Sustainable Development: A concept with a future?
[I'm afraid the footnotes appear at the end of the docuement.]
[Attractive copies of this Liberales Institut Occasional Paper
are available free. Simply send me an email. This is a slightly
"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising
the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
Sustainable Development as defined by "Our Common Future",
The World Commission on Environment and Development, 19871
Sustainable Development has been a huge success in the talking
shops of the world. In think-tanks, universities, PR agencies and
the UN, it has been a triumph.2 It is also influential: it is a
staple ingredient of treaties and laws. But we have no idea whether
anyone very much really cares about SD when it comes to how they
vote or spend their money. And we have very little idea whether,
on the ground, Sustainable Development is at all possible. This
paper will answer two questions which arise. Is SD difficult to
implement because the concept is empty, or because what it demands
is difficult to achieve? And if the latter, are the obstacles to
achievement primarily technical or political?
My answers are that the term Sustainable Development is not empty
but is badly abused, and that it would be difficult to aim for the
real thing, even if we wanted to, which very few of us do. To put
it bluntly: because people insist that SD legitimises either economic
development or green romanticism - or that it can reconcile them
- its whole value is thrown away. Its real value is that it frames
debate. And we should also see that it is hopeless to burden the
concept with social issues it cannot manage.
These difficulties have not stopped this pair of words becoming
a mantra which is offered as the golden mean by which all human
life should be measured. They are at the heart of dozens of policies,
laws and treaties - national and international - and thus they might
be supposed to govern the way we live, from the way waste is handled
and housing planned to how we discuss the future of energy generation
and transport. They have become central to a discussion about how
we should conceive of human happiness and the idea of economic growth.
They are not ringing, declaratory words, and the public mostly yawns
when it hears them.3 But politicians, academics and policy specialists
know they are immensely important: policies can be sold and can
be scuppered by their canny use.
To its severest critics, Sustainable Development is an absurd oxymoron,
"nonsense on stilts", in Jeremy Bentham's phrase. Even
a much milder critic may wonder whether the concept has much meaning.
A political analyst - or a Post Modernist - will wonder who mostly
"owns" the idea, and how different forces inside and outside
government use it. After all, ideas - like technologies - are blameless:
it is the uses to which they are put which do harm or good.
It is too little realised that Sustainable Development was devised
not merely to reconcile two opposites. At its core is the idea that
for most of the world's people, their poverty - their lack of development
- is an environmental blight which may make poverty as unsustainable
as industrial development can more obviously be thought to be. The
"Brundtland Report" noted that "poverty reduces people's
capacity to use resources in a sustainable manner; it intensifies
pressure on the environment".4
This essay aims to unpick the idea of Sustainable Development.
It is written by an agnostic. That's to say: I think SD might sometimes
be quite a useful idea, but that in practice it hardly ever is.
It is wilfully abused by almost everyone who uses it. It is bent
to the public relations purposes of its false friends. It is paid
most honest respect by those who dislike and complain about it the
most. These are, on one hand, those full-on capitalists and admirers
of industrial progress who believe "sustainability" is
another name for backward-looking luddism.5 Some "progressives"
of the left also marshal arguments against environmental timidity.6
And, on the other, the romantic radical greens believe it is used
as a cover for much of the "development" they disapprove
of. For a writer in the radical UK-based Ecologist magazine, the
new principle, "'No development without sustainability; no
sustainability without development' is the formula which establishes
the newly-formed bond. 'Development' emerges rejuvenated from this
liaison, the ailing concept gaining another lease of life".
7 As purists, these three parties hate SD's inherent compromises
- or fudges and obfuscations as they think them. The term concerned
IUCN, one of the groups which might be thought to be one of its
pro-genitors, on the grounds that it is too readily confused with
"sustainable growth" (judged a logical absurdity by this
group), and with "sustainable use" which applied only
to living resources (but was approved of by them).8
Still, all is not lost: many old-fashioned greens of influence
have now substantially moderated their views and use the idea of
Sustainable Development in ways which are not awful, even if they
are perhaps to be resisted. The concept has helped tame some important
hotheads, and it has provided the cover under which they can cease
to conduct ideological war on the mainstream world, and instead
conduct an uneasy debate with it. For Jonathon Porritt, "The
concept of 'sustainable growth' is in fact a contradiction in terms:
exponential growth.... cannot be sustained indefinitely on a finite
resource base...... But sustainable development is possible ...
When one looks at it more carefully, what we're really talking about
is putting the earth's economy on to a less unsustainable path than
it's on currently....".9 This surely rather confused endorsement
comes from a writer and activist whose career trajectory has seen
an arc from the radical view that Western economies and political
systems are unreformably unecological, to his present chairmanship
of the UK government's official advisory body on Sustainable Development.
This quotation, from 1990, sees him about half way through his progression.10
Unpicking the two parts of Sustainable Development
The problem with "Sustainable"
"Sustainability" is a word with a simple basic meaning.
It is closely synonymous with "durable" - that is: something
is sustainable if it is workable in the sense of being lasting.
But durability is not an ideal measure of merit. Some things are
environmentally durable but socially intolerable. African poverty
for millennia was wholly "sustainable": primitive people
lived close to nature and close to starvation for thousands of years.
They were much more the victim of their environment than its conquerors.
Some socially desirable things are not environmentally durable.
Many developments which seem or even are "unsustainable"
are well worth undertaking provided they are short-lived, or their
unsustainability is short-lived or doesn't much matter. Not every
environmentally undesirable project is so damaging that it should
not be undertaken. And then of course there is the immense problem
of assessing how well we can know or predict the "unsustainability"
of a development.
The problem with "Development"
Meanwhile, "development" is a word whose meaning we used
to understand, but which is losing its anchorage by being bound
in with "sustainability". It used to mean the economic
progress which took people out of poverty. It meant the process
by which Third World societies would modernise. People whose existence
bears comparison with the Stone Age would be lifted into the Satellite
Age. We understood that there was a cruel paradox in calling poor
countries "Developing Countries", because actually many
of them were not developing at all.
