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Sustainable Development

a system of 14 complementary concepts

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Tentative exploration developed from the framework of W T Jones (The Romantic Syndrome: toward a new method in cultural anthropology and the history of ideas. Martinus Nijhoff, 1961). See also Differences in Style of Artistic and Policy Endeavour (1984).


It is a basic mistake to assume that the concept of sustainable development can or should be held in the same way, whether between cultures or within any culture. The questions as to whether an individual or a society can 'develop' through work (other than in the obvious ways that preoccupy educators, economists, physicians and psychologists) are not understood in the same way in different contexts.

For some, although alternative understandings of sustainable development are a reality, individual and social development does not necessarily mean a journey through a pattern of such less readily accessible modes. Individual and social maturity has not been effectively defined and it is uncertain whether it lends itself to definition. And for many, the degree of individual suffering in the world renders quite absurd any discussion of human and social development that does not concentrate on basic human needs. In some traditions, however, it is the failure to cultivate some of the less widely recognized modes of 'sustainable development' which is directly responsible for the ills engendered in the world.

It is useful to attempt a systematic approach to the variety of ways in which sustainable development might be perceived, as a means of increasing understanding of the constraints on providing any satisfactory definition. This will also make evident the difficulty of attracting any consensus on strategies of human development and environmental responsibility. Whilst it is possible to discuss these perceptual modes as models, a broader and more insightful discussion results from treating such models as part of a set of metaphors.

The following alternative perceptions are therefore discussed as metaphors or windows through which sustainable development might be understood. Each has strengths and weaknesses in contributing to that integrative form of sustainable development which must necessarily escape definition. Grouped in pairs these may be considered as 'axes of bias' forming a profile of preferences for any particular individual or group. It is the interaction between such profiles in debate which predeterlines its course, to a larger degree irrespective of the declared intention to be 'objective':

These 'axes of bias' derive from work by the philosopher W T Jones who was concrned with a new methodology in dealing with strongly held differences in any debate. His interest was provoked by the unending debate on the definition of the 'romantic period' -- hence the title of the book. The result, which he extended to both the sciences and the arts, is one way of understanding the different emphases which people and cultures may bring to any debate -- prior to any 'rational' discussion on substance. They are not mutually exclusive. This initiative could be related to that on the underlying metaphors of different management styles as explored by Gareth Morgan (**). Can each such emphases or bias be recognized as a skill in a pattern that interrelates their differences?

(a) Order vs Disorder

Namely the range between a preference for fluidity, muddle chaos, etc. and a preference for system, structure, conceptual clarity, etc.

1. Ordered array: Modes of development can be viewed as constituting an ordered array, like stations on a subway network. This view would tend to be favoured by those who are used to defining their environment in an orderly manner, in terms which favour management and control, whatever the degree of simplification necessary. In such an array, all modes are relatively accessible, although some may only be reached through intervening conditions. Modes are different, but not necessarily better in any developmental sense. In this metaphor, development might be envisaged in terms of extending and complexifying the network into a rich array of modes. This would be contrasted with a less developed condition equivalent to a subway network with relatively few stations and (possibly unconnected) lines. Goals of human development might be expressed in terms of improving the stations, increasing the facility of movement throughout the network, and organizing the network into the most effective configuration of stations. (To be contrasted with...)

2. Disorder and chaos: Modes of development can be viewed as completely unordered, to the point of being essential chaotic and disorderly. This view would tend to be favoured by those who have lost control over their environment, realize that they are subject to more forces than they originally assumed, or simply prefer the challenge of the disorderly and unpredictable (cf William James, Bergson, Schopenhauer, Rousseau). Modes of development are then too confusing to present any stable or orderly features permitting them to be distinguished or labelled. In this metaphor, development might be more concerned with ways of experiencing this chaos more completely, responding to it in a manner unfiltered and uncensored by artificial orderings.

(b) Static vs Dynamic

Namely the range between a preference for the changeless, eternal, etc. and a preference for movement, for explanation in genetic and process terms, etc.

3. Static structure: Modes of development can be viewed as forming a static, semi-permanent set of psychological conditions (especially by those who benefit from such predictability). This view would tend to be favoured by those seeking a reliable workforce (employers), stable markets (advertisers), or faithful constituencies (politicians), over an extended period of time. The view is then reinforced by legislation and regulatory procedures anticipating the range of basic needs of the average citizen, which are held to be unchanging or to change quite slowly. Human development is then primarily the process of ensuring that more people have such needs satisfied. (To be contrasted with...)

4. Dynamic structure: Modes of development can be viewed as constituting a dynamic structure, in which the modes arise in the dynamic relations between static elements. Like harmonies and melodies, based on a configuration of established musical notes, such modes cannot be readily isolated and named. They only exist as dynamic relationships changing continuously. This view would tend to be favoured by those who respond to the unique opportunities of the moment, possibly because their survival depends on the uniqueness of their response. In terms of the musical metaphor, human development then becomes a question of being able to form more complex harmonies amongst the predictable features of the environment, encompassing for longer periods the disharmonies which might otherwise be considered more significant.

(c) Continuity vs Discreteness

Namely the range between a preference for wholeness, unity, etc and a preference for discreteness, plurality, diversity, etc.

