“… the part of economics that ignores social justice, that is conditioned by the thinking that making a few people rich will be good for society – the view that economic growth is driven by concentration of wealth and capital accumulation, and then the trickle down will take place – that’s nonsense stuff. It’s never worked, and it never will.”

In Episode 9, we sit down for an in-depth discussion with Dr. Ashok Khosla (Development Alternatives) to ask: with COVID-19 opening a window into our unequal lives, how do create a fairer, just, and more inclusive post-pandemic world?

Watch Episode 9 on YouTube (with Captions)!



Dr. Ashok Khosla: You know, they’re all intertwined. You can’t improve the economy without improving your natural resource base, or your community institutions.

Colm Hastings: Welcome to The Green Renaissance. A podcast series from the Partnership for Action on Green Economy, that aims to unpack the green recovery debate. This month – with COVID-19 opening a window into our unequal lives, how do create a fairer, just, and more inclusive post-pandemic world?

Dr. Ashok Khosla: The part of economics that ignores social justice. That is conditioned by the thinking that making a few people rich will be good for society – that’s nonsense stuff.

Colm Hastings: Join us for an in-depth discussion with Dr. Ashok Khosla – Founder and Chairman of Development Alternatives and a global expert on social equity.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: If you don’t have social justice – If you don’t have distributive, fair, decent lives for everyone – then there’s no way that we can achieve those goals.

Colm Hastings: Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Colm Hastings, and this is The Green Renaissance.


Colm Hastings: It has been said that pandemics can act as a “great leveller”, and that the COVID-19 virus doesn’t discriminate. But is this really true? Of course, all of us have been impacted by the pandemic in some way or another over the past 18 months. But have we really been impacted in the same way? Have I – having been able to continue working safely from home – been impacted in the same way as a health worker, spending day and night on the frontline? Have the five million new millionaires – or even the so-called COVID billionaires – had the same pandemic experience as the 100 million others now living in extreme poverty?

Colm Hastings: If anything, the pandemic has only widened the gap between the rich and poor – exposing and compounding inequalities that predate the virus. It would therefore be incredibly dangerous to think that things will simply get better. Instead, we must proactively address the roots of inequalities to build a fairer post-pandemic world.

Colm Hastings: So that is the focus of our podcast today, and with us to have this discussion is Dr. Ashok Khosla – an expert on social equity and the Founder and Chairman of Development Alternatives. Before that Dr. Khosla also helped set-up India and the Global South’s first Office of the Environment, and was a key and influential figure in the crafting of the concept of sustainable development – including as a Special Advisor to the original Brundtland Commission. And that is where we begin today – with asking what the term sustainable development initially meant, what it means today in twenty-first century, and how the perception of social equity has evolved over time.


Dr. Ashok Khosla: Well Colm, I think I owe it to the audience to make correct one impression. It was not the Brundtland Commission that introduced the term sustainable development. I was of course, very deeply involved in the work of the Brundtland Commission, and contributed to quite a lot of the thinking and the writing of it. But, actually the Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future, came out in as you say, in 1987, but seven years before that, I was deeply involved with the writing of a document called the World Conservation Strategy. And this was a document produced by IUCN, on behalf of UNEP and the World Wildlife Fund, for the purpose of defining what conservation meant in the 20th century, in the late 20th century. And it was published on March 18th, to be exact, at 10 o’clock around the world, 10 o’clock in each of the capitals, of 1980 – 7 years before the Brundtland Commission – and its guiding theme was sustainable development.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: So the word sustainable development actually came into being on March 18th, of 1980. You need to know, and people need to know that, actually, IUCN was the pioneer of this concept. Which is counterintuitive, because IUCN is a bunch – a very large bunch – of conservation scientists. They’re biologists and ecologists, and they were bringing the idea of the need to bring development into conservation, precisely as a means of ensuring that conservation goals would be met, in a world that was increasing in population and demand and everything else. So, in a sense, the whole idea of the World Conservation Strategy was to reorient thinking – but not just protecting nature by putting fences around it – but by bringing it into the mainstream economy, as a contributor to the economy. But still, the Brundtland Commission needs to be given credit for the fact that it introduced this term at a level where it became more globally recognized.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: Having said that the second part of your question was – how do these three pillars basically show up? And, in the Brundtland Commission report, the social, the environmental and the economic were brought together. They were still seen as legs of a stool. They were still seen as pillars, as you call them. Separate, but more or less equal. In other words, bringing the environment and the people into the picture of economic thinking. Because almost everything since the days of, if not Adam Smith, the classical economists, you know, Marshall and Ricardo and all those people, and then the neoclassical economists of the late 19th and early 20th century, nothing was measured by anything but money.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: The Copernican Revolution that had happened in economics in the early 18th century, had been stuck. And the Einsteinian thinking about, you know, how to bring nature into it, how to bring communities into it, how to bring human beings into economics. It still isn’t, even today, it’s not in the thinking of economic professions, but at least some of us were concerned that environment is important, and prosperity is extremely important, which means profits are important, but not to the detriment of the societal issues. And, you know, the big issues are what you might call, community. The social assets of institutions that bind people together and reduce the pains and increase the fulfillment and happiness of individuals, families, households, and communities.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: In the last decade or so, at IUCN and others, have recognized that actually it’s not a three-legged stool anymore. It never was. It’s a strand, it’s a triple helix. You know, they’re all intertwined. You can’t improve the economy without improving your natural resource base, or your community institutions, and vice versa. So in a sense, now, the thinking today in the year 2020, 2021 – we have to now design our thinking, concepts, institutions, in terms of the interrelatedness between these three dimensions. And in fact, in an overall sense, in kind of a relativistic sense, these are three dimensions of a higher-level consciousness, of what constitutes a good life, what constitutes moral imperatives for the human race, and so on. I believe that we are headed in generally the right direction, but maybe not with the speed that is needed. Because the horrendous threats to life on earth, to civilizations certainly, and maybe to the human species, are mounting very rapidly. Whether they’re from loss of species and biodiversity, whether they’re from climate change, whether they’re from inequity and conflict, we’ve got real problems.

