False assumptions on sustainable development

Visualization of narrower problems
Fallacies about ecosystemic processes
Sustainable development has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; stated another way, that we should not live and prosper at the cost of our children.
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.

1. 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.

2. The world faces serious problems today, which required concerted effort by all nations for their solution. Much has been written about these problems, and the limitations within which solutions can be found. But the limitations are not those frequently assumed. In ecological terms the issue is resilience rather than short-term stability.

3. Development slogans are unsuccessful mainly because the smaller states fail to read the world-economy and its history properly. First, they tend to wrongly assume that there is ample room in the centre of the world-economy for both themselves and the major states. Second, they act as if whatever need to be done to move them to, and accommodate them in, the centre, need only concern the structural relations between the central and the peripheral parts of the world-economy. Third, the peripheral states naively tend to believe that what needs to be done could be left to the initiatives of the central states. Fourth, the peripheral states misunderstand development to mean no more than the growth-oriented, industrialized imitation of the central societies models; whether free-market and [laissez-faire], or collectivist, five-year planned.

4. The easy assumption that all technical problems can be solved when it becomes necessary to do so, namely that no problems are irreversible, has resulted in the inappropriate development of certain industries (such as nuclear power) which have only subsequently recognized that the problems that they have created are not necessarily susceptible to solutions at an reasonable cost, if at all (as in the case of radioactive waste).

5. We are not talking about "sustainable profits". But that is what governments mean when they talk about "sustainable development".

6. A quarter of a century ago, at the outset of the present intensive concern about the environment, both the process of integrated management and its underlying holistic philosophy seemed naturally given. Obviously any human uses of natural resources, including those for techno-economic development, were subject to the same rules and limits as those governing the function and survival of natural ecosystems. Hence human management of environmental resources had to be ecosystemic. This proposition continues to be the operational formula for sustainable development. Eco-management always aimed at the human ecosystem as a whole that is bigger than its economic, social, technological, financial and environmental parts. The current missing ingredient is the conceptual sophistication that could quickly leap-frog over the weakness of the Rio conference (concerned with policy development), to easy and widely understood application (policy application).

(F) Fuzzy exceptional problems