Battle in Print: Slam-Dunk the Funk - Defending Progress in the Age of Environmentalism

Lee Jones, 29 October 2008

Progress today is a dirty word. After the decisive defeat of the organised working class in the 1980s, belief in social progress has given way to increasingly gloomy prognostications about ‘our broken society’, with moral panics about gun and knife crime supplemented by warnings of an ‘obesity epidemic’ that will kill Britain’s children at a younger age than their own parents. Widespread suspicion of science means that despite continued technological advances, we fail to celebrate what is, objectively speaking, a golden age of medicine and science, greeting doctors’ ability to keep us alive and well for longer as creating a ‘pensions time-bomb’ and potentially revolutionary advances in gene technology as ‘Frankenstein’ meddling with nature. This essay briefly explores how this gloom has spread to the field of development economics, defends the material basis of progress and the right of developing countries to undergo development, and finally argues that material development offers the only way to avoid the environmental disasters we are constantly warned are just around the corner.

Spreading the Funk: Sustainable Development, Neo-Malthusianism

Bad enough at home, the profound funk afflicting Western societies is disastrous when afflicted on countries abroad. Nowhere is this plainer than in the rhetoric surrounding ‘sustainable development’, which warns of potential economic disaster unless ambitions for progress are reined in. ‘Sustainable development’ is a flabby, contested concept with many different interpretations, but broadly advocates shifting from growth-led strategies of economic development to encompass other goals like environmentalism and social considerations, like the promotion of ‘well-being’ or ‘happiness’ among the population, rather than the evils of consumerism (eg. Redclift & Hinton 2008). ‘Sustainable development’ has become the latest mantra of development economics and has been internalised by policy wonks throughout the international aid and development system. For developing countries dependent on Western aid and loans, it is now literally the only game in town.

Despite assertions that warnings about the environmental consequences of not adopting sustainable development reflect ‘The Science’, a supposedly monolithic consensus, sustainable development has become a mantra only in today’s climate of deep disillusionment about ‘progress’. The academics, politicians and businessmen of the so-called Club of Rome tried the same line in the 1970s, producing their aptly-titled report, Limits to Growth, but workers refused to rein in their ambitions for a better life; today, people meekly accept such assertions as objective truth (Meadows et al. 1972). The Malthusian belief that the planet cannot support its present or future population is an ahistorical myth, only given currency by the West’s contemporary anti-progressive funk. It is only believable when we jettison our historically well-founded belief in mankind’s potential to continue to solve problems, rather than merely create them.

Objectively speaking, the last century witnessed the remarkable capacity of human beings to transform, rather than merely submit to, their environment, and thus create real ‘progress’. Growth in food output overtook population growth in the 1950s and has steadily outstripped it, thanks to enhanced agricultural techniques and their diffusion via the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Global population quadrupled, but global wealth quintupled (Richman 1995). While, especially in the capitalist world, gains were deeply uneven, this nonetheless created dramatic improvements in housing, sanitation and medical care for hundreds of millions of people, especially where the masses were politically well-organised. In fact, it was these conditions that allowed the population to explode: we didn’t start breeding like rabbits, we stopped dropping like flies, due to material improvements in our everyday lives.

Ignoring the Material Basis of Progress, Romanticising the Poor

Nevertheless, ‘sustainability’ is the dominant ethos in international development today. The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is often celebrated for embracing this ethos, having abandoned traditional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measurements of economic development (which measures the wealth the country actually produces) in favour of a ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) index. Since doing so, Bhutan has made some remarkable advances: primary school enrolment is up from 55% in 1990 to 84% in 2004, child mortality is down a third, and so on. But it would be a mistake to attribute this to policies associated with ‘GNH’. What social advances have occurred in Bhutan have only been possible because the country’s real wealth – its GDP – has increased 700% since 1980. How? Because rapid economic growth across the border in India has boosted demand for Bhutan’s predominant export, hydro-electricity, and the resultant industrialisation now contributes over 40% of Bhutan’s GDP. In fact, focusing on ‘GNH’ is an attempt to disguise how the fruits of economic growth still accrue to a distinct minority, with the masses remaining extremely poor and disempowered: 90% of the population remain employed in subsistence farming, 70% don’t have access to electricity and a third still lives on less than a dollar a day (CIA 2008).

