Can Development Be Sustainable?

paper prepared for
Development (Journal of the Society for International Development (SID),
Issue 3/4,1990
Professor Morris Miller,
University of Ottawa


"Is there any way to meet the needs and aspirations of the five billion people now living on the earth without compromising the ability of tomorrow's eight to ten billion to meet theirs?.....After three years of work, The World Commission on Environment and Development gave its answer to that 'sustainability question': a heavily conditioned 'yes'......The needs and aspirations of today could be reconciled with those of tomorrow providing there are fundamental changes in the way nations manage the world's economy....(since) development has produced a world with new realities, realities that have not yet been reflected in human behaviour, economics, politics or institutions of government."

-Jim MacNeill, "Strategies for Sustainable Economic Development", Scientific American (Special Issue - Managing Planet Earth), September 1989.

"'Sustainable development': Never have two words been used so much with so much inconsistency...It is fast becoming a landfill site for every environmental idea...For the most part, nobody seems to care what the words mean, or whether they even have any real meaning. Have we reached a point where sustainable development has become a hazardous concept ?"

-Terence Corcoran, "Sustainable Development: a dumpsite for ideas", The Globe and Mail, March 23, 1990.

Ecology" and "environment" have entered the lexicon of the common man and almost everyone, it seems, has lined up on the side of "sustainable development"and against pollution, deforestation, global warming, ozone depletion, loss of diodiversity in flora and fauna...The list is long and the sentiment seemingly strong. Fear has once again proven to be an effective galvanizer. 1989, noted one commentator, should be remembered "as the year the Iron Curtain collapsed (and) as the year that concern for the environment reached a new peak".

Over the centuries there have been frequent recurrences of such spasms of collective anxiety, most of which proved to be unwarranted. At the dawn of the industrial age, the Reverend Malthus put forward a simple doomsday model relating the growth rates of population and food that were, according to his model, periodically brought into balance by pestilence, famine and wars. The most recent neo-Malthusian outbreak of popular anxiety occurred in the early 1970s when oil prices soared and the "dynamic models" of the Club of Rome propounded "the limits to growth thesis. The key factor for this threatening phenomenon was identified as resources depletion. All have proven to be false alarms, for in the final analysis the models on which the Malthusian alarms were based have been fatally flawed. The most dramatic evidence is the transformation of the OPEC-created oil "shortage" of the late '70s into the oil glut of the late '80s with corresponding sharp fall in the price of oil over the last few years.

The focus of concern about limits has now shifted from natural resources to the environment, the limited absorptive capacity of land, water and air to act as a waste disposal dump. For once, it seems the Malthusians have a strong point: the global ecosystem is being adversely affected by the present pace and pattern of growth and given present trends, limits with regard to critical elements of the ecosystem are already evident and ominous. Mounting concern for the long-term sustainability of the prevailing state of affairs is understandable and every dramatic environmental disaster reinforces the public's anxiety.

Pollsters confirm this assessment with surveys indicating that a majority of Americans, Australians, Canadians, Europeans and Japanese harbour more concern about faillings in "environmental management" that they do about such issues as growth, inflation, unemployment and poverty. No wonder we are not surprised to see a story headline in a recent (April 23, 1990) issue of The New York Times that read: "In Books, Greed is Out, Environment is In". This is the theme of the environment/development nexus, most of it accenting the related themes of fear and danger.

Despite the flood of information, there can be little doubt that almost all the respondents that the pollsters queried were only vaguely aware of the meaning of the term, "environmental management"; and certainly even fewer were aware of the implications of this naive separation and priorizing of issues in terms of the kind of political/social/economic changes that would be necessary to give effect to their choice of objectives. The response should, therefore, be interpreted simply as the public's concern for the future in reaction to fears about impending environmental catastrophies akin to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and the Bhopal gas tragedy that are still very much in the collective consciousness.

That concern does not, however, negate the popular desire for the fruits of development. Growth in the output of goods and services is an imperative given the projected trends in population growth alone, a growth that is expected to triple from 5.3 billion to 16 over the next century on the basis of present trends. The most optimistic global population targets basd on effective programs, even reinforced by draconian measures, would, at best, achieve a population levelling off by mid-21st century at double the present numbers, the largest increase occurring in the developing countries. When account is taken of improved living standards for this population, the challenge in achieving the requisiste rate of growth is formidable enough without taking into account the need to change the present pattern or the traditional model of growth so that it has a different impact on the environment, one that is "in harmony with nature", a members and advocates of the "green movement" would phrase it. This sustainable state of affairs is to be dynamic yet steady and to be non-threatening to the established order yet involve profound changes in economic and social organization, in culture and life-style.

