From Economic Growth To Sustainable Development

Both developed and developing nations are causing environmental stress in the world

Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Policy, Economic Growth, Environment, Society, The SustainabilityX® Magazine

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The world can be characterized as both developed and developing countries.

Regardless of which end of the spectrum a nation stands, both extremes have caused environmental stress in the world.

Therefore, it is important to understand the differences, and issues between the developed and developing nations, to effectively understand the dynamics.

Environmental constraints in Developing countries are characterized by pressures from Population Growth, Inefficient Technology, Weak Governance, Poor Health Sector, Low per capita Income, and Poverty (Popp 2010). Therefore, the emphasis for developing countries is on the need for progress, a desire to have social and economic growth. Hence, growth would take precedence to the environment.

In terms of the perspective from the developed countries, economic growth results in increasing wealth, income, standard of living, and improved health care facilities. This state of affluence on the other hand came at a price of environmental degradation, which commenced from the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 18th Century. The drive to industrial development was based on the increasing use of fossil fuels, raw materials, synthetics, and chemicals (such as pesticides, DDT, etc.) to name a few (WCED, 1987, p.28).

This rapid consumption and production drive placed great pressures on the environment through overexploitation and depletion of resources, accumulation of CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, pollution, and destruction of eco-systems. Therefore, one can infer that issues arising in the environment are as a result of both the lack of development and the consequences of economic growth in the countries of the world (WCED, 1987, p. 29).

Economic Growth

Therefore, when we think in terms of economic growth, we realize that growth is the major economic goal of many nations (McConnell 2002, p.137). Thus, as a goal, a Nation that can achieve economic growth will be better suited to meet the wants of individuals and resolve socio-economic problems such as poverty (McConnell 2002). Thereby, ensuring the well-being of the economy and improving standard of living, by raising incomes/ providing jobs. In addition, economic growth can possibly even protect the environment by the creation of parks, reserves, and implementation of key policies. Consequently, some economists have argued that economic growth will eventually lead to an improvement in the environment. This may be so, but the more rapid our growth, consumption, and the use of our Natural Capital Resources, the more waste we produce, the more prone we are to environmental degradation and exhaustion. Thus, with economic growth as our goal, it is likely to overshadow environmental concerns, placing the environment in the back seat while the focus is on gaining wealth. However, despite this, it is interesting to note that when a country achieves a high standard of living, the people attach value to environmental amenities. In other words, as people become wealthier, they have more time to think about other things than their survival; and this wealth can influence governments to improve the environment. For example, it is only after industrialized countries achieved their economic objectives that they began to focus on the environmental problems they left in wake on their drive for growth (Serageldin 1994).

In the whole process, it is important to understand, that economic growth is not synonymous with economic development. What this actually means, is that economic development is the advancement of economic wealth of a country, aimed at the overall welfare of the citizens. Achieving overall welfare is accomplished through improving the quality of life, measured by life expectancy, literacy, gross domestic product (GDP), and so forth. While in comparison, economic growth measures in a narrower context using only GDP.

Hence, we must consider when it comes to economic growth these points:

1) Can we (developing countries) afford to follow the initial steps of the developed world? Striving for growth now, which leaves in its wake environmental degradation, Or 2) Should we realize the value of our environment today and the benefits for tomorrow, as it contributes to the overall progress of our economies?

This is a hard decision, as the promotion of economic growth is seen as the way to lift developing countries out of poverty and improve their standard of living. Nevertheless, we must stop and ask, what are the effects of economic growth on the environment? Many have asserted that even if wealthy nations are able to reduce pollution, economic growth will impose increasing stress on ecosystems. Moreover, the total impact on the environment can be expected to increase as a function of the GDP. That is, as GDP increases, the impact on the environment heightens, based on the type of economic activity such as tourism, where tourists remove things from the environment for keepsake (corals); or overfishing of marine resources (and other activities within Agriculture, Forestry, Mining, etc.).

Therefore, we realize that environmental impacts are linked to economic growth (production levels), because of the cumulative depletion of resources, land use changes with implications for water quality and biodiversity, rates of exploitation that exceed rates of replacement, and waste generated.

Although some may not focus on environmental issues as a consequence of growth, saying that growth is paramount, we must realize that degradation of the resource base will eventually put economic activity itself at risk, in turn affecting growth. Therefore, Developing Countries face the challenge of whether to follow the path of the more Developed Nations or alternatively, do we focus on Conservation.

The New Path

However, for every problem, there is a solution. The International community has realized the need for a strategic comprehensive approach to address environmental protection, while at the same time foster development. As such, this ultimate goal can be achieved through the implementation of Sustainable Development.

One of the core goals of sustainable development is to leverage renewables. The world energy’s requirement is not going to slow down. The aim is to reduce dependence on fossil fuel supplies and ensure that sustainable sources of energy like solar, hydro, etc. can help in satisfying our growing requirements. Homeowners and commercial establishments need to be encouraged to start shifting towards renewable sources and to start using solar air conditioners. Small steps in this regard can go a long way in reducing the adverse effects of Global Warming and Climate Change on our planet.

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) defines the term Sustainable Development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This concept, therefore, takes into consideration the right to development and the protection of the environment. Sustainable Development, therefore, aims to meet present needs and address short-term issues with the overall goal of long-term Sustainability.

Therefore, Sustainable Development is an integrated concept that:

1. Requires meeting the basic needs towards the aspiration for a better-improved quality of life.

2. Is based on democracy, where the rule of law is grounded in the respect of fundamental rights.

3. Promotes employment in an economy, whose strength is based on education, innovation, social cohesion, and the protection of human health and the environment (EEA).

Accordingly, the implementation of Sustainable Development will require progress in three areas, well known as the three (3) pillars of Sustainable Development, which are Environment, Economic, and Social.

These three fundamental pillars are interconnected, so much so, that the actions in one area can reinforce the goals of another. Thus, this indicates the importance and overall goal of achieving integration and a balance between the three pillars of Sustainable Development. Accordingly, in striving for a balance between the pillars, we are in essence trying to achieve sustainability, endeavoring to be:

  • Bearable (Society + Environment = Bearable), whereby society works towards lifestyle adjustments. In that, we are cognizant of our impact and thereafter contribute towards a healthier environment and well-being.

  • Equitable (Society + Economic = Equitable), to fully attain an equal and fair share of a Nation’s resources to its people. Thus, by having equitable distribution, we help to eradicate poverty, social inequality and raise the standard of living of the society.

  • Viable (Economic + Environment = Viable), where a Nation strives to meet economic growth and development, while operations are pursued with environmental protection in mind. Therefore, investments must be feasible to sustain themselves, create jobs, contribute to the GDP, and protect the environment from harm.

Thus, to achieve sustainability, we must find a balance between the three pillars in relation to being viable, equitable, and bearable. Thereby fostering through Sustainable Development Poverty alleviation, Gender equality, Capacity building, Clean technology, Clear institutional framework, Economic growth and development, Sustained biodiversity (protection & conservation of ecological services). This in turn helps a nation to develop and meet short-term horizons, with long-term vision.



  • McConnell, Campbell (2002), Economics Principles, Problems, and Policies. New York: McGraw-Hill Iriwn.

  • Popp, David Economics of Environmental Policy: Lectures

  • Serageldin, Ismail (editor) (1994), Making Development Sustainable: from Concepts to Action. Environmentally Sustainable Development Occasional Paper Series №2. Washington, D.C: The World Bank.

  • WCED (1987), Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • EEA (2006), Sustainable Development: Policy and Guide for the EEA and the Norwegian Financial Mechanism.