The example of Bhutan tells us two important things about ‘progress’. The first is that GDP figures are, as sustainability experts suggest, inadequate as a measure of progress. It’s important not just how much an economy has grown, but how the resultant wealth is distributed and used, and who benefits. Moreover, progress is not simply reducible to material development, but must encompass social and ideological factors, too. The second, however, is that so-called ‘pro-poor’ development cannot occur without the basic economic growth that GDP measures. Like Bhutan, Africa is not poor because we measure poverty in GDP, but because Southern Africa has an economy the size of Belgium. This becomes all the more clear when we compare two different measures of development: GDP per head of the population versus the United Nations’ ‘Human Development Index’, which measures things like life expectancy, literacy and educational attainment to give a rough idea of ‘human development’, understood as access to healthcare, education, income and employment.

(CIA 2008b)

(UNDP 2007)

A quick glance reveals the close correlation between the two measures. If a place is poor in GDP terms, its people suffer from social and economic deprivation.

This should hardly be surprising, but the material basis of progress and human flourishing is worth re-emphasising when we consider some of the recent antics of those preaching ‘sustainability’, which seem aimed precisely at retarding that progress in favour of advancing environmentalist agendas:

• Green activists got €4bn worth of EU aid to third-world industries slashed in 2007 alone. They have sabotaged World Bank funding for infrastructure projects, like a hydro-electric dam in Gujarat province, India, which would have provided power for 5,000 villages, industries and sewage-treatment works, irrigation for crops and clean water for 35m people – all because, as one activist said, it would ‘change the path of the river, kill little creatures along its banks and uproot tribal people’ (Heartfield 2008: 73-4).

• Western development agencies have banned the use of DDT when 300m people suffer from malaria and up to 3m die from it each year. Abandoning the use of DDT allowed malaria infections to rise 600% in South Africa alone (Driessen, 2005).

• The UN Regional Wood Energy Development body promotes the burning of charcoal instead of kerosene when 5m young people die annually from diseases caused by indoor wood-smoke inhalation (Heartfield 2008: 73).

• Lower-yield organic farming is promoted at the expense of modernised agriculture when 840m people suffer from malnutrition.

• Guilt-ridden Westerners offset their carbon via charities that re-impose back-breaking drudgery on Third World peasants, by substituting water pumps operated by physical labour for those powered by diesel (O’Neill 2007).

• Western governments, via the 2008 Bali Accord, pledged to pay poor countries to plant trees instead of developing their economies.

At worst, these attempts to scale back the material progress that would lift people out of poverty are legitimised by ideological claims that poverty is preferable to development, or that normalise poverty as part of third-world ‘cultures’. Indigenist activists like Friends of People Close to Nature celebrate hunter-gatherers for their ‘non-exploitative relationship with the natural world’, whose ‘unique cultures’ need to be ‘preserved’ from ‘the ideologies of “progress” and “growth” and absorption in the global economy’. They want ‘to reverse the process of development’, suggesting tribal societies remind us ‘how we once lived in harmony with nature and how we might live again’ (Jones 2008). Ceri Dingle, director of the educational and film-making charity, WorldWrite, says a Swedish development minister told her Africans did not need running water because carrying water in jars on their heads was ‘part of their culture’.

None of this is part of anyone’s ‘culture’; it is simply a reflection of crippling poverty and under-development. While we in the West can agonise about what ‘progress’ means and whether it remains possible, people in under-developed countries are quite clear-minded about these issues: progress means significant improvement in material living standards and is an urgent priority. The one billion people who live in slums worldwide prefer this to backbreaking subsistence farming; their demands are for electricity, clean water, education, healthcare and decent jobs, not ‘traditional knowledge’.

