Political Economics of the Environment: Sustainable Development


The seventh of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals reads: “Ensure environmental sustainability.” Indeed, on the surface, sustainable development is a goal about which everyone could agree. Who would be for unsustainable development? In fact, there is no consensus on the meaning of the term. Some definitions emphasize the importance of preserving natural capital for future generations, while others aggregate all forms of capital together—arguing that our only obligation to the future is access to an equivalent standard of living. A related dispute is over the relationship between environmental sustainability and human well-being, as well as how the relationship may differ by gender, class, and other factors. This course will examine these differing views of sustainable development, both in theory and through the examination of specific development projects. Economists approach environmental questions through three differing theoretical schools: environmental economics, ecological economics, and political economics. These schools use differing techniques to value the environment, offer different understandings of what would be good environmental and economic outcomes, and advocate different policies to achieve sustainability. Underlying these differences are political economic questions of the distribution of power and resources, both globally and within specific countries. This course will explore the range of views, with an emphasis on understanding the assumptions underlying their disagreements and on the policy implications of these views. Topics will include the policies of the World Bank, sustainable agriculture, the controversial issue of resource privatization, and cases of specific commodities such as gold and cotton that illuminate the problems and complexities of sustainable development.