Not Sustainable Development

garbage dumpAs your professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Society you would have thought that I might at least have sat you down at the beginning of the seminar and given you a clear understanding of that oft-repeated rarely-questioned phrase “sustainable development”.

This Nathalie Nomblot brought most embarrassingly to my attention yesterday when we were struggling to find a good topic for her make-up Quick Report, which I had usefully (!) suggested  she might write on “sustainable development” and “something else” (her choice).  To which she energetically wrote back:  “In one sentence, could you please give me your definition of Sustainable Development? That would help!”


From the summer 2013 MBA Master Class under this title at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion in Paris, at

Now that’s a fine question Nathalie. and if you are waiting for me to give you the answer, the fact is that I cannot, today at any rate, write out that one defining sentence. At least not one that reflects the full tensions and contradictions that this all too easily-said phrase carries with it.

But I can engage the topic, since after all it is central to our course.  Here is what I propose: That we hold it up in the air and turn it about a bit so that we can inspect it from all sides — and in the process see if some interesting things come out of it.

What were we thinking?

But before I dig in, let me reflect with you on what I thought we had in mind as we spent our 24 hours on exactly this topic. Basically (or at least this is my understanding), without really thinking about it and since it is a phrase that we hear so often, we implicitly agreed to agree: i.e., to accept that “sustainable development” is this generally  good and desirable thing that we should  be trying to do more of for all sorts of reasons.   Our shared understanding was more of less to agree with Mrs. Brundtland’s close to immortal  1987 definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

We also implicitly agreed, as I recall, that it is a difficult and confusing challenge, one that requires us to question a lot our held  beliefs  about our behaviors, individually and collectively. But vague as that might be, we also understood and talked about the fact that it constitutes a real paradigm change that in the process is  opening up a new world of constraints and complex relationships which  we as individuals, but also policy makers and the business community, need to understand and come to grips with.

We were helped considerably in all this by our collaborative review of the Sustainable Development Timeline in which we went event by event through more than six decades of for the most part not-sustainable development. That plus our adventures and discussions with our ecological footprints certainly helped give us a more critical, more mature understanding of our topic. But we are still far from Nathalie’s request for a one sentence definition.

What is we try this? I propose we set aside Nathalie’s challenge to me for now, and see if I can lay the groundwork for a more useful solution to our dilemma. So, I thought it might be an idea to start with the carefully thought out words of a handful of knowledgeable  people and critiques who do NOT like of at least quite suspicious of the concept, and see if they can open up our minds to where all of this may be heading.  One we have conserved their warnings, we can come back to trying to come up with our one sentence.

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Critiquing sustainable development because it is . . .[1]


The author and environmentalist John Baden writes that the notion of sustainable development as dangerous because the consequences have unknown effects: “In economy like in ecology, the interdependence rule applies. Isolated actions are impossible. A policy which is not carefully enough thought will carry along various perverse and adverse effects for the ecology as much as for the economy. Many suggestions to save our environment and to promote a model of ‘Sustainable development’ risk indeed leading to reverse effects.”

Moreover, Baden evokes the bounds of public action which are underlined by the public choice theory: the quest by politicians of their own interests, lobby pressure, partial disclosure etc. He develops his critique by noting the vagueness of the expression, which can cover anything.  He claims that it can evolve into a gateway to interventionist proceedings which can be against the principle of freedom and without proven efficacy.

Against this notion, he is a proponent of private property to impel the producers and the consumers to save the natural resources. According to Baden, “the improvement of environment quality depends on the market economy and the existence of legitimate and protected property rights.” They enable the effective practice of personal responsibility and the development of mechanisms to protect the environment. The State can in this context “create conditions which encourage the people to save the environment.


Others criticize the term “sustainable development”, stating that the term is too vague. For example, the French philosopher Luc Ferry express this view . . . about sustainable development: “I know that this term is obligatory, but I find it also absurd, or rather so vague that it says nothing.”

Ferry adds that the term is trivial by a proof of contradiction: “who would like to be a proponent of an “untenable development! Of course no one! [..] The term is more charming than meaningful. [..] Everything must be done so that it does not turn into Russian-type administrative planning with ill effects.” sustainable development has become obscured by conflicting world views, the expansionist and the ecological, and risks being co-opted by individuals and institutions that perpetuate many aspects of the expansionist model.


Sylvie Brunel, French geographer and specialist of the Third World, develops in A qui profite le développement durable (Who benefits from sustainable development?) (2008) a critique of the basis of sustainable development, with its binary vision of the world, can be compared to the Christian vision of Good and Evil, an idealized nature where the human being is an animal like the others or even an alien. Nature – as Rousseau thought – is better than the human being. It(the human being)  is a parasite, harmful for the nature. But the human is the one who protects the biodiversity, where normally only the strong survive.

Moreover, she thinks that the core ideas of sustainable development are a hidden form of protectionism by developed countries impeding the development of the other countries.

And what about de-growth?

The proponents of the de-growth reckon that the term of sustainable development is an oxymoron. According to them, on a planet where 20% of the population consumes 80% of the natural resources, a sustainable development cannot be possible for this 20%: “According to the origin of the concept of sustainable development, a development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, the right term for the developed countries should be a sustainable de-growth“.

For several decades, theorists of steady state economy and ecological economy have been positing that reduction in population growth or even negative population growth is required for the human community not to destroy its planetary support systems, i.e., to date, increases in efficiency of production and consumption have not been sufficient, when applied to existing trends in population and resource depletion and waste by-production, to allow for projections of future sustainability.


In 2007 a report for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated: “While much discussion and effort has gone into sustainability indicators, none of the resulting systems clearly tells us whether our society is sustainable. At best, they can tell us that we are heading in the wrong direction, or that our current activities are not sustainable. More often, they simply draw our attention to the existence of problems, doing little to tell us the origin of those problems and nothing to tell us how to solve them.”[ Nevertheless a majority of authors assume that a set of well defined and harmonised indicators is the only way to make sustainability tangible. Those indicators are expected to be identified and adjusted through empirical observations (trial and error).  (See also ecological footprint.)

The most common critiques are related to issues like data quality, comparability, objective function and the necessary resources. However a more general criticism is coming from the project management community: How can a sustainable development be achieved at global level if we cannot monitor it in any single project?

The Cuban-born researcher and entrepreneur Sonia Bueno suggests an alternative approach that is based upon the integral, long-term cost-benefit relationship as a measure and monitoring tool for the sustainability of every project, activity or enterprise. Furthermore this concept aims to be a practical guideline towards sustainable development following the principle of conservation and increment of value rather than restricting the consumption of resources.

There you have it for today Class. What I propose at this point is to open up the comments either here on our class blog or on Facebook page at  then at one point I will come back into the discussions and see if I can put all this into perspective.


[1] Taken and lightly edited from the Wikipedia article on sustainable development. See their article for full text, footnotes and references. It is a good read.

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