The Age of Development: An Unsustainable Promise

by Wolfgang Sachs

Maarten Vanden Eynde, Future Flora: Manono II, 2019. Printed circuit board (PCB) and seeds, 62.5 × 62.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo © Philippe De Gobert.

The relationship between Europe and its former colonies is at the center of several upcoming exhibitions at Z33. In this article, Wolfgang Sachs explains how the “age of development” that followed the colonial era maintained a global order of unequal and unsustainable growth.

The rise of an era often goes unnoticed, but the dawning of the age of development occurred at a precise date and time. On 20 January 1949, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, in his inaugural address to Congress, referred to the home of more than half the world’s people as “underdeveloped areas.” This was the first time that the concept of “underdevelopment,” later a key category in ordering relations between North and South, was expressed by a prominent political figure in a direction-setting speech:

Fourth, we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.

With the high-flying words of Truman’s “Point Four Program,” the development age began, launching a new period of world history, which followed the colonial era, only to be replaced some forty years later by the epoch of globalization. Even today there are clear indicators that this epoch is now giving way to an age of populist nationalism. As many may recall, in the second half of the twentieth century the notion of development-as-growth stood like a mighty ruler over the nations of the southern hemisphere. It was the geopolitical program of the postcolonial era. As things were in the West, it was assumed, so also should they be on all the Earth: that was, in short, the message of development.

What constitutes the idea of “development”? Consider four aspects. In terms of chrono-politics, all nations seem to advance in the same direction. Many different histories merge into one master history, many different time scales merge into one master time scale. As the concept of linear global time spreads, indigenous peoples—such as the Rajasthani in India or the Aymara in Peru—are inevitably pulled into the perspective of worldwide progress. Geopolitically, the leaders of this path, the developed nations, show the straggling countries which way to go. Just as an immature fruit can be only recognized by comparing it to the mature fruit, the stage of underdevelopment can only be recognized by comparing it to a mature society. Therefore, speaking about “development” without referring to predominance by some nations is like speaking about a race without direction. Socio-politically, the development of a given nation is measured by its economic performance, according to gross domestic product (GDP). Informed by an economic worldview and aided by a statistical tool kit, experts for decades defined “development” as growth in output and income per person. By this analysis, the enormous distance separating “rich” and “poor” countries leaped into view. From now on, it was imperative for the “poor” to catch up with the “rich.” And finally, the actors who push for “development” are mainly experts from governments, transnational banks, and corporations. Previously, in Marx’s or Schumpeter’s time, “develop” was used as an intransitive verb, like a flower that seeks maturity. Now the term is used transitively, as an active reordering of society that needs to be completed within decades, if not years.

What has become of this idea? Seventy years since the invention of the concept of underdevelopment, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, adopted 2015) indicate the erosion of the earlier concept of development.

Long gone is the time when “development” meant promise. Back then, the concept involved young, aspiring nations moving along a path of progress. Indeed, the discourse of development held a monumental historical promise: that in the end, all societies would close the gap between rich and poor, and all would partake in the fruits of industrial civilization. That era is over: today, “development” is more often about survival, not progress. Not least, global warming and the erosion of biodiversity have cast doubt on the belief that developed nations are the pinnacle of social evolution. On the contrary, progress has turned out to be regress, as the capitalist logic of the Global North cannot but exploit nature. From the report The Limits to Growth (1972) to the article “Planetary Boundaries” published in Nature Climate Change (2009), the analysis is clear: development-as-growth renders Planet Earth inhospitable for humans.

The geopolitics of development has also imploded. What happened to the imperative of “catching up,” so fundamental to the development idea? It is worth quoting a passage in the document that proclaimed the SDGs: “This is an agenda of unprecedented scope and significance. . . . These are universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike.” It is not possible to express the mind shift more clearly: the geopolitics of development, according to which industrial nations would be the shining example for poorer countries, have been disposed of. The ideal of development-as-growth has been worn out. Now, all countries are expected to join in the battle for survival. Just as the Cold War era ended in 1989, the myth of catching up evaporated in 2015. Rarely has a myth been buried so quietly. What point is there in development, if there is no country that can be called “sustainably developed”?

Furthermore, “‘development” has always been a statistical construct. Without the magic number of GDP, it was impossible to come up with a ranking for nations of the world. Comparing income was the point of development thinking. As it turned out, however, economic growth cannot be reconciled with sustainability, not even by the new concepts of “inclusive growth” and “green growth.” But it is now common knowledge that inclusive growth, driven by the financial markets, is an impossibility because it constantly reproduces inequality. Typically, a decline in poverty goes hand-in-hand with spreading inequality. The same applies to the slogan of green growth. All recipes for green growth rely on decoupling environmental degradation from growth, even though absolute decoupling (increasing growth while decreasing environmental degradation) has never been achieved in history. In short, development-as-growth has historically become obsolete, even life-threatening. Nevertheless, the SDGs fail to speak about prosperity without growth, not even for the old industrialized countries. Reducing the compulsion for growth in the economy is the road not taken: giving priority to sufficiency instead of efficiency is apparently taboo.

Finally, since the 1970s a deep split pervaded the development actors. Institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization pursued the idea of development-as-growth, while the United Nations Development Programme and most civil society organizations advocated the idea of development as social policy. Thus the term “development”’ became a catch-all phrase, whose meaning ranged from the building of airports to the drilling of waterholes. It was a concept of monumental emptiness, carrying a vaguely positive connotation. Putting both perspectives into one conceptual shell is a sure recipe for confusion, if not a political cover-up.

To sum up, the idea of development-as-growth is self-defeating. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the automobile society, chemical agriculture, meat-based food systems, or full-scale digitalization could be rolled out across the globe. The resources required would be too vast, too expensive, and too damaging for local ecosystems and the global biosphere, unless they would be reserved only for a minority of the well-to-do.

For that reason, post-development initiatives are engaged in the transition from economies based on fossil-fuel resources to economies based on sustainable energy and biodiversity. In contrast to the ever-expanding nature of “development,” the recognition of limits is at the root of numerous attempts to re-embed the economy in the biosphere. Examples abound in architecture, agriculture, energy production, forestry, and even industry. Instead of expansive modernity, it is time for reductive modernity: less traffic, less meat, less ownership, but more sharing, more leisure, more solidarity. Thus, the development idea is a contested field, losing influence and fading in importance everywhere.

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Wolfgang Sachs is an author and Research Director at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, in Germany. He has been chair of the board of Greenpeace Germany, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and is a member of the Club of Rome. He regularly teaches at Schumacher College and as Honorary Professor at the University of Kassel. His books include the immensely influential Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power (edited, 2019) and Planet Dialectics: Explorations in Environment and Development (2015), among others.