Used in this sensible way, the "development" was something
the West had done historically, and the Third World aspired to now.
Yet Sustainable Development was supposed to be something equally
needed in rich as in poor countries.
"Development" is not the same thing as economic growth,
and yet if Sustainable Development is to bind the West into its
maw (rather than condemn it out of hand), the distinction has to
Putting the problems with Sustainable Development together
Sustainable Development may fail as a concept because it does too
little real work, or because it demands too much. It is a tautology:
it is a statement of the all-too-obvious - that a development which
can't last, won't last. But it is clear that a development may impose
undesirable environmental damage year after year and yet survive
and thrive. This failure might be the concept's: environmental virtue
may well not be necessary to durability, except in extremes which
are hardly common.
But we may be failing the concept. The public may be too lazy to
bother with it. The idea certainly has not much caught the popular
imagination in its first decade or so of life. More seriously, it
may fail to acquire serious support if it is found that SD merely
reminds us how large are the sacrifices that would be needed if
we were to worry much about our children and grandchildren.
Poor countries will not do Sustainable Development if it depends
on respecting their rainforests: they will respect their rainforests
when they have enough development to be rich enough to care about
But the concept may fail also because it reminds us that the future
is necessarily unknown. That was the burden of a witty little book,
Small Is Stupid, by Wilfred Beckerman in which he argued (as he
put it in a conference contribution later): "Future generations
cannot have rights. The basic reason for this is that future generations
cannot have - in the present tense - anything. They cannot have
long hair or a taste for Mozart." Besides, he adds, we cannot
know what we will know in the future, though we can be sure that
it is more than we know now.12 Rich countries may persist in progress
which is currently "unsustainable" because they have faith
that their ingenuity and wealth make them capable of surviving most
All in all, we may believe that we are not clever enough to know
what the future holds, or to manage it, but we believe we will be
clever enough to solve problems we do not have solutions to now.
And, we may note, we are simply not virtuous enough to forego present
pleasure in order to earn the thanks of the unborn, who may in any
case look back on what we think is foresight and note it to have
been unwarranted anxiety.
So our problem is that we do vaguely understand that sustainability
matters, but we would have to be very sure of the awfulness of some
consequence of our present actions to forego them. And even if we
cared, we would have to be convinced that the future could not somehow
manage those consequences.
Can we predict and manage?
SD invites us to plan; that is, to look ahead, and to manage the
future. This requires an enormous leap of faith: have we ever successfully
planned anything? We have tried to plan economies, wars, and education,
health and welfare, and recently it has become much more accepted
that we have very patchy records in doing so.
Perhaps environmental sustainability is different to these other
enterprises. Of course, mankind attempts to understand his planet
and understands that he must keep within its limits, and of course
he attempts to predict the future. But these approaches have always
appealed to mankind, and he has always devoted some attention to
them. Foresters, farmers and industrial chemists have attempted
to manage their concerns with varying degrees of attention to, and
success in, making sure they do not damage the environment. Modern
waste management - whether of domestic or nuclear waste - tries
to understand whether it is storing up serious problems for the
future. Landfills and underground storage of fissile material are
both discussed in these terms. The point is: Sustainable Development
brings nothing to the discussions that a Victorian would not have
understood. We could as easily say: "Clear up after yourself".
Or: "Don't foul your nest". Or (in a coining of my own):
"Aim to clear up your mess in your own locality and lifetime".
(I state it as an unachievable aspiration.)
Sustainability may tidy up some of this thinking, and may help
us focus on it. But it is surprising how little new analytical bite
it has brought to the human enterprise. This failure arises, probably,
because the concept is used as though it were a rule book, a dogma,
which it is too conflicted to be. Besides its great usefulness so
far has been as a public relations device of the worst sort: it
is used to smother truthfulness, not discover it.
The history of Sustainable Development
Its history tells one a lot about the idea. We need to see that
the broad concept was around long before it was called Sustainable
Development. But even more interesting, we need to see that it was
designed to force romantic environmentalists and the "world
development movement" in the West to see that the Third World
as much needed good old-fashioned economic development as it needed
their radicalism, however well-meaning.
The green radicals
In the West, governments have been enacting environmental legislation
since the 15th Century in a very haphazard way, and since the late
19th Century in a quite systematic way. Many gross forms of pollution
had been tackled, and more subtle and complex problems were being
addressed. Still, at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the
1970s a new movement was born.13 Young radicals seeking a field
of protest, campaigning and activism found themselves drawn to the
problems facing the planet's natural systems as man's industrial
power and impact grew. This new group - the "greens" -
drew their intellectual inspiration from a particular reading of
the lessons of the relatively new science of ecology. Their reading
of the science was eccentric and even perverse, but it was powerfully
attractive. Broadly speaking, it stressed that natural systems were
- are - in essence stable, fragile and co-operative.14 If this was
true of our habitat's systems, should it not also be true of our
economic systems? After all, surely man's industry could not escape
the laws of physics and nature? Its raw materials are those resources
which nature provides, and its wastes are emitted into the earth's
biological fluxes. Indeed, nature thrives because it has no wastes,
only cycles. Our industrial wastes are, in this view, unnatural
and deathly. So as we exploit the resources of our planet - whether
they are growing or inert - we are denuding it, and as we exhale
pollution, we are poisoning it as well.
