Reimagining Human Development and the Planet

January 12, 2021

The world has entered a new era of complexity and instability, with atmospheric carbon levels not seen in three million years, onset of the sixth mass extinction in the Earth’s history, growing severity of disasters and accelerating frequency of pandemics affecting billions of people. Far from a dystopian tale of the future, the convergence of these and other sources of fragility are now upon us, pushing hundreds of millions into poverty and displacement, and eroding fundamental freedoms at the base of human development. In addition to calls for more integrated policy solutions, scaled-up finance and technology innovation, the existential nature of the challenge has also exposed many of the underlying defects in development policy.

The consensus at the base of development is in flux, with conventional paradigms of growth and development among the root causes of the planetary crisis; complicit in the destruction of the natural world, and outdated and ill-equipped to address the specter of civilizational collapse. The conventional view of human development elaborated by Sen and ul Haq has been that progress is about expanding human potential, enlarging freedom, and helping people develop the capabilities that empower them to make choices. But the pace of ecological change and societal impacts makes this equation incomplete, as ecological change emerges as a primary source of ‘un-freedom’ in the world today.

As planetary boundaries are breached, development pathways are destabilized and so too are basic principles of human development like capability, agency and freedom. What happens to the concept of human agency when humanity has revealed itself as driver of planetary change? How can the concept of 'development as freedom' evolve into 'sustainable development as freedom' as ecological change causes mass disruption and as sensibilities about agency and freedom transform? How can development pathways shift from linear to systems approaches to better grasp the complexities of socio-ecological tipping points and transitions?

Beyond multilateral environmental agreements, green finance and technology innovation, combating the planetary crisis requires adaptation in human development theory itself, moving beyond the anthropocentric orientation and epistemic divides between humans and nature from which development theory emerged, by which human freedom has been equated with freedom from nature. In seeking solutions, a need exists to bring development theory back down to Earth.

The search for a new balance between humans and nature is at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the newly-released 2020 Human Development Report (HDR). In a new HDR background paper on Rethinking Human Development in an Era of Planetary Transformation, I propose an agenda for change; reviewing inherited legacies and barriers and setting forth a vision for transformation. Three key elements are important in this regard.

Agency as a Socio-Ecological Complex
We need to move beyond the assumption that human agency is the only force shaping development results and embrace the reality that ecosystems are imbued with a form of capacity, serving as impersonal agents shaping our world. This will entail firstly letting go of inherited anthropocentric, reductive and mechanistic perspectives, and embracing a new vision of human development as being the emergent property of a complex and adaptive socio-ecological system. A new concept of ‘impersonal’ or ‘distributive’ agency would help counter the narcissistic reflex embedded in anthropocentric paradigms of progress. Ecosystems are not simply intermediaries through which causes and consequences flow, but rather are driving forces in the story of development with trajectories of their own shaping development outcomes.

Decolonizing Human Development
Today’s dominant paradigms of development retain an implicit bias towards the exploitation of nature as a means of moving along a linear pathway from a mythic state of nature to the modern developed world. This has roots in an Enlightenment worldview on the division of nature and culture whereby so-called primitives in the global South were seen by the West as lacking agency and capability to reshape nature for the sake of civilizational progress. To many in the South, today’s planetary crisis remains connected to legacies from the colonial era and its civilizing mission. This includes systemic legacies from the violence suffered by ecosystems and communities, and devaluation of traditional worldviews on the balance between humans and nature. Reimagining human development requires a better understanding of the local contours of history and reengaging the pluralism of worldviews that exist across the world on the balance between humans and nature. This process builds on the ongoing re-emergence of the South as a voice in global policy, disrupting the geopolitical consensus around development policy, and generating bottom-up ideas to reshape human development theory in the coming years.

From Global to Planetary
In addition to the above imperatives to reimagine basic concepts such as agency and freedom, and to re-pluralize the geopolitics of knowledge production, transformation will also come from a reimagination of the planet. Relative to a past emphasis on the ‘global’ as a socio-economic and financial-technological frame of reference for development policy, the new 2030 Agenda rests on a notion of the ‘planetary’, in recognition of the planetary boundaries of development. As the existential nature of the planetary crisis catalyzes new hopes and fears around the world, a more holistic planetary worldview could also signal a shift in socio-cultural outlook. Beyond anthropocentric, utilitarian values that underpin modernity, a new planetary ethic can serve as an awakening from the socio-economic allures of globalization in which our sense of self and our ecologically destructive actions have become deeply embedded. Beyond the science of planetary change, a new moral story, narrative and system of values are needed, setting a new planetary ethic and a new vision on the state of nature and the nature of human development.

The 2020 Human Development Report comes at a critical juncture as the world seeks solutions to the planetary crisis and results under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The coming years can be characterized by the continued breach of planetary boundaries and more frequent outbreaks of disasters and pandemics, or it can be defined by a transformation to sustainability. In addition to multilateral agreements, scaled-up finance and technology innovation, transformation will need us to fundamentally rethink development, reimagine the state of nature and the nature of human development, and forge imagine new compact between people and planet.