The world has been advancing in an unsustainable manner, and most of our existing social problems are directly linked to this wealth accumulation approach rather than a comprehensive and integrative development towards economic progress.

Development has economic, social, environmental, and institutional aspects. Accordingly, the focus of sustainable development has also changed from the simply ecological standpoint to include economic and social sustainability. Applying these approaches would require interaction and adjustment with several spatial and temporal levels of society.

The objectives of developmental policies are expected to combine and balance these different dimensions with the political and administrative capacity of the state. Approaches to studying sustainable development are to be understood in this context.

There are different approaches taken by the national and international fora towards the problem of achieving sustainable development,

  • Positivist Approach
  • Multi-Dimensional Approach
  • Eco System Approach
  • Livelihoods Approach

Positivist Approach

The early founders of quantitative economics argued in favor of the monetary approach, known as the positivist approach. This approach centers on the physical betterment of society through market calculations or calculating advancement in terms of monetary gains.

It leaves aside the issues of distribution and justice; even the environmental assets are valued in purely monetary terms. Many environmental assets are intangibles and go unaccounted for in that approach. Since what is unaccounted for tends to be used irresponsibly, these environmental resources get ruthlessly destroyed by industrializing states.

The Positivist approach promotes freedom of accumulation and is based primarily on making the community as opulent as possible, irrespective of distributional disparities. This approach to economic progress cannot be criticized as irrelevant to achieving a better living.

However, this approach is extremely narrow and defective as it ignores crucial factors such as public care and social organization for the welfare of deprived and weaker sections.

Overall, Positivist Approach highlights three basic points;

  1. It Promotes freedom of accumulation and appropriation by a few.
  2. Emphasizes wealth maximization irrespective of distribution.
  3. It Neglects public care and social organization for the welfare of deprived people.

Positivist Approach and it’s possible consequences

Wealth maximization, irrespective of distribution, allows wealth accumulation and appropriation by a few (rich becoming richer) and marginalizes the not-so-rich or poor getting poorer.

Human Development Approach or Opulence Oriented Approach

The Positivist or Old Opulence Oriented Approach focuses primarily on the overall material success rather than the deprivation and development of human lives.

These Gross National Product (GNP) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) based approaches have been opposed and argued to be misleading by human development approaches.

Wealth Or Opulence – An Instrument to promote human development

The Human Development approach has conformed broadly to the line of reasoning enunciated by Aristotle more than two millennia ago:’ wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.’

The interesting debates must relate to the instrumental effectiveness of overall wealth and opulence in promoting those things for which wealth and opulence are desired. In contrast, many financial and economic writing proceeds like there’s nothing beyond opulence with which we need to be concerned.

Still, Opulence is essential in advancing the more basic purposes, even the Aristotelian objective of rich and full lives. For example, William Arthur Lewis, one of the significant modern development economists, did not extensively question that the right purpose of pursuing growth is expanding ‘the range of human choice’ and recognizes the causal involvement of various factors in improving the freedom to choose.

Nevertheless, he concentrated explicitly on ‘the growth of output per head’ because it ‘gives man greater control over his environment, and thereby increases his freedom.’ Indeed, the assertion in his classic book: ‘Our subject matter is growth and not distribution’ reflects his faith in the instrumental efficacy of total growth.

Economic growth means increasing private incomes and creating resources that may be marshaled to improve social services (such as public health care, epidemiological protection, basic education, safe drinking water, etc.). In certain circumstances, such marshaling is effectively done, while in other cases, the rewards of economic expansion are put to little use of this kind. This can significantly affect the outcome in terms of the development of basic human capacities. Similarly, while the increase of private income undoubtedly is of instrumental importance in boosting basic capacities, the effectiveness and longevity of that impact depend considerably on the distribution of the newly generated incomes.

A much more significant and sustainable impact is likely to occur if the gain in average GNP per head is matched by a sharp reduction in the poverty of the worst off people. To what extent this will happen relies on a range of economic and social conditions relating to the employment-intensive character of production techniques, the sharing of education and skills across the population, the effectiveness of land reforms, the pooling of rural resources, and so on.

There is significant evidence that the statistical association between GNP per head and human development tends to work through the impact of GNP growth on higher public expenditure and lower poverty. The UNDP reports indicate that the connections are seriously contingent, and much depends on how the fruits of economic growth are shared (in particular what the poor get) and how far the additional resources are used to support public services (for example, public health services, which are particularly crucial in influencing life expectancy).

