Documents on Mexican Politics.

Wealth, Poverty and Sustainable Development.

Wealth, Poverty and Sustainable Development.

Contributions to an Alternative Strategy

David Barkin
This paper is a summary of a paper prepared for the Earth Council. It is available by gopher from the environmental section at

The concept of sustainability reflects the widespread acknowledgment that present levels of per capita resource consumption in the richer countries cannot possibly be generalized to people living in the rest of the world and cannot be continued into the future. Just as important, however, is the recognition that present levels of consumption cannot even be maintained for those groups who now enjoy high levels of material consumption.(1) In this new discourse, resources encompass not just inherited natural capital, including raw materials (such as soil, sub-soil products, good quality air and water, forests, oceans and wetlands) but also the capacity of the earth to absorb the wastes produced by our productive systems; of course, the analysis of resources also extends to include considerations about the quality of the built environments in which we live and work. The concern for sustainability has become global, reflecting the serious deterioration in the quality of life in even the most affluent of societies, as the present design of productive systems and consumption patterns threaten the continuity of the existing social organization.

The discourse of sustainability, however, purports to offer more than an another way of examining well-understood phenomena. Rather, it embodies the broadening recognition of the inequitable and undemocratic nature of current patterns of development. Sustainability raises the specter of the unraveling of present systems, social, political, productive and even those of personal wealth. New organizations, much more attuned to the earth's possibilities for supporting and reproducing life, must replace them.

To address questions of sustainability, then, is to confront the fundamental dilemmas facing the development community today. Traditional approaches and models have not resolved the problems for the vast majority of the world's population, which lives in poorer conditions today than in recent human history. While the trickle-down approaches to economic progress enrich a few and stimulate growth in "modern" economies and sectors in traditional societies, they have not served to address most people's needs; furthermore, they contributed to depleting the world's store of natural wealth, to a deterioration in the quality of our natural environment, and to enriching the wealthy. The broadening gap between rich and poor within nations and on an international scale offers stark testimony of the social inadequacies of this unfortunate model of economic development.

Sustainability, however, is also about people and our survival as individuals and cultures. It is not "simply" a matter of the environment, economic justice, and development. It is, most significantly, also a question of whether and the way in which diverse groups of people will continue to endure. In fact, the burgeoning literature about the move towards sustainability celebrates the many groups who have successfully perpetuated their cultural heritages, unique forms of social and productive organization, and specific ways of relating to their natural environments. The powerful economic groups that shape the dominant trends in the world economy (transnational corporations and financial institutions, and well financed local powers, among others) are striving to break down these individual or regional traits, attempting to mold us into more homogenous and tractable social groups, better suited to support the existing structure of inequality and better prepared to engage in productive employment; and, for those lucky enough to enjoy high enough incomes, better equipped to become customers.

Sustainability, then, is about the struggle for diversity in all its dimensions. International campaigns to conserve germplasm, to protect endangered species, and to create reserves of the biosphere receive widespread support, even while communities and their hard pressed members struggle against powerful external forces to defend their individuality, their rights and ability to survive while trying to provide for their brethren. The concern for biodiversity, in its broadest sense, encompasses not only threatened flora and fauna, but also the survivability of these communities as stewards of the natural environment and as producers.

New strategies for rural sustainable development: popular participation, food self-sufficiency and environmental regeneration

Much work around sustainability is premised on the importance of local participation and control over the way in which people live and work. In today's world of accelerating international economic integration, the question of degree of local or regional autonomy and autarky is an important part of any discussion of national and international integration. The issues of autonomy versus cooperation and coordination are very much related to others having to do with self-sufficiency versus international specialization. The choices are not simple: industrial products and technologies will not (and should not) be rejected in all cases simply because they involve hierarchical control and maddeningly alienated work. The response must be more reflective, and confront the realities of an urbanized global society in crisis, with some nations incapable of providing for the most elemental needs of their citizens, while at the same time permitting others to enrich themselves while ransacking the storehouse of natural resources.

Self-sufficiency is an important issue. Although sustainability need not be tantamount to autarky, it is conducive to a much lower degree of specialization in areas of production and life. The discourse of sustainability demands that we reexamine the policies that substituted the historical necessity of food self-sufficiency with the tyranny of free markets and international trade; those being displaced from peasant agriculture are being impoverished and their communities destroyed. Although the introduction of "Green Revolution" technologies raised the productive potential of food production, we soon discovered how high the social and environmental costs might be.

Food self-sufficiency is part of a broader strategy of productive diversification whose tenets are central to a strategy of sustainability. To the extent that people are not involved in the design and implementation of programs to assure their own consumption needs, they are going to have less appreciation of the impact of their demands on the rest of society and the natural environment. Sustainable development strategies directly face this problem by examining the appropriate scales of operation and product mix.

