Human development is a collective striving for improvement

An extract from an interview on rearticulating human development with Ilona Otto, who specializes in social tipping dynamics for the stabilization of the Earth’s climate and the implications for human agency and environmental inequalities.

Dr Ilona M. Otto specializes in institutional and political economy, having graduated with a masters in sociology and obtained a PhD in resource economics. In her most recent research, she analyzes social tipping dynamics for the stabilization of the Earth’s climate as well as the implications and implementation of human agency for modeling human-environmental system interactions. She also analyzes environmental inequalities and the socio-metabolic implications of resource and energy, used to support lifestyles of different social groups.

This is an abridged interview. For the full interview, click here.

A focus on wellbeing

Human development is a collective process in which we always try to improve. Wellbeing is central to this process, not in the sense of having more and more things, but in the sense of having a good quality of life. On the individual level, this is a life in which basic needs are satisfied and there is time for oneself. On the collective level, it is about societies that take care of its vulnerable members, that leave no one behind or alone. But taking care of nature is also part of improving human wellbeing.

There is no justification for people to be starving in the 21st century: the impacts of malnutrition among young children and/or those born to undernourished women, for example, are lifelong. A world that focuses on wellbeing cannot afford to tolerate this, to be so unequal. Every child deserves an opportunity to develop, and education is key to providing such opportunities.

A question of agency

The end of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of the rational choice paradigm, according to which individuals pursuing their own interests would lead to the good of the whole of society. But this overlooks the fact that every individual does not have the same degree of agency. Fortunately, people can come together to restructure social institutions, rules and regulations to make up for deficits in individual agency. An individual school child would have very low agency but, as the Fridays for Future movement reveals so strikingly, the collective agency of millions of school children on the street is hard to ignore.

Interestingly, the initiative taken by a small minority of committed actors can change established patterns of behaviour and even technology. Only 20–25% of the population can trigger a change in social norms. Indeed, populist movements rely on this phenomenon to change the terms of societal debate and even some rules.

Working across disciplines and informing policy-making

Continued human development requires contributions from a host of disciplines, from medicine to philosophy to psychology. Transcending disciplines is how one can move past the immediate details to glimpse the bigger picture. Social scientists working on energy, for example, do need to understand the physical properties of the relevant resources, whereas engineers or materials scientists would ideally have some understanding of political or cultural considerations.

Take the novel coronavirus pandemic as an example. Policy-makers want to know about what this crisis means for trade networks, for international security, not least because they are becoming aware of the limitations of classical economics, which brooks no crises. Responding to their needs requires interdisciplinary approaches: for example, more complex and agent-based models that accommodate more social differentiation and networks between agents than do models drawing on classical economics.  

The pandemic’s implications for understanding human development

The last few decades have witnessed an ever more interconnected and globalized world. The pandemic has abruptly exposed the risks inherent to such a system. Not only is there a higher likelihood of crises in such a world but there is also a higher likelihood of problems emerging in one part of the world spreading like wildfire to other parts of the world. Continued human development in such a world requires rethinking the global system and recreating it so that is becomes more resilient to such systemic risks.

The pandemic is also a reminder that the environmental dimension of wellbeing and human development has not received sufficient attention. Human encroachment on what was previously wilderness and the increased frequency of interactions between humans and wildlife was bound to increase the risk of diseases being transferred from animals or birds to humans. The pandemic may finally impress upon the world that humans are embedded within their environment, are an integral part of it.  

Finally, the crisis is a reminder of what really matters in life: not owning things but having access to food, water and electricity, and to schools and healthcare. Hopefully, the crisis will prompt governments to take back their role of protecting the most vulnerable and creating public goods. It may encourage companies and the wealthiest individuals to take care of the less fortunate. If this happens, then it would be a silver lining to the dark clouds of the pandemic.

Based on an interview with Ilona Otto.

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