From dark satanic mills to human development in an unsustainable world

Crabtree, Andrew (2018). 'From Dark satanic Mills to Human Development in an Unsustainable World' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The industrial revolution brought unprecidented growth and a corresponding reduction in income poverty. Yet at the same time, it usherd in a growth in CO2 emissions which have led to climate change. This paper is both optimistic and realistic. It charts  the move from seeing development in terms of growth to the broader perspective offered by the capability approach (Sen, 1999, Nussbaum, 2006). It also consideres Ravallion's (2016)  rejoinders to Sen and the attempt he makes to give income a central place in the capability approach. Ravellion's arguments are considered and partially accepted when discssing material goods. However, it is maintained that even a sophisticated income approach cannot capture the behavioural changes that may be involved in increasing well-being. Ending discrimination or changing political systems cannot be reduced to income. Some people do not have the freedom to vote irrespective of the income they have. 

As human development is multidimensional so to is sustainable development. It is possible to have development on one dimension, such as the ending some forms of discrimination,  and have little affect on the environment, or to have win-win situations such as the seccession of war (including reduced CO2 emissions). An advantage of the capability approach is that it drwas our attention to non materialistic aspects of development which may be sustainable.

Other aspects of human development do have negative effects on the environment. Providing schools, health and adequate housing (as envisioned by the Multidimensional Poverty Index) all require CO2 emissions (currently cement production accounts for 6% of global CO2 emissions). Furthermore, Drèze and Sen (2013) argue quite clearly that growth is necessary for reducing capability poverty in India.

We need to be realistic about the dilemma this causes. The delimma has been put forcefully by the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which have accused India of hiding behind poverty whilst they drown. The utilitarian perspective has an answer to this problem in that it would argue that the number of people who would benefit from added CO2 emissions whould far outweigh the few people who would lose thier homes on Small Island Developing States. A Rawlsian however might argue that the people living on SIDS would be worst off and therefore the increase in CO2 emissions would be unacceptable.

Niether Sen nor Nussbaum have much to offer to solve this dilemma. Sen's (2009) theory of justice is primarily concerned with the erradication of manifest injustices, and he might argue, as with other cases, that there are no solutions to this problem. Nussbaum offers a list of 10 central capabilities and argues that it is tragic if someone does not have all 10 capabilities. She offers no decision making proceedure to enable us to make choices between two tragic cases.

This paper discusses the possibilities for and limits to human development in an unsustainable world where climate change already exists. It is optamistic as large scale advances in human development can be made with little environmental cost. But realistic in arguing that we do face dilemmas. We may have to look to others than Sen or Nussbaum to explore these dilemmas.

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