All posts by Jen

Jen is a law and development specialist and author of the blog Currently based in Southeast Asia, her career path has brought her around the world. She's worked with development banks, governments, social entrepreneurs, grassroots non-profits, private companies, academia, and large foundations. Her areas of expertise include development policy, natural resources management, human rights, energy and infrastructure.

What does nihilism have to do with sustainable development?

The other day, my husband announced that he’s become a nihilist.

Nihilism (as I rushed to wiki) is actually not as menacing as it sounds. It is simply “the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life.” In this case, the “putatively meaningful aspect of life” is the neoliberal economic model that we were raised on. He believed in it, and now, to quote the father of nihilism, “God is dead.”

Once I started to think about the disaffection with our current economic system and the lack of alternatives, I saw it everywhere. In public: Occupy Wall Street, the walk out of an entire Harvard class on a neoclassical economics lecture, NYTimes’ recent piece aptly titled “Young People Tire of Old Economic Models.” In private: my friends, well-educated and talented, dropping out of the game. Leaving good jobs to travel, to write, to think. We are adrift in a nihilist crisis.

I am of the generation that does not remember the Cold War, but remembers the aftermath. I am both young enough and old enough to have been assigned Fukuyama’s The End of History and Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree several times in university, reiterating in my mind that we won the Cold War because we were right. Liberal free market democracy is the future path, and eventually, once we get a McDonald’s everywhere, world peace will be achieved. Even after 9/11, we did not waver in our core belief that history is on our side.

Then came the Global Financial Crisis and increasingly loud alarm bells about population, food security and climate change. Two things became obvious: current levels of consumption in the rich world are too high and unsustainable, and marginal increases of consumption in the developing world, something we should be celebrating, are already straining the world’s resources. For young people and semi-young people like myself, the world is increasingly becoming a daunting place. Worse, the values and ideals we were raised on have been badly shaken. Free markets are bringing the prosperity they promised to some people, but they are doing a terrible job of solving the world’s biggest challenges. Indeed, in many cases they are making them worse.

Nihilism in a new age. Image courtesy of xkcd.

There are no obvious alternatives to the current economic system – the Cold War put that to rest. We can argue about where we should be on the spectrum of liberal democracies, but at the end of the day, even the most socialist of them embrace the fundamentals of free market capitalism. Yet, free market capitalism is failing us, not just because of Wall Streeters, but because the relentless pursuit of growth cannot be sustained at current levels. We are in a Catch-22: if continued as is, we will deplete the world’s resources alarmingly soon, but if we stopped consuming, the world economy will stall out, and many more people will suffer.

Can sustainable development principles come to the rescue?

Sustainable development, commonly defined, is “development that meets our needs without compromising future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable development is still about development, and it still puts humans at the center of it. In that sense, it’s not that different from what we already believed. But it adds a caveat: development must be long-term. The bottom line is not about this quarter or this year, it’s about 20, 50, 100 years from now. And what we can do now to make sure we get there.

In order to achieve this, sustainable development principles tell us that we must balance classic economic growth with social progress and environmental protection. That we must work to end extreme poverty, and use our natural resources wisely. That we should exercise precaution when undertaking acts that may damage society or the environment. And that all our actions should be integrated, with full consideration of the impacts that they have on each aspect of development.

This is not neat or simple. There is no corollary to the “invisible hand” in sustainable development; it will be decades before we fully understand what balancing and integrating development entails. It will also have fierce opposition. There are many people who still adhere, passionately, to the neoliberal faith, and those people have a lot of political power.

But the momentum grows for a new economic paradigm. The next step will be to take real action. Policies to address the world’s development problems have shown disturbingly little innovation so far. How can we harness free market forces to account for externalities – 100 years into the future? (One possibility: full cost accounting, to be discussed in a future post.) How do we make corporations abide by the precautionary principle without stymieing all growth? How do we meet everyone’s basic needs, without sending them on the path to the high-debt, status-driven lives that plague so many in the rich world? What is the fair way to tax emissions and resources? We disillusioned youth could do worse than to work on these issues, for our and future generations. Otherwise, I could be living with a nihilist for a while to come.