5. Discrete phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as distinct, with some form of boundary separating them. This view would tend to be favoured by those who need to distinguish clearly where they are, either from where they have been, or from where they want to be. As on a ladder, each mode corresponds to a dependable step and there is no intermediate condition. In terms of this metaphor, human development may then be conceived as moving up a series of steps, possibly understood as a series of initiations, or developmental stages. From each successive step a broader view may be possible, incorporating those below it. (To be contrasted with...)

6. Continuous phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as part of a single continuous field of development. In the light of field theories, particular modes might then be understood as interference patterns (cf Moiré patterns). In this metaphor, human development might be understood in terms of increasing the number and complexity of such interference patterns and increasing the facility for shifting elegantly between them.

(d) Inner vs Outer

Namely the range between a preference for being able to project oneself into the objects of one's experience (to experience them as one experiences oneself), and a preference for a relatively external, objective relation to them.

7. External relationship to phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as externalities, as objects of investigation, and as 'places' that can be visited. As such their existence is independent of any particular observer. This view would be favoured by those with either a rationalist or an empiricist orientation. It is basic to the assumptions in many educational development programmes. Human development is thus a question of acquiring the expertise, or possibly the technology, to gain access to such places at will. (To be contrasted with...)

8. Identification with phenomena: Modes of development can be held to be only genuinely comprehensible through an intuitive identification with the experience they constitute, experienced by the observer as he experiences himself (cf Bergson, Hegel). This view would be favoured by those whose views have been strongly formed by particular unsought personal experiences of altered states of development, largely unconditioned by external explanations and expectations. Human development from this perspective might then be viewed as progressive achievement of a more profound, enduring, and all-encompassing identification with such states through which identity itself is redefined.

(e) Sharp focus vs Soft focus

Namely the range between a preference for clear, direct experience and a preference for threshold experiences, felt to be saturated with more meaning than is immediately present.

9. Sharply defined phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as being directly experienceable (cf Descartes, Hume), like individually framed paintings. This view would tend to be favoured by those concerned with the objective reality of such states as joy, pleasure, and love. For them, any other kinds of development are unreal abstractions of no significance, other than as distractions from the concrete reality of human experience. Human development might then be viewed as a process of achieving more intense experiences more frequently, rather as an art connoisseur seeks greater exposure to better paintings, through which his taste is developed. (To be contrasted with...)

10. Implicitly defined phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as implying levels of significance greater than that immediately experienced (cf Hegel, Whitehead, Niebuhr, Proust). As with the experience of an iceberg, this view would tend to be favoured by those for whom development encompasses both the tip and some sense of the invisible presence of its underlying mass (and the possibility that it may suddenly become visible). Significance is derived from the unexpressed presence or the potential of any moment. Human development might then be viewed as the birth of such potential and the increasing recognition of the immensity that remains unexpressed.

(f) This world vs Other world

Namely the range between preference for belief in the spatio-temporal world as self-explanatory and preference for belief that it is not and can only be comprehended in terms of other frames.

11. Inherently comprehensible phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as comprehensible in terms of existing paradigms or through their natural evolution. This view would tend to be favoured by pragmatists, and those with a scientific orientation, for whom a satisfactory explanation in terms of collectively known factors must eventually be possible (if one cannot immediately be imposed). Human development is then a process of making what is known to the experts more widely accessible and of investigating what they do not yet comprehend. (To be contrasted with...)

12. Inherently incomprehensible phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as calling for explanation in terms of other frames of reference, which may not necessarily be accessible to the human mind (cf Plato, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Plotinus, Niebuhr, Toynbee). This view would tend to be favoured by many religious groups and in cultures sympathetic to belief in other levels of being or realms of existence. Human development is then essentially an evolving mystery whose nature is beyond the grasp of the human mind.

(g) Spontaneity vs Process

Namely the range between a preference for chance, freedom, accident, etc and a preference for explanations subject laws and definable processes.

13. Phenomena in a context of due process: Modes of development can be viewed as subject to known (or knowable) laws as a part of definable processes. This view would tend to be favoured by those endeavouring to develop programmes of human development in which certain modes are experienced at certain stages or developmental phases. Human development is then viewed rather like an educational curriculum through which people need to pass in an orderly manner, building on appropriate foundational experiences, to the possible levels of achievement defined by the outstanding pioneers of the last. (To be contrasted with...)

14. Spontaneous phenomena: Modes of development can be viewed as totally spontaneous conditions or peak experiences unconnected to each other. This view would tend to be favoured by those who perceive chance, accident or divine intervention to be prime explanatory factors. It is also natural to those who respond spontaneously to their environment, placing relatively little reliance on norms and expectations. In this view human development is the increasing ability to rely on the spontaneity of the moment and the ability to respond proactively to the opportunities it offers.


Clearly these different views are not mutually exclusive and overlap in complex ways in the case of any culture, discipline or school of thought. The 14 views have in fact been elaborated on the basis of an investigation by W T Jones (1961), who developed 7 axes of bias by which many academic debates could be characterized. The 14 views above form 7 pairs of extremes corresponding to the extreme positions on such axes. Jones showed how any individual had a profile of pre-logical preferences based on the degree of inclination towards one or other extreme of each pair. The scholars named in each case are those given by Jones as examples.

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