From development to sustainable development

Having noted the existence of major inequalities between States, economists and geographers have in the second half of the twentieth century, defined and studied development.

But it is not a process continuous in time and also distributed in space. Furthermore, the planet is increasingly populated and managed by men, which raises many questions about the ability of the Earth to meet the needs of a growing world. Will the resources be sufficient? Sharing the fruits of development is possible? Faced with these questions, the concept of ‘sustainable development’ emerges in 1987 in a report to the United Nations: it is defined as « development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their ».

Problem: How to ensure that development is more equitable and more respectful of the balance of the planet?

I – How can we observe inequalities of development?

A. define and measure development

• Development is defined as the ability of a State to satisfy the basic needs of its population (food, access to water, to health care, education, housing, etc) thanks to the production of wealth.

• Several indicators have been developed to measure development. But these indicators are national and compensate the internal differences in the States:

• gross domestic product per capita measures the average standard of living of a resident in a State. To compute, you add up all the wealth produced one year then divide this result by the number of inhabitants;

• human development index is a number that is expressed between 0 and 1. It is calculated as the average GDP per capita, literacy rate and life expectancy. It has the advantage to combine economic and social data to measure the quality of living conditions;

• the human poverty index is calculated by averaging the expectancy of life, the rate of literacy and the quality of living conditions (access to water, healthcare…). It allows to estimate the percentage of poor in a State (while the two previous indicators are not).

B. an unevenly developed world


• States the richest are mostly in the northern hemisphere (North America, Western Europe and Russia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) and correspond to the more developed States. The poorest States are rather in the southern hemisphere (Central and Latin America, Africa, South Asia) and correspond to the less developed States. This location has justified the appellation North for the wealthy and developed States and the South for poor States and developing countries.

• These similarities between wealth and development are logical insofar as GDP per capita (which is the basis for measurement of wealth) enters into the calculation of the HDI (which is the criterion of development).

• Globally, the levels of development are very different.

• The North-South boundary is supposed to separate the « Northern countries » from the « countries of the South”. However, States with the same levels of development are part and sides of this limit (while they should be located on the same side). For example, why is Russia (which has an HDI between 0.8 and 0.9) located north of this line while Brazil (which has the same level of HDI) is located south of it? This limit is in fact a legacy of history: it was drawn during the cold war. At that time, the former USSR and the countries of Eastern Europe had an HDI over 0.9 and emerging countries (as they are called today) had a lower than today’s HDI. This limit is not really accurate anymore.

C. large-scale development inequalities


• Brazil has an HDI between 0.8 and 0.9: its level of development is located at the top of the rankings of the world (this is an emerging country). Lots of States (LDCs and developing countries) have a lower HDI  but some States (developed countries) register an HDI higher than this.

• Brazil is also marked by significant inequalities of development: highest HDI levels are concentrated in the centre and South of the country while the lowest HDI levels are rather North of the country. There are also inequalities across the city of São Paulo, which is located in one of the most developed parts of Brazil. Overall, the levels of development decreases from the center of São Paulo to the periphery. On the other hand, even if most of the favelas is located in less developed areas on the outskirts, some are present downtown.

• The Brazil map and that of São Paulo reveal different levels of development while the overview map indicates only an national average for the HDI. Therefore, planisphere gives a too homogenous vision of development in Brazil. This shows that it is important to change the geographical scale in order to have a more precise and nuanced vision

II. 9 billion people in 2050?

A – A growing world population


• Between 1650 and 2010, the world population has increased very strongly: it rose from 600 million men in 1650 to 6.9 billion men in 2010 (and will reach 9.5 billion people by 2050 the average assumption). The world’s population has so increased more than 10-times in four centuries. It has increased slowly and steadily until 1950 and has experienced a demographic explosion after.

• This population explosion is due to the sharp decline in mortality (which began before the birth): men are better fed, better cared for, enabling them to live longer. It seems that from 2010-2015, population growth is slow, due to the decline in the birth rate (as a result of urbanization, women’s work and the widespread use of contraception). Humanity has entered the second phase of the demographic transition (the one where the birth rate decreases, while the mortality rate is already low, which slows the growth).

• Today, least developed countries and countries in development (Africa, Middle East, South Asia) contribute the most to the world population explosion: indeed, they have not yet completed their demographic transition and record high rates of natural increase (unlike emerging markets and developed countries which have completed it and so record low growth or even a negative one)


B. needs strongly increase


Between 1990 and 2010, the consumption of oil in China has quadrupled: it went from 2 million to over 8 million barrels per day. This growth is strong until 2008 and it slows down (as a result of the strong increase in the price of energy)

Several factors explain the strong growth of demand for energy in China:

• – the growth of the population (700 million in 1965 against 1.3 billion in 2008): these are all potential consumers and more;

• – the progression of the HDI (between 1980 and 2010, he went from 0.53 to 0.78) which results in an improvement of the living conditions (more travel, a best heating…): they are increasing energy consumption.