Moreover, it is this absence of squeamishness, combined with all-important access to capital, that has lifted people out of poverty, not any of the ‘sustainable’ policies pushed by the West. China’s remarkable economic growth – its GDP has trebled in the last five years – has lifted 250m people out of poverty, accounting for all of global poverty reduction. In fact, without China, global poverty would have been worsening, despite the West’s much-hyped debt relief and the UN’s pathetically conservative Millennium Development Goals.

Southern Africa’s GDP actually decreased in the 1990s as its poverty forced it to accept Western policies. By contrast, Chinese investment in Africa has tripled to $30bn in the last five years, and Southern African GDP has doubled (Williams 2008: 90, 126). As is the nature of capitalist development, the gains will, as ever, be very uneven. But rather than wringing our hands, calling for ‘sustainability’ or a ‘reverse to the process of development’, we should celebrate that development is happening, interrogate the resultant inequalities and support social forces seeking progressive redistribution of wealth and power.

Afterword: Progress and Ecology

Today’s dominant reply to all of the above is that developing countries cannot aspire to living standards approaching those of the West without creating climate catastrophe: rising sea levels, hurricanes and other natural disasters. I want to end by arguing that material progress is in fact the only way to avoid such disasters.

From 2000-2004, the risk of being a victim of natural disaster in developing countries was 6%; in rich countries, it was 0.07%. Is this because these countries are more disaster-prone? No. Some countries are obviously located closer to geographical fault-lines, rivers and oceans, tumultuous weather patterns, and so on, than others. But the key thing is how we deal with these material conditions. The more developed the country, the more it can spend on defending its population from nature.

Clearly, this capacity does not mean this spending will occur: governments with contempt for the masses or those seized by the anti-progress funk identified above may well neglect their populations. The people of New Orleans paid the price for this during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but although media commentary viewed the latest ‘hurricane season’ as yet another instance of mankind’s subordination to nature, the vastly different impact of the hurricanes in the USA and impoverished states like Haiti symbolises the fact that Americans have overcome that subordination. The Netherlands is mostly below sea level, yet suffers less from flooding than Bangladesh because it can spend more on high-tech defence systems. The UK’s annual budget for flood and coastal defences is $1.2bn, nearly five times the total global aid budget for climate adaptation, at $225m (UNDP 2008: 189-90).

If climate change really is the looming catastrophe Greens say it is, we urgently need to engineer the technical shift required to create a post-carbon economy, and massively increase aid and technical assistance to less-developed countries. A very modest step in this direction would be the $50bn Climate Change Mitigation Facility proposed by the UN Development Programme, which would leverage investment to develop low-carbon technology, widen access to energy, buy out intellectual property rights and cascade technology to poor countries. One thing is certain: there is nothing ‘progressive’ about trying to hold developing countries back and thus leaving them to the tender mercies of Gaia.


Lee Jones is Rose Research Fellow in International Relations at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.


CIA (2008a) CIA World Factbook: Bhutan
CIA (2008b) CIA World Factbook: GDP (PPP) Per Capita.
Driessen, P. (2005) Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death. New Delhi, Academic Foundation
Jones, L. (2008) ‘Is West-Papua Being Eco-Colonised?’, spiked
Meadows, D. et al. (1972) The Limits to Growth: A Report For the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. London, Earth Island
O’Neill, B. (2007) ‘Is Carbon-Offsetting Just Eco-Enslavement?’, spiked
Redclift, M. & Hinton, E. (2008) Living Sustainably: Approaches for the Developed and Developing World. London, Policy Network.
Richman, S. (1995) Testimony to US Congress on the International Population Stabilization and Reproductive Health Act.
UNDP (2007) United Nations Development Report.
UNDP (2008) Human Development Report 2007/2008. Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World. New York, United Nations.
Williams, A. (2008) The Enemies of Progress: Dangers of Sustainability. London, Imprint Academic

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