At first, this new world view swept all before it. It was an idea
as powerful and challenging as socialism. Socialist promoted the
view that capitalist society was unjust, and that ultimately it
was inefficient. It could be transformed gradually or in revolutions:
elites could listen and respond to argument, or the masses' rage
would do the work of argument for them. The green thought was very
similar: man was inflicting injustice on his planet. This was not
an efficient way to live, and we could either mend our ways or the
planet would rebel against us by force. Interestingly, of course,
the advocates of ecological justice were the same sort of people
as the advocates of social justice had been, and they argued against
the same sorts of people. Industrialists, politicians, and - much
more ambivalently - the middle classes were the enemy. The middle
classes were a complication: they were exploiters and polluters,
of course. But just as the middle class had provided much of the
support for socialism, so now they were the bedrock of support for
From the start, "ecologism" (by which I mean ecology
as a movement rather than a science) had global pretentions. It
was largely inspired by the very modern thought that the planet
could be seen and thought of as a whole. It was home to many complex
systems, but seen from space, these were clearly in some sense one
large system. Quite what that sense might be was open for debate.
James Lovelock, a brilliant scientific inventor, proposed that it
might be some sort of organism.15 Actually, he left it rather unclear
whether he meant that the planet literally had a life of its own,
or whether its systems were so entwined that one might as well think
of it as though it had. In any case, from the start he was at pains
to draw very different lessons from his idea than many of his fans
supposed he did. He has been a long-time proponent of the nuclear
industry, and all the more so now that he believes global warming
is a severe threat.
As ecologism swept north America and Europe, it became a powerful
media cliche that man was damaging his fragile "Spaceship Earth"16.
A new line of argument was produced. The planet was finite, and
its biosphere was fragile: there were "limits to growth",
and there were signs that they were being exceeded. What was needed
was an economy which could live within its means. This would require
a reversal of an obsession with economic growth to a "No Growth"
The development radicals
But elsewhere, the need for economic growth was becoming much more
clear, and it attracted its own radicals. Television brought images
of worldwide suffering into every front room in the rich world.
The "world development movement" as it would come to be
called was older than the green movement. Disaster relief in its
modern form - large charities working with governments in what was
a new profession - had begun in the early 1940s, often alongside
the burgeoning UN effort to deal with suffering caused by weather
extremes, earthquakes, or wars.18 It shocked an increasingly affluent
Western world that famines still occurred, that refugee camps could
be places where people suffered humiliating shortages, and that
there were farmers living Stone Age lives. The public was drawn
to the appeals of the new movement. They did not notice that this
new movement was rather more political than it liked to be thought.
Nonetheless, as the movement's aspirations grew - from disaster
relief to tackling poverty in a systematic way - it had its prejudices,
and they mattered. Groups like Oxfam were of a soft-left liberal
tendency: they were inclined to see economic development as primarily
a communitarian, medium- or low-technology affair. In the 1960s
("the Decade of Development") they fell for Julius Nyerere's
Ujamaa (or "villagisation") policies, which came to be
known as "African Socialism".19 They tended to see industrialisation
and trade as the kinds of economic development which the European
colonialists had imposed and which had left a legacy of under-development.
They argued that "cash crops" (using farmland to produce
food for sale, and especially for export) were dangerous when subsistence
was what the rural poor most needed, and national self-sufficiency
in food the most sensible agricultural policy for their nations.
In short, they were players in a very tense argument about the nature
of development. At its heart, the argument was a re-run of the economic
argument which had surrounded poverty relief in the West a hundred
years earlier. Did the poor most need government help, or charity,
or access to the market?
Combining development with greenery
We can begin to see the political problem which the governments
of the world, and the United Nations, faced. The erstwhile colonial
powers were no longer in charge of development in the tropics. One
could just about blame under-development on them, and many people
did (and still do). The question was not so much, did the West now
owe a debt of guilt to the Third World? (Most people thought it
did.) The problem was: how should it be paid? Should the rich offer
to trade with the Third World - to help the Third World globalise
(as we would now say)? Or should they merely pay for the welfare
services the global poor deserved, rather as the West's poor had?
Repeated famines in the South were not only agonising the West,
they were exposing the underlying fragility of the economies of
the ex-colonies. Meanwhile, a romantic attachment to the planet
and its people was producing two powerful, mostly youthful, voices
which required a new sort of economic growth which would cause no
environmental damage and somehow avoid capitalism's "brutalities".
The green movement and the world development movement were not identical
in ideals and their memberships did not much overlap. But they posed
similarly romantic and idealistic alternatives to problems which
the mainstream world of conventional politics was also wrestling
with. Something had to be done, and as usual it was an international
UN Conference on the Human Environment, 1972
In Stockholm in 1972, the United Nations held the first international
meeting at which the problems of the environment were considered
- and at which it was realised that powerfully competitive forces
were at work.20 They were, broadly, triangular. The greens wanted
a radical alternative to industrialism, so that the planet's natural
systems could stay natural. The world development movement, less
heard early on but soon to become very important, wanted economic
development and social justice for the planet's poor. These radicals
did not support the classic capitalistic model of development. It
was the Third World governments which made themselves felt at Stockholm:
they wanted economic growth, and lots of it. They were not very
interested in environmental scruple and were not - to be frank,
which they seldom were - terribly interested in the idea that economic
development should begin and end with thinking about the very poor.
Broadly speaking, the Third World governments who dominate the UN
(but not its Security Council) wanted the rich world to give them
money, and they hoped that it could be given without the interference
of the Western campaigning moralists the Western governments seemed
so keen to appease. It is hardly ever said, but it seems plausible
to suggest that most Western governments wanted a rhetoric under
which they could spend a little money on Third World development,
and were mildly indifferent to the outcome. Western politicians
knew that famine relief periodically mattered to many of their constituents
but that lifting the African and Asian masses out of poverty hardly
registered, except to some vociferous campaigners. (Television has
slightly changed that, along with the advocacy of people like Bono
and Bob Geldof.) Governments were also conscious that Western "environmentalism"
posed a purely political problem. The general public wanted a gradually
improving environment and was getting it. The "environmentalists"
wanted a degree of purity which could never be delivered. Somehow,
they had to be marginalised.