China fails to satisfy only its energy needs: in 2010, oil consumption is two times higher than production (4 million barrels produced compared with 8 million consumed). Since 1990, oil consumption rose by 5.77% each year while production was believed by 1.67%.

The example of China shows that the requirements tend to increase as a result of population growth and progression of the level of development. It becomes more difficult to meet some basic needs: access to water, food and energy. This is especially true for the countries of the South (whose population growth is supported), hence the concerns of some that evoke the « bomb P (P for population) about population growth.

C. insufficient resources ?

To face energy demand, China product or extract a part of its energy on its territory: it has hydrocarbon resources, many mines (coal, uranium…) and has built hydroelectric dams (such as the three Gorges) and nuclear power plants. But all this potential does not cover all the needs. China must therefore import part of the energy that it consumes (45% for oil in 2004). It lies in a situation of energy dependence on the Russia, the Middle East and the Indonesia.

• The growth in energy demand fears a risk of shortage: some are afraid that the internal (and even external resources that China imports) are not sufficient enough facing the explosion in demand. On the other hand, this strong growing demand is at the origin of significant pollution.

• The example of China highlights the old debate on the relationship between population and level of resources. It dates back to the 18th century, where the Scot Malthus advocated a limitation of births in order to feed the entire population. According to estimations, one in two men will be threatened by shortage of water by the year 2050, and food consumption will be increased by 410% in Africa! Alarmist speeches claiming « decay » and the renunciation of the development, under the pretext that they are hungry in resources; other discourses, more moderate, called for less wasteful consumption patterns and ways of productions more respectful of the environment.

 III. Why is it so difficult to implement sustainable development?

A what is « sustainable development »?

• « Our common future » is the official title of the report drawn up on behalf of the United Nations in 1987, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway. It is more commonly called the « Brundtland report ». This report was the first to define the concept of sustainable development and is, as such, a kind of bible on the subject.

 sustainable development

• – to continue to produce economic growth (continuous increase of the production of wealth): this is the economic pillar;

• – to keep resources (limiting overconsumption and waste) to meet current and future needs: it is the environmental pillar;

• – to ensure a better distribution of resources and the fruits of economic growth between the men and the territories: it is the social pillar.

• Sustainable development is a recent principle, born from the observation of inequalities in development and the pressures of population growth on the environment. It has been included in major international conferences (the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992; Kyoto Protocol in 1997) but is not limited to the protection of nature.

B. sustainable development, a principle which is still debate

• This cartoon was published in the journal online the decay, in issue 51 of July-August 2008.

 devlpt durable caricature

the author is unknown but it presents a critical vision of sustainable development. This document is to apprehend carefully because it is a cartoon (which exaggerates or distorts reality in order to laugh or to react) and because it was published in a newspaper that advocates the economic decay

-forest: it is dense but some trees are lying by the passage of the truck.

-truck: called ‘sustainable development’, it darkens to a portal. Its edge, there are politicians, sportsmen, an economist, workers, scientists and journalists.

-local people and Wildlife: one sees people stop at the passage of the truck or flee to avoid getting crushed.

-wall and chasm: at the centre of the wall (on « natural limits »), we see a closed gate and beyond, a chasm.

-It symbolizes the environment degraded by the presence and human activities

-It symbolises the northern countries that are driving the sustainable development globally. All the characters are proponents of this policy and refer.

-they represent the victims, those left behind on Sustainable Development decided by the countries of the North

-It represents the limit of what nature can bear. The cartoon denounced the low taking account of the environment.

Sustainable development is far from unanimous. He is accused of being too centered on one of the three pillars, at the expense of the other two: the environmentalists (WWF or Greenpeace) movements denounce the low taking account of the environmental pillar. Criticized the countries of the North to impose the sustainability in the countries of the South, while they have not finished their development, without taking into account local specificities.

C. several ways to implement sustainable development

Sustainable development was developed by the countries of the North, who were the first to try to implement it: they have indeed completed their development and have the financial means to do so. Thus, in developed countries, emphasis is placed especially on the environmental pillar (fight against pollution in the cities, thermal insulation of dwellings…) by diverse actors who act in collaboration (public authorities, private companies, individuals…)

In the countries of the South, the situation is different. The stage of development is not yet reached so immense problems remain: access to food, housing, water, care… These countries consider that development takes precedence over sustainable development (especially as they do not have the means to finance these policies and they have that the North is seeking to impose it on them).


• The planet is today marked by inequalities of development, noticeable at all scales. Facing a population growth even stronger (which should slow down in the years to come), the question of satisfaction of needs.

• This double is originally from the emergence of sustainable development, new vision of development. It comes to « meet the needs of generations of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their ». Humanity must work collectively to ensure a more equitable and more respectful of the environment development… Huge task and which poses a series of problems.