What is "Development"?

The formula "Sustainable Development" has become a catchword, and it is a good thing. But while everybody agrees more or less on the meaning of sustainability, as defined more than twenty years ago by the Brundtland Commission (meeting the needs of our generation without hampering the capability of future generations to meet their needs), the word “Development” is rather more ambiguous. We shall adopt the viewpoint of UNDP:

Human beings constitute the real wealth of nations. The primary objective of Development is to create an environment allowing living a long healthy life and expressing one’s creativity. The daily preoccupation with acquiring goods and riches tends to occult this basic truth. The excessive focus on economic growth, wealth creation and material prosperity has hidden the fact that development is above all centred on the human being.

Three essential indicators of development are probably the capability to live long in good health, to acquire knowledge and to have access to enough resources to live decently. Absent these essential conditions, many other opportunities remain out of reach. Economic growth must be considered as a means, significant indeed, but not as the ultimate target of development.

In use since1990, the human development index (HDI) is a composite index that measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life; access to knowledge; and a decent standard of living. These basic dimensions are measured by life expectancy at birth, adult literacy and combined gross enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary level education, and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars (PPP US$), respectively.

Of course, HDI is not an exhaustive measure of the human development. Focussed on the three basic above mentioned factors, it cannot take into account the many other important aspects of human development (for instance, freedom, human rights, etc.). It is also a measure of the average performance of a country, which does not reflect internal disparities and inequalities.


What about Energy ?

Even though energy is not a primary need of Man as are food and water, clothes and houses, health and education, mobility and communication, it has a specificity: some amount of it is necessary to fulfil all the other needs: irrigation, fertilizers and agriculture need energy; cooking and food conservation by refrigeration require energy; building houses and heating them (not to mention air conditioning) consume energy; transportation depends heavily on energy, and the modern means of information, communication and data processing would not even exist without electricity, a very sophisticated form of energy.

Since the domestication of fire, the development of mankind has proceeded together with an increase in energy consumption, and a diversification of its uses: fire was used to heat the cave, cook the meat, harden the tip of the wooden spikes and keep the wild beasts away. Animal energy made possible agriculture and transportation. Wind mills and watermills have powered the infant industries which grew up with coal and the steam engine. Oil started as a fuel for lighting – saving the whales from early extinction – before allowing for an extraordinary development of land and then air transportation, and electricity, a vector particularly flexible and indispensable for the domestic and tertiary sector, can be generated from any primary energy source available.

At the turn of the XXIst century, access to energy differs deeply from one region to the other: a denizen of the Indian sub-continent must make do with 0.4 toe per year, while an European can access to 4 and a North American, to 8. While it is pretty obvious than an European can enjoy a much higher quality of life than the average Indian, who can pretend that a North American lives twice a well as a citizen of the European Union? But by contrast, there is no development possible without a minimal access to energy.