The concluding plenary debate of that first UN conference shows
several of these tensions, politely disguised though they were.21
It also shows an emerging political problem: "the environment"
and "development" were intended to be global ideas, but
these terms blurred huge regional differences. The greens claimed
that the whole planet was in crisis, and mostly because of the rich
world's demands at home and abroad. They said that industry was
wrecking rich countries, and plundering poor ones. Spreading old-style
economic growth would merely intensify the problem. But the spokesmen
of poor countries were inclined to say that it was poverty which
was causing environmental damage on their huge patches. They accused
the No Growth tendency of condemning the poor to continued poverty
and to continued over-use of soils, chopping down of trees for firewood
and to contaminated water supplies.
The parents of Sustainable Development
Sustainable Development was the concept which was designed to square
this circle. It did not know its own name at first. It is fair to
say that Barbara Ward was extremely important to its origins. She
worked on foreign affairs at The Economist magazine. Her little
book, The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations (1962), is an historically-
and economically-literate cry for Western action on aid (not least
to outflank the seriousness of Soviet ambitions for the under-developed
world). She went on to co-found the International Institute for
Environment and Development.22 Her manifesto on combining development
and environmental concern was co-written with Rene[accent] Dubos
in their "Only One Earth: the care and maintenance of a small
planet" as a backgrounder for the Stockholm conference. In
it, they defined humanity's fundamental task as "to devise
patterns of collective behaviour compatible with the continued flowering
of civilizations".23 But Dubos' green thinking was anything
but misanthropic: in his 1980 "The Wooing of the Earth: New
perspectives on man's use of nature" he was amongst the first
(and very few) to argue that man's influence on the planet could
be benign. Disparaging the modern myth that "nature knows best",
he says, "The interplay between humankind and the earth has
often generated ecosystems that, from many points of view, are more
interesting and more creative than those occurring in the state
IIED was not alone: IUCN-The World Conservation Union 25did some
of the work. IUCN was and is an international body which brings
together government, university and NGO conservationists to consider
the practicalities of preserving wildlife. Its 1980 document "A
World Conservation Strategy" (co-published by the United Nations
Environment Programme and WWF) was credited with formally introducing
the idea of sustainability to policy-makers. Indeed, it was criticism
of the document's supposed environmental purism which led to demands
that development be factored into discussions. This, it is said,
set the stage for the concept of Sustainable Development, with all
its tensions, to be constructed.26
It is convenient here to stress that IIED and IUCN were quite similar
in not being remotely radical. When they started, they were inspired
and run by middle-aged people of great passion and seriousness.
Their founders were people who had influenced policy, and wanted
to continue to do so. They looked at the same sort of problem -
how to combine human activity with ecological responsibility - from
quite different points of view. IIED sought from the first to consider
how human social development could be advanced because of - rather
than at the cost of - environmental well-being. It was unique in
its thinking, and perhaps even more remarkable in its working on
the ground to see what projects and approaches might work. IUCN
was an overtly conservationist body - concerned with habitats and
species - but from the start was aware that much wildlife was not
only threatened by over-exploitation by poor people, but only survived
at all because it provided a useful harvest to humans. IIED in a
way always had human purposes at the front of its mind, but saw
them as indistinguishable from environmental concerns. IUCN's mission
was to put wildlife first, but saw that human development was part
of its picture. Both courted but seldom received much media attention:
their influence was in the corridors of power.
Many of the conservation experts in IUCN favoured the harvesting
of wildlife - including some whale species, some elephant ivory
and many other African savannah species. They described this as
sustainable (the wild populations could thrive alongside it), but
as something much more. Culling animals aided the sustainable enhancement
of the economic life of poor people, whilst being probably the only
mechanism whereby local people could be induced to preserve rather
than annihilate their wildlife. But others were more of the "take
nothing but pictures" way of thinking. WWF27, originally founded
in the 1960s as the public face by which money could be raised for
IUCN, was increasingly dominated by the romantic tendency that was
profoundly out of love with what the Americans called Wise Use.
Indeed, IUCN itself seemed increasingly ashamed of its interest
in sustainable harvesting of wildlife, and promoted itself as a
watchdog on species extinction. So even in the bastions of Sustainable
Development, there were plenty of people who saw it as a Green,
almost anti-development, ideal; whilst others - more pragmatist
- thought that the concept's main purpose was to remind people of
the moral imperative to lift people out of poverty alongside the
obvious thought that the environment mattered.
SD emerges fully-fledged
These tensions demanded reconciliation, and the UN World Commission
on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland,
the former Prime Minister of Norway, was set up to do the job. It
produced its report "Our Common Future" in 1987. "The
Brundtland Report" (as it was more commonly called) put the
idea of Sustainable Development centre stage, at least with policy-makers.28
Two major UN conferences in Rio in1992 and in Johannesburg 2002
embedded the idea in the global consciousness.
SD takes flight
We have dozens of definitions of SD, but the obvious one is that
it is economic development which does not compromise the ability
of future generations to enjoy economic development themselves.
In other words, it gets to the heart of the problem of economic
development even as a non-environmentalist might see it: that it
may destroy the earth's capacity to continue to give humans what
they need - or want. (Just as it also ought to make "greens"
understand that without development, there will be environmental
degradation.) This is a utilitarian and instrumentalist way of looking
at the world: it defines the planet's health in terms of its ability
to support man. Of course, this is a very narrow definition of Sustainable
Development, and it was never one the greens enjoyed.29 The environmentalist
requires that economic development happen whilst not damaging the
naturalness of the world around it. By this reading, naturalness
has value in its own right, and we may perceive threats to it and
worry about them, well short of fearing that they threaten our ability
to get a living on the planet.
Challenging Sustainable Development
SD is an embattled concept, even amongst its green-minded fans.
