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Interview with Joyeeta Gupta, professor of Environment and Development in the Global South

Mw. prof. dr. (Joyeeta) Gupta
Credits: Jeroen Oerlemans

How do we ensure a better life for all without damaging the ecosystem on which we depend? This is probably the most pressing question facing humankind as we venture into the 21st century against the backdrop of climate change and the spectre of environmental degradation. Little wonder then that sustainable development has become a priority for governments and societies across the world. Sustainability and sustainable development are also key focus areas for Joyeeta Gupta, professor of Environment and Development in the Global South. Gupta heads the UvA’s Centre for Sustainable Development Studies, which was launched in 2015.

What are the aims of the Centre for Sustainable Development Studies?

The centre is focused on strengthening collaboration and dialogue across the UvA on the subject of sustainable development. We take a bottom-up approach and welcome contributions by anyone who wishes to take part. In addition, my group ‘Governance and Inclusive Development’ contributes contemporary social and academic themes to the curricula of the Master’s programmes in International Development Studies and Environmental Geography. These include themes like maritime fishing conflicts between different countries, between large-scale and small-scale fisheries, and between fishers and environmentalists. Another topic is technological progress: does gene technology lead to more dependable food production for everyone, or to the patenting of seeds, which only benefits corporations?

Where does your passion for sustainable development come from?

A key event was the Bhopal gas leak at the Union Carbide, which caused thousands of fatalities. As a child, this tragedy made a huge impression on me and ignited a passion to contribute to a more responsible and sustainable manner of development. And once I set my sights on something, I give it my all.

How are economic development, well-being and sustainability related?

This relationship unfolds at various levels. A good example is at the level of global climate change. On the one hand, developing countries are most significantly affected by climate change and are, as a result, impeded in their developmental prospects. For example, think of heavy rainfall in China, which damages infrastructure and hinders economic development. On the other hand, traditional economic development often puts strain on the planet, because to develop one needs energy. Until recently the general view was that developing states could use fossil fuels, but this approach isn’t sustainable. Simply put: we’re crossing planetary boundaries. All of us need to make the transition to renewable energy sources right now.

Which development issues will you focus on in the coming years?

In the summer of 2016 the UvA organised a conference at which the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were critically assessed. The conference – which brought together about 600 researchers, policymakers and NGOs – also gave us the chance to compile a list of future research questions. One of these questions is: ‘Will the process of sustainable development be hijacked by powerful actors to suit their own needs and interests, or can social movements ensure that there is a redistribution of resources towards transformatory politics?’ But I don’t only want to focus on individual questions. I primarily want to bring together a mix of expertise that can answer all of these questions. Sustainable development touches on many disciplines: geography, anthropology, gender studies, international relations, law, business, and so forth. I see it as my duty to forge links between these disciplines.