What is Sustainable Development ?

Publié dans French Studies, John Ray, Steven Frankel, Honoré Champion, Paris, 2014

One may find comparative politics interesting but I have to admit it is not my view. Of course, I do believe in cultural differences! But, are they really significant? I would answer no. I would even say that while we are focusing on differences we are missing what is essential. The essential thing is to understand ourselves of course, to understand humans. It reminds me of the stories of the ornithologists who figured out that, according to their location on the European continent, the male chaffinches did not exactly sing the same way. The songs may seem the same, but some dissimilarity can be noticed. Ornithologists found that, as in human societies, birds have accents; and, of course, they were enthusiastic about their discovery and could talk about it for ages. But we easily understand that they are not talking about what is “essential” to the chaffinch species.

Looking at similarities is therefore often more useful. One of the most powerful theories of the twentieth century arouse from such an attitude. In the middle of the past century, while all researchers had made a habit of studying differences in literary texts, one of them, René Girard, had begun to study similarities. The implications of his discovery were so important in anthropology that he is sometimes called the Charles Darwin of the modern age. if you are not familiar with Girard’s work, the “mimetic desire” and the “scapegoat” figure, I encourage you to have a look at it. 

All of this is to tell you that I will not focus on the differences between a French and American perspective in this article, for the reasons explained above and because my specialty is the environmental crisis. This subject obliges us to have a broader view since it is a worldwide problem that can only be solved at the international level. Furthermore, I think there are no fundamental differences in the way Europeans and Americans tackle environmental problems, though some cantankerous researchers may tell you the contrary, to your amazement, that chaffinches do not sing the same story in Paris or Frankfurt. More precisely, I will discuss sustainable development and try to explain what it is exactly. Sustainable development has become a term commonly used in politics and in business. One has the impression that every action is now undertaken in the framework of “sustainable development.” We know that it is related to the environment but we do not know whether there is something really serious behind it. I will try here to characterize sustainable development in a simple manner with respect to both its theory and practice.


Between incompatibility and compatibility

The emergence of environmental problems in the middle of the twentieth century shows that economic development is the main factor of destruction. The more a society is developing the more it destroys its environment because it needs raw material, energy and so forth. This is an obvious deduction. Development has its negative effects. The first ecologists immediately revealed to the world this obvious fact and, insofar as they worried about the damage to the environment, they started pointing out the danger of development. In fact, they highlighted a form of incompatibility between preservation of the environment and development. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the nineteen sixties, a group of intellectuals, the famous club of rome, strongly recommended, in a document titled “Limits to growth” (the meadow’s report), that zero growth policies be implemented in the richest countries. They argued that the demographic growth and the increase of natural resources extraction would soon lead the world to face incommensurable problems. Therefore, zero growth, or even negative growth, was needed.

The release of the Meadows’s report can be seen as one of the first contribution of ecology to political thought. The problem is that the ecologists as a whole, because they highlighted this form of incompatibility between the environment and economic growth were very soon accused of wanting to go back to the “oil lamp,” of being against progress and of wanting to leave poor countries undeveloped. According to many, they defended backward looking ideas. The height of this critique was the characterization of ecology as an anti-humanist cause.

Brundtland's and Meadow's reports

Brundtland's and Meadow's reports

But, even if the ecological movement was denigrated, it was more and more recognized as raising an important problem. In fact, political leaders from the nineteen seventies onwards agreed on the necessity of acting but refused to consider negative growth or zero growth policies as options. In other words, they refused acknowledging the incompatibility between preservation of the environment and development. Indeed, in doing so, only two possibilities would have remained: either implementing authoritarian negative growth policies or voluntarily but cynically discarding environmental concerns. In order to avoid this scary alternative, they preferred to credit a thesis that would prove enormously successful: the sustainable development theory.

It's not very clear, how and when this theory emerged but it was explicitly described for the first time at the end of the nineteen eighties in the Brundtland report. this report, that could be seen as “the counter meadows report” resulted from the work of a commission on environment and development set up in 1983 by the general assembly of the United Nations and that was chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway. This document defines sustainable development as a development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This remains today the most famous definition of sustainable development but it does not tell much about it. In fact, the more important to remember is that sustainable development considers the settlement of the environmental crisis from the perspective of the compatibility with economic growth. it says the opposite of what the ecologists seemed to show at first. The supporters of sustainable development theory declare that the “environment and economy are compatible.”

