drilling rig making ready for deployment

Is development sustainable?

Sustainable development has been around for 35 years, and the UN has a whole set of poverty alleviation goals built around it. So why the question mark in the title of this post?

Development is not sustainable.

At least not the development defined by economists that creates growth, progress, positive change or the addition of physical, economic, environmental, social and demographic components

We could say not sustainable because development uses up resources or because it causes externalities (the detrimental consequences of building up wealth and opportunity). Every resource that humans have ever used generates at least some waste that we dump into the environment. For example, the IUCN estimates that 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.

We could say not sustainable because development uses resources that are finite and so eventually run out. There are planetary limits to resource use both from depletion (finite resources) and the consequences of resource use on how the planet works (externalities again).

But we say not sustainable because of something more fundamental.

When development is successful, it stops when everyone is developed

Once development is reached, there is no need to keep developing; there is an endpoint.

We are not taught to think this way. 

silohette of cranes used to construct high-rise apartments
Photo by Jiyoung Kim on Pexels

Chinese company Broad Group erected a 10-storey apartment block in just over a day in Changsha, China. 

The insatiable monster 

Here is what we are told.

If development stops, then so does growth and in the blinkered neoliberal view of economics, growth is essential. 

Fail to grow, and we are into recession, a sustained period of weak or negative growth in real GDP (output) accompanied by a significant rise in the unemployment rate. 

Should weak growth continue, then the economy enters a depression, a major downturn in the business cycle characterized by sharp and sustained declines in economic activity; high rates of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness; increased rates of personal and business bankruptcy; massive declines in stock markets; and great reductions in international trade.

All of these things are bad. 

And to avoid them, we are told that growth must be positive—development is essential.

Having set this requirement that development is essential, it cannot stop, or all the bad things happen. We have set ourselves in a bind. 

Today we need assurances that development will not stop, it has to be sustainable—able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

This is the mainstream logic of sustainable development. It has little to do with resources but everything to do with the insatiable monster of growth.

Economic growth must happen, or the economy fails, which is a disaster for everyone.

Development as growth 

The process of wealth creation requires infrastructure and that needs energy, materials and manpower. It also needs space, land on which activities can happen and where some of the resources are grown. 

What technocrats like to call natural capital is converted into cash and commodities. Items that are easily used in the marketplace. 

This is the capital to cash version of development.

Eventually, this process uses up the natural capital, and development is unsustainable unless there is a switch to alternative sources of raw materials. The ‘Don’t look up’ asteroid on a collision course to obliterate the earth is suddenly a mighty fine ball of rare earth metals ripe for chip making.

In a capitalist world, the premise is always that natural capital is sufficient to allow development to take place and deliver everything we ever wanted. 

The more egalitarian among us are not so cocksure and are worried that the resources will run out before everyone has a chance to develop. And in the process not only cause detriment to the planet but also to our hopes of achieving wealth and well-being. 

This version of sustainability assumes resources are finite and development is not sustainable because it uses up the resource base. If there is an upper limit and eventually a resource runs out, sustainability is impossible. The concept becomes finding ways to be frugal and efficient to extend the life of the resource, the inter-generational equity argument.

This version of sustainability is also about buying time for new resources to emerge. Wind, wave and solar power to replace fossil fuels is a topical example—except geothermal energy will be the answer for clean baseload power.

But all these versions still feed the insatiable monster.

geothermal power station
Photo by Tommy Kwak on Unsplash

Development must stop eventually

What about our alternative paradigm, that development stops when everyone is developed

If everyone has what they need for a long, healthy life full of well-being, then there is no need for further development. All we have is the replacement of worn-out goods and the delivery of ongoing services. 

A kind of equilibrium condition—maintenance and even improvements through innovation here and there, but not development, the addition of components.

In theory, this is a logical position.

Full development for everyone is a long way off if maintenance only happens when everyone is a billionaire. That may be the logic of the neoliberal who would see development go on forever. 

But in the real world, development is not sustainable because sooner or later, everything is developed as far as is practical. The planet cannot sustain 7.8 billion human billionaires living a high life. Imagine the yacht moorings we would need. Indeed, who would serve drinks on the yacht?

So the stop happens somewhere less ostentatious, perhaps around universal basic needs. Every human has food, nutrition, shelter, education, safety, opportunity and a lifetime assurance that these things will persist.

All are very socialist perhaps but a necessary property of full development.

When the development process has supplied these things, it can stop. 

What all this says about sustainability 

Sustainability is a political and social concept. 

In one view, it is dominion over those resources for whatever use is seen fit with little or no concern for the future. 

The other view has a little more contrition and an acceptance that resources might be used up and that using up natural capital is an immoral outcome for humanity or anything else sentient on the planet. 

Greenwash is in the middle of this, where the politics of either end are pulled into the centre only to mask most of the truth. Claims can be made about sustainable use of resources extending into the indefinite future when the reality is that resources are mined. 

What sustainably FED suggests

The human condition is for betterment. We all strive for it thanks to our powerful more making genes. But we don’t need resources to get better. Well-being has never been about luxury goods or holidays to the Bahamas.

We need to pull sustainability out of the political frame and make it much more about whether or not the concept can help humanity persist in spite of our economic and political systems designed to move resources around. In turn, this would give us a very different view of development

Sustainability becomes awareness-raising to a level of understanding about how the world works rather than a goal in and of itself. 

True sustainability would be wonderful, but the truth is that resource consumption will happen due to human wants, not as a result of any human values. 

Development doesn’t stop when formulated around economic growth until resources are used up, and the house of cards collapses.

But development could stop safely if we accepted the idea of full development.

And to answer the question in the title, is development sustainable?

No, it isn’t.

Science Source

Brown, J. H. (2015). The Oxymoron of Sustainable Development. BioScience, 65(10), 1027-1029.

Hero image from photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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