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Is development sustainable?

Hans Timmer's picture

I am this week at a Sustainable Development retreat sponsored by the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Network and run by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainable Leadership

The focus is on environmental sustainability. So far, we’ve heard many speakers from diverse backgrounds. It was fascinating to see how everyone used the need to avoid environmental degradation (including climate change) to strengthen their core business.

“Green geeks” in advocacy groups see the threat to the planet as a trigger to change economic paradigms. Businesses see sustainable development as an effective marketing campaign to improve their bottom lines. Urban planners plan on changing the world by innovating cities.

Although it might seem like it, these are not selfish approaches to big global problems.

Sustainability isn’t something outside of what people are already doing; but it requires that everybody takes new constraints into account in their core businesses. They use their comparative advantages, let incentives unleash innovation, and come up with creative solutions. 

That realization is important for the World Bank. There is no contradiction between our core objectives (alleviating poverty through fast development) and sustainability.

Fast development creates the dynamics, the technology, and the income to find solutions required for sustainability.

The fastest growing countries are coming up with the most advanced ways of saving energy at the moment. China is experimenting with clean transport systems, and Indian IT companies are tracking their impact on the environment. The fast growing parts of the developing world are most concerned about sustainability, because they want to ensure that their development path can continue into the next decades. Once externalities are better priced, then the rate of innovations will only speed up further.

To answer my title question: There is no real development without sustainability, and there is no sustainability without development. It’s like asking, are sports cars fast?

I’ll end this postcard from this beautiful English town with this week’s highlight: a visit to the British Antarctic Survey, where scientists showed us ice columns about 3km long that gives them a look at 800,000 years of climate history. Together with the aquarium (where they keep fish that live in the Antarctic seas, living a much slower life than tropical fish) this is a fascinating place to visit if you have the opportunity.



Submitted by Anonymous on
Just the existence of the article leaves no doubt that the answer would be upbeat and positive. Negative ruminations about the sustainability of development would never make it past the censorship!

Submitted by Anonymous on
We need to adapt. Take a look at this article The Great Transition:

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