Sustainable development theory is, in the time of the ecological crisis, similar to the magic bullet theory in the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It could be theoretically possible but it has still to be proven. One wishes to believe it but might be puzzled about the arguments. In fact, it is much easier to prove incompatibility than the compatibility. Indeed, the more a country develops the more environmental damage increases as can be observed today in India, China or Brazil. The indicators of degradation (greenhouse gas emissions, water pollutions, biodiversity erosion, etc.) are very clear in showing a worsening of the situation when the economy is doing well. On the contrary, an economic crisis often shows an immediate improvement in the environmental situation because it impacts the consumption level, which is directly linked to the intensity of natural resources extraction.

Therefore, theoretically, sustainable development is development that does not jeopardize the environment. But, as I will try to explain, sustainable development does not yet exist. I would not say it cannot appear one day, I would just say it has not yet been invented. 

The triangle of Sustainable development and the apparition of the “social” 

Now we can examine the triangle of sustainable development (figure 1). Indeed, the latter is often represented as a triangle. The first apex stands for economy, the second for environment and the third for social. Sustainable development is a concept that has been created to tackle environmental problems but surprisingly, here appears a third “character”: the social. To sum up, the social part encompasses a wide range of concerns regarding the good conditions of such as health care, inequality, access to housing, gender equality, etc. 

Figure 1

Figure 1

In fact, the social part was added to demonstrate that the struggle for the preservation of the environment was not against progress and humans in general. We must remember that the ecologists were once accused of being anti-humanists. Adding a social part was a way of struggling against the anti-humanist suspicions and showing that concern for the environment did not necessitate social regression. It was felt that only under this condition would political leaders take the environmental issues seriously.

The necessity to make the environmental cause credible by associating it with social progress is visible in all the final declarations issued at the end of the important international conferences on environment. In these texts, the signatories endeavor to show that the two causes are kindred.

For instance, regarding gender equality, they affirm in the Rio declaration on environment and development (Earth Summit, 1992) that “women have a vital role in environmental management and development. their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development,” and the Johannesburg declaration on sustainable development (2002) insisted that “we are committed to ensuring that women’s empowerment, emancipation and gender equality are integrated in all the activities encompassed within agenda 21, the millennium development goals and the Plan of implementation of the Summit.” The same type of statement is made for many other causes, such as the fight against poverty, discriminations, inequalities, the protection of local cultures, the strengthening of democracy, and the promotion of peace, etc. But the question is whether the destiny of these causes are linked to the destiny of environment protection. This is far from certain.

We can for instance assume that the fight against poverty is counterproductive in the environmental perspective insofar as a poor society produces less pollution than a rich one. The same can be said for strengthening democracy: the biggest polluters are democratic countries. But the aim of the statement did not reflect reality but rather was to restore the environmental cause’s image as progressive. This is obvious in the principle 1 of the declaration of the United Nations conference on the human Environment (Stockholm - June 1972): 

Man an has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate condi- tions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations. in this respect, policies promoting or perpetuating apartheid, racial segregation, discrimination, colonial and other forms of oppression and foreign domination stand condemned and must be eliminated

Again, the link between the two sentences is far from obvious. One could even notice an artificial connection. But, the objective of the writers of the final declaration is effectively to give the environmental cause the unquestionable positive image of the other causes. If fights against apartheid and for the environmental protection are heading the same way, there is no reason to fear sustainability.

In fact, as was suggested to me by Prof. Steven Frankel, the idea of sustainable development represents an ideal of justice. But we wonder whether we are facing a new utopia? The utopian side of sustainable development is striking in the second triangle-like figure often used to simplify sustainable development concept (figure 2). Three circles cross. they are depicting the three pillars of sustainable development: economy, environment and social. Where the social and environment circles meet, you are in the livable zone. Where the social and economy circle meet, you are in the equitable zone (the economic system has to be fair and implements redistribution of wealth). Where the economy and environmental circle meet you are in the viable zone (an economy cannot grow if it does not rely on a preserved environment). And, last but not least, at the crossroad of the circles, you are in the zone of the sustainable! 


This is a nice diagram showing how ambitious the sustainable development is but also why it is a kind of utopia. The problem, of course, is the following: can we have several irons in the fire? Pursuing sustainable development goals (economic growth, protection of the environment and social progress) are laudable attempts but is that really possible? I would even ask a more fundamental question: does the sustainable development concept really address what it was created for: the settlement of environment problems? We wonder whether the concept of sustainable development was made up in order to hide the inaction of governments. In other words, is sustainable development business as usual? I will try to answer this question in the next part dedicated to the sustainable development “in practice”. 


