Economic growth is inconsistent with sustainable development when it results in the net reduction of the portfolio of assets which includes: natural assets, comprising resource assets (biological resources, agricultural land, geological resources) and environmental assets (ecological processes and biological diversity, including species and places that are valued aesthetically or for their own sake); manufactured assets (technology, buildings, equipment, infrastructure); and human assets (knowledge, skills).
The combined effects of increasing world population and of per capita consumption are putting pressure on the limited resources of the planet and on the limited capacity of man's natural ecosystems for self-regulation and self-regeneration. This pressure will necessarily bring about, in a non-remote foreseeable future, a general readjustment of the relationship between man and his natural ecosystems, at the cost of a catastrophic decrease in world population, due to massive mortality, together with a major degradation of the material and cultural standards of humanity.
Economic development is unsustainable when it increases vulnerability to crises. For example: a drought may force farmers to slaughter animals needed to sustain production in future years; a drop in prices may cause farmers or other producers to over-exploit natural resources to maintain incomes.
A global economy growing at 2-3% per year implies a quadrupling of industrial output in the same period so that a fourfold increase in environmental performance is necessary just to maintain current environment impacts – which scientific evidence already indicates as portending future disasters.
To allow maximization of economic growth to be the overwhelming determinant of development is to guarantee that mostly inappropriate development will result. To conceive of development as indiscriminate economic growth is to favour the wealthy, since their fundamental interest lies in maximizing the amount of return on investment without having to be concerned whether capital ought to be invested more appropriately, whether or not it is profitable. Growth means quantitatively more. Development means qualitatively better. The two are not the same and may indeed be inversely related.
Business requires growth because it results in larger markets. Governments favour it because it results in a larger tax base. Growth is favoured by socialists because it makes redistribution easier. People in a consumer society like growth because well-being has been redefined as well-having, namely having more.