Embracing Complexity: Rediscovering an Old “New Approach” to Development and Sustainability

Regan, Matthew Richard (2016). 'Embracing Complexity: Rediscovering an Old “New Approach” to Development and Sustainability' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

Abstract: The problem of the global environment presents a unique challenge to the capability approach. With its roots in questions of human welfare, the capability approach has had its greatest successes analyzing instances of individual deprivation—examining how individual human beings can enjoy greater freedoms and ensure a wider range of valuable opportunities. While capability approach theorists are careful to caution that the approach does not espouse an ontological individualism and freely admits to the existence and important of wider systems and processes acting beyond the individual human being, the further one gets from an individual-centered point of view, the more difficulties one encounters employ the capability approach as an analytical tool. Efforts have been made to bring greater complexity to the capability approach’s analytical field, such as the use of “conversion factors” to highlight the effects of large-scale processes on individuals or the prevalence of appeals to some set of “group capabilities” that scale up individual-level capability analysis to large social processes, but these approaches often either transmuted macro-level phenomena into their individual effects or posit axiomatically that groups are more-or-less functionally equivalent to individuals. In contrast, the environment is often framed as a complex adaptive system, which is neither reducible to its component parts nor understandable as simply a sum of parts, with often-unpredictable features arising from subtle interactions across the system. As the ongoing struggle against global climate change highlights and the ongoing effects of climatic change will continue to reinforce, however, neither the project of development nor sustainable ecosystem management can be completed without the success of the other. International development is striving to become sustainable development, a field of theory and practice that can ignore neither the good ends of the individual or the complex truth of the global ecosystem. Given this dynamic, it seems the capability approach might be doomed to reach a point-of-no-return when deployed to sustainable development problems. There are certainly aspects of environmental issues for which there is a place for a capability-centered analysis, but such an analysis is destined to be perfunctory and incomplete as long as it cannot adequately reach beyond the capabilities and functions of human beings living in the here-and-now and into the complex and ever-changing systems that have shaped not only their lives, but those of countless ancestors now dead and future generations to come. This paper argues, however, that there is way out of this conundrum, one presaged in recent writings of Amartya Sen and that takes into account the appeal of pragmatism and epistemic pluralism advocated by sustainability thinkers like Bryan Norton: Buddhist philosophy. Unlike the streams of thought from which the capability approach draws direct inspiration, such as Aristotelianism and social choice theory, Buddhist philosophy provide a complex vision of the human person that is compatible with both the methodological individualism of the approach and the placement of human beings within a complex and ever-changing network of causes and effects. By applying Buddhist philosophical concepts like the minimization of suffering (dukkha nirodha), the conditioned genesis of phenomena (paticca samuppada), and the conventional truth (sammuti sacca) to the capability approach, the paper argues it is possible to construct a modification of the capability approach that is workable within an understanding of the environment as a massively complex system yet also retains the capability approach’s primary focus—human flourishing as the primary end of development.

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