Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?


Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

When SFU approved its Sustainability Policy (GP 38) in 2008, it adopted a definition of sustainability taken from a report issued in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WECD).

The report, Our Common Future (now commonly known as “the Brundtland Report”), calls for us to achieve sustainability by “improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.” Brundtland also defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Report was an attempt to wrestle with a conflict between intensifying demand for resources to fuel economic growth and our planet’s ability to provide them. Those demands overwhelmingly came—as they do now—from the developed nations with well-established “market economies.”

But people in developing nations were finding a more powerful political and moral voice with which to claim improved access to resources so they, too, could enjoy a higher economic standard of living. The concept of “sustainable development” was an attempt to paper over the fundamental conflict between rising demand and shrinking resources by yoking two essentially contrary concepts together.

As demand for the earth’s resources continues to grow from all quarters, so does our essential dilemma, neatly embodied in the term “sustainable development.” By definition, a dilemma is a choice between two equally unhappy alternatives. When we talk about sustainable development, we are really yoking together two ideas that may be irreconcilable: our established notions of development and our emergent awareness of sustainability.

Our economic model for development is wholly predicated on growth: growth in demand met by growth in supply ad infinitum. We in the developed market economies consume resources with unequalled voraciousness. Our marketing machines then relay images of our appealing consumables and their associated “lifestyles” around the world in hope of creating larger markets and more active consumers. They succeed, and so we export consumerism to those who are now competing with us more successfully for access to resources. The BRICS countries are the prime examples: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, although rising middle classes defined by their ability to consume are a global phenomenon.

Gross consumption of resources is our culture’s dominant, almost exclusive, way of understanding “development.” Linking it with “sustainable” simply misdirects us to believe that somehow we can continue to rely on “growing” our economies as we have until now and still magically achieve a sustainable society.

In truth, achieving sustainability means using a lot fewer resources, especially in the “consumer economies.” Figuring out how we can do that, and even come to appreciate and enjoy our freedom from the market’s relentless demands to consume and discard, is the challenge we now must face. We need to develop sustainability, not “sustainable development.”  

Society, Sustainability 101, Environment, Economy

About the Author

KC Bell

KC Bell is the first director of SFU's Sustainability Office and a passionate advocate for sustainability and climate action. He will be blogging regularly for Talking Sustainability and invites SFU community members to share their thoughts on this forum and build an ongoing dialogue on sustainability.

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