Colm Hastings: So you spoke about sustainable development initially being viewed as three separate legs, on a stool. And it’s only in the last, perhaps, decade that it’s now being recognized as this triple helix where everything is interconnected. So most of our discussions today will focus, I guess, on the social dimension, the social stool. Do you think it’s fair to say that the fact that this was viewed as three separate pillars at the start, and the social dimension was sat between two huge behemoths – the environment and the economic sides, which are often at times in conflict with each other – do you think it’s fair to say that the social aspect of sustainability has kind of been pushed to the side, it’s taken longer for people to appreciate as you said that the social dimension…

Dr. Ashok Khosla: Colm, your statement is very much conditioned by the fact that you’re from the North. This is not meant to hurt your feelings, it’s just that, you know, that’s where you’re from. And the idea of social being less important than the environment is historical, from the 1950s, 1960s. When I first got into the field of environment, I taught the first course on the environment at Harvard University. And so, you know, I’ve been involved in environmental law, and I’ve seen it from both the Northern point of view, because I was there most of my early life, and from the Southern point of view, because I ran the Ministry of Environment in India, I set it up in 1971. Now your question in a sense, betrays, a feeling that environment is important. Now in the South, there are 3 billion people who would never conceive of that as being correct.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: I mean, you know, of course, environment is important. They live with it every day. It’s integrated into their very thinking. The least wasteful societies are in the South. I mean, they can’t afford to lose resources. But for them, the social was just as important. So, you know, the fact of the matter is, what you would call in those days – developing countries, or LDCs, or whatever else you used to call them in those days – they knew all along that the social dimension was equally, if not more important than these two. Economics is important for everyone, because we have to create better conditions of living. But the part of economics that ignores social justice, that basically is conditioned by the thinking that making a few people rich will be good for society, the view that economic growth is driven by concentration of wealth and capital accumulation, and then the trickle down will take place – that’s nonsense stuff. We’ve seen. It has never worked, and it never will work.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: But in the 80’s and 90’s, it was an accepted wisdom. It was received wisdom – economists knew how to do things, and the fact that every eight years or so, the whole economy used to collapse, didn’t seem to bother anyone. But the point about it is, that, they could not see either environment, or society, as being relevant to their calculations. If it couldn’t be monetized, it wasn’t worth wasting time. It was an externality, belonged to somebody else’s problem. So throughout the period that we’re talking about, the people who considered social and societal issues not as important as the other two, were all in the North, and they were mostly guided by neoclassical economic thinking. But that’s not true of the rest of the world.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: It never occurred to me that social was less important. And in the course that we taught at Harvard University, it was clear that societal issues were what’s driving the sustainability of the planet. Now the word sustainable, didn’t figure in our thinking because that was in the 60’s. But it was very much a part of our thinking. We just didn’t have a term for it, but that’s basically what we were trying to cover. How do you bring about a balance between nature, resources, people and the environment. And economics didn’t have an answer to that. So I think the answer to your question is, yes, economics is important. Environment is important, and these are what you call behemoths. But for half the world, the biggest behemoth was, how would you say – deprivation, loss of identity, basically being excluded, not having any possibility of improving their lives. That was all social.

