Sustainability and Economic Development


Can some people go green while billions go hungry? Proposing changes to the current structure of the economy is daunting, given the grim outlook on climate change mitigation. But this week’s readings are encouraging because they highlight grassroots activism from communities that have been historically passive. One reason for their passivity is the unjust exclusion of people of color from quality education. This exclusion results in lifelong and generational inequalities. As we have learned from earlier readings, people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution. It is a cyclic problem, because exclusion from quality education breeds poverty and lack of representation in positions of power and government. Therefore, these communities cannot fight against injustices like environmental pollution. Stories like that of the San Diego Latino community fighting against the fossil fuel plant expansion and advocating for green energy are very inspiring and serve as good indicators that there has been progress towards sustainability (Barnett and Loh, 2010, pg. 2).

However, there are still significant challenges. Ulrich Brand in the article “Green Economy” highlights key institutional and cultural practices/systems that are inhibitors to achieving a truly sustainable economy (Brand, 2012, pg. 29). In particular, economic institutions and traditions such as capitalism and profit driven technology development are not sustainable. In class, we discussed the example of Tesla electric vehicles. The Tesla is expensive because it is a new and innovative technology but has public subsidies to promote its adoption because of its public benefit of emissions reduction. However, only people of high income can afford Tesla vehicles, even after the subsidies. It becomes a situation of subsidizing the rich. This is also the case in Germany where there is a feed in tariff for solar generated electricity. Because solar technology is relatively expensive, mostly the rich have the opportunity to install solar panels and take advantage of the tariff. However the tariff is funded by money collected by all ratepayers (electricity consumers). Therefore people of all economic classes subsidize this tariff for the rich.  Someone in class proposed social engineering; that is the development of technology for purely philanthropic purposes. Although I think that would solve many issues, it is hard to imagine how such an economy would work. It is a worthy vision, but as Brand argues economic institutions will have to be completely overhauled (Brand, 2012, pg. 30).

Finally, it is important to re-frame the definition of sustainability to incorporate a people- centered theme (Acey & Culhane, 2013, pg. 16). Personally, I have found myself more motivated to mitigate climate change when I read narratives of energy poverty and famines in Africa, and of droughts in South America and floods in Asia. These narratives, rather than an abstract measurement of the carbon concentration in the atmosphere, convey a sense of urgency. While scientific definitions are very useful, to an untrained audience, it is easily forgotten. Advocating for sustainability in the context of increasing water and electricity access to over 1 billion people globally is what personally motivates me. Properly designed policies are direly needed to achieve this. For example, Nigeria does not lack the technology, the resources or the labor to improve its electrification rates. However, Nigeria lacks the right policy to sustain these technologies after installation (Acey & Culhane, 2013, pg. 9). Poorly designed top-down interventions ultimately fail in alleviating any kind of poverty: energy or economic. The importance of improving electrification rates cannot be overstated; apart from its link to alleviating water scarcity, it will improve education access and health care. Electrification using renewable energy will diversify Nigeria’s oil dominated economy and make the country resilient to future market shocks that are bound to happen with emissions regulations. Despite all these benefits and availability, without the right policy, it remains wishful thinking.


Acey, C, & Culhane, T. H. (2013). Green jobs, livelihoods and the post-carbon economy in African cities. Local Environment, 18(9), 1046-1065.

Barnett, K. and Loh, P. (2010). Towards “Justainability”: A Colored Perspective on the Green Economy.

Brand, U. 2011. “Green Economy: The Next Oxymoron?” GAIA 21: 28-32


6 thoughts on “Sustainability and Economic Development

  1. aldotudela7

    Great post! Thanks! I agree with your critique to Tesla, not everyone can own one, and I am happy of that too, however I do think everyone could at a certain extent. One of the things that impacted the most in the Bay Area is the use of Hydrogen Fuel based buses in AC Transit services. This gives everybody the availability of “having” a Tesla. This type of programs and technologies should be promoted more for public use, instead of private niches.

  2. jennamhahn

    While I agree that there are many things that need to be revolutionized in our current economy, and we have a long way to go, I also am seeing trends among businesses, across sectors, which are giving me some hope. Within the last two decades (with momentum picking up in the last couple of years, especially) there has been rapid growth in the implementation of corporate responsibility. A paradigm shift seems to be starting in the ways businesses function. To many companies, it is no longer only about returns to shareholders, but social returns as well. These ideals are now being instilled in business models. Terms like the “triple bottom line”, “shared value”, “corporate citizen”, “net impact”, “benefit corporations”, and more are becoming commonplace in the business world. Lines between public, private, and NGO sectors are becoming more fluid. This is especially crucial to multinational corporations that work in countries with varying labor laws, environmental settings, and social pressures. Between consumer pressure and changing business practices, the conversation of internal human rights and sustainability policies are no longer a thing of the past for companies. Sustainability is becoming a competitive advantage and businesses are seeing the value in healthy communities resulting in healthy business environments.

