True Sustainable Development vs. ‘Sustainable Growth’
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
– Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report)
We must differentiate between uses of the term ‘sustainable development’ that distort and its original, fundamental meaning. Infinite economic growth is not possible on a finite planet.* The seductively appealing mental models that hold otherwise are simply that, seductive mental models. Nothing organic can grow forever within a finite container, and the Earth is, for all intents and purposes, a finite container.
The undermining of human welfare and ecological health of the Earth in order to grow financial wealth, while calling it ‘sustainable‘ is a not sustainable. Mainstream growth economics aims for infinite, exponential economic growth, while at the same time falsely (but seductively) claiming that growth will cure poverty and pollution. Growth has not and will not solve either. After 150 years of exponential growth, the wealthiest and poorest individuals and nations are further apart than ever, with the top .1% of all working people owning as much as the lowest 80%.** And pollution is the worst that it has ever been, on land, in the air and in water.
Yet the pervasive institutions of mainstream growth economics have applied the term sustainable development in ways that attempt to cast infinite growth as a process that can be sustained forever. This has led to the use common use of phrases like ‘green growth’ and ‘sustainable growth’, both of which are contradictions in terms.
True sustainable development, on the other hand, recognizes planetary limits, which restrict the use of finite resources and the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to absorb our wastes. Growth economics denies that such limits exist. Growth economics is a system structurally constituted so that it must either grow or collapse. When this system nearly collapsed in 2008-9, the ‘solution’ that mainstream economists promoted was to stimulate more growth.***
True sustainable development must by contrast aim at improvements in quality rather than increases in quantity. True sustainable development must place the well-being of humanity and the many forms of life with which we share the Earth, above increasing financial wealth. True sustainable development recognizes that human well-being and survival inherently depend upon the health of Earth’s natural systems. And true sustainable development would be environmentally sustainable, socially just, and personally meaningful. If we were operating under a true sustainable model of development, few people would be tempted to call their work ‘the rat race’ as so many do under the current system.
* – Attributed to Kenneth Boulding, co-founder of Ecological Economics, who is famously credited with saying, “Anyone who believes that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.”
** – Statistic applies to the United States. No data is available like this on other countries.
*** – To kick-start growth again, central banks adopted a strategy of ‘creating’ more money artificially, and named this unconventional monetary policy with the euphemistic term ‘quantitative easing‘.