Redefining Development

Written by Anjana Aravind

Expert Columnist on Climate Change, Law & Order

Climate Researcher, Wind Pioneers, Bangalore

Source: DNA India

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.


The right to define what constitutes the term ‘development’ and the paths to said development have always been viewed as a prerogative of the West. For decades since the advent of neoliberal capitalism, the Global East, having internalized this colonial-era narrative, has been working on achieving the standards set for them, through the same destructive pathways that western industrialization dictated. The American Dream of attaining material wealth, with its insatiable appetite for excessive resource consumption, has morphed into a global dream. In 2019, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature stated (Grooten and Almond, 2018) that if all the inhabitants of the earth were to consume as the average EU inhabitant does, we would need 2.8 planets. Another study (Global Footprint Network, 2018) pointed out that if everyone’s consumption patterns were similar to the average American’s, we would need 5 planets. India’s new draft EIA policy is a reflection of what this understanding of development means, and the ecological and social sacrifices that poorer countries are willing to, and even expected to, make in this pursuit.

Asian Giants

A vast majority of the world has accepted, without question, the desirability of economic development through industrialization. While it is true that developing countries need to reach a higher standard of living for most of their citizens in terms of access to basic necessities, education, and freedom, it does not justify using industrialization as the sole tool to achieve these goals.

In the Paris Agreement, developing countries have been given an ‘allowance’ to increase their emissions so as to achieve United Nations’ (UN) standards of development for their populations, while developed countries are expected to downscale their emissions and switch to sustainable ways of living. What this implies is that the only way for economically weaker countries to provide their citizens with a good quality of life is if they too adopt ecologically invasive pathways to progress the way the west has. With a combined population of over two billion people, India and China alone would require more than one Earth if every single one of their citizens were to be provided with a western middle-class lifestyle, in exactly the same way the west achieved it.

Western ethnocentrism has laid the foundation for the way we view terms such as ‘needs’ (does everyone need a car?), ‘quality of life’ (does wealth constitute happiness?) and ‘progress’ (the Bhutanese seem to be doing great without burning down their forests and building shopping malls).

No Asian country has more aggressively taken up the “burn now, breathe later” motto than China. In its road to economic expansionism, it has earned its label as the world’s factory, resulting in shocking consequences to its ecology and people; the extremely poor air quality in Beijing being just one among several effects. Within a span of two decades between 1995 and 2015, China’s manufacturing sector increased its CO2 emissions by 220.77% (Liu et al., 2019), which accounted for 58.27% of the country’s total emissions. It is currently the world’s largest CO2 emitter, followed closely by the U.S. and India. Today, India is trying to move away from Chinese imports and fulfill its ‘development’ needs through expanding domestic manufacturing, putting it on track to achieving the same levels of ecological disaster.

Victims of Progress

Proponents of this development paradigm will argue that it has brought millions out of poverty and continues to do so. This argument does not account for the fact that income inequality, and even more importantly, resource inequality, in most developing countries (and developed ones too) has never been greater than it is at present. It also does not account for the ecological damage that has been brought about in the process.

In the name of bringing millions ‘out of poverty,’ we are bringing millions into an unsustainable rat race of consumption. This kind of development is an extremely short fix for much deeper problems.

‘Poverty’ is a term defined by the World Bank, currently in relation to the U.S. dollar. To indigenous people, currency means nothing until they are forced out of their lands (for corporations to build dams, factories, open mines, etc.), with zero compensation for it, which invariably leads them to migrate to urban centers in search of some sort of living. It is at this point that currency means anything to them. It is also at that point that the cycle of poverty begins, and if/when they manage to make a living in a city, we count that as having ‘developed’ them; as having integrated them into a burgeoning middle class.

In doing so, we project a false savior complex onto the already industrialized sections of society, while simultaneously destroying the ecosystems that they were once a part of.