Decoupling growth and degradation

The best way to answer this question is to go beyond the statement of general intent and to examine what is going on in the field. How is sustainable development implemented concretely? Policies undertaken under the principles of sustainable development aim to “decouple” growth and pollution. Indeed, unfortunately, as shown in the first diagram of Figure 3, while the economy is growing over time, the pollution level is increasing. 

As it is out of the question to stop growth, the idea is to “decouple” the curves of development and pollution as shown in the second diagram of Figure 3. Growth continues to grow but, at the same time, the damage to the environment stabilizes or even diminishes. Only at that point could development could be sustainable (considering only the environmental part and not the social). Decoupling is then the ultimate goal.

Many policies have been undertaken to try to reach this point. Sets of principles have been introduced in legislation such as polluters pay or the precautionary principles, as well as sets of actions such as technological improvement, implementation of education programs, oriented research funding, etc. We can affirm that the environmental issue has been considered at different levels by national governments, local authorities, public bodies, and by enterprises. They are all implementing sustainable development policies.

These policies consist of trying to minimize the environmental and social impact of their activities. To make it simple, keeping to the environmental side, these actions consist of avoiding “useless pollution.” Indeed, a share of the pollution one may produce is useless. To manufacture a good, one “needs” to pollute. The pollution is a kind of natural by-product of any production or even living process. But, often, even if it is impossible to eliminate pollution, one can reduce it without jeopardize the quality of what one is producing.

Let’s take a stupid but illuminating example. Imagine you want to implement a sustainable policy of your own. You are breathing and, in doing so, you are polluting the atmosphere by rejecting CO2. You’d better keep breathing otherwise you will soon be dead. It is then impossible to eliminate all pollution. But, you may try to breathe differently (less deeply for instance) without any impact on your health or way of life. This way you are eliminated the useless pollution and you become more environmentally friendly. Congratulations, you have just completed an action typically stamped “sustainable development.”

The Pollution Optimum

In fact, actions taken under sustainable development principles are seeking what we call a pollution optimum. The latter is an important concept in environmental economy. It derives from the Pareto optimum, a famous notion in classical economy. “A Pareto optimal outcome is one such that no-one could be made better off without making someone else worse off.” This is the best you can do for the well-being of an individual without negatively affecting the well-being of another one. Then the pollution optimum is the maximum level of pollution you can reach without dramatically affecting society.

This notion is depicted in figure 4. The curve cm represents the cost of the cleanup (for instance for a given industry). The curve dm represents the monetary evaluation of the damage for the environment. Dm shows that the more the pollution rate is important the more the monetary evaluation of the environment damage is important (the more the cost of the damage is important). This is the opposite for cm. The more one industry pollutes the less expensive it is for it to get rid of pollution. It seems odd at first but it is natural. When you go for a diet, for instance, it is very easy to slim down at the very beginning. Then it becomes more and more difficult as you progressively come closer to your target weight. This is the same in trying to lower pollution.

The two curves represent a cost: one supported by the industry or the polluter and the other one by society. For a given pollution “P” there is an “A” cost of the damage and a “B” cost of the cleanup. The idea is adding these two different costs and to find the level of pollution for which the “global cost” is the lower. This particular level of pollution is the one for which the two curves meet. In fact the global cost is lower when the surface underneath both curves is smallest. This particular pollution rate is called the Pollution Optimum (P*). In environmental economy this is considered to be the best level of pollution because it induces the lowest “global cost.” This pollution optimum can be seen as a compromise between two contradictory necessities: the necessity of polluting to produce goods and the necessity to protect the environment, both necessities being very useful for people. It can also be seen as the highest pollution rate possible without significantly damaging the environment.

If you have understood this concept I think you can understand all environmental policies and how sustainable development is implemented in any field. The ultimate goal is to reach this pollution optimum rather than zero pollution. In fact, sustainable development “in practice” is the implementation of a “quality approach” that will lead to the improvement of environmental performance or efficiency. It amounts to rationalizing or optimizing processes. Sustainable development policies can be implemented at any level.

Now, we can answer the question: is sustainable development business as usual? The response is twofold: yes and no. No, because there is a significant difference between doing nothing and trying to minimize the impact on the environment by optimizing its function. Implementing such actions or policies asks for serious involvement. Yes, because the impact of such actions remains low: the level of pollution stays high and indicators of degradation show a clear worsening of the situation. Therefore, it is far from certain that sustainable development policies, as implemented today, are addressing the ecological crisis. As I already said: genuine sustainable development has not been invented even if actions or policies are stamped “sustainable development.” Will true sustainable development emerge in the coming years? No one can say.