Is Sustainability Relative?

Posted on October 17, 2011 by


Appropriate strategies for sustainable development are context-specific, with different priorities depending on how far people are up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A four point strategy for identifying approaches for sustainable development is outlined and the importance of regulatory ‘top-down’ intervention emphasized.

The concept of sustainable development concerns the management of resources available to humanity. My interpretation of the aim of sustainable development, as of most if not all other activities, is to increase the level of net-happiness on both local and global scale. Management of resources and happiness have a close correlation, especially in regard to meeting the most basic needs. According to Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs these basic needs are breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. Bad resource management can easily lead to lack of any of them. The most widely known shortages in modern times are of food and water, with expanding deserts and increasing food prices.


Depending on where people are located on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs their priorities for sustainable development differ. If basic needs of survival are not met then it is questionable to criticize people of disregarding health or chopping down the last tree. For people whose basic needs are not met many needs are clearly secondary to ensuring continued survival. As a result, in poorer countries sustainable development is often understood as “sustained economic development” whereas people at higher levels in the hierarchy of needs seek to fulfil priorities not directly related to their own survival and occupy themselves with less vital issues (relatively speaking) such as animal rights or working hours.
If sustainable development is context-specific it should ideally also be applied accordingly. If that is not the case then problems such as of the controversy currently embroiling Conservation International surface, which is being accused of having collaborated with the military to evict poverty-stricken indigenous people from La Selva Lacandona in Mexico in order to create a nature reserve. In this example a better solution than forced relocation would have possibly been a payment for ecosystem services scheme, though these often suffer from rampant corruption.

Decisions are rarely straightforward, and deciding upon whether to deforest or not, whether to use ten tons more or less of potassium or if 199 or 32 wolves can be shot, is often reliant on values. For the developed world, where people’s basic needs are mostly met, I would encourage a discourse on the consumption pattern of resources and to what extend one can reduce consumption of luxuries in order to help future generations make ends meet. I would support the following four point approach:

· Identifying context-specific needs

· Generating recommendations to reduce or limit consumption of resources

· Developing safeguards that protect the present system against potential disturbances

· Application of recommendations

In most cases potential solutions can only be successful through bottom-up and top-down measures. However, I will willingly out myself as an institutionalist who believes that top-down measures are of more importance in the long-term and that civil society should force governments to generate and enforce appropriate laws to safeguard humanity from destroying its own system. This, as do other approaches, has significant drawbacks in that it limits freedom. However, in order to maximize net happiness and ensure humanity’s existence as we know it, I think we need such approaches.


Maslow AH (1943) A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50:370-96.