Among the 10 rivers responsible for 90% of the total plastic pollution in the world’s oceans (Gray, 2018), 8 are in Asia. The other 2 are in Africa. Despite emitting these levels of pollution, not even half the population of these two continents have reached the levels of individual consumption they’re aiming for. In his ‘Victims of Progress’ (Bodley, 2015), Bodley points out that industrialization has placed statal cultures in a position to eradicate every last tribal culture, the only ones that still live in sustainable harmony with their local ecosystems. It is only a conscious restraint on the part of statal governments (Weiss, 1977) that can save these indigenous cultures and their collectively preserved knowledge. Furthermore, a conscious effort on the part of the statal governments is necessary to move away from their current destructive paths of development and shift to more holistic ones that can save their own natural resources and that of the planet.


The continued concern of the UN with ‘poverty alleviation’ in the third world began in the 1980s and monetary donations from the Global North was, and still is, seen as the solution. It was argued that countries needed to achieve a certain standard of living before they had the resources necessary to protect the environment. This line of thought has served as the framework for several discussions at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, despite being fraught with serious flaws such as little to no analysis on the structural roots of poverty, the upholding of GDP as the gold standard for progress measurement, among others.

Contrary to public understanding, however, aid money does not actually flow from the west to the east. According to a study published by the US-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) and the Centre for Applied Research at the Norwegian School of Economics (Global Financial Integrity, 2016), for every USD 1 of aid that developing countries receive, they lose USD 24 in net outflows. This is because the study considered all of the financial resources that get transferred between rich and poor countries each year, including foreign investment and trade flows, non-financial transfers such as debt cancellation, unrequited transfers like workers’ remittances, and unrecorded capital flight (Hickel, 2018). The GFI report discovered that ever-growing net outflows have caused declining economic growth rates in developing countries, and are directly responsible for falling living standards.

This begs the question: does the term ‘developing’ mean to help one’s own country grow or does it stand for being exploited to further develop the winners of a rigged game?

Real Sustainable Development

If there was ever a time to redefine public goals and pathways to development, it is now. The alternatives to current modes of development have to begin with questioning what it is that we need to achieve in the social realm with the least damage to our ecological systems. We need to ask why ‘green cities’ serve only an urban elite with complete disregard for local populations and their livelihoods, why mangrove forests are cut down only to be replaced with artificial sea walls to prevent sea level rise, why roadside plants are non-native, and ornamental instead of traditional fruit-bearing varieties, why we marginalize certain communities, kill their craft, and then bring it back as profiteering urban businesses termed ‘artisanal.’

Climate change cannot wait for mass unsustainability to be attained before everyone decides to focus on cutting emissions. It is simply impossible and unnecessary.

In a world where the pallbearers of material progress themselves are calling for sustainability, why then, are we so adamant on seeing sustainability as a sequel to development instead of envisioning the former as the blueprint for the latter?



[1] Bodley, J. H. (2015). Victims of progress. Rowman Et Littlefield.

[2] Gray, A. (2018, June 8). 90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just 10 rivers. World Economic Forum.

[3] Global Footprint Network (2018) Public Data Package.

[4] Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

[5] Hickel, J. (2017, October 6). Aid in reverse: how poor countries develop rich countries | Jason Hickel. The Guardian; The Guardian.

[6] Liu, J.; Yang, Q.; Zhang, Y.; Sun, W.; Xu, Y. Analysis of CO2 Emissions in China’s Manufacturing Industry Based on Extended Logarithmic Mean Division Index Decomposition. Sustainability 2019, 11, 226.

[7] New Report on Unrecorded Capital Flight Finds Developing Countries are Net-Creditors to the Rest of the World. (2016, December 5). Global Financial Integrity.

[8] The Problem of Development in the Non-Western World. A Review by: Gerald Weiss. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 887-893

[9] WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report - 2018: Aiming Higher.


Law & Order's Expert Columnist on Climate Change

Anjana Aravind Climate Researcher at Wind Pioneers, Bangalore

As a researcher for a UK-based consultancy firm for the wind energy industry, Anjana works on on-site risks, natural hazards, and climatic phenomena that drive wind patterns. She has previously worked at the Climate Change Research Center, Sydney, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany where her focus was on Antarctic ice-melt dynamics. When not worrying about climate change, she can be found painting, watching documentaries, or playing the piano.