Sustainable Development

Herman Daly, perhaps the most authoritative voice on sustainable development, writes,

Sustainable development is development without growth in the scale of the economy beyond some point that is within biospheric carrying capacity.S139

It is possible to agree with that definition in principle while being aware of problems with it. As Daly himself recognised, there are reasons to believe we are already beyond the biosphere’s carrying capacity—we are into “overshoot”—and if that is the case, sustainable development ought not to be about simply reducing the damage caused by economic activity; it needs to be directed to environmental repair. Although (he writes) this is “very radical”, anything less than that will take us to the limits of carrying capacity, or—if indeed overshoot is already upon us—even further beyond them.S140

And the problem with that, of course, is that the market economy has needs of its own in addition to those of the biosphere: it is a system which relies on growth, and if growth were to stop for a long period or to go into reverse, the consequences could be as catastrophic for those who depend on it (i.e., all of us) as the collapse of the biosphere itself. So, if sustainable development as an idea is to have any acceptability to those whose lives depend both on the biosphere and on the economy, it will need to take the interests of both those spheres into account.

Here we have the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development trying to do just that—with its definition of sustainable development, as:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.S141

We need to take this apart a little. There are four characters (variables) in this story:

1. Human well-being. Well-being is a complex idea, but for now, we can focus on the flow of goods and services needed to meet the needs of human society: this is not a sufficient condition for well-being, but it is a necessary one.

2. The environmental impact of the task of providing those goods and services. This is the flow of damage suffered by the environment—the stock of natural capital—on which the planet and its inhabitants depend.

3. Technology. This comes into the story in two ways:

Industrial technology is the set of technologies used to produce the flow of goods and services; technological improvement (from this point of view) would reduce the environmental impact per unit of output (Eco-efficiency).

Domestic technology is the relationship between well-being and the flow of goods and services needed to sustain it. If, for instance, consumers could find ways of maintaining the same well-being with a smaller flow of goods and services, this would be an advance in ‘domestic technology’.

4. Population. The environmental impact of economic activity depends (other things being equal) on the size of the population.


Now the question: is it possible to bring on improvements in technology to the point that human well-being is maintained while environmental impact is reduced to a level that conserves the stock of natural capital? This is known as the “decoupling” question. And the answer, broadly speaking, is No.S142

As explained in Growth, the market economy is a dynamic system which depends on growth as a condition of maintaining its stability. Decoupling would involve sustaining the needed growth in output while achieving the needed fall in impact. This is a long way from happening.

A less ambitious aim is “relative decoupling”, where the environmental impact per unit of output falls, even though the total environmental impact rises with advances in growth. This is a recognition that more efficient use of labour tends to go together with more efficient use of all the other forms of capital and input that are needed. Each advance in growth still produces an increase in environmental impact, but the relative size of that impact does decline. That is only a tendency and there are many exceptions (such as the use of systemic pesticides; see Food Prospects) but, in general, relative decoupling has been successful. Compare modern manufacture with the smokestack industries of the past. Or think of Adnams’ “carbon neutral beer”. Variations on the theme of reducing environmental impact per unit of output—once the ecocatastrophic start-up phase of industrialisation had passed—have been central to the nature of productivity improvements for most of the age of industry.S143

As for the decoupling of domestic technology—the well-being derived by households per unit of consumption—there is no reason to believe that this has advanced at all. On the contrary—since the whole economy is in effect the collective household—economic growth depends on this becoming, year by year, less efficient (Competitiveness).

So the problem is tough. What we need is not just slower growth in the flow of environmental impact (relative decoupling). We need actual reductions in the flow of environmental impact, despite sustained economic growth (absolute decoupling). That has not happened. And even if it had, that would not in fact be enough, if we are already into overshoot. It is not enough to reduce the rate at which we add to the stock of damage to the environment that has already occurred; what the ecology needs is a subtraction from that damage: that is, economic activity which actually repairs the environment—or at least, gives it a breather so that it has a chance of repairing itself (strong absolute decoupling). At present, there is no prospect of this.S144

So is ‘sustainable development’ dishonest? No. As Jonathon Porritt shows—with a wealth of evidence—businesses need to manage risk, to achieve deep efficiencies in the use of energy and materials, to build brand value and reputation, to attract and retain the best people, to motivate them, to innovate, to develop new markets and to sustain an accounting system which recognises the need to use performance measurements other than money—and all of these imperatives call for an intense awareness of the whole ecology in which a company is working.S145

It is not the fault of its advocates or of the businesses that have practised it that sustainable development has been taken as a quick fix—the false promise that with the help of technology and being more responsible, we can carry on pretty painlessly as we are, satisfy all our needs and still save the planet. But the phrase is open to that inference—“sustainable development” is there on the menu. If it had not been, we might have been left without any reassuring global statements about the environment at all.

But then, in due course, we would have had to own up to the fact that a shock is coming which we had not been able to bring ourselves to admit, or to prepare for. Perhaps the preceding silence would have made us alert to the urgent need to take notice; the itch that made us scratch. It could have been a moment of humility and truth.S146


Related entries:

Sustainability, Sedation, Script, Lean Economy.

David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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