From Dark Satanic Mills to Human Development in an Unsustainable World

Dr. Andrew Crabtree , Copenhagen Business School

The industrial revolution brought with it unprecedented growth and an unprecedented reduction in income poverty. Yet, at the same time, it ushered in the growth of CO2 emissions which have led to climate change. The title of this paper is both optimistic and realistic. The paper charts the move from seeing development in terms of increased GNP per capita (and poverty measured in terms of dollars) to a multidimensional view of poverty as embraced by Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s capability approach (Sen, 1999; Nussbaum, 2006).  From such a perspective it can be seen that there can be transformational changes in human development (for example due to behavioral changes which end discrimination against women) which have little or no effects on the environment i.e. positive sustainable development. However, Sen (Drèze and Sen, 2013) continues to insist that growth is necessary for human development in India (as do the Sustainable Development Goals) despite the negative effects on the environment. Similarly, India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi stated “Climate justice demands that, with the little carbon space we still have, developing countries should have enough room to grow,”

As climate change is already here, we have no carbon space. We are already living in an unsustainable world and any additional greenhouse gas emissions will only add to the problems climate change entails. Thus we face a dilemma, for if Sen is correct, some aspects of human development seem to necessitate an increase in greenhouse gas emissions which will necessarily harm others. This paper asks how, if at all, the capability approach can deal with such apparent dilemmas.

To illustrate the problem, I take the case of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSISs) which has accused India of hiding behind poverty whilst the states drown. The Small Islands Developing States (SIDSs) use the slogan “1.5 to stay alive”. Current projections based on the Paris agreement suggest a scenario of double that amount by 2100.

 Can this dilemma be resolved? Form a utilitarian or cost benefit point of view, India should continue growing as millions more people will, potentially, be lifted out of poverty, than the relatively few people affected in the SISs. From a Rawlsian perspective, the maximin principle would require the priority of the worst off which, extended over time, would be those living on the SIDSs.

The two major proponents of the capability approach, Sen and Nussbaum, have very little to offer in such cases. Nussbaum offers a list of 10 central capabilities which she argues are necessary for human flourishing. These include being able to live to the end of a human life of a normal length, but she does not provide a decision making procedure to choose between the two cases discussed here. Sen’s work has concentrated on the removal of manifest injustices and it is unclear how his framework will resolve this issue. Indeed, he embraces the view that in some cases there is simply no answer. The issue is further complicated by that fact that the SISs are sovereign member states of the United Nations and implicitly, some nation states are causing others to disappear (Park, 2011). This is something that most states would reject and indeed feel justified in defending themselves when invaded as does India in Kashmir.

The paper will argue that, based on Scanloinian contractualist ethics (Scanlon, 1998), India’s poor and the people living on AOSISs can justify the eradication of multidimensional poverty and the mitigation of climate change in ways that others cannot reasonably reject. Indeed, Drèze and Sen’s own data suggest that poverty can be substantially reduced at much lower growth rates. Furthermore, improvements in health and education will, in the long run, be beneficial for climate change as they will reduce population growth. The Indian elites, as with other countries, will have to reduce their emissions.


Drèze, J., & Sen, A. (2013). An uncertain glory?: the contradictions of modern India. London, United Kingdom: Allen Lane.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006). Frontiers of justice. Cumberland, RI: Harvard University Press.

Scanlon, T. M. (1998). What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. London, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Sen, A. (2009). The idea of justice. London, United Kingdom: Allen Lane.

Park, S. (2011) Climate Change and the Risk of Statelessness: The Situation of Low-lying Island   


About the speaker

Dr. Andrew Crabtree is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School. He took his MA in Philosophy at the University of Surrey and has an M.Soc.Sc. in Development Studies from Birmingham University. He gained his PhD at the Department of Environmental, Societal and Spatial Change at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. He was the co-founder of the Sustainable Human Development thematic group of the Human Development and Capability Association. Dr Crabtree publishes on a wide range of issues including sustainability, climate change, disasters, mental health and ethics.

Venue: Conference room (0.16 & 0.17)

Date: 01 March 2018

Time: 12:00 - 01:00