Colm Hastings: That was going to lead me into my next question, on the institutions, I mean, I think I would agree that there’s still an institutional divide today between the North and the South. I also agree with you, as something you said about things moving in the right direction, but not moving as quickly as they really need to be. The pandemic has shone an incredible and important lens on the social issues that are still huge and prevailing around the world. Particularly being from a Western country, you have governments that are willing to bail-out airlines, purely so that they can ensure that dividends are paid to shareholders. Then you have on the other hand, a hundred million people being pushed back into extreme poverty. So my question is, are the goals of social equity, social justice? Are they realistic, or even feasible within the current institutional framework that we have at the moment?

Dr. Ashok Khosla: They’re actually implicit in your question, two questions. Are they in principle feasible? Yes, no question in my mind. That everybody on this planet could be living a decent life, without destroying the resource base or the environmental life support systems, including climate. There’s no question that everybody could have a decent life, use, you know, a couple of tons of material a year, have access to so many kilowatt hours of energy, etc. Provided it was done in the right way, with the right kinds of technologies, with the right kinds of distributive justice. I don’t think there’s a problem for even 9 billion people. Although my theory, and I can pretty well prove it, that if you improve the lives of people, they have much smaller families. And there’s a totally direct correlation between the quality of life, and the quality of hope of life, and the number of children people have. And this is something clear to us in 1964, when I was teaching the course at Harvard, we were talking about this.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: So if you were to improve the lives of the poor, there’s no question that the population, the demographic transition, would take place very quickly. You know, the four Southern states of India – which is a very poor country – have already gotten to below replacement birth rates. Thailand, Sri Lanka, you know – these are places which even in poverty have been able basically to do this, by improving the lives of people through social welfare methods and so on. So it happens naturally. It’s not a draconian one child, one family policy – it happens because people want smaller families, but they can’t have them when they’re in destitution and extreme poverty. So the issue is actually that we never need to reach 10 billion, number one. But even if we were to reach 9 or 10 billion, there’s enough to go around, just about. But not enough for everybody’s expectation and greed.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: And, you know, Gandhi has understood this. You know, there’s enough in this world for everyone’s need, and there’s not enough for even one person’s greed. Now, if you don’t have social justice, if you don’t have distributed, sort of fair, decent life for everyone, then there’s no way, that we can achieve those goals. But those goals are not very ambitious, if the institutions were slightly different. So you don’t need a Piketty to tell you that there’s a huge amount of inequality in the world. In 1991, the Human Development Report, the first volume, the first issue, had on its cover page a champagne glass, which showed that 80% of the income of the world went to 20% of the people. And 20%, went to 80% of the people. And it was considered at that time, an unacceptable level of inequality.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: 15 years later, they published the same diagram, except now it’s like a barstool. Now nobody talks about 20 and 80, they talk about 1%. And in fact, in some countries, they talk about 0.1%. You know there are a hundred and, 167 billionaires in my country, in my poor country – 40 of whom, became billionaires during the pandemic. I mean, if you’re talking about institutions, you know, we’ve got rotten institutions. That basically, are designed to siphon money from the bottom to the top. It’s exactly the opposite of what it should be. And the whole system, the taxations, the fiscal systems, the power structures, the policies, are all geared to making a few people extremely rich at the expense of large numbers of poor people, who are made even poorer.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: The inequalities in the world – as I say barstool-level inequalities – are not only unacceptable, they’re criminal. They’re suicidal. They’re not even in the interests of the rich, except in a very short-term. Buying an island in the Caribbean, and having a yacht – you know, a hundred-meter yacht – is not going to save you for very long, if the rest of the planet is dead. So I think the institutions have been essentially hijacked by money people, and now they’re committing suicide. They don’t even know it, they don’t even understand that. But affluenza, extreme affluenza, is a terminal disease. As is povertitus. You can’t really survive either one for very long. But I noticed even in India, a docile, a totally passive country like mine, with country men who have gotten used to thousands of years of being fatalistic, even they’re rising up, they’re questioning. I mean, people can’t see that kind of wealth next door to you, and having your child starve. That’s not feasible for very long. And I’m hoping that the revolution will come at some point, in every country.

Colm Hastings: I do love the term rotten institutions. I think it really captures what we’re facing at the moment. I think people are as you say, beginning to understand that we do need new structures, we need new economic and political systems, a new way of valuing things that does incorporate people, does incorporate the environment. So as this understanding kind of develops, what is preventing it from happening? What is stopping us from actually taking this forward? What are the biggest impediments, obstacles, challenges, that is preventing a revolution, as you say?