Sustainability is not simply about material standards of living and environmental preservation. It is about the active participation of people in the study of natural systems and the redesign of productive systems that will allow them to be productive while conserving the planet's ability to host uncounted future generations. It is an approach to the problem of "empowerment", of the way in which people can and do "act in solidarity with each other when the state isn't watching" to solve common problems and initiate creative experiments for social innovation. Such participation is essential, we have learned, because much productivity enhancing research is misguided and market signals generally push government into programs which benefit the rich; the emphasis is upon particular commodities isolated from social, economic and environmental context. Although most of our experience shows that the state is an instrumentality for building a destructive economic apparatus that further impoverishes the masses and concentrates wealth, under special circumstances, the state itself may be forced to play a creative role in encouraging or "liberating" creative participatory energies to promote programs of local development and social justice which also contribute to moving the society in the direction of sustainability. In the coming period, human progress itself will depend on the success in forcing the government to incorporate grassroots groups (NGOs) to oblige the affluent to limit their pillage and control their consumption and in the emplacement of development programs which offer material progress for the poor and better stewardship of the planet's resources.

The varieties of sustainable development

Sustainable development encompasses the combined experiences of local groups throughout the world. It requires effective democratic participation in design and implementation. But to obtain the technical, financial and political support the local organizations require and to become an effective force for change, it requires the mutual reinforcement of international groupings of NGOs. Sustainable development, in the final analysis, involves a political struggle for control over the productive apparatus; its implementation requires challenging not only the self-interest of the wealthy minority, but also the consumption package which has been sold to most people in the rich countries as the definition of their quality of life, a package which has been disseminated with a vengeance in the rest of the world. It requires a redefinition of not only what and how we produce but also of who will be allowed produce and for what ends. This broad-based democratic participation will create the basis for a more equitable distribution of wealth, the fundamental prerequisites for forging a strategy of sustainable development. This is the real challenge we face today.

1. The regions that get left behind: International economic integration is leaving most people in the backwaters of international progress. In these regions the redevelopment of the "peasant economy" is both desirable and urgent. It is not simply a matter of rescuing ancient cultures, but rather of taking advantage of an important cultural and productive heritage in our search for solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow. It is not a question of "reinventing" the peasant economy, but rather of joining with their organizations to carve out political spaces which will allow them to exercise their autonomy, to define ways in which their organizations will guide production for themselves and for commerce with the rest of the society. The opportunities to seek out new ways of organizing the natural resources base are great and the initiatives to implement such programs are gradually finding respondents interested in exploring this and other alternatives.

2. Cities, old and new: In the new centers of international trade the pressures to become "world class" are of particular concern. In these areas, a system of planning is needed to take into account the region's "carrying capacity." These urban-industrial centers, like other cities around the world, also have to initiate a more thoroughgoing process of architectural, social, and functional change. We must reconceive the notion of the city itself, reevaluate the desirability and the necessity of allowing them to become so big and so dependent, rethink their relation to the hinterlands. Localized production of food for urban consumers could be a way for enforcing limits on population and building densities while contributing to the solution of some production problems and reducing transport costs.

3. The centers of biodiversity: The world's "biosphere reserves," storehouses of part of the ecosystem's natural and produced treasures, have become controversial battlefields where science and community are struggling for an operational definition of environmental protection and sustainability. An alternative proposal to ensure conservation would transform them into "peasant reserves of the biosphere" or "neighborhood restoration clubs" in which local communities are encouraged to continue living within a region, husbanding the resources. In exchange, the "outside world" would accept the obligation to ensure that the community enjoy a socially acceptable quality of life with economic opportunities similar to those of other groups and full political participation at all levels. Other approaches which embody this approach, involve organizing the local communities which formerly were engaged in predatory activities to participate in (or actually help design) protective activities as part of a strategy of productive diversification for community development.

It seems contradictory to devote so much energy to writing and discussing sustainable development. The task of remaking our world in a sustainable manner is so compelling that society can ill- afford to waste more time and resources debating its desirability. We must work on two fronts: to reorganize the societies in which we live to reduce their exploitation of the earth's resources and peoples; and to join forces to create the conditions so that other societies can also live and produce in a sustainable fashion. In Mexico, even while parts of the country are suffering the ravages of rapidly growing international trade, we are working in others to create models of sustainability.(2)

1. In this sense, we reject the notion that what is being sustained is growth itself, rather than a process that aims to contribute to improved welfare of people in an environment whose integrity is being protected.

2. We are attempting to integrate these principles in a series of projects which contribute to a strategy of sustainable development. Please contact the author for more information about these efforts, which combine the conservation and regeneration of natural resources with the creation of new productive opportunities in one of Mexico's poorest regions.

David Barkin
Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico City