What is Sustainable Development? II

Economic Growth and Progress

One very crucial aspect of sustainable development is economic well-being and prosperity. There have been great gains in material well-being. In average income per person, in other indicators of material life, such as health and life expectancy, over the course of recent decades.

We’ll see, of course, that these are not gains enjoyed by everybody within a country, certainly not in all parts of the world. But on average there have been very notable gains in economic well-being achieved through decades of economic growth. And this is a phenomenon that is of crucial importance for those countries that are still poor today. Perhaps their, their greatest goal is to achieve economic growth so that they can narrow the gap in material conditions that they face today with respect to the richer countries. If those countries living in extreme poverty today where, that they can hardly meet their basic needs, are aiming to live like more of the world that increasingly has assurance of basic needs, and many parts of the world that live with remarkably high standards of living.

Another aspect of this material change is that in a world of greater production greater ability to grow food greater productivity in manufacturing, in transport, in power and in other key parts of the economy. The population has risen alongside that from the middle of the last century in 1950, the world’s population at the time was about 2.5 billion people. It’s roughly tripled since then, absolutely extraordinary to around 7.2 billion people today, and the numbers are continuing to rise. Roughly an increase of 75 to 80 million people added to the world’s population each year. Meaning that it won’t be long, probably around 2024, 2025, when another billion people will be on the planet when we’ll reach the 8 billionth person.121

Let’s look at what growth really means and there has been no, exemplar of economic growth more remarkable than China. Of course, it’s the world’s most populous country, with 1.3 billion people. So anything major that happens in China is earth shaking. But also China has been among the fastest growing economies in world history. Since China undertook some basic market reforms, after 1978 until just about the last couple of years when growth has begun to slow a little bit, China was averaging roughly 10% per year economic growth. Absolutely astounding, and it’s very handy, you know, something that I’ll refer to many times to use what we call the rule of 70. Take the number 70, divide it by the growth rate in this case 10, 70 divided by 10 is 7. It means that China has been doubling it’s national income every seven years. The rule of 70 says 70 divided by the growth rate gives you the number of years to double the size of the economy. Well, what does that mean? Take a look at Shenzhen China.122

Shenzhen is a city very close to Hong Kong in southern China. And in 1980, or so, when you receive this picture, Shenzhen was a small village, mainly rural not very many people perhaps 30,000 people living in Shenzhen. Now, take a look at Shenzhen today, nearly 10 million people, Shenzhen has become a modern metropolis, it’s a major manufacturing hub for the world. Not only did populations rise, did incomes per person soar, but also, how people live has clearly, fundamentally changed. From rural agricultural livelihoods to modern urban manufacturing and services and in a matter of three decades. While most of the world’s not going to experience a Shenzhen like change. But that basic pattern of economic growth a transition from poor, small-holder farming to modern manufacturing, especially modern service economy, is part of the normal pathway of economic growth. And while very few places grow at the rate of 10% per year with a seven year doubling time, it’s still is the case that many parts of the world,123 even many of the poorest parts of the world today are experiencing significant economic growth, and with that a significant transition to urbanization. Any significant transition from agriculture, to manufacture and especially to services.

If you look at the next graph, you see something also, absolutely astounding that we really need to keep in mind, and that’s demography. In other words, change of world population. Now, this is a graph that shows you the long, long haul over the last couple million years, even before there was the modern human species. But let’s just take the human part of this and what we call the Neolithic era, that’s since the age of agriculture began around 10,000 years ago.  Well, the human population for a long time if you look at the picture from 10,000 years ago, maybe 7 or 8,000 years BC, was less than a half a billion people. Of course, nobody knows but maybe, 300 million people of all the people on the planet. That number did not change very much for a very, very long time the graph is quite flat numbers rising, and maybe to 4 or 500 million people in 1AD. And that tells you that over much of human history since the beginning of agriculture, human population did not change very much. But take a look at the right hand side of the graph, all of a sudden, the population begins to soar. Just about the time of major breakthroughs in technology around the industrial revolution the beginning of the era of the steam engine in 1750 or so, we see the population curve turning up and turning up remarkably steeply.