Defined bleakly, by a utilitarian, it sketches out what one might
think is a minimum carefulness one might require of economic development:
that it not destroy what it will shortly need. Defined richly, by
a romantic, SD requires that economic development be careful to
preserve the "rights" of nature. The latter definition
can be utilitarian, but does not like to be.30
Sustainable Development seemed for a while to have the world at
its feet. Pragmatic industrialists and governments saw it is a means
of doing a little about the environment, but making a vast amount
of noise as they did so. Pragmatic greens (a smaller group) believed
they now had a stick with which to beat conventional growth. But
there were others - more mature, one might think - who abandoned
their previous commitments variously to unthinking mainstream pragmatism
or to idealistic campaigning ideology, and thought that SD was a
concept which really could chart decent middle-ground.
It may be that SD is indeed serving its initial purpose. It has
exposed green extremists as being indifferent to human realities,
and hard-nosed industrialists as obsessing on the short-term. And
it has provided some solid middle ground from which former hotheads,
dreamers and radicals can hone workable policy. It has also provided
a rationale within which industrialists and others can analyse their
businesses and find the language with which to sell reforms to their
And yet its usefulness was weakened by the paucity of the challenge
it faced. It could easily grow - but was not much improved or put
to serious work. It was one of those politically-correct ideas -
like multiculturalism - by which the soft left liberal mind manages
to rob us of debate. Yet even in its simplest and most obvious form,
in which environment and development are counterpoised, we can challenge
SD, and there is value in doing so.
"Progressive" (pro-development) critics of SD could simply
watch the contradictions of the concept weaken its political power.
But of course, the bold amongst them would rather stress bold development
strategies. They would rather assert both that development is benign,
and good for the environment, and that even where there is doubt
about either of these propositions, risk-taking is good. It is especially
good, they might say more kindly, granted how important development
Some of these arguments did indeed appeal to progressives on the
right and left, as we have seen. But it is surprising how few committed
enemies the very idea of Sustainable Development attracted. However,
by the time of the second event UN Sustainable Development conference
in 2002 in Johannesburg, there was at last a serious and systematic
populist challenge from the pro-development camp. The International
Policy Network - a UK-based free market think-tank which corrals
free-market opinion in the Third World - was a hit with the media
as for the first time reporters covering the conference saw that
the green verities on SD could be challenged, and IPN provided the
authentic, indigenous, Third World voices with which to do it.
Some of the challenges to Sustainable Development
1) Development, please
It was and remains unclear in many countries how to make development
happen at all, let alone sustainably. Some countries, many of them
in Africa, seem proof against all attempts at development. The most
testing problem is to know whether much aid has done more harm than
good. This makes it unclear not merely how to apply aid, but whether
it makes sense to call for very much more of it. Question: surely
one does not have SD where one does not have development at all?
2) Temporary unsustainability
It may be that in its initial stages, all development takes unsustainable
forms. That's to say that economic development tends to begin with
the exploitation of natural resources, and does so in ways that
are relatively unrestrained. Only later does industrial development
begin, and make it possible to refine or reduce the exploitation
of natural resources. Question: does sustainable development allow
or forbid temporary unsustainability?
3) Let things take their course
The early stages of industrial development are nearly always unsustainable.
They often use the advantage of unregulated environments and cheap
labour to use, say, coal, in old-fashioned and polluting plant to
produce old-fashioned and polluting goods. In time though, popular
pressure combines with increased affluence to allow industry to
clean up, as it did in the West. Question: does one need a concept
of SD to attempt to pre-empt (or accelerate) these processes? Why
not let economic and political life takes its benign course?
4) Technological fixes
Sophisticated economies produce demands which may or may not be
sustainable, depending on whether technology can keep up. Julian
Simon and Herman Kahn did early work stressing that the green movement
had always overstated the historic and present damage done by man,
and always understated the innovative capacity of humans in dealing
with such environmental problems as they had so far encountered
or caused.31 This has been the message, too, for several years of
Ronald Bailey32, and - more recently - the same case has been put
by Bjorn Lomborg33.
Nuclear power and genetic engineering may be able to produce energy
and food alongside diminished use of fossil fuels and increases
in natural habitat - or not. This is to say that we cannot know
whether some development or other is sustainable because we cannot
know what abilities we will develop. Question: does sustainability
require that we cautiously not undertake any development unless
we can be sure that it will turn out to be sustainable?
5) No future in futurology
As Wilfred Beckerman (who was taking the environment seriously when
many of the present proponents of Sustainable Development were in
nappies) trenchantly noted, we cannot plan for the needs of future
generations because we don't know what their needs will be. Peter
Bauer - one of the first writers on the conservation of resources
and Third World development - noted decades ago that we find it
very hard to predict what will matter to future generations, and
our predictions have often proved misguided. 34
Disease may mean there is a small human population. Global Warming
(itself perhaps a result of unsustainable development) may redefine
what people need (massive energy demands for air conditioning, for
instance). Question: Doesn't this mean that even if we decided to
act sustainably we stand a rather high chance of finding we misdefined
6) No-one cares
For different reasons, both rich and poor people refuse to take
sustainability seriously. The rich have yet to be persuaded that
what they do is unsustainable (or that they can be bothered to do
much about it) and the poor have yet to be convinced it matters
(or that it is they who should pay for it). Question: Who cares
about SD, really?
7) The campaigners don't like development
SD is a cover for disliking economic growth of the capitalistic
kind. Many campaigners have found that discussing the environment
plays better for them than disparaging capitalistic growth. This
may because their "market" - the Western audience - likes
capitalistic growth and can readily accept that poor countries need
it. When they discuss environmental concerns, the campaigners are
assumed to be on territory they understand (and about which their
Western audience already feels guilty).
Sustainable Development is freighted with all virtues
Sustainability was from the start a word which could be applied
to nearly anything, and could be over-worked. Communities, housing,
vehicles, national budgets - all could be discussed in terms of
their being more or less sustainable. But a quite different process
was also taking place: the concept was freighted with social as
well as environmental concerns. This was bizarre. It was, after
all, possible to say that developments which were environmentally
unviable were genuinely unsustainable: that's to say, they could
not last. But a development might be socially inequitable, or socially
divisive, and yet be entirely sustainable. Community and equity
are not necessary to either sustainability or development. They
may be nice - or useless, or bad - but they have nothing to do with
our already over-worked concept.