Thus the opulence-oriented concept of progress has little fundamental merit and has a conditionally crucial instrumental role.

In recognizing the importance of economic growth as a means for human development, policies have to focus on the multi-dimensionality of the problem and challenges brought by a resource-scarce economy. In brief, the human development approach concentrates on the capability of all humans to lead worthwhile lives as the object of importance that people today and in,, the future would value.

Multi-Dimensional Approach

Multidimensional approaches deal with the heterogeneous environmental and development issues and means to calculate the intangibles in nature without the common denominator like money. The approach recognizes that any development which disturbs a local ecosystem can adversely impact regions across geographical and political boundaries. The policy orientation in the multidimensional approach is that of a ‘level transfer mechanism’ to check the environmental impact and anticipate measures for preventing any socio-economic crisis. This approach is an attractive operational tool for studying Environmentally Sound and Sustainable Development (ESSD). 

The level transfer mechanism involves the following basic associated approaches that have to be taken into consideration to assess the impact over society and natural resources.

Studying the Economic bottom-line

This critically examines the conventional ‘profit’ bottom line approach of enterprise initiatives for example, business (industry and commerce), industrial agriculture (agribusiness) and aquaculture. To avoid unconstrained exploitation of environmental resources calls for example, for ‘green’ development of land cleared for development.

Corporate Environmental Responsibility

This critically examines the conventional ‘profit’ bottom line approach of enterprise initiatives, for example, business (industry and commerce), industrial agriculture (agribusiness), and aquaculture. To avoid unconstrained exploitation of environmental resources calls, for example, for ‘green’ development of land cleared for development. 

This is a demonstration of environmental awareness in corporate partnerships. This is to develop eco-efficiency and ecological management through a regulatory mechanism to comply with all corporates worldwide, such as ISO14000Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA), studying ecological footprints etc.

Precautionary Principle

This subscribes to clean-up technologies, urban environment renewal, non-polluting technologies, carbon credits and land

Producer Responsibility

Besides promoting environmental monitoring and industrial ecology amongst producers, this may inspire environmental assessment, bio regionalism, product stewardship and accountability structures.


This approach initiates ecologically sustainable designs and techniques such as eco-building, bio-machines, green machines, bio-fuels, intermediate technology, eco-preneur, organic agriculture and sustainable lifestyles based upon indigenous knowledge.

Gandhian Gram Swarajya

It is the doctrine of local self-sufficiency propagated by Mahatma Gandhi for the economic and cultural awakening of Indian villages. It is the approach toward environmental stewardship and conserving nature by using resources available in the local area.

Deep Ecology

This approach was initiated by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972. It is anti-anthropocentric; that is, it believes that humans are not at the centre of everything in nature but are merely a part of it. It believes in population reduction‘no-go’ wilderness reservessacred grovesand old forest preservation.


It views the patriarchal structure of society and the miseries of women as fallout of the so-called ‘anthropocentric’ approaches to nature such as the positivist GNP led growth pattern, mass production through machines that exclude women and their requirements

Eco System Approach

An ecosystem or ‘an ecological system’ is the microcosmic autonomously functioning complete unit of nature. These units continuously interact with other neighboring units in the same habitat without outside interference. Due to these interactions, they are growing into stable and sturdier functional communities, which are finally replaced by or evolve into developed ecosystems called a Climax community. This community nurtures and carries many other communities of plants and animals which grow and evolve in interdependence and diversity. This change is called succession.

It takes millions of years for a stable community to develop. Still, the rapid pace of mechanised development and extensive use of chemicals destroy or wipe off entire ecosystems very rapidly. The rate of destruction is much faster than the pace of succession. The result is that the conservation efforts for a particular species without the conservation of the whole ecosystem within which the species survives do not yield desired results. This approach aspires to preserve the entire ecosystem and speaks of the ecosystem viability in policy and development programmes.

Natural systems have vast spatial connections. Activities over land, water, and even air spill over their effects to other regions and as a result, ecosystem growth in the entire region get affected. The national and international policies must encounter these spill-over effects to protect the whole system. From 1986-87 the worldwide bleaching of corals was due to global warming and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) production mainly by the rich countries. The preservation of mangroves in the Indus delta at the Indo-Pak boundary, fisheriesriver pollution and oil spill in oceans are other examples demanding an ecosystem concern in policies.

