Sustainability, Part I: On the Edge of an Oxymoron

The term “sustainable development” has become fashionable, but it is regularly used in the sense of “sustainable growth,” a self-contradictory concept beloved by those who want to continue at the same old stand growth as a solution to all problems and yet couch it in terms that will not offend environmentalists.  The United Nations has a Commission on Sustainable Development (supported by an elaborate bureaucracy), which will meet in April to prepare for a UN General Assembly Special Session on “Agenda 21,” scheduled for late June.  We may anticipate torrents of words in praise of an oxymoron.

“Sustainability” contains no such internal contradiction and is perhaps the single best word to express environmentalists’ goals.  It is a word under which they could unite with population policy proponents, if somehow they could come to see that material growth is mathematically unsustainable.


On the face of it, one can hardly take exception to the definition popularized by the Brundtland commission (the World Commission on Environment and Development)

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.1

An excellent characterization, but it got off to a wobbly start.  The WCED itself, because of its diverse international membership, could not agree on the need for policies to deal with population growth; moreover, it foresaw a five to tenfold growth in world GNP in fifty years, to meet the minimal needs of the world’s poor.  It even concluded that “the international economy must speed up world growth while respecting the environmental constraints.”  Others have pointed out that it never really addressed how those antithetical goals could be achieved.  Note that the WCED report spoke of “sustainable development” rather than “sustainability.”  Growth is deeply ingrained, and the WCED view of “sustainable development” comes perilously close to being an intellectual inanity.

The WCED led to the “Rio Conference” in 1992 (the UN Conference on the Environment and Development), which in turn passed a set of environmental proposals (“Agenda 21”) and spawned the groups described above.  “Sustainable development,” with its fuzziness about growth, is firmly enshrined in the language of the world bureaucracy.

Very few people seem to have grasped the simple fact:  growth demographic or economic is unsustainable.  This century is unique.  Worldwide growth has never before lasted for so long at such levels.  Any math teacher will tell you that perpetual growth is mathematically impossible in a finite space such as the Earth.  Give them a starting figure and a growth rate the rate is more important than the starting level and they can show just when the assumption of continued growth becomes absurd, by any standard you may choose.  This is not a theoretical exercise.  Current growth rates would reach the absurd very fast.  As the United Nations Statistical Office pointed out in 1992, world population would reach the absurdity of 694 billion people in 2150 if current fertility and mortality rates were maintained.

Growth will stop.  Will it stop in benign or catastrophic ways?  That depends largely on whether or not we recognize what is happening and take steps to deal with it.

Lindsey Grant

Lindsey Grant is a retired Foreign Service Officer; he was a China specialist and served as Director of the Office of Asian Communist Affairs, National Security Council staff member, and Department of State policy Planning staff member. As Deputy Secretary of State for Environmental and Population Affairs, he was Department of State coordinator for the Global 2000 Report to the President, Chairman of the interagency committee on Int'l Environmental Committee and US member of the UN ECE Committee of Experts on the Environment. His books include: Too Many People, Juggernaut, The Horseman and the Bureaucrat, Elephants in Volkswagen, How Many Americans?

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