  3. frobertsgregory

    Sustainable development only for the rich seems very limiting and classist indeed. I think about an article I recently read about going “just green enough” so that disadvantaged communities could come up with their own articulations of green behavior. This idea resonates with me because everyone will not be able to own a TESLA or live in a LEED certified building. I think it is unfair to assume low income communities of color do not fight against environmental injustice. They often fight under different banners and with no press. But they fight economic inequality, from the activists in Caner Alley in Louisiana to the Black Panthers in Oakland. And protesters in Ferguson. I am left wondering though, how do we dismantle unrestrained and unregulated profit driven capitalism in the USA? How do we make sure all engineers and economists and business majors are taught the precautionary principle? And I think cities can subsidize the costs for solar panel installation if they buy in collectives. It is dangerous to think that only narratives of suffering in the Global South can create a sense of urgency when the impacts of climate change can be seen and felt among the working poor in the USA. As far as energy development in Nigeria goes, I think it will be very difficult to convince the country to adapt more sustainable environmental policies. From my talks with Nigerian geophysicists and geologists, I have learned that some feel that we can make money now and use the profits from oil exploration to be more sustainable LATER. Or they think the earth will reach a new equilibrium, and they have ideological blinders on when it comes to ecological suffering at the hands of oil exploration.

  4. I think you raise two interesting points about sustainability efforts and policy. First, while the subsidizing of expensive technologies is a problem due to inequity, especially when more impoverished people might need these environmentally-friendly solutions to be more accessible, innovation and the bleeding edge is usually going to be more expensive and sometimes things must begin that way in order to become widespread one day (not that they are sustainable, but look at cell phones, TVs, or normal cars). Tesla’s business model is meant to build an expensive luxury sports car (Roadster), use those profits plus subsidies to build a more affordable, but still luxury sedan (Model S), and then continue to make more and more affordable models (Model X is currently being worked on). While seemingly backwards, it allows the company to develop a reputation and fine-tune its product. However, still not a good thing for equity for a long time.

    Second, I was also compelled most by Acey & Culhane this week, but your point that clime change science can easily be forgotten or misunderstood struck something within me. I studied climate change and find the science fascinating (and therefore even more frustrating when people don’t believe it to be real) and I think it is important to be checked that we don’t all have the same background. I agree that narrative is usually the best way to convey urgency or conviction, but with climate change deniers still very vocal in society and government, making that content more understandable and interesting is vital in order to get larger-scale policy passed.

  5. I also felt inspired by these readings as they showed historically passive communities showing concern and taking a stand to protect their environment. However, I always have a feeling that it is unfair to expect more disadvantaged communities to act upon climate change, to act more environmentally friendly. Even at a personal level, although I’d love to be able to use energy provided strictly by solar panels from my roof, I cannot afford to do so. As Brand explains, that is a case that only the richest can afford, but often times they only do it if there is an incentive, which in turn burdens the poor. But what if the money that is now destined for “incentives” to use renewable energy was used for technology development? It may be possible to create social engineering by focusing the efforts on having these communities, that suffer the consequences of environmental injustice, develop themselves the technology needed for more sustainable living. It would include them in the solution of a problem that they are the first victims of and motivate economic development.

  6. caitlintouchberry

    I agree that it is hard to imagine the complete overhaul of global economic institutions, especially where technology development is concerned. Technology development is inherently an expensive endeavor and therefore requires strong incentives to progress. Social engineering would require a strong incentives system be put in place if profit was not the focus. A shift in thinking about technology development that I more fully align with is C.K. Prahalad’s idea to design products and services for the bottom of the pyramid (BOP). The first assumption that must be made in this model is that the 4 billion people earning incomes at the lowest tier of global rates comprise a market with untapped potential. His proposal is that conducting technology development to serve the BOP is actually a profitable effort. I see the adoption of the BOP as a recognized market to focus technology development on as less of a complete overhaul of an economic institution, more of a harnessing of the existing system’s incentive structure, and a step towards becoming a more inclusive, effective, and sustainable global economy.

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