Sustainable Development

Means getting past our global growing pains

What it is… June 23, 2009

My views on “sustainable development”, the challenges it presents (as a concept and in practice), and links to visionaries and thinkers who’ve influenced my thinking (as well as some folks I disagree with!)


One Response to “What it is…”

  1. wpconservation Says:

    My views, pt. 1:

    So, I’m in school studying “sustainable economic development”. And I’m glad I’m doing so.
    There is, however, one glaring problem: sustainable economic development sounds like an oxymoron. This blog was created, at least in part, to address the gap between these two often rival ideologies (environmentalism and economic development.)

    ‘Sustainable development’ is a phrase designed by U.N. committee (the Brundtland Commission) to overcome various economic anxieties, especially in the ‘developing’ world, about environmental ideas like sustainability getting in the way of economic goals, like growth. Sustainable Development was a clever catchphrase that neatly bound these two often rival goals together. In that way, it was politically masterful. But many of the modern interpretations of “Sustainable Development” fail to get at the root of what it means to develop sustainably.

    One major tripping point? The classic ideology regarding economic growth is that it stems from an increase in physical, tangible capital – more infrastructure, more cities, more factories, more people, etc, and that development means owning and operating more stuff.

    And this is, in some ways, true – if one’s sole goal is “growth”. But bigger is not always better. Associating development purely with growth is a “false paradigm” ideology if ever there was one. Let’s use, for example, the allegory of a human body.

    At first, growth is necessary, and energies are focused in large part of getting together and growing the necessary infrastructure for life (vital organs, limbs and extremities, brain, etc.). This continues through adolescence, but even during the early stages of physical growth, something else is occurring. The brain and nervous system – command center and memory banks for the body – are busy processing and storing information, making connections, and assembling the set of phsically intangible (outside of neuroscience), but developmentally crucial tools and resources that will make up our personality, and the skill sets that make us valuable members of our community.

    This process accelerates during the late stages of puberty, and then really hits its stride at precisely the time when we stop growing (at least vertically.)

    What we’ve been focused on is growth – short term growth, equivalent to the short term growth of the body as it strains to get to physical maturity. What we need now is development in terms of skills, technology and social functions (i.e. personality on a large scale – culture & social norms). As a species and a global culture, we need to get to a relatively equitable stage of physical maturity (primary growth, such as that seen in “developing” nations) and then stop trying to grow physically larger – people who can’t stop growing die young, and they die because their vital organs cease to be able to support them (gigantism a la The Roman Empire).

    This “post-adolescent” stage of growth, i.e. adulthood and maturity, is commonly seen as weakness by the young, hungry adolescent nations of the world. But on a planet with limited resources, maturity, thrift, efficiency and wisdom will be far more valuable than the temporary grandeur imparted by overinflated populations and powerful armies. Hopefully, we’ll all live to see the day when this is realized, as resources become too valuable to waste on showy displays and military posturing.

    That’s my rant for the day. Now I’m back to work, studying solar-powered district heating with subterranean seasonal heat storage. Which is very cool indeed. I’ll post up the goodies tomorrow when I’ve sorted wheat from chaff!


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