SD, community, justice, prosperity, and well-being
Anything anyone wants tends to be bundled up with "sustainability".
Long before we have proved that environmental virtue is necessary
to durability, we have freighted the idea with notions about society
and equity, which are even less obviously necessary to durability.
Bodies from the International Chamber of Commerce35 to the Catholic
Church36 - let alone governments, industry, campaigners and consultants
- cheerfully put their commitment to community, social justice,
as well as the environment, under the heading of "sustainability".
Much economic development in the Third World - and economic progress
anywhere reduces poverty but damages local communities and increases
inequality.37 This does not make it bad by any means. Whilst sustainability
might make people think about the future environmental impacts of
a project, insisting that progress create no social change right
now is an impossible impediment.
In recent years, the kind of radicals and "liberals"
who were anxious about social justice and the environment have widened
their concern to include psychological and spiritual matters amongst
the rich of the world. Thus we find discussion of "Risk Society"
which amplifies anxieties about a "runaway world" which
first surfaced in the 1960s.38 And there is concern about "Status
Anxiety", in which endless consumption damages the consumer
because it fuels a consumption pecking order in which individuals
are bound to feel inferior39. This sort of concern is now bundled
in with "sustainability" to further burden (or enlighten
and enrich, if you prefer) the idea of development or economic growth.
This line of thought does suppose that present consumption is unsustainable,
but seeks to wean consumers off it, not by pointing out environmental
responsibilities, but by stressing that consuming things makes even
the consumer unhappy. As one of the UK's Sustainable Development
Commission documents has it: "Why, if consumerism fails to
satisfy, do we continue to consume?"40
SD, "needs" and "wants"
The Brundtland definition of SD discusses "needs" as being
what the present is allowed to satisfy. Certainly, the Third World
has needs. But the rich world, arguably, only has wants.
One of the most interesting difficulties with SD is that it attempts
to bind the rich and poor countries into one concept as though they
faced similar problems. But actually, poor people have a greater
right both to unsustainability and to development than rich people.
Indeed, it is arguable that only people who seek "development"
(that is, are being lifted out of poverty) have any right to damage
the environment as they become better off. After all, SD aims to
reconcile human economic needs with the planet's. It has much less
to say about the rights of those whose "development" phase
is long gone, and who are enjoying affluence. But affluence is not
something we should seek to denigrate, still less to outlaw. Affluence
is the product of human ingenuity combined with the human spirit,
and it alone produces many of the benefits which distinguish civilisation.41
SD hopes to unite rich and poor economies as they address the environment.
But actually, the circumstances of each are so different that though
they may both take some interest in sustainability, they will widely
diverge as to what it might mean in practice. Thus, rich countries
seek to work out how they can maintain their present level of economic
life whilst satisfying green demands. Poor countries are inclined
to assert that they have a right to get on with any development
which suits them economically, and if the rich world doesn't like
it - then the rich world will have to pay for the additional expense
of satisfying green scruple.
The dilemma is not merely a matter of moral equivalence. The environments
of the rich world are in remarkably good shape: regionally and locally,
they are nice places to live. This is mostly because they are rich.
It is possible that globally, they are threatening massive climate
change, because of their emission of greenhouse gases. The environments
of the Third Wold, by contrast, can be very unpleasant at regional
and local level (mostly because they are poor), but at least for
now they are not much threatening the world's climate system.
This picture suggests that the poor world needs to get richer,
so it can sort out its local and regional environments. The rich
world has few local and regional environmental problems, but may
need to address the global impact of its greenhouse gases - and
help the Third World address theirs.
Still, we can usefully note that the Third World needs development
most greens would disparage, and the rich world arguably needs changes
to its environmental practices which they equally hate (as we see
in green opposition to nuclear power).
Sustainability and "carrying capacity"
One of the oldest ideas which ecology promoted was that of "carrying
capacity"42. This discusses the ability of a habitat to support
biomass. It seems a simple enough matter to develop the idea to
take account of human beings and their relationship with their planet.
This is the sort of problem which Malthus discussed, and it has
resonated ever since. It fits well with ideas of man being a blight
on his planet: ideas of his being a "tide", a "plague"
and even a "cancer" (as the late Susan Sontag characterised
mankind and especially white mankind).43
Some modern discussion of ecological insights has helped provide
a framework for thinking that to a considerable extent, nature's
ways are more like those of the market than those a socialist community.
That is to say, within limits, habitats are surprisingly robust,
dynamic and opportunistic. Habitats can thrive alongside diminished
biodiversity, and biodiversity can flourish in shrinking habitats.
This is not say that industrial man has carte blanche, rather that
finding the planet's carrying capacity depends on understandings
and explorations which require imagination and risk-taking as well
Most recently, "carrying capacity" has been re-described
as "footprint" - perhaps from the idea that one shouldn't
leave such things (but only take photographs, in the T-shirt mantra),
but actually leaves a rather heavy one. In the past decade or so,
there have been attempts to describe how many Earths would be required
if the Western way of life were to be sustainable.45
These models seem excessively gloomy. There is evidence that the
planet can produce huge amounts of food, if only its soils are treated
with care and the right chemicals. Fresh water is indeed a scarce
resource in many places: but it is wasted on a huge scale, and can
be manufactured from salt water. There is no evidence of shortage
of minerals, whose work can be done by "man-made" materials
(something of a misnomer anyway). Fish stocks are typical of some
other wild resources (tropical forests being another) which are
squandered by modern man: but they are capable of sustainable exploitation
on a large scale, given care.
SD and the family of environmental principles
SD takes its place amongst many other modern "green" axioms.
Indeed, it has become the umbrella concept which is taken to contain
and inform the others. The Precautionary Principle appears to put
sustainability first when considering the risks and benefits of
any proposed development.46 The Polluter Pays Principle aims to
discover the real culprits in unsustainable behaviour and charge
them for it. The modern celebration of biodiversity assumes that
maximising species numbers is the best guarantor to sustainability.
