Abandon sustainable development? My rant on the Economist debate.

Oohh… way to make my blood boil.

Check out the Economist debate on “This house believes that sustainable development is unsustainable”.

Whew, a lot of thoughts on the Proposer, Mr. David Victor’s  Opening Remarks.

Yes, the term “sustainable development” needs work.

It has been universally accepted because no one can say that looking after our grandkids’s kids is a bad thing – yet what does that mean in practice? That’s where the term becomes empty and becomes everything for everyone.

Is it possible to live sustainably? Not really (we are far from it) although Cuba seems to be the only one who’s got a fair shot at it. (Map the Human Development Index and Ecological Footprint index and you’re left with one little communist country.)

Technology (on its own) will not save us.

Mr. Victor is optimistic that we can be saved through our own ingenuity. When we look at the trends (that giant 90 degree angle), we are unprecedented in our population.  In other words, our checks and balances haven’t been checked for a while (where do we expect this curve to go?!?). Even if we “innovated” our way out of the energy crisis with renewables – our lifestyles still won’t last on this consumption wheel.  Mr. Victor’s salt example is of but one resource. We’re in a different ball game now.

That being said, technology + societal change will at least give us a better shot at coping (not necessarily to be sustainable just yet, but at least less unsustainable;).  We can’t look at innovation as being purely technological (invention-based) either. It means process/market/service and thinking-based innovation – we need to change our mindset. And it’s worth asking the question: is all innovation good? The short answer is no. What can produce value in the short term, doesn’t always transcribe for the long run (disposables anyone?) and not all economy-boosting innovations are even good for the present social/environmental needs.

Returning to those kids of our kids

Mr. Viktor’s second point is that we (in the sustainable development camp) have only focused on the harms that we will pass down to our kid’s kids and not the benefits. I have one quick response. We leave them nothing if we don’t leave them with energy, space and biodiversity.

And those damned policy makers…

His third point is on policy (I’m writing a paper on this exact topic so happen to feel rather intelligent in my grounding right now …). Extracting resources to further economic growth today with hopes that the consequences will be beneficial to future generations is careless and dangerous to say the least.

Smart regulation and policy making means that we need to figure out where we want to go – together with all of the decision makers. If governments really put meat (or hearty veggies;) on the meaning of sustainable development, it means policy makers from all sides need to agree on a future state and start transitioning the economy, directing innovations towards creating that sustainable future. This doesn’t mean that governments should choose which innovations – it just means that they need to create the environment where the market will move into this direction.

Human ingenuity on its own has done us tremendous favours – but let’s not forget that it has also led us to the tragedy of the commons…

Renewables shwpenewables.

And sorry, Mr. Victor – your attacks on renewable energies don’t reverberate with your “let’s innovate out of this conundrum!” Mining to the last drop without aiming for new sources is ridonculous.  And the comment on windpower being an eyesore leads me to discount much of what you have to say – MIT/Harvard grad or not. Lets look at alternatives through full life cycles & costs please. Being “frugal” with a limited resource still leads you to a dead end in the end.


Economy + Environment … and oh yeah, Society.

True, sustainable development tends to leave out the social side (he’s right to ask where’s the human rights, dignity or fairness in this talk?) Sticking the ‘human side’ back into economics and realizing that it isn’t just about money models will help with this. But, I have to say one thing that it often left out of the international development debate – ending poverty can’t be the end goal either.  Sustainable international development … now there’s a whole other paradox.

Mr. Victor ends “the last two decades have yielded an empty debate. Intellectually and politically, sustainable development is not sustainable and has become dangerous. It should be abandoned.

Abandoning the concept of sustainable development is abandoning this planet as we know it.

I say, the last two decades have yielded an empty debate. Intellectually and politically, sustainable development has not been sustainable and has become dangerous in its inertia. It should be attacked head-on.


Until then… cover up when you sneeze come this Fall. Our “check” on the population might just be around the corner…

Perhaps not the most optimistic ending for a post but it may just wake us out of our immunity fantasy.

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One thought on “Abandon sustainable development? My rant on the Economist debate.

  1. Steven Kivinen says:

    I’m not sure why the trade-off is framed as Economy vs. Environment. What it should be is Consumption Now vs. Consumption by Future Generations. Most people agree that current generations consume at the expense of future ones. The problem is whether we should grow our way out of such a conundrum or get the government to intervene.

    Not that I’m against intervention, but I get the feeling that those who promote it have unrealistic views about the nature of government and the economy. What is the government supposed to do? How are they to implement it? How do we know that the market won’t provide people with things we can never imagine now?

    Also, I disagree with basing policy on worst case scenarios. If I did that with my life I’d likely never leave the house.

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