Political Ecological Philosophies and Sustainable Development: An Analysis

This article has been written by Chirag Jindal. Chirag is a first-year law student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.

In the famous Asiatic Lion Case, the Supreme Court of India laid down the following:

“Sustainable Development, it has been argued by various eminent environmentalists, clearly postulates an anthropocentric bias, least concerned with the rights of other species which live on this earth. Anthropocentrism is always human interest focused thinking that non-human has only instrumental value of humans, in other words, humans take precedence and human responsibilities to non-human are based on benefits to humans. Eco-centrism is nature-centered, where humans are part of nature and non-humans have intrinsic value. In other words, human interest does not take automatic precedence and humans have obligations to non-humans independently of human interest.”[1]

In this Article, it will be tried to analyze the concept of sustainable development, in general, and its relation with the different political ecological philosophies that are being followed.

The most frequently quoted definition of sustainable development is as follows:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[2]

This definition implies that development goals should be achieved in such a way so as to degrade environment least as far as possible so that the present generation as well as the future generation is able to meet the needs in all frames of time. The definition focus on two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given;[3]
  • the idea of limitations, imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet the present and future needs;[4]

As it has been rightly pointed out by Lionel Robbins in his ‘scarcity definition’[5] of economics that human needs are unlimited but the resources present on the earth are limited. This idea has become more constrained and the gap between unlimited needs and limited resources has been increased mainly because of the two reasons:

  • Increasing needs because of population rise in the world.
  • Limitations on the resources present due to shortage of resources (caused by their extensive uses in past) and imposition by the technology on environment’s ability.

 The principle of sustainable development laid down by the environmentalists to overcome the above problem is an appealing way to reduce the environment degradation. Yet the issue cannot be settled very easily. Though we have a solution, the difficulty arises in how to approach to solve the problem. This is because of the different philosophies of political ecologists in themselves to cope up with the issue of environmental issues and phenomena. Let’s have a look at what type of philosophies do political ecologists have.

There are mainly three types of philosophies that ecologists follow but these three are complemented by many other philosophies too. The first one is the eco-centrism. The ecocentric argument is grounded in the belief that, compared to the undoubted importance of the human part, the whole ecosphere is even more significant and consequential: more inclusive, more complex, more integrated, more creative, more beautiful, more mysterious, and older than time.[6] The second is anthropocentric belief. Anthropocentrism is the belief that considers human beings to be the most significant entity of the universe and interprets or regards the world in terms of human values and experiences.[7] The third philosophy is the technocentric approach to environment. Technocentrism is technological centered belief to protect the environment and the ecologists claim that humans have ability to control and protect the environment.

The question which arises next is whether sustainable development and different political ecological philosophies go hand in hand with each other.

Technocentric belief can be said as a far fletched belief. That humans can control and protect the environment is itself a fallacy. The world has seen many examples where the nature has reached outside the control of humans particularly during natural calamities which are increasing day by day due to human interference with nature.

As we analyze the anthropocentric i.e. human centered belief, we come across the fact that due to the philosophy of anthropocentrism itself, the world is facing the consequences which could have been possibly avoided in the past. Due to the greediness of humans, the destruction and degradation of environment started and continues till today. And to say that anthropocentrism and sustainable development may be a possibility is beyond the thinking of a rational human being who beliefs in environment protection. This can be clearly inferred from the words of Stan Rowe that goes as follows:

 “The “environment” that anthropocentrism misperceives as materials designed to be used exclusively by humans, to serve the needs of humanity, is in the profoundest sense humanity’s source and support: its ingenious, inventive life-giving matrix. Ecocentrism goes beyond biocentrism with its fixation on organisms, for in the ecocentric view people are inseparable from the inorganic/organic nature that encapsulates them. They are particles and waves, body and spirit, in the context of Earth’s ambient energy.”[8]

The Eco-centric belief can be said to be the most concordant belief with the sustainable development. But the belief ties to limit the development in itself. According to the definition of sustainable development, development should also meet the needs of the present generation. But if we go with eco-centrism, it is not possible to meet the needs of present generation which consist of almost 8 billion people in the world though it can manage to preserve the world for future generations.

With the above analysis a new question arises i.e. whether the concept of sustainable development itself is mostly a theoretical concept with a very limited scope of practical applications. The answer again can be two-fold. On one view, it can be said that sustainable development is a hollow concept and humans do not have any control over the happenings in nature. The environment has now reached beyond the ambit of human beings and whatever happens now is in nature’s hand. On the contrary, it can be said that sustainable development is at least a step ahead or a tool to protect our environment in whatever way we can. Though the environment is beyond reach of humans, a least contribution even by least number of people can change the present state of environment.

Whatever the answer is or whatever is the view that can be accepted, the debate is still going on forever. The concept of sustainable development has helped mankind a lot at least in the sense of creating awareness among the people. So, it can be said that the change will happen. But we are not sure about the kind of change – either it will be better or it may even be worse. And in order for a change to be a better one, the first thing which is required is the change in attitude of society. Instead of having so much debates and discussions on policies, philosophies, problems etc, let’s not start doing something, however small it may be. It will be better for the world if each and everyone just not focus on planning, but start doing for the betterment of environment.

[1] WWF-I vs. Union of India and Ors (2013) 8 SCC 234

[2] Brundtland Report, 1987 by Brundtland Commission formally known as World Commission on Environment and Development.

[3] supra

[4] supra

[5] Lionel Robbins defined economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

 Robbins, Lionel (2014) [1932], An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. p. 16

[6] Rowe, Stan J. (1994).”Ecocentrism: the Chord that Harmonizes Humans and Earth” The Trumpeter 11(2): 106-107.

[7] Anthropocentrism – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

[8] Rowe, Stan J. (1994).”Ecocentrism: the Chord that Harmonizes Humans and Earth.” The Trumpeter 11(2): 106-107.

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