Corporate Social Responsibility is the quest to ensure that firms
The Precautionary Principle has always been an idea with an almost
infinitely elastic range of definitions. As used by many green-minded
people, it is chronically risk averse. This definition tends to
run: Developments should only be allowed if the proposer can prove
that it is risk-free. That sounds plausible and worthwhile until
one recalls that it is impossible for anyone to prove that anything
is risk-free. The injunction to avoid all risk would itself fail
the demand that it demonstrate that it will produce no risk. A more
reasonable definition appeals to governments: "One need not
wait for conclusive proof that a development poses great risk before
acting to avert that risk". This allows that it will sometimes
be worth acting to avert great risk even in advance of positive
proof of the danger. Sometimes, but not always. Some developments
promise very great benefits which outweigh the uncertain risk which
also attend them.
Misuses of Sustainable Development
The "green" ownership of the "sustainability"
tends to mean that the word is attached to various "green"
objectives. Recycling, wind turbines, organic farming and public
transport all get the label. Nuclear power, waste incineration,
the chemicals industry and genetically modified plants are all denied
it. Yet it is entirely arguable that the first group of activities
contribute little - or nothing - to sustainability and the latter
group may well contribute a great deal to it.
Governments tend to parade as sustainable any policy which is marginally
less unsustainable than whatever it replaces. This process means
that anything which can be made to wear an "environmental"
label, will also be made to wear a "sustainability" label.
Firms have been quick to exploit SD since they can fairly readily
describe what they primarily do as "development" (that
is, they build new houses, roads, or generally contribute to the
economy) and can often do something mildly environmental so as to
be able claim "sustainability" too. The newness of the
concept helps them too: they are free to "discover" SD
as a new mission. It becomes part of their attempt to persuade the
public that they believe they once behaved in an ignorant way, but
have been taught by the greens, the young and the wider world that
there is a new approach they can embrace.
It would truer and bolder to say that industry has been stretched
for many years to keep up with environmental regulation and that
the concept of sustainability is no more useful to them than is
a good understanding of how environmental policy may evolve. The
truth is that industry quite rightly responds to society's demands,
but lofty concepts are best left in the political arena. Industry
likes SD mostly because it marginalises their green opponents, whilst
providing an arena within which industry and the greens can negotiate
as equals. This is not necessarily a bad process, but it is hardly
Still, it is easier for firms to take an interest in SD than it
is for them to be claim to be "green". Firms can no more
be "green" than they can be socialist: both creeds are
too open-ended and other-worldly in their demands. SD does at least
keep economic reality somewhere in the picture.
There are several foundations and many more commercial consultants
who help firms understand and accommodate SD. A mild cynic can say
that this is largely a PR operation on the part of firms. They are
outsourcing the management of environmentalism, community relations
and Third World development issues to useful stooges. The "sustainability"
consultant is usually an ex-green who prefers to achieve something,
rather than protest. That is laudable, but it produces the effect
that a few environmental and social initiatives which the firm might
well have undertaken anyway are dressed up as Sustainable Development
initiatives. In exchange for exerting some influence on the firm,
the SD consultant must deliver a large quotient of PR respectability
for its managers: the consultant's green credentials must be put
to profitable work.
This is not to say that firms are not working for genuine improvement,
nor that the consultants are wholly ineffective. But we need to
see that the dedicated SD consultant is most useful to firms for
the PR effect he or she can deliver. This is often called Greenwash
by its opponents amongst green purists48. One might more accurately
say that green campaigners steal a firm's reputation, and SD consultants
sell it back to them. This might be called a process of Greenmail.
Sustainable Development aspires be a globally applicable concept,
but actually reminds the rich and poor worlds that their circumstances
are very different. The idea of Sustainable Development is supposed
to be able to help Third World countries consider the long as well
as the short term. But it wasn't around when the rich world made
its successful transitions, not least toward healthy environments.
Sustainable Development has even less to say to rich countries,
whose problem - if any - is Sustainable Prosperity.
It is worse than useless to freight the term with every virtue
the soft-left liberal mind can think of. It makes no sense logically,
and it weakens the ability of the idea to do any work for us.
It is a pity that the mainstream world has adopted SD as useful
"greenwash": but then, it is a pity that the mainstream
world has adopted all sorts of green fudges rather than stand up
for its own real merits.
Sustainable Development does have some merit precisely because
it is an oxymoron. It fails as a guiding principle in that it does
not point us toward a single policy which is desirable, let alone
possible. But it can help us lay out the parameters of a battleground
over which competing ideas, ideals and interests can range and rage.
It gives us no answers, but helps us debate. All this implies that
Sustainable Development is not something which can be delivered,
but it can usefully be discussed.
1 Our Common Future: The report of the World Commission on Environment
and Development (The Brundtland Commission), 1987
2 There are few sceptical accounts of the concept of Sustainable
Development, but an extended one is to be found in The Fading of
the Greens: The decline of environment politics in the West, Bramwell,
Anna, Yale University Press, 1994
3 The UK's Department for International Development sponsored The
Rough Guide to a Better World And How You Can Make a Difference,
Wroe, Martin and Doney, Malcolm, 2004 as a freely-available outreach
device. It makes one passing reference to sustainability. http://www.roughguide-betterworld.com/
4 This line of argument is stressed by the deeper sorts of green,
see Bramwell, above, and Porritt, below.
5 One of the few accounts of how our concept works, and fails to
work, in practice is Sustainable Development: Promoting progress
or perpetuating poverty?, edited by Julian Morris, Profile Books,
2002. Mr Morris runs the International Policy Network (www.policynetwork.net),
which promotes discussion especially amongst free-market think-tanks
around the world.
