Posted by: chrismaser | March 27, 2012


A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend upon the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.—Albert Einstein

Of the several facets reflected in the term “development,” we, in the United States, have chosen to focus narrowly on development as material growth through centralized industrialization, which we glibly equate with “social progress” and a “standard of living” through continual, linear economic expansion. The narrowness of this view is, I believe, behind the Western industrialized notion of “developed” versus “developing” or “under-developed” nations.


I have worked in various countries over the years without giving much thought to the notion of “developed” versus “developing” or, as some would put it, “under-developed,” although I have spent time in countries bearing each label. During a trip to Malaysia some years ago, however, I was profoundly struck by the arrogance and the narrowness of our thinking.

Malaysia is the only place in which I have ever heard the people refer to their own country as “developing,” as though they were lesser than “developed” countries and must somehow “catch up” to be equal. I was deeply saddened the first time a man apologized to me for being from a developing country as he requested permission to ask me a question. What’s more, that was a common occurrence—even from a university professor!

I was speaking at the Universiti Pertaniam Malaysia, Serdang, Selangor, when an professor of Indian ethnicity raised his hand to inquire if he might ask me a question. I said, “But of course.” Whereupon he apologized immediately for being from a developing country, and then asked his question, which I answered. At that point, however, I ceased my presentation on the effects of dams on ecosystems, indigenous cultures, and sustainability said: “We need to get something straight right now. We need to discuss the meaning of development,” which we did for about half an hour before I resumed my presentation.

What, I wonder, are we inadvertently teaching the children of the world when they see their parents apologizing in some way for being a human of lesser worth as opposed to a Westerner from an industrialized country?


How dare we claim cultural superiority to any other peoples when we daily denigrate the basic concept of human equality at home! The Malaysians, on the other hand, expressed a national unity the likes of which I had never before encountered, not even in the United States, where all my life I had been taught about and heard about equality that is not practiced.

Malaysia is as great a mixture of cultures, national origins, and religious beliefs living in as small a space as I had experienced. Yet, when I asked people what their ethnic heritage was, their answers reflected national unity. They referred to themselves as Malaysian Chinese, Malaysian Indian, Malaysian Sri Lankan, and so on. But, were I to ask such a question in the United States, the response would be to focus on our divisiveness: Afro-American, German-American, Latino-American—as opposed to American-African, American-German, American-Latino, wherein our commonality of being “Americans” is refined by the addition of an ethnic heritage, such as “African, German,” or “Latino.” While the difference may be subtle, it is profound.

On any given day in Malaysia, I ate breakfast the Malay way, using both hands with a spoon in one and a fork in the other. At lunch, I ate with chopsticks, and at supper, I sometimes ate as much of the world eats, with my right hand as the only utensil. If I was eating with people of Indian background, I used a banana leaf as a plate. There were even four, hour-long, evening news programs—one each in Malay, Hindi, Chinese, and English. Of course there were social problems, but I had never before experienced such integration of differences into a sense of wholeness.

As a guest and stranger in Malaysia, I felt that sense of wholeness encompass me. I felt welcomed and accepted for what I was as a human being—not who I was as a nationality. In a strange, indefinable way, I felt more at one with the people of Malaysia than anywhere I had ever been.

If this is not social development, what is! But then it depends on how one defines development. If development is defined as a certain material standard of living based on the consumerism of centralized industrialization, Malaysia is indeed behind the United States. But if development is defined as social civility and tolerance, the United States can be thought of as a “developing country” wherein access to social acceptance and justice is anything but equal.

And, what about living, hunter-gathering peoples who not only have civility and tolerance, which leans more toward acceptance of one another, but also have a long-term, sustainable relationship with their environment? Are they not developed?


It is ironic that the very people who consider themselves to be developed—and therefore “civilized”—are the very ones who have, throughout history, so ruthlessly destroyed the cultures of those they unilaterally brand as “undeveloped” and therefore necessarily “uncivilized savages.” Fortunately, despite the continuing onslaught of “civilized” peoples, there are a few remaining aboriginal ones, some of whom live in the deserts of Australia and Africa, as well as the jungles of South America and other geographical areas of the world.

I say fortunately, albeit they are severely endangered, because there is much about development and sustainability that we in the industrialized world can re-learn from them. After all, our ancestors were also indigenous, hunter-gatherers at one time. Our problem of late is that we have forgotten most, if not all, of the social-environmental wisdom they once knew. And it is precisely this loss of ancient wisdom that is forcing us to focus on a contemporary question: How must we view “development” if the concept is to be equitable and sustainable?

Make no mistake, “develop,” “developed,” and “development” must be viewed by all parties as equitable if development is ever to become sustainable because technological innovation is making society not only ever-more specialized and unjust but also ever-more vulnerable to social-environmental collapse. And yet, we continue to march from generalization toward ever-narrower specialization without regard to the necessary balance between the two.

If “development” were viewed within a context of choice based on an elevated level of consciousness, answers to the following questions would be very different than they are today: What do we mean by under-developed? What do we mean by developing? What do we mean by developed or by development in general? What do we mean by equality? What do we mean by poverty? What do we mean by social-environmental sustainability?


If a lifestyle promotes social-environmental sustainability through conscious choice, conscious simplicity, self-provisioning, and recognizes the relationships between a person’s own sustenance and the livelihood of their immediate surrounding (their fidelity to their sense of place) in relationship to the larger world, that life is not necessarily one of poverty. This leaves the way open to change the indicators of development.