Dr. Ashok Khosla: Well, it’s largely human nature in many ways. As I said, the natural inclination is that’s the way the world is. The American Dream was a very subtle form of doing the same. It basically gives you a carrot, which says you too can be a billionaire. And so everybody accepts that I might not be working hard enough to get there. So whether it is a dogma from religion, or caste systems, or social stratification systems of the kind that we have in countries like mine, or whether it’s an economic stratification system that you have in America, it’s not very different. It’s a way of keeping people down, and getting cheap labour, and exploiting people and etc.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: So basically, there’s not much difference between in a sense, the caste system and the meritocracy system over there, because ultimately you’ve got a few people, exploiting large numbers of people. And there may be a little more social mobility in one, there may be a certain amount of practical possibilities in the other, but morally and ethically, they’re both wrong. They are suicidal, as I say, from the point of view of civilization, or for humanity as a species, or even possibly for the life support systems, because we’ve basically seen that this large number of one species can actually mess up the planetary systems.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: And so the answer I think to your question is, what prevents us from being able to do something about this is really, in a sense, human nature. And our education systems, and our family upbringing, and our media, and our lack of leadership from our political leaders. You know, there’s a word in the English language called mindsets, paradigms. When I was younger, I wasn’t very good at spelling. So instead of mindsets, I kept hearing ‘minesets’ – m… i… n… e. And you know, I find that there are three ‘minesets’, and they are very endemic. They’re very deep. And we’ve got to change them.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: The first one is, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is up for grabs. This is the colonial mindset. I mean, you know, this is basically the first mindset and it sort of comes naturally to people in their DNA, but many societies, particularly indigenous societies overcome it. They have made ways of making communal, what people think should be individual. That mindset, I think, is really inimical to getting sustainable development. The second ‘mineset’ is mine and excavate Mother Earth, as fast as you can, and grab whatever you can, as many of the fossil fuels, as much of the minerals, whatever you can. So the second ‘mineset’ is about destroying nature, basically. We have the power because of our technology and our knowledge, to destroy nature and so, the second ‘mineset’ says mine the Earth, and grab what you can. The third ‘mineset’ is perhaps the most destructive – and it’s going on I mean it was in Afghanistan, it was in Iraq, it’s everywhere – is mine, and bomb the natives if they don’t give you what you want. And you know, it’s going on in the Congo, it’s going on in Indonesia. And so, it may not be as blatant as it was in the 19th century, but it’s just as bad.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: So these three ‘minesets’ are so deeply embedded in, maybe in our DNA, that they have to be overcome by value systems training, that the Elders in indigenous societies could do, because they understood the implications. But in our system, everything has been broken down and that’s why I don’t like the stool metaphor. Because our silos of thinking, have basically prevented us from understanding that everything really does depend on everything else. And it’s not just a truism, it’s meaningful. The Africans, the Indians, they all have sayings, which basically means ‘I am because you are. My life depends on the fact that your life is as important.’ And I don’t want to blame the West. I mean, it’s going on in every country, but the West sort of pioneered it. And the rest of us just followed, mindlessly. And this time it’s a ‘d’, mindlessly, into the oblivion that we’re headed. And, it’s so suicidal, that it’s beyond my understanding how so many people can be fooled by it.

Colm Hastings: Maybe now to spin that on its head. We’ve, so if we know what we’re facing with, we know what we’re dealing with – the kind of challenges, the ‘minesets’ as you said, that are kind of enabling the world to continue as it is. How do we overcome these? Obviously, as you said, education is important. A common theme throughout our series so far has been the rise of youth movements as a mobilizing force for change. But is this something that the will of the people can achieve on its own? Or is it going to rely on political will? Is it going to rely on an accommodating private sector?