Already, many skeptics have jumped off the bandwagon to the sustainability paradise because they doubt that humankind can ever willingly - with intention aforethought - make the necessary changes when the nature and degree of the called-for changes in institutional arrangements are so radical. Given how deeply such institutional arrangements are imbedded in our prevailing cultures, they argue that these necessary changes cannot be made in a democratic society as a matter of conscious policy-making. While they deplore some of the extreme consequences of "growthmania" and recognize the potential long-term dangers if we continue on the present trajectory, they place a great deal of hope in modest policy changes and, at the same time, deride the feasibility of imposing extreme policy changes that would be called for to achieve "a steady state" and all that that phrase implies in terms of lifestyle changes.

Others have found cause to jump off the sustainable development bandwagon because they prefer the existing social, economic and political arrangements - albeit somewhat modified - though these arrangements are known to be incompatible with achieving the desired state of affairs. This category of opponents are not merely skeptical; they fear and/or dislike the idea of institutional arrangements with different sets of decision-makers and different criteria in decision-making. Their opposition revolves around the issue of desirability rather than feasibility, a distinction that is important to recognize from a policy-making perspective. One of the difficulties in devising and implementing effective policies of so far-reaching a nature - as environmental management for sustainable development implies - is that few of the die-hard foes will declare themselves as such.

So everyone, or almost everyone, seems to be on the same side. The present level of concern and demand of "good" environmental management in the industrialized countries is reminscent of the popular support in the U.S. in the early part of the century for the so-called Conservation Movement, an enthusiasm that prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to exclaim in exasperation: "Everyone is for conservation - no matter what it means!" This sentiment was echoed recently in connection with the latest movement: writing in The Economist of September '89 a book reviewer noted, "every environmentally aware politician is in favour of 'sustainable development' but what on Earth does the phrase mean?"


"Sustainable development is ultimately a frustrating idea (when one tries) to turn it into a usable concept.. and to apply it to investment decisions or national accounts, (an exercise that) exposes some of its weaknesses.... But as a broad goal, sustainable development is useful. Like many important ideas, it is better than nothing as long as there is nothing better."

-The Economist, Inheriting the Earth", September, 1989.

The challenge is how to respond to this strong dose of anxiety about the environment in the collective psyche or how to jump the large gap between awareness, concern and remedial action. There is hardly any doubt that sustainable development embodies a worthwhile concept, namely, concern for the long-term. There is something to be said for popularizing the need for this longer time frame as the perspective from which to judge and impact upon economic activity, particularly decision-making with regard to investing, consuming and saving. But this is hardly new. The distinctively new aspect of the concern with sustainability pertains to the environment in so far as its degradation poses a threat to future welfare, but whose welfare? and in what way?

Answering those questions is important for understanding why the actions have fallen so far short of the rhetorical statements that seem to identify the problem and endorse the idea of doing something about its resolution. To shed some light on this troubling gap between word and deed, it is useful to recognize the problems inherent in a movement that fails to make key distinctions in its constituency - those who stand to gain and those who stand to lose - and in its program - those aspects that are vital and those that can be jettisoned if the need arises during the course of the battle. In this connection it should be noted that the cause of sustainable development has been taken up by those who do not discriminate between two vitally important aspects of the issue:

(i) the lop-sided nature of the support for the "environmental movement". The phenomenon of growing popularity of movements advocating a simpler life-style as a preferable one is largely confined to those living in industrialized nations with higher income levels while the level of support for environmental initiatives is, by contrast, very weak in those so-called developing countries" where improvement in the rate of increase of income or welfare levels is a matter of dire necessity given their present low levels. These two categories of governance need to be differentiated with respect to how much and how fast the issues of "environment" can be integrated into the political and economic decision-making process though institutional and policy changes at the national or regional level. Given the nature of environment impacts that are transnational or global, the issue of governance at the international level is as important for the resolution of this crisis - but it is certainly more difficult to achieve when the peoples of the industrialized and of the developing countries have different perception about the causes, the effects and urgency of action at the international level that calls for a cooperative approach.

(ii) the loose manner in which "environmental resources" are defined which gives rise to a vague or non-existent distinction between depletion or degradation of natural resources that can safely be depleted without necessarily prejudicing future welfare and those that cannot. The former category of resources are those that are valued for their own sake in the form and on the site that nature has provided: beautiful landscapes, serene atmosphere, prevailing ozone layer, etc. These "resources" are irreplacable and priceless and, in some cases, indispensable for the continuance of life on earth for the human species.

In both cases the issue of definition is more than a semantic quibble. If we are interested in policy-making, the core concern is arriving at an understanding of the concept in terms of its operational implications and that calls for using the concept of sustainability carefully, especially differentiating between the attitude towards resources in divergent socio-political contexts and between resources in terms of their role in the socio-economic process. The first distinction is self-evident but we will say more on how it is virtually ignored in the advocacy for sustainable development by most supporters, almost all of whom are found in the industrailized nations. The second distinction is not as self-evident and