500 million to be a developed country of 1.4 billion. If India and Africa follow the same trajectory the 7.8 billion people of today will be 11 billion by 2100. The planet cannot support such unsustainable development. China, India, and Africa will have the largest populations, produce the most green house gases, and consume the most resources. Imagine a world where China produces 60% of the world’s GHG emissions, India 20%, Africa 15%, and the rest of the world 5%. This will be the world of 2100 if the current trajectory is followed.

We need to define what a post-capitalist, post-industrial, post-Modern city looks like. What will make a city a good place to live in? What will make it environmentally friendly? How does the developed world grow their cities in this new paradigm? How does undeveloped cities grow into good places to live and still be environmentally friendly? How does the developed world grow into a new model of urban sustainability? How do we stop the endless pattern of over-production and over-consumption inherent in capitalism? How does the undeveloped world grow without copying the unsustainable practices of Modern Western Cities? This is the problematic of sustainable development.

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Jaime Roberts

Jaime Roberts

Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.