Ken Arii

Balancing the Act: Development and the Protection of Natural Systems in Asia

Ken Arii, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, College of Asia Pacific Studies
Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

During the industrialization and the modernization of the Western world, natural resources were considered to be limitless and the environment was considered as something to be utilized and conquered.  Nowadays, the situation has changed; just as the Asian countries are starting to become a major presence in the arena of global economy, the Earth’s environment is in a very fragile state.  This is clearly a major obstacle for further development of Asian countries and regions, but because our surrounding environment is what keeps us alive and well, it is essential that we maintain the important qualities and the functions of the environment.  Findings from various scientific studies tell us that the natural environment can ameliorate the effects of various human activities, but there are also studies that tell us that there is a limit to this buffering capacity.  We are now in an era where we must balance development with the protection of our surrounding environment.

The idea of balancing development with protection, or the idea of sustainability, became increasingly popular after the release of the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1987), and this report provided the most widely quoted definition of the term sustainability or sustainable development: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  While there have been various criticisms to this definition, disseminating such an idea had the benefit of making people aware of the challenges they must address now and in the future.  However, we now face a more difficult task, which is to come up with concrete measures to achieve this goal.

From a systematic point of view, one way to achieve this balance is through a top down approach, where a higher level governing body regulates human activities through the implementation of policies and laws.  The advantage of such measures is that it can potentially be efficient at a large scale, making it “globally” optimized.  While this may appear desirable, there are several drawbacks in attempting to achieve the balance in this manner.  First, global optimization does not necessarily translate into local optimization, meaning that there will be some local patchiness in the success of achieving the balance.  In other words, measures formulated globally may not be suitable for conditions and situations found locally because the environmental conditions and the potential for development is not globally uniform.

Another major drawback is the fact that globally optimized measures are very often disconnected with the local constituents, resulting in less active participation by the important local stakeholders.  For many individuals, issues that are beyond their “sphere of daily existence” (in scale, in time, and in space) do not become a source of action.  For example, people living in East Asia may know what is happening to the tropical forests in Southeast Asia (i.e., deforestation), but very few individuals will take active actions to find solutions to this problem.  However, if there is a project to cut down a small woodlot just behind their property, all of the sudden it becomes a major issue for an individual.  Therefore, measures to achieve the balance at a global scale has the potential to be outside of an ordinary person’s “sphere of daily existence”, and as a consequence, the implemented measures may not have an expected effect.

The drawbacks of the top down approach mentioned above, both point to the fact that there are some benefits in trying to achieve a balance at the level of “sphere of daily existence”, i.e., the communities.  Modernization and urbanization have most often resulted in the disintegration of communities, however in recent times, the potential of communities is becoming increasingly recognized as an important operational unit in achieving sustainability.  In Japan, the Chisan-chisho movement (localized food consumption) and an increasing cry for the revitalization of the Satoyama System (socio-ecological production system) can be considered as evidence of such recognition.
While the roles that communities can play in achieving this balance require serious reconsideration, the functions of the higher governing bodies should not be downplayed.  They should continue to play an active role, but their activities should be somewhat subliminal rather than assertive.  Firstly, the governing bodies should provide clear and simple guidelines so that communities will have a general framework in which they can operate.  Secondly, they should collate information that would otherwise be impossible for the communities to gather, and this should be provided in a prompt and unrestricting manner to the communities.  This will allow the communities to make an informed decision on the problems they face individually.  Thirdly, the governing bodies should play the role of a facilitator, linking the various communities and organizations, locally, regionally, and internationally. Creating a network of communities and organizations will allow for collaborative governance, which would be a vital force in attaining such a balance.

Having mentioned all of the above, establishing such a system will not be an easy task.  The economies and industries in East Asia have mainly grown under the strong leadership of their respective governments, and this typically leads to development projects that are conducted at a large-scale (i.e., globally optimized).  However, as I have argued above, in order to attain a balance, or sustainability, an approach at the community level is also warranted.  Therefore, so long as development projects are globally optimized, there is clearly going to be a mismatch in scale.


Prior to industrialization and modernization, communities were functional and were mostly self-sustaining, and community members had accumulated knowledge and experience that had allowed their system to function in their respective environments.  Measures formulated at higher governing bodies to attain balance may ignore the wealth of information the communities produced, and this may result in a major loss to achieve sustainability.  It is becoming very difficult for countries like Japan to revert back to a state when communities were vibrant and played an important role.  However in the emerging countries and regions, there is still an opportunity for options in development, although this will come with a cost.  In the end, the choice is with the people in the respective countries and regions, but our surrounding environment is clearly telling us which we must choose.

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