Progress, therefore, would be any action that moves a person, community, culture, or society toward social-environmental sustainability. For society to progress in this direction, decisions must be made that recognize and respect the requirements and rights of future generations, as well as the requirements and intrinsic value of all species and the Earth’s biophysical carrying capacity with respect to its human population. (Carrying capacity is the number of individuals that can live in and use a particular landscape without impairing its biophysical function for the benefit of all generations.) Thus, “biophysical carrying capacity” is a very different concept from our blind faith in “material progress,” which we think of as “development,” by which we really mean continual, linear, economic growth of more—ever more.

Again, I think the narrowness with which we view development (i.e., the centralized production of material consumer goods through industrialization) is one root of the arrogance with which Western industrialized countries designate themselves as “first-world” nations and all the others as “second-” or “third-world” nations. In Canada, however, the aboriginal peoples have turned this notion around.

Although the Canadian government refers to the aboriginal peoples as “Indian bands,” the people think and speak of themselves as “First Nations.” The people think of themselves as First Nations because they were among the original people on the land in time and space, long before any of the outside invaders even knew the “New World” existed.

Add development to this time-space sense of First Nation, and a clearer picture emerges. The indigenous peoples were not only among the first humans in what is now Canada but also had developed a lifestyle that had long been sustainable in and with their environment, despite the fact that they warred among one another. Yes, the invaders—with greater numbers and more destructive technology—subdued the indigenous peoples, stole their land, and systematically destroyed their cultures. What’s more, these same invaders, upon landing on foreign shores, began immediately destroying the environment through economic exploitation for personal gain, something the aboriginal peoples were not prone to do. In fact, the invaders even fought wars amongst themselves over who was going to get the “lion’s share” of the stolen spoils.

There is a great contradiction here in the notion of development. Those invading peoples—who deemed themselves more advanced or more developed than the indigenous peoples—destroyed lifestyles that had been, more often than not, sustainable for millennia, while simultaneously introducing lifestyles of exploitation for personal economic gain that have proven to be non-sustainable—not only historically but also contemporarily. If, therefore, social-environmental sustainability is added as a necessary component to the concept of development in the broader sense, the indigenous Canadians have an even greater claim to being the “First Nations.” The same is true for the extant hunter-gatherer cultures of the world today.


But then, you might ask, who are the “second-” and “third-world” countries we have so often heard about? Professor Ralph Metzner of the California Institute of Integral Studies, has a good idea. He suggests that the world of modern cities and the nation state is the “second-world country,” while the global, capitalist-industrial economy constitutes the “third-world county.”

Historically, he says, each of these so-called worlds superimposed itself on earlier cultures (in the sense of absolute force). In an ecological sense, these invading, larger systems became parasites that destroyed the indigenous cultures they parasitized. This parasitism was—and is—largely in terms of the flow of energy. “The flow of resources, including raw materials and food,” observes Metzner, “is primarily from the indigenous world to the urban, national, and … industrial worlds, whereas military and political control is exerted in the opposite direction.”1

Sustainable development is thus about the meaning of enoughness and biophysical irreversibility. (See principles 8 and 9 in “related posts” for a broader discussion of “biophysical irreversibility.”) Here the operative questions are: When is enough, enough? If we err in our decision, to what extent is the outcome repairable? Such questions are imperative because the accepted definition of sustainable development (in the biophysical sense) is vital to promote a change in the content of social-environmental decisions. What is needed to resolve our social-environmental problems goes beyond environmentally safe commodity production and technology.

Instead of the current tinkering with the symptoms of our social-environmental malaise, problems must be solved at their source—our world view assumptions and values—because these drive our decisions, policies, laws, and behavior. The notion of sustainable development thus calls into question the very purpose of Western industrialized society, our participation with our home planet, and demands social-environmental justice, which in turn challenges the very heart of our perceived relationship with Nature and one another—present and future.


We, as planetary citizens, must learn to think for all generations—both born and unborn—when making social-environmental decisions, because the great and only gift we have to give those who follow us, the adults of the world, are choices and some things of sustainable value from which to choose. Today’s decisions become tomorrow’s consequences, a notion that highlights the word “responsibility.”

Responsibility is a double-edged sword in that our responsibility, our moral obligation, is to choose carefully today so that all generations can respond viably to the circumstances we have not only created in our time of choice but also bequeathed for their time of choice. Intelligent decisions on our part are possible only when we both recognize and accept the intrinsic value of Nature as a living being rather than viewing Nature solely as a collective resource (host) from whose body we extract (parasitize) a variety of commodities as the life’s blood of our current, dysfunctional, competitive, linear-growth, economic system.

Development must be flexible and open to definition rooted in community and culture because the values promoted must meet various necessities and situations in space and time. The process of valuation embodied in sustainable development must address social-environmental justice—which means social-environmental sustainability—in recognizing both the right and the necessity of equal access to resources, including equal distribution of goods and services, while simultaneously protecting the long-term, biophysical sustainability of the systems that produce them for all generations.

Related Posts:

• Principle 8: Change is a process of eternal becoming

• Principle 9: All relationships are irreversible

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• Children Deserve A Voice In Their Future—Instructions for Adults

• The Link Between Nature’s Commons And Our Cultural Commons


1. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: Ralph Metzner. Where is the first world? Resurgence, 172 (1995):126-129).

Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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