people on a hilltop silohetted against the sunset

Is sustainable development an oxymoron?

Humanity has binged on growth over the last 150 years thanks mainly to the massive energy subsidy from oil, natural gas and coal. We love growth so much we want it to go on forever.

Sustainable means maintaining a certain rate or level; to keep going. 

Development means to create growth, progress, positive change or the addition of physical, economic, environmental, social and demographic components, a bigger and better forward momentum.

Growth maintained? 

Put the two words together, sustainable development, and we have ourselves an oxymoron—a figure of speech in which contradictory terms appear together. Development as growth through addition cannot go on indefinitely because this economic kind has planetary limits.

There is only so much food that can be grown in soil. Freshwater availability is constrained in time and location. Habitable land is limited. The fossil fuel that drives our economies is will run out or pollute us out of existence. There are probably about 50 years of oil left at the current use rate of 100 million barrels a day.

Nature has a thing or two to tell us too. There is tension between continuous growth and keeping things going because this is not what happens anywhere in the natural world. 

In nature, where the single primary energy source is the sun, sooner or later, growth slows, stops and what was built collapses. Admittedly what is lost is replaced by another set of organisms mopping up the new resources, but indefinite growth is not how nature works.

At least, not on a finite planet.

Rainforest from a distance
Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

Nature can balance or change.

A rainforest looks lush and full of life growing all around. Plants and animals do grow and reproduce but they also die. What is happening is not continuous growth but recycling. Energy and nutrients are transferred between temporary storage by myriad organisms doing their best to defy entropy.

A rainforest looks lush and full of life because this cycle is rapid. It looks stable because the trees are large and long-lived, the weather predictable, and it takes a severe storm to knock about the multi-layered vegetation that fills all the available space and protects the soil from the sun.

Nature can do balance, but mostly it does change. 

The capture of the necessary energy to defy entropy can only be maintained for a finite amount of time. The rainforest was not always a forest. A subtle shift in the climate, and it might not be again. A cyclone disrupts any temporary balance, as does a drought or a wildfire. And then, over geological time, not only does the climate change, but the tectonic plates move around, reconfigure and send ocean currents in different directions.

Nature copes with all this, appearing to stay stable by accepting disturbance and change. It absorbs disturbance as a critical driver of evolutionary processes, resulting in the diversity of life. There is always an alternative organism waiting for an opportunity. Nutrients and energy continue to cycle through a combination of ecological adaptation by some organisms and the evolution of others.

Millions of individual organisms, from microbes to mammals, look stable in the aggregate, doing what it takes to defy entropy and reproduce.  

An inevitable phrase

When you look at the synonyms for sustainable and for development, it was inevitable that someone would put the two together to create a wonderful, inspiring phrase that would capture the essence of the modern human—grow forever.

Synonyms for sustainability include

stamina, supportability, resilience, vitality, achievability, stability, reliability, acceptability, practicality, autonomy, profitability, cost-effectiveness, effectiveness, equilibrium, stabilisation, perseverance, tenacity.

Synonyms for development include

advancement, betterment, improvement, perfection, refinement, incubation, maturation, maturing, ripening, blossoming, flourishing, flowering, addition, augmentation, enhancement, supplementation, emergence, evolvement, metamorphosis.

Getting better, doing better. Everything better is in our genes. It drives us to take risks to make more. And we have become so good at more making that we ignore what we know about nature and the finite dimensions of space and resources on this tiny blue planet.

At least that is what we tell ourselves.

Only that growth has come about because we harnessed a pulse of ancient free energy in the form of fossil fuels. Without that input we would not have modern agriculture and the billions of tons of food that we have converted into more humans. Admittedly we will probably invent another near free energy source to replace this pulse because societies would collapse in a few days without energy.

Develop or die.

Humans don’t do balance

Development—coming into existence or creating something new or more advanced—is an attractive antidote to the threat of entropy. It has all the moving forward, resource use and defiance of gathering energy to keep going. 

It makes biological as well as human sense for the individual.

Humans have become masters of creating something new. What we call development has changed lives throughout history, mainly for the better. Sure there are negatives in the development of weapons, inequitable economic systems, reality TV and the like but modern humans are materially and economically way better off than our ancestors.  

Why wouldn’t we want to keep going?

Another retort to all the oxymoron negativity is that sustainable development is not about ‘growth that uses resources’, but progress toward greater well-being for everyone. 

This is the essence of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015…

A shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. 

The agenda gives us the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that, if achieved, would end poverty and other deprivations through strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth—all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

A laudable, politically correct agenda that can only happen if there is development to generate wealth because the economic model is the only one we have to end poverty. A term defined as the state of being extremely poor.

But we know that most wealth begins with nature. The first steps out of poverty are access to food, clean water, and shelter, which are nature’s services. The market begins by selling fruit, vegetables and bushmeat. 

Modern economies can grow without natural resources because there is production and consumption of goods and services not based on nature. Not all capital and rent require land, soil, minerals or oil but these traditional sources of capital are still effective. But it takes a while before markets trade in derivatives. Before then, they trade food and raw materials.

And when we make new people they have to have somewhere to live and a way to make a living. They also need 2,500 kilocalories worth of food every day.

What sustainably FED suggests

It is time to stop kidding. Sustainable development is an oxymoron—a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction. 

The SDGs are a grand gesture that, should they be met, are a boon to many people most in need of resources. But they are based on a false premise, implying that the growth necessary to meet the goals can somehow happen alongside preservation.

Some conservation is possible. Maybe we could rewild a third of the planet and still feed everyone well. Perhaps we could all consume less, waste less and put our prejudice and fear aside.

What this means is giving up growth as the paradigm that protects us from entropy. The concept that means we survive. The one we latched onto and has seen spectacular success.

Maybe we could give up growth.

We could start by trashing an oxymoron or two.

Hero image from photo by Chang Duong 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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