False assumptions on sustainable development

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Fallacies about ecosystemic processes

In many Asian countries in 1993, it is believed that economic growth to the "developed" level is a precondition for any serious attention to the environment. The World Bank has only recently begun to act on the premise that investment in the environmental component of development assists economic growth rather than impeding it.

In 1997, the US Forest Service approved a new management plan for the great Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. The plan would allow more logging than required by either the current state of demand for timber products or the long-term economic health of the southeastern Alaska region. Administration officials defended the plan on grounds that it was better – was based on better science and was more protective of the forest, the species within it, etc. – than its predecessor. No doubt that was true, but it was also the wrong standard. The plan would do unnecessary and irreparable environmental harm.

In 1997, the US Congress was on the way to pass legislation short-circuiting the normal procedures and ordering adoption of a particular management plan for tree forests in northern California. The plan would permit a fair amount of cutting. Its virtue from the politician's standpoint was that it was put forward as a consensus proposal by a group representing industry and, supposedly, environmentalists in the affected region. Supporters touted it as a possible model for a new approach to forest management; local consensus became the key. But these were national, not local forests, and while local views needed to be taken into account in their management, they needed to be managed as other than adjuncts to local economies. The model appealed to those who would shift political power generally from the federal to the local level, but in this case it was wrong.


The confusion has been caused because "sustainable development", "sustainable growth" and "sustainable use" have been used interchangeably, as if their meanings were the same. They are not. "Sustainable growth" is a contradiction in terms: nothing physical can grow indefinitely. For "sustainable growth" to be fuelled by increased economic growth, as is currently being pursued in both rich and poor countries alike, is exactly what is proving to be unsustainable. "Sustainable use" is applicable only to renewable resources: it means using them at rates within their capacity for renewal.

Related Problems:
Vulnerability of food chains
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
07.11.2017 – 18:37 CET