Sustainable development and saving the world

Stu Crawford

The Brundtland Report is interesting. It seems to be a compromise of doing what is best for the global economy, and shutting up the environmentalists and the people concerned for the third world. Because of this it is full of contradictions. At one point the Brundtland Report promotes citizen's initiatives, empowering people's initiatives, and strengthening local democracy(1). And it spends the rest of the time promoting the free market economy and the development projects that have no respect for communities and that uproot those same villagers from their farms and leave them with no livelihood.

The main contradiction of the Brundtland Report is that it supports ecological sustainability and capitalist development at the same time. It does this by having a very warped view of both development and the causes of environmental destruction. The Brundtland Report states that "The satisfaction of human needs and aspirations is the major objective of development."(2) But the development that economics spawns has only one purpose -- to increase the profit of those people who are in control of that development. Profit is the mechanism by which economics makes decisions. Satisfaction of human needs and aspirations is not.

The Brundtland Report comes to the conclusion that the cause of environmental destruction is the lack of economic growth. It can do this because it identifies poverty as the only cause of environmental destruction. And it identifies economic growth as the only solution to poverty. The obvious conclusion is then that we must revive growth in third world to reduce poverty to help the environment. And then the Brundtland Report further states that for all developing countries a high export growth will be necessary for rapid development.(3) It then comes to the ludicrous conclusion that the way to stop environmental destruction is to make developing countries increasingly dependent on foreign trade, to make them increasingly westernized, and to do everything possible to help with the corporate takeover of the third world.

There are the following flaws in the Brundtland Report argument. The rich are the cause of the destruction of the environment, not the poor. It is the policies of the developed nations that force the undeveloped nations to do environmentally destructive things. It is the economic growth of the rich that causes environmentally destructive activities. The devastation of the third world environment is a result of pressures from the global economy, not from the needs of the poor.

The second major flaw is that economic growth is not the solution to economic equality. There has been fairly steady economic growth in Canada and the USA for the last several decades. For the last several decades economic disparity has been steadily increasing in these same two countries. The assumption the Brundtland Report makes that economic growth can be used to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor is simply unfounded. And evidence points the other way. As our global economy grows so does disparity.

The Brundtland Report talks of economic growth in an intelligent manner, but it is still only focused on growth. It wants unlimited growth as the solution to the world's problems. As long as the economy is growing everything is fine. But no matter how smart the economy is it can't always grow. Nature imposes limits on us that we cannot avoid.

Although the Brundtland Report says that it is in favour of environmental and social justice it is vague enough to allow for the exploitation of the poor in the name of sustainability. It also allows for the substitution of economic artifacts, such as capital, for real resources to balance the needs of the future with the destruction in the present and allow for the exploitation of the environment for economic sustainability. The Brundtland Report does not create an algorithm for intelligent decision making.

The Brundtland Report just presents the idea of further destruction in the name of economics in a pretty package in the hope that environmentalists and social activists will accept it. Brundtland's idea of an economic and ecological integration is not an integration at all. It is an assimilation. If the environment and social values are placed into the economic framework they have already been destroyed. According to Wolfgang Saches "Labeling things as `resources' takes off whatever protective identity they may have and opens them for intervention from the outside. Looking at water, soils, animals, people in terms of resources reconstitutes them as

objects for management by planners and for pricing by economists." (Saches, 1988, quoted in Nieto et al, 1996). Resources are finite so growth is not sustainable. Economics requires growth (Schrecker, 1993, in Peacock, 1996) and because of this cannot make sustainable decisions.

Because of the Brundtland Report's fascination with economic growth it fails to see the real solution to environmental destruction and social injustices. The Brundtland Report should be promoting sustainable use, not sustainable development. An activity is sustainable if it can be continued indefinitely. A sustainable use is an activity that will never effect its resource base to the point were that resource can no longer be used for that activity.

By promoting sustainable use over sustainable development we can allow for precapitalist ideas of organization. Modern economic thought assumes that the opposite of development is stagnation. But "Distinctions such as backwards/advanced or traditional/modern have . . . become ridiculous given the dead end of progress in the North, from poisonous soils to the greenhouse effect." (Saches, 1989, cited in Nieto et al, 1996). Opposing economic development is not reactionary, supporting it is. Supporting economic development as the solution to the world's problems ignores the diverse cultures in the undeveloped world that can give us hope by showing us how a society could limit their levels of material output in order to cherish whatever ideals emerge from their own cultural heritages. The enemy of the environment is not poverty, it is the culture of the developed world. The key to sustainable use is the acceptance of precapitalist 'economic' policy.


References cited

Brundtland Report. 1987. "Towards Sustainable Development" in Our Common Future, pp43 - 66.Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Nieto, C. C., F. Neotropica, and P. T. Durbin. 1996. Sustainable Development and the Philosophies of Technology. Society for Philosophy and Technology, University of Delaware, volume 1, numbers 1 - 2.

Peacock, K. A. 1996. Living With the Earth: An introduction to environmental philosophy. Harcourt Brace & Company, Canada, Toronto.

Sachs, W. 1988. The Gospel of Global Efficiency: On Worldwatch and Other Reports on the State of the World. IFDA (International Foundation for Development Alternatives) Dossier 68 (November-December, 1988):4.

Saches, W. 1989. Bygone Splendour: On the Archeology of the Development Idea (I). Mimeo, presented to the Science, Technology, and Society Program, Pennsylvania State University, November 1989, 7-8.

Schrecker, T. 1993. "Missing the Point About Growth" in M. Charlton and E. Riddell-Dixon (eds.), Crosscurrents: International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era, pp. 535 - 541.. Nelson Canada, Scarborough, ON.



1. The Brundtland Report, on pg 386 in Peacock, 1996.

2. The Brundtland Report, on pg 370 in Peacock, 1996

3. The Brundtland Report, on pg 376 in Peacock., 1996