While the meaning of development is often filled with variable ideas by people trying to advance a range of equally variable agendas, we have a fairly good impression of what development generally aims to achieve – that is, increasing levels of human living through more jobs and higher incomes, better education and improved health, adequate housing, food security and more capable infrastructure and so on; all in turn satisfying our needs and desires, leading to greater freedom of choice, increasing levels of material well-being and individual and national self-esteem (Todaro, 1994). The global quest for such outcomes has gained tremendous momentum throughout the course of the last century, and today it continues with unabated urgency. It is also something that impacts severely on the environment.

The fundamental impact of development on the environment revolves around the scale and unsustainability of human demands on ecosystems and associated services (Adams, 2009). In order to realize the development outcomes mentioned above, a vast amount of natural resources of just about every kind is required.  Human demand for natural resources, fueled by the development related needs and desires of an exponentially growing global population, has already outstripped the capacity of ecosystems to supply and regenerate resources. Our Ecological Footprint, including the ability of ecosystems to process the excessive amounts of waste produced in the quest for development, currently exceeds bio-capacity by about 30%, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The sustainability of development cannot be separated from the long-term health of the ecosystems that support it. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) warns that when we exceed ecological limits, ecological functionality is immediately compromised followed by the erosion of essential ecological services. Such services help sustain life of all kind and include functions as such climate control and UV protection, water purification and flood control, soil renewal and nutrient cycling, primary (food) production and materials provision, pollination and pest control. The effects of ecological services wearing down under the strain of humanity’s Ecological Footprint are already manifesting with frightening regularity. In the words of Miller & Spoolman (2009:17) “forests are shrinking, deserts are expanding, soils are eroding, and agricultural lands are deteriorating … the lower atmosphere is warming, glaciers are melting, sea levels are increasing, and storms are becoming more destructive … water tables are falling, rivers are running dry, fisheries are collapsing, coral reefs are disappearing, and various species are becoming extinct”. The consequences of human demands on ecosystems and associated services are finally putting the well-being of all nations at increasing risk, and ultimately the very phenomenon that basically contributed to this state of affairs, namely development itself.

This synopsis of development’s environmental impact cannot end without brief reference to the effect of one of the outstanding attributes of development in the world – the fact that it is unequal. Not all nations are as developed or industrialized in the sense of belonging to the Group of Eight for example. This leaves quite a number of fast industrializing emerging markets already closing the gap by chasing the unsustainable levels of development of the latter group, while those still belonging to the ranks of the developing world will probably do the same when they develop their capability to do so.  Thus, without development following a more sustainable path, the future of the environment and ecosystem health looks particularly unpromising. 

Development + The Environment

“Humanity’s demand on the planet has more than doubled over the past 45 years as a result of population growth and increasing individual consumption”. (WWF Living Planet Report, p.2-3)

Scientists estimate that thanks to increasing human resource needs and ecosystem degradation, the rate at which species are now becoming extinct is up to 1,000 times the natural rate.

Of all the emerging markets in the world, China and India are the two most populous and most rapidly industrializing economies:

“The most important global environmental impact of rapid growth in the two Asian giant economies will be their contribution to global climate change. China’s share of worldwide CO2 emissions could reach 25 percent in 2025, the corresponding figure for India being 10 to 15 percent” (Kaplinsky, 2007)

Stats + Figures


Translator: Anton de Wit (Port Elizabeth, South Africa) Lecturer in Environmental Management Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

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