Global Policy Forum

Sustainable Development: a Critique of the Standard Model

According to Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian academic and writer, the prevalent concept of „sustainable development” is untenable because it combines two irreconcilable logics: narrow economic development and holistic ecological sustainability. The former is exploitative and based on individualist competition, while the latter derives from the life sciences and assumes cooperation and community. It is particularly crucial to be critical of this concept now, as it is central to the upcoming Rio +20 conference. If global actors are to agree on a plan to save the earth from ecological disaster, the concept that is supposed to focus intellectual and political efforts cannot itself be faulty.

By Leonardo Boff

February 2, 2012

Official UN documents, as well as the current draft of Rio+20, devote substantial space to the model for sustainable development: It must be, they say, economically viable, socially just and environmentally correct. It is the famous triplet called The Triple Bottom Line (the line of the three pillars), coined in 1990 by John Elkington, from Great Britain, founder of the ONG SustainAbility. But this model cannot withstand a serious critique.

Economically viable development: in the political language of business managers, development is equated to increasing the gross national product, (GNP). Woe to the enterprise and the country that do not have positive indices of annual growth! They fall into crisis or recession with the consequent reduction of consumption and increase in unemployment: in the business world, it consists of making money, with the least possible investment, the maximum possible profitability, the strongest possible competitivity, and in the least possible time.

When we speak here of development, we are not talking about just any development, but of the one that actually exists, that is, of industrialist/capitalist/consumerist development. It is anthropocentric, contradictory and wrong. Let me explain.

It is anthropocentric because is centered only on the human being, as if the greater community of life (the flora, fauna and other living organisms), that also need the biosphere and equally demand sustainability, did not exist.

It is contradictory, because development and sustainability obey opposing logistics. The development now in existence is lineal and increasing. It exploits nature and favors private accumulation. Its political economics is of a capitalist character. The sustainability category, to the contrary, comes from the sciences of life and ecology, whose logistic is circular and inclusive. It represents the tendency of the ecosystems towards a dynamic equilibrium, an interdependency and cooperation of all with all. As can be seen, these are two contrasting logistics: one favors the individual, the other the collective; one promotes competition, the other cooperation; one the evolution of the fittest, the other the evolution of all, interconnected.

It is wrong, because it asserts that poverty is the cause of ecological degradation. Thus, the lesser the poverty, the more sustainable development would be, with less degradation. This is incorrect. By critically analyzing the real causes of poverty and the degradation of nature, one can see that they result primarily, if not exclusively, from the type of development now in existence. That kind of development is what produces the degradation, because it degrades nature, pays low salaries, and thus generates poverty.

This kind of development is a trap set by the prevailing system: it co-opts the ecological (sustainability) terminology in order to gut it. It assumes the ideal to be the economy (growth), thus masking the poverty it produces.

Socially just: if there is one thing the present industrial/capitalist development cannot say about itself, it is that it is socially just. If it were, there would not be 1.4 billion starving human beings in the world, with the majority of nations in poverty. Let us look only at the case of Brazil. The 2010 Social Atlas of Brazil, (IPEA), states that 5000 families control 46% of the GNP. The government gives annually 125,000 million reales to the financial system to pay back the loans they received, with interest, and only gives 40,000 million reales to the social programs that benefit the great majority of the poor. All this reveals the fallacy of the rhetoric of socially just development, which is impossible within the current economic paradigm.

Environmentally Sound: the present type of development implies an endless war against Gaia, taking from her everything that is useful, and susceptible to profitting, especially by the minorities that control the process. According to the 2010 UN Living Planet Index, in less than 40 years, global bio-diversity suffered a 30% decline. From only 1998 to the present, there has been a 35% rise in the emission of global warming gasses. Instead of talking of limits on growth, we should be talking about limits on the aggression against the Earth.

In conclusion, the leading model of development that calls itself sustainable is pure rhetoric. It advocates the production of less carbon, utilization of alternative energies, strengthening of degraded regions and the creation of better means of waste disposal. But let’s be clear: all this is dependent on not impairing profits and not reducing competitivity. The use of the expression «sustainable development» has an important political meaning: the necessary change of the economic paradigm, if we want a real sustainability. Within the present one, sustainability is either localized, or non-existent.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.