6 www.spiked-online.com, a project run by a group of UK socialists
of a very untraditional frame of mind, hosts a wide range of discussion
on progress and progressiveness.
7 Environment and Development: The story of a dangerous liaison,
Sachs, W, The Ecologist 21(6), 1991: 253-257, quoted in Key Issues
In Sustainable Development and Learning: A critical review, edited
by Scott, William, and Gough, Stephen, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004
8 From Care To Action: Making a sustainable world, Holdgate, Martin,
Earthscan, 1996. This is an account of the work of IUCN (see fuller
references elsewhere in this text) from an erstwhile British civil
servant who became its director-general for a time.
9 Where On Earth Are We Going, Jonathon Porritt, BBC, 1990
10 RDN discusses JP in a little more depth in Life On a Modern Planet:
A manifesto for progress, Manchester University Press, 1995. The
book is available as a free download at www.richarddnorth.com. JP's
Seeing Green, Blackwell, 1980 is a very good account of "intellectual"
greenery, as well as of JP's thinking then.
11 The idea of sustainable forestry in the tropics is discussed
in RDN's LOMP (see above). It has a long history, not least being
a concern to British imperialists in the 19th Century, and now manifesting
itself in the Forest Certification movement. The Natural Resources
Defense Council's website is a good beginning point for accounts
of these. JM's Sustainable Development (see above) has a useful
chapter on why "green" approaches may be flawed.
12 http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu Search: "Beckerman"
13 There is a convenient timeline of developments in US environmental
policy and thinking at http://www.ecotopia.org/. Green Political
Thought, Andrew Dobson, Routledge, 2000 (a new edition is imminent)
is a useful guide. Something New Under the Sun: An environmental
history of the Twentieth Century, John McNeill, Allen Lane/Penguin,
2000 is one of the few accounts of "green history" that
does not take an anti-development view.
14 Discordant Harmonies: A new ecology for the Twenty-first Century,
Botkin, Daniel, B, Oxford University Press, 1990 is an important
account both of the "romantic" view of ecology, and of
a more realistic one.
15 Gaia: A new look at life on earth, Lovelock, James, Oxford University
Press, 1979 and many editions since.
16 This phrase is attributed to Kenneth Boulding, one of the last
century's most famous popular economists, according to Ecology in
the Twentieth Century, Bramwell, Anna, Yale University Press, 1989,
an interesting (if rather biased) account.
17 "No Growth" is not a popular movement now, though it
lingers on. At http://www.npg.org/ there is useful material based
on the group's No Population Growth ideals.
18 At www.oxfam.org.uk there is a useful guide to the history of
one of the most influential of these charities.
19 The Charitable Impulse: NGOs and development in East and North-east
Africa, edited by Barrow, Ondine and Jennings, Michael, James Currey/Kumarian
Press, 2001 is one of the very few critical accounts of development
20 The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD
not to be confused with IIED, see below) publishes an SD Timeline
22 The International Institute of Environment and Development (www.iied.org)
posts material about Barbara Ward and her books.
23 See From Care to Action, above
24 The Wooing of the Earth: New perspectives on man's use of nature,
Dubos, R, Athlone Press, 1980
25 Founded in1948 as the International Union for the Protection
of Nature (IUPN), the organization changed its name to International
Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in
1956. In 1990 it was shortened to IUCN -The World Conservation Union.
26 See From Care to Action, above
27 The World Wildlife Fund, in 1986 renamed the World Wide Fund
for Nature except in the US and Canada. See www.panda.org
29 Green Political Thought, Dobson, Andrew, Unwin Hyman, 1990 and
later editions is an account of greenery which is perhaps over-friendly
to the movement.
30 RDN analyses these themes in some depth in a contribution to
Key Issues In Sustainable Development and Learning: A critical review,
edited by Scott, William, and Gough, Stephen, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004
31 The Resourceful Earth, edited by Kahn, Herman and Simon, Julian,
32 Earth report 2000: Revisiting the true state of the planet, edited
by Ronald Bailey, McGraw-Hill, 2000
33 The Skeptical Environment: Measuring the real state of the world,
Bjorn Lomborg, 2001
34 A Tribute To Peter Bauer, Institute of Economic Affairs, London,
2002 is very brief and to the point. There is a very useful guide
to Bauer at http://www.the-rathouse.com/Revivalist4/PeterBauer.html.
A good introduction to his thought is The Economics of Under-developed
Countries, Bauer, P T and Yamey, B S, Cambridge University Press,
35 ICC: http://www.iccwbo.org/
37 Freedom, Prosperity and the Struggle for Democracy, Melnik, Stefan,
Liberales Institut, 2004 and The Role of Business in the Modern
World, Henderson, David, IEA, London, 2004 both discuss these issues
as does RDN's Rich Is Beautiful, Social Affairs Unit, 2005 (March).
38 The Politics of Risk Society, edited by Franklin, Jane, Polity,
1998 and A Runaway World: The Reith lectures, 1967, Leach, Edmund,
39 There is a wide literature, but The Progress Paradox, Easterbrook,
Gregg, Random House, 2004 is perhaps the most interesting.
40 Policies for Sustainable Consumption, Sustainable Development
Commission, September 2003 at www.sd-commission.org.uk
41 RDN's Rich Is Beautiful, Social Affairs Unit, 2005 (March) addresses
42 WWF is keen on "carrying capacity" and ecological "footprint":
http://www.panda.org/. The theme is very important to Botkin, see
above, and to Holdgate, see above.
43 See obituary published both in the Los Angeles Times and the
Financial Times, 30 December, 2004.
44 RDN's Risk: The human choice, ESEF, 2000 is an account of these
46 RDN's Risk: The human choice, ESEF, 2000 is an account of these
47 Misguided Virtue: False notions of Corporate Social Responsibility,
Henderson, David, IEA, London, 2001 is very good on this.
48 Greenwash: The reality behind corporate environmentalism, Greer,
Jed and Bruno, Kenny, Third World Network and Apex Press, 1996