From Economic Development to Sustainable Development

And my involvement in this process

Economics was devised to be the social science that helps to understand and optimize the use of the resources people use to sustain and grow materially. It was established as an academic subject during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and concentrated on human interactions because our scientific knowledge of the wider system and our impact on it was less understood. From the beginning money has been the preferred way to measure economic activity but this distorts the value we have placed on the non-human environment.

Currency of all types, from shells and axe heads to coins, paper notes and now virtual accounts stored digitally, is a human invention originally created to allow rulers to encourage their subjects to provide labour and resources in the present against a promise of future reward. Because any form of money can be exchanged for goods and services with other members of the wider human community who are prepared to accept it, currency allows interactions to take place on an impersonal basis. In the language of economics, this is described as money being used as ‘a means of exchange’. It can be held to be exchanged at some time in the future, which makes it ‘a store of value’. Recording the amount of currency given for goods and services received, enables money to become a ‘unit of account’ and establish apparent equivalence between different items. All three of these properties make money particularly useful to governments and the populations they serve. However, it is possible for other people and organisations to produce acceptable currency on a commercial basis. A current example is ‘Bit Coins’, which can be ‘mined’ on a random basis by anyone with sufficient computing power.

From the late nineteen sixties, pictures and measurements taken from beyond our planet’s atmosphere gave mankind a different viewpoint and better information about human and non-human events and activities and this was one of the factors that created a growing concern about what was then seen as depletion of natural resources. In response, the United Nations set up the ‘World Commission on Environment and Development’ in 1984 to consider the evidence and encourage greater international cooperation. The report produced, entitled ‘Our Common Future’, was published in April 1987. It summed up its conclusions by claiming that ‘Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Members of the United Nations received a pre-publication version of the text and, because I then worked for the Energy Efficiency Office of the Department of Energy, I became one of the first group of people in the United Kingdom to see it and be asked to comment on its proposals and suggest how the British Government might respond. Later, after publication, I found myself having to explain the concept of sustainable development to a wider public. Initially my audience was technically interested representatives of companies and academic institutions from whom I also gained valuable insights that I could feedback to Government Ministers. However, my interest in the subject did not disappear after I was transferred from that post back to administering Government policy to encourage economic development. I continued to follow the progress of academic debate on the concept of sustainable development and study practical applications, for example those being pioneered at the Centre for Sustainable Development in Machynlleth, North Wales.

After I retired from the Civil Service, I found myself swept back into the movement to encourage sustainable development at a more local level, initially through Sustainable Staffordshire, one of the bodies created by local authorities and academic institutions and other interested parties as part of Local Agenda 21, the idea for which emerged from the first World Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. I also decided to catch up on academic thinking by enrolling at my local University for a Master of Arts Degree, which I was awarded in 2001. Through Sustainable Staffordshire, I found myself speaking in public, broadcasting on radio and being asked to contribute ideas to help develop national and local government policy and it was during this time that the Renewable Way web site was created.

Now, more than thirty years since ‘Our Common Future’ was produced, changes within the wider system, especially climate change attributed to emissions from burning fossil fuels and plastic pollution, have become much more apparent and concerning. The current international economic problems caused by the worldwide response to the Covid 19 pandemic has also led to questions about overdependence on goods and labour (for example the temporary farm workers from Eastern Europe who come to pick fruit and vegetables on our farms) being outsourced to other parts of the world that are in a separate currency area, which is a consequence of having an international money-based economy.  The need for everyone to be informed about the subject of making economic development more sustainable is becoming more recognized so that the general public as well as decision makers are able to take rational, sensible and appropriate action now and in the future.

Paul Newman

April 2020