Sustainable Development is an Oxymoron

Development, according to our current terms, is unsustainable and needs to, er, develop – a wry wander through current thinking.

“The goal of sustainable development is to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without compromising the quality of life of future generations. The Scottish Government has as its overall purpose to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.” (

“Increasing sustainable economic growth”? That’s a lot of bulge.

“Economic growth in a country whose primary and secondary needs have already been met means developing ever more useless stuff to meet ever fainter desires.” (

When did development become exclusively economic? Blame the 1980s. Now we’re told we have to balance our developmental goals and our environmental goals; environmental value is a luxury, rather than an inherent part of development. Such an attitude dates back to the rape and pillage consumerism of, well, now, and really ever since the industrial revolution.

“All our problems – as a society, a nation, a culture – can be easily circumvented so long as we feed the horsey the right fodder to ensure its growth. Ah! Growth! Everybody loves growth, don’t they? Without growth we’d be back in the dark ages with oxen pulling the plough, wouldn’t we? And – if you’ll forgive the extended chimerical analogy – an economy is also like a shark, isn’t it? Unless it keeps on consuming natural resources and transforming them into the flexible cartilage of technological innovation, it dies, and we die with it.

“In the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-8 the most plangent buzzword in our political discourse was ‘sustainability’, a term borrowed from the life sciences that denotes an ecosystem capable of maintaining itself without depleting its resource base. Sustainability is, of course, still in, but over the last five years it’s become strangely entwined with the convolvulus of “growth”. The notion of sustainable growth is verging on the oxymoronic.” (

We’ve been conditioned to always expect more, bigger, faster, quicker, ‘better’ than before. We’re five-year-olds.

Lollipop Candy

“Growth purely for its own sake is the philosophy of cancer.” (Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book, Hodder Paperbacks New Ed edition, 2002, p86)

Stick ‘sustainable’ in front of even the most unacceptable activity and it becomes acceptable. Sustainable degradation. Sustainable damage. Sustainable destruction.

Sustainable drilling.

“Sustainable development is described as an overarching objective of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. … Private consortia and academics are invited to bid for Blue Growth grants. … While [Blue Growth’s] scope deals with increasing operational responses to similar [oil spills and marine] accidents, the research programme’s expected impacts include increasing the competitiveness of European industry, reducing risks for the new offshore economy and, crucially, persuading a sceptical public of the merit of offshore drilling.” (

Where greenwashing needs a helping brush, “using entertainment, Formula E aspires to drive the change towards the greater use of sustainable mobility. … By showing people that EVs [electric vehicles] don’t have to be ‘uncool’ or ‘slow’.” (

Admire the enticing, softly, softly approach, rather than painful guilt-tripping, and hope with fingers crossed that it’s not too late to change our consuming attitudes. True, we become demotivated if all we hear is doom, but let’s be clear with the message: whatever the fuel, we mustn’t squander it. How much do we need this sort of inspiration to drive research and development?

Using electricity, however renewably generated, doesn’t exempt us from responsibility. We need to adjust our attitudes.

“Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by changing what we buy – a hybrid instead of an SUV, some carbon offsets when we get on a plane. … Late capitalism teaches us to create ourselves through our consumer choices: shopping is how we form our identities, find community and express ourselves. Thus, telling people that they can’t shop as much as they want to because the planet’s support systems are overburdened can be understood as a kind of attack, akin to telling them that they cannot truly be themselves. This is likely why, of the original ‘three Rs’ – reduce, reuse, recycle – only the third has ever gotten any traction, since it allows us to keep on shopping as long as we put the refuse in the right box.” (

We know we can’t have something for nothing, not culturally and certainly not according to the laws of physics. The extra always comes from somewhere, some sleight of hand, and where natural resources are concerned it will be from the future.

We are currently using 1.5 planets’ worth of renewable resources.
“Our demand for renewable ecological resources and the services they provide is now equivalent to that of more than 1.5 Earths.” (
It’s elementary that this is not sustainable. Certainly, concerning food, it’s a hearty metaphor for our bloated, bulging consumers.

2003 World Consumption Cartogram

2003 World Consumption Cartogram from

We must dissociate sustainability from the runaway, avaricious acquisition that capitalism has taught us is a sign of ‘success’. Because it’s not even working for us, is it?

“Working hours rise, wages stagnate or fall, tasks become duller, more stressful and harder to fulfill, emails and texts and endless demands clatter inside our heads, shutting down the ability to think, corners are cut, conditions deteriorate, housing becomes almost impossible to afford, there’s ever less money for essential public services. What and whom is this growth for?

“It’s for the people who run or own the banks, the hedge funds, the mining companies, the advertising firms, the lobbying companies, the weapons manufacturers, the buy-to-let portfolios, the office blocks, the country estates, the offshore accounts. The rest of us are induced to regard it as necessary and desirable through a system of marketing and framing so intensive and all-pervasive that it amounts to brainwashing.” (

Economic Growth

It doesn’t even bring security.

“The [Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select] Committee supports ‘sustainable intensification’, but we need to be cautious about arguing that the food security debate is all about producing more with less.” (

As a colleague of mine enjoys putting it, “no, it’s about doing less with less.” Not a petulant, jaded or belligerent less; a carefully analysed, prioritised and targeted less.

And yet if it did work for us, the benefit would be much wider.

“There is evidence that inequality partly drives societal pressure to compete with each other and consume more and more. We increasingly define our identity and self worth by what we own. It’s also relevant that citizens in more equal countries are more likely to show higher levels of concern for the environment. So reducing inequality would benefit the planet too.

“So as well as being just plain wrong, it’s bad for all of us and bad for the planet. But (sigh..) it’s a necessary evil for the health of the economy, right? ‘Fraid not guv – analysis by OECD published very recently shows that addressing inequality is good for economic growth too.” (

Signs are there that our infatuation with economic growth is waning.

“Regardless of how fast GDP grows, an economic system that fails to deliver gains for most of its citizens, and in which a rising share of the population faces increasing insecurity, is, in a fundamental sense, a failed economic system.” (

“The Greens are far from alone in questioning whether maximising GDP is what a modern economy should be aiming to achieve.” (

We may aspire to become as enlightened as the people of Bhutan, which uses Gross National Happiness in place of our cold, hard GDP. With sensible measures.

Sustainability is the thing. Sustainable development can only be inward, not skyward.


3 thoughts on “Sustainable Development is an Oxymoron

  1. Yes, we are adolescents in terms of consumerist urges! We have an election in the UK and I’m not sure who has sustainability at the top of their manifesto!

    • A very good point: now’s the time to ask those candidates! Let them know environmental values are issues. And put “catkin” back in the children’s dictionary! Many thanks for your comment.

  2. Pingback: Natural Selection | Eco-mical

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