This year’s Report focuses on the challenge of sustainable and equitable progress. A joint lens shows how environmental degradation intensifies inequality through adverse impacts on already disadvantaged people and how inequalities in human development amplify environmental degradation.
Human development, which is about expanding people’s choices, builds on shared natural resources. Promoting human development requires addressing sustainability—locally, nationally and globally—and this can and should be done in ways that are equitable and empowering.
We seek to ensure that poor people’s aspirations for better lives are fully taken into account in moving towards greater environmental sustainability. And we point to pathways that enable people, communities, countries and the international community to promote sustainability and equity so that they are mutually reinforcing.
The human development approach has enduring relevance in making sense of our world and addressing challenges now and in the future. Last year’s 20th anniversary Human Development Report (HDR) celebrated the concept of human development, emphasizing how equity, empowerment and sustainability expand people’s choices. At the same time it highlighted inherent challenges, showing that these key aspects of human development do not always come together.
This year we explore the intersections between environmental sustainability and equity, which are fundamentally similar in their concern for distributive justice. We value sustainability because future generations should have at least the same possibilities as people today. Similarly, all inequitable processes are unjust: people’s chances at better lives should not be constrained by factors outside their control. Inequalities are especially unjust when particular groups, whether because of gender, race or birthplace, are systematically disadvantaged.
More than a decade ago Sudhir Anand and Amartya Sen made the case for jointly considering sustainability and equity. “It would be a gross violation of the universalist principle,” they argued, “if we were to be obsessed about intergenerational equity without at the same time seizing the problem of intragenerational equity” (emphasis in original). Similar themes emerged from the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report and a series of international declarations from Stockholm in 1972 through Johannesburg in 2002. Yet today many debates about sustainability neglect equality, treating it as a separate and unrelated concern. This perspective is incomplete and counterproductive.
Human development is the expansion of people’s freedoms and capabilities to lead lives that they value and have reason to value. It is about expanding choices. Freedoms and capabilities are a more expansive notion than basic needs. Many ends are necessary for a “good life,” ends that can be intrinsically as well as instrumentally valuable—we may value biodiversity, for example, or natural beauty, independently of its contribution to our living standards.
Disadvantaged people are a central focus of human development. This includes people in the future who will suffer the most severe consequences of the risks arising from our activities today. We are concerned not only with what happens on average or in the most probable scenario but also with what happens in the less likely but still possible scenarios, particularly when the events are catastrophic for poor and vulnerable people.
Debates over what environmental sustainability means often focus on whether human-made capital can substitute for natural resources— whether human ingenuity will relax natural resource constraints, as in the past. Whether this will be possible in the future is unknown and, coupled with the risk of catastrophe, favours the position of preserving basic natural assets and the associated flow of ecological services. This perspective also aligns with human rights–based approaches to development. Sustainable human development is the expansion of the substantive freedoms of people today while making reasonable efforts to avoid seriously compromising those of future generations. Reasoned public deliberation, vital to defining the risks a society is willing to accept, is crucial to this idea (figure 1).
The joint pursuit of environmental sustainability and equity does not require that the two always be mutually reinforcing. In many instances there will be trade-offs. Measures to improve the environment can have adverse effects on equity—for example, if they constrain economic growth in developing countries. The Report illustrates the types of joint impacts that policies could have, while acknowledging that they do not hold universally and underlining that context is critical.
The framework encourages special attention to identifying positive synergies and to considering trade-offs. We investigate how societies can implement win-win-win solutions that favour sustainability, equity and human development.
Please do not hesitate to contact the HDRO team concerning the work undertaken for the 2013 Report.