In summary, the ecosystem approach is a method of sustaining four basic characteristics of nature:

  1. spatial heterogeneity,
  2. resilience,
  3. dynamic vulnerability, and
  4. organised connections between the sources and the sinks

The biggest challenge to this approach is the political constraints to an internationally coordinated action. Nations are so preoccupied with their narrow interests and secretive about their measures that they fail to look at the natural system as one comprehensive and complete community. This approach calls for institutions to acquire four essential characteristics called the 4 Ds: diversity, dynamism, decentralization and decisiveness.

Peter Omara Ojunga has mentioned four actions for applying the ecosystem approach:

  • I. An ecosystem inventory to determine community zones.
  • II. Identification of natural processes which lead to stability.
  • III. An inventory data analysis to evaluate the ecosystem components’ functional significance.
  • IV. Recommendation of the alternative uses based upon their functional significance.

Policies that facilitate action on the above four basic requirements are referred to as sustainable development policies since they protect ecosystems and reorient the search for alternatives.

Livelihoods Approach

Several agencies have adopted this approach, including Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and governments, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) and Department for International Development (DFID).

The livelihoods approach puts people at the centre of development at both the macro and micro levels. At the Macro level importance of the people is to accomplish the objectives such as poverty reduction, economic reform, or environmental protection. Likewise, at the Micro Or community level, Eco recognition of community rights, indigenous knowledge, etc.).

The livelihoods approach requires identification of the most pressing constraints faced by people as also promising opportunities open to people regardless of where these may occur (i.e. in which sector, geographical space or level, from the local through to the international). It may well translate into supporting sustainable resource management or good environmental governance.


Environmentally Sound and Sustainable Development has resulted from the Earth Summit and has now become an integral part of all economic and social fora.

Different national and international actors have been approaching the problem differently, and the search for an approach which achieves the purpose of environmental conservation and social well-being without slowing the process of economic progress in terms of GNP and GDP is the major challenge for policymakers.

The opulent-centred positivist approach prioritised the growth in terms of GNP/GDP alone and was criticized for disregarding the human dimension. It was discovered in United Nations Development Studies (UNDP) cross-country studies that nations with high GNP might also not necessarily have high human development.

Although GNP/GDP approach helps a nation to fight poverty, its success depends upon how the national policies distribute money and services to individuals.

Good governance of a country entails properly utilising wealth gained through increased GDP towards human issues, thereby protecting both the environment and the people sustainably.

In 1990, since the first HDR, the UNDP experts created the HDI, which exposes the myth of opulent-based approaches.

Since the protection of the environment and the long-term prosperity of people entail many different agencies and approaches, the multi-dimensional approach strives to address the fundamental principles of sustainable development. The main priority is its people-centredness.

Sustainability is a comprehensive and integrated paradigm and hence demands a high level of political commitment and an influential lead institution based on national political agendas. The policies to attain this paradigm must be process-driven, outcome-driven, and nationally owned. Its nature has to be participatory, involving monitoring, learning and improvement.

The implementation of this paradigm has overlapping limits of numerous other known approaches. The ecosystem approach sees environmental resources as a complete functional unit of the economy. Thus the separate ways being utilised to promote sustainability have come under challenge by this approach.

It proposes that sustainability aims are best and most successfully attained if the complete system rather than its separated portions or various species are declared policy objects. The entire system is an ecological unit and acts as a self-sufficient economy at the grassroots level.


  • Human Development Report (1990) United Nations Development Program, Oxford University Press.
  • Human Development Report (1994) United Nations Development Program, Oxford University Press.
  • Omara, Ojungu P. H., and H. Peter. (1992) Resource Management in Developing Countries, Longman Scientific and Technical Co., USA.
  • Redclift, M. (1987) Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions, Methuen, London, UK.
  • Robins, Nick. (1990) Managing the Environment: The Greening of European Business, Business International, London.
  • Schmidheiny, Stephen. (1998) Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, London.
  • Singh, Amita. (2000) The Politics of Environment Administration, Galgotia, New Delhi.
  • World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Worster, Donald. (1993) The Shaky Ground of Sustainability. In: Sachs and Wolfgang, (ed) Global Ecology, ZED Books, Fernwood Publishing, Nova Scotia.

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