124Around 1830, humanity reached the great milestone of a billion people on the planet. So for thousands and thousands of years, the population was under 1 billion. Then from 1830 to 1930 just in one century, the second billion was added. But then the numbers really started to soar, because from 1930 to 1960, just 30 years, the third billion was added. We’re on track to go from 7 billion, reached in the year 2011, to 8 billion, probably around 2024 or 2025, 9 billion sometime in the 2040s. So this change of population is absolutely astounding. Our age is an age of economic growth combined with rapid population growth, and together, those two dynamics have meant a massive expansion of economic activity, of total output produced on the planet each year, and of course, alongside that, a massive increase of humanity’s impact on the planet. And that is one of the great challenges in sustainable development.

Now, another bright spot of recent development, is that alongside that economic growth, and alongside the rise in population numbers, has also come improved health. Around 1950, for every 1,000 children who were born, an estimated 134 out of the 1,000 would not survive till their first birthday. That number 134 per thousand is the infant mortality rate. It tells us how many children won’t make it to the first birthday. What’s very heartening is that that number is coming down, and coming down sharply, so that 134 per thousand IMR, or infant mortality rate, is down to an estimated 37 per thousand today. 37 children still don’t make it to their first birthday, dying of malaria or, pneumonia, or other preventable diseases. Millions of children, dying before their first birthday, still of preventable and treatable causes. We’ll talk about that. We’ll see what can be done. We’ll see how even more progress can be made, and can be made rapidly. But taking the historic trends, to drop from 134 to 37, is a real accomplishment. And one that has improved the quality of life and certainly eliminated a lot of the tragedy and anguish that was part of humanities existence until the improvements of public health, and modern medical care. With more children surviving and with health improving at older ages as well, the good news is that our life expectancy is also rising, and rising very considerably.

Take a look at what’s happened to what we call life expectancy at birth.125

That is statistically the, the average length of a life span taking into account the risks of death at each age. In the middle of the last century in the period 1950 to 1955, the average life expectancy you know, for people on the planet was around 47 years. Pretty short. As of today, the estimated life expectancy at birth is more than 70 years. Or roughly 71 years. And in the high income countries, around 80 years. This is another example of economic growth and material progress, and an example of the kind of progress that is being achieved in most parts of the world. What’s the lesson? The lesson is that this first pillar of sustainable development, economic well being, is something that’s achievable, and being achieved in large parts of the planet. There are fewer tragic deaths of young children, and greater health and longevity for most of us, with life expectancy rising several decades from what was experienced in the middle of the last century until now.

This shows, while economic development can improve lives, lives in which one can have the confidence that their children will also grow up healthy, survive, and have good prospects in life.

But what we need to do, is to ensure that, that economic growth is inclusive, that it’s not leaving millions and millions of people behind, and that it is environmentally sustainable. So that the progress itself doesn’t cut our natural life support systems of biodiversity, food productions, safe climate productive oceans. Because if we do that, the gains that we’ve made will turn out to be fleeting and evanescent, that could lead to real tragedy. So it’s that holistic approach of ensuring, that economic growth and material improvement, is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable, that is the great challenge.

Pedro Pereira Leite

Researcher and professor. He had his PhD. on museology in 2011, with the title “Muss-amb-ike Homeland: The commitment on musicological process”, that was published in 2011. In 2012 he finishes a Post-PhD Research on "Biographical Glances: The intersubjectivity poetry on museology, at Lusófona University (Lisbon). Presently he is working in his Post PhD. Research about: “Global Heritages" with the aims to build a network on local cognizance and memory manager has a tool to build the will of action in 3 different communities, linked by past communed heritages.” He works at CES. He participates on different Research network, presented papers in national and international conferences, and had published books on research subjects.

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