Dr. Ashok Khosla: The only form of political will I can think of, which is real political will, is when a politician has the courage to do something that’s against his or her own political interests. That’s the only meaning that I can understand of the word political will. Now, there are not very many of those kinds of politicians. You know, the people who actually said to themselves and to their countries or to their constituencies, my country’s more important than my political career. And I think Gorbachev did that. He’s one. There were other people who had political will, people like Allende in Chile, what’s his name, the Bolivian President, what’s his name – Evo Morales, is one major example. But they’re not very many. And I think Mahatma Gandhi was one of those. He forsook political power so that he could be a moral conscience, he unfortunately got killed before he had enough time to do much more. But there are very few, very few of those. So political will is not something you can count on.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: My own personal theory is that the practical implications of what Gandhi said, of the right kinds of institutions, were decentralization. What the European Union calls subsidiarity, which is an ugly word, saying a very beautiful thing. Which is essentially putting people in charge of their lives. Community-based decision systems. Decentralizing and localizing, not just production and marketing and consumption, but the institutions of decision-making. I believe that’s the future of my country, that’s the one that I’ve mostly thought about. But I suspect it works everywhere. To some extent, the British system of government until Mrs. Thatcher was very decentralized. You know, a large part of Britain was ruled by the counties, and by a very, very strong understanding of the relationship between community and nature, that came from the countryside attitudes of Britain.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: But in a country like India, I think the parliamentary system is cockeyed completely from a systemic management point of view. We followed the British thing. It was totally inappropriate. I’ve been fighting it for the last 40 years, but going nowhere because everybody thinks the British system was the best. I don’t think Gandhi approved of this at all. Everything for Gandhi flowed from the people, up. And traditionally, Indian governance systems, in the days of the Maharajahs and Mughals and so on, was like that. They basically, the taxation was by the community, and they paid a fifth, to the higher level governments, to look after the roads and to look after the defense and you know, all that stuff. The bulk, the 80% of people’s lives were within the community and they were able to, you know, take care of themselves. There are certain things you have to do at the national level, but there are many, many things that you can do at the local.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: I think that applies to the whole world. It’s not peculiar to India that you need that. I think it’s a very good system, I’ve seen it work. So you can choose. But I think the institutions you are referring to, that are needed for promoting sustainable development have to empower people. Particularly the women, particularly the girls, particularly the people that got left behind, disabled, etc. But essentially, it’s the community that has to nurture these, these members of society that actually have a lot to offer. But we have the other way around. We collect taxes, which all go to the central government, central government in its largesse, bargains – you do this for me, and I will give you more money for it, you know – that’s crap. I mean, that’s basically how you destroy political systems and institutions. And that’s what’s happened, we’ve destroyed our political systems. Not just in India. This is true everywhere. That is basically infected right now, by the opposite of what’s needed.

Colm Hastings: I wanted to read you a quote, because you’ve spoken there about the importance of working through communities and stuff. So this was a quote that we had from an Inger Andersen, who is the Executive Director of UNEP, in our previous episode. And she said, and I quote: “We’re speaking about the green economy, but maybe we should also broaden it, because the economy is something we sometimes think about on the fringes. We should talk about the green society. We should understand that that future that we reach for, has to be for everyone.” I guess you would agree with that statement, but please correct me if I’m wrong. And if so, what would a green society mean or look like to you?

Dr. Ashok Khosla: You know, I do agree with it, in generic terms. I agree with anybody who says that people should live in a – I’m trying to avoid the word society because I need it for the definition – they should live in a place where everybody counts, all are given an equal and fair opportunity to fulfill themselves in whatever way they want, etc. So if you call that green society it’s fine. Green implies environment, and it’s making it very predominant. If the word green has a meaning, the meaning is environment. It’s not inclusive, unfortunately. For me, green is inclusive as well, but I have to define it every time I say so.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: So the word, if you want to use the word green with society, you have left out the economy. But if you don’t include the three different strands, and they have separate meanings today because of not language, but because of people’s perception – they are people, they are planet, and they are prosperity. There are three things, which in many people’s minds, if not conflict, there are trade-offs between them. People see them as being, not a zero-sum game, but being difficult to achieve at the same time, for some reason. I don’t believe that’s correct. I think we can arrange our affairs in such a way that all of them keep growing better and better all the time. But most people feel, because we’ve been trained to think, that anything we do that makes us pleased because of the advertising world, because of communication, because of the value systems we’ve inherited, that anything we do must hurt environment.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: So if we think like that, then you know, green is important. Society is important because we’re all human beings, and we live in a society. But prosperity is important too. And if you’re going to define words that are just two words, you’re going to leave out one. The only phrase that seems to bring it together is sustainable development, because sustainable can’t be sustained unless you’ve got environment and people in a sustainable situation, and development brings your economic thinking. But all I can say is, changing the words, isn’t going to change the reality. And reality needs a mindset, and a ‘mineset’, which is fundamentally different. There is enough for everyone’s need, and there isn’t enough for even one person’s greed. That is really the reality. And we’ve got to figure out, how everyone understands that by emitting carbon dioxide, they’re hurting not only the rest of the world, but they’re hurting themselves. Their kids are the ones we were always talking about as future generations. So they’re here now, the future generations are already here, you, the future generation. So now, you know, we’ve got to change our tune.

Dr. Ashok Khosla: So yes, a green society is very nice. A green and fair society would be even nicer. A fair, green and just society would be terrific. We can go on adding these things. But what your audience needs to think about is, how do I, as an individual, make all my actions sufficiently responsible that I have a great life, but I don’t prevent other people from having a great life either.