Environment versus Development – The BIG DEBATE

Author: Shashank Sahay, Research Associate

Environment simply means ‘surroundings’. Obviously, environment is a concept that is relative to whatever object it surrounds. If used in that sense, environment could virtually include anything and everything. Hence there is a need for a specific definition for the word ‘environment’. The Environment Protection Act, 1986 defines environment as, “environment includes water,air and land and the inter – relationship which exists among and between air, water and land and human beings, other living creatures, micro organisms and property ((Section 2(a) , The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986)).”

The World Health organization has observed that over 70 percent of all human ailments are influenced by environmental deterioration ((Q. Ashoka Chakkaravarthy, Human Survival and Environmental Pollution, Available at http://www.yorku.ca/bunchmj/ICEH/proceedings/Chakkaravarthy_Q_ICEH_papers_66to74.pdf)). The industries are all source of hazardous emissions and effluents. The use of chemical insecticides and pesticides in agriculture also leaves dangerous residues. Public health infrastructure like sewage, garbage etc have detrimental impact on the environment ((S Shantakumar’s Introduction to Environmental Law, (Wadhwa& Company Nagpur) p 1)).

A country’s environmental problems are affected by the level of its economic development, the availability of natural resources, and the population along with its life-style. These parameters collectively work towards change in natural environment either contributing to conservation or degradation.

The lack of policy enthusiasm towards environment around the world as also in India has been so far based on the hypothesis that environmental degradation first increases with per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and then declines, as illustrated by the inverted U shaped Environmental Kuznets Curve [EKC] ((Shafik, Nemat. Economic development and environmental quality: an econometric analysis. 1994, Oxford Economic Papers 46 (October): pp. 757–773)). However, this theory came under much criticism during early 2000s. Researchers on the basis of empirical investigations showed that the development path may not necessarily improve the environment ((Distribution and Development, A New Look at the Developing World. Fields G (2001).,Russel Sage Foundation, New York, and The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London)). During the same time, scientist across the world also became more vocal about creeping disasters like desertification and therefore decade 2000 was declared as the First UN Decade to Combat Desertification.


The concern for environment in modern times is traced back to the Law of Seas, which came into force to protect the over-exploitation of marine resources in high-seas to allow equitable consumption to all nations ((Economic Development, 2nd edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan.Smith, Charles; Rees, Gareth (1998).  ISBN 0-333-72228-0)). Further the two world wars, which saw environmental destruction leading to declining quality of health and living standards across the world led to formation of World Health Organization in 1948. This strengthened the obligation of nations to protect and enhance “physical environmentonly when it becomes dangerous or potentially dangerous to human beings. This ideology of “human-oriented-protection” is carried forward in multiple international and regional agreements till date, including the concept of sustainable development.


The affluence (i.e. material aspects of per capita consumption of goods and resources) is an important factor in man-resource environment relationship. There is a fundamental conflict between traditional concept of economic growth and the preservation and conservation of environment. While economists tout record breaking increases in global commerce in recent decades, more sobering statistics are being put forth by World’s leading Biologists: the loss of living species in recent decades, they report, represents the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago ((S Shantakumar’s Introduction to Environmental Law, (Wadhwa& Company Nagpur) p 23)).

Globalisation is a powerful driving force behind today’s unprecedented biological implosion. Trade in timber, minerals and other natural resources is climbing, and many of the world’s hot spots of biological diversity are now threatened by a surge of international investment in resource extraction. Yet, the new rules of global economy pay little heed to the importance of reversing the biological impoverishment of the planet ((Hilary French, Vanishing Borders, A World Watch Book, Earthworms Books Pvt. Ltd. 2000 pp 15)).

Human beings remain fundamentally dependent on the natural world. One shot coming of conventional economics is failure to account for critical services provided by natural eco system such as forests, wet lands, coral reefs, rivers ad seas. In 1997, a team of 13 ecologists, economists and geographers published a path breaking article that put a price tag on the value of a range of functions provided by these eco systems. The study covered a broad array of services including genetic resources, flood control, pollination, water supply and the value of nature’s services added up to almost $33 trillion each year- almost as much as the entire annual gross world product ((Ibid p 18)).

Unfortunately, despite their value to human kind, eco systems are being degraded at anun parallel rate as a result of human activity. For example, the planet’s forest cover is steadily shrinking as population and world economy continues to expand. Mining and petroleum development also threaten the health of the world’s forests, mountains, waters and other sensitive eco systems. Besides disturbing valuable eco systems mining companies, multinational oil and gas firms continuously scour the planet for new development opportunities, as the most accessible fields in the industrial countries have already been tapped ((Ibid p. 19)).


Economic justification for the protection of environment is probably, the most popular protection rationales in environmental debates ((Alwxander Gillespie, International environmental Law, Policy and ethics, (Clarenden Press, Oxford), p. 28)). For example, in 1902an international treaty for the protection of birds was justified on the grounds that certain birds provided economic benefit for agriculture. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the executive Director for the United Nations Environment Program, has once observed that “until recently, the language of mainstream economics has defined the economy in market terms, without giving much attention to non market elements such as subsidies provided by eco –system services, subsistence activities, household labour or cultural aspects of human social services. This must change. From an ecological and an economic perspective, both poverty and environmental degradation are symptoms of poorly functioning economic system ((Dowdeswell, E., Speech at world Summit for social Developent, 1995,7Mar.UNEP Speech, 1995/3.)).

Currently, environmental questions are becoming increasingly dominated by economics. Despite the fact that many of those involved in environmental protection are weary of economic rationales, many have nevertheless accepted the central message of this type approach: namely that some form of economic analysis should control the level of environmental quality that society tries to achieve in practice ((S Shantakumar’s Introduction to Environmental Law, (Wadhwa& Company Nagpur) p 32-33)). A primary justification for this change is because of the high economic values that can be attached to the environment through reformulated economic methods. These new methods can act as powerful stimuli for environmental protection. The World Bank in its “World Development Report 1992”has pointed out that “primary cause of environment problems, is not the price making market, but rather the failure of markets and governments to price the environment appropriately ((World Bank, World Development Report 1992 : Development and the Environment (OUP, Oxford 1992) p.71)).

Humanity stands at a defining moment in the history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which humans depend. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed eco system and a safer and more prosperous future.

One of the most important of the side effects of development is environmental degradation. People who see or anticipate the environment degrading realize that it is going to degrade the entire life support system. According to their perception, the only way they can prevent the environment degradation is to oppose the development projects. Thus a conflict grows in intensity-the developers say that there cannot be development without environment destruction. They are vehement that that the environmentalists are preventing the development and progress. On the other hand the environmentalists allege that the developers are destroying the environment, making further development impossible and the development process unsustainable. The two sides are locked in battle. The conflict cannot be resolved within the framework of the conventional paradigm ((Amulya K.N. reddy. “Development Conflicts- For a new agenda”, survey of the Environment. 1998 the Hindu, pp. 10-11)).