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Sustainable Development

Towards RIO+20

Another provocative perspective on Sustainable development is proposed by Herman Daly in the Viewpoints on Rio+20 published by Natural resources Forum. You can find the other contributions here .

“The conclusion of the 1972 Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome still stands 40 years later. Even though economies are still growing, and still put growth in first place, it is no longer economic growth, at least in wealthy countries, but has become uneconomic growth. In other words, the environmental and social costs of increased production are growing faster than the benefits, increasing “illth” faster than wealth, thereby making us poorer, not richer. We hide the uneconomic nature of growth from ourselves by faulty national accounting because growth is our panacea, indeed our idol, and we are very afraid of the idea of a steady-state economy. The increasing illth is evident in exploding financial debt, in biodiversity loss, and in destruction of natural services, most notably climate regulation. The major job of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is to help us overcome this denial and shift the path of progress from quantitative growth to qualitative development, from bigger to better. Specifically this will mean working toward a steady-state economy at a sustainable (smaller than present) scale relative to the containing ecosystem that is finite and already overstressed. Since growth now makes us poorer, not richer, poverty reduction will require sharing in the present, not the empty promise of growth in the future.”

Herman Daly is Emeritus Professor University of Maryland, USA

Sustainable development: critique of the standard model


Waiting for the Earth Conference Rio+20, Leonardo Boff provides an interesting and provocative critique to the notion of Sustainable Development

Official documents of the UN and the Earth conference Rio +20 devote much space to the concept of sustainable development: it must be economically viable, socially fair and environmentally friendly. It is the famous so-called Triple Bottom Line (the line of the three pillars), created in 1990 by John Elkington, founder of the NGO “SustainAbility”. But this model does not withstand serious criticism.

Economically viable development: In the political language of business, development is equivalent to the gross domestic product (GDP). Woe to the company and the country that have no positive annual growth rates! They would be in crisis or recession with a resulting decrease in consumption and generation of unemployment; it is all about making money with the minimum possible investment, the highest possible return, the strongest competition in the shortest time.

When we talk about development here, we only refer to the industrialist/capitalist/consumerist growth. This is anthropocentric, contradictory and wrong. Let me explain why.

It is anthropocentric because it focuses only on human beings, as if there were no community of life (flora and fauna and other living organisms 
), which also needs the biosphere and also requires sustainability.

It is contradictory because development and sustainability obey opposed logics. Industrial development is linear, it increases exploitation of nature and promotes private accumulation. It is based exclusively on a capitalist approach of the economy. The sustainability concept, on the contrary, comes from the life sciences and ecology, whose logic is circular and inclusive. It implies the cycle of the dynamic equilibrium of ecosystems, interdependence and cooperation of all to all. Thus, those two concepts are logical antagonistic; one privileges the individual, the other the group. One promotes competition, the other cooperation; one evolution of the fittest, the other the evolution of an interconnected whole.

It is wrong, because it claims that poverty causes environmental degradation. Therefore, the less poverty, the more sustainable the world would be, which is a naïve mistake. Looking, however, critically the real causes of poverty and degradation of nature, we see that they are mainly caused by this kind of development. This model produces environmental degradation, low wages and thus generates poverty.

Sustainable development is a trap of the existing system: it adopts the terms of ecology (sustainability) in a meaningless manner. It assumes the terms of the economy (growth) masking the poverty that itself produces.

Socially fair: if there is one thing that the current industrial/capitalist development cannot say about itself is that it is socially fair. If it were fair, there wouldn’t be 1, 4 billion hungry people and most nations in poverty. Let us consider only the case of Brazil. The Brazilian Social Atlas, 2010 (IPEA), reports that 5000 families control 46% of GDP. The government spends annually 125,000 million reais to pay interests on debt and only 40,000 billion reais for social programs that benefit the poor majority. This condemns the false rhetoric of just development, impossible within the current economic paradigm.

Environmentally friendly: the current type of development is pursuing an unstoppable war against Gaia, exploiting whatever has a monetary value and especially depriving the minorities who control the last natural resources. According to the Living Planet Index of the UN (2010) in less than 40 years global biodiversity suffered a fall of 30%. From 1998 there has been an increase of 35% in emissions of greenhouse gases. Instead of talking about the limits to growth, we had better talk about the limits of the aggression to Earth.

In conclusion, the standard model of sustainable development we want is rhetorical. It will allow progress in the production of low carbon technology, the use of alternative energy and the creation of better waste management techniques. But, be aware: this will be done only if the profits won’t be jeopardized or competition reduced. The use of the term “sustainable development” has major political significance: a change in the present economic paradigm is needed if we want real sustainability. Within the present model of sustainable development, sustainability is either localized or non-existent.

Leonardo Boff is a theologian, philosopher and writer, known for his active support for the rights of the poor and excluded. He currently serves as Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology at the Rio de Janeiro State University.


Translation: Mario Pansera

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