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Is "sustainable development" of any use to save the world ?

december 2002 - translated may 2004

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Fashion is a powerful driver of the behaviour of our species. Whether it has lead to beneficial or disastrous results, what characterizes a fashion - or a fashionable idea - is that it substitutes emotion to reflexion, and replaces analysis by mimetism. This even more true for ideas than for objects.

Today, a very fashionable idea is the notion of "sustainable development", being defined as a "a development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

It is definitely a good start to wish the everlasting happiness of humankind, existing and to come, everywhere and all the time, but is the existence of such a concept of any help to better meet that objective ? Does it allow to define a particular project for the future, or to define particular paths that we should follow for our future behaviour ? After thinking hard over this question, I must admit that I did not come to a positive answer: unfortunately this concept has little practical value, in the way that it does not provide with a particular practical answer to any of the two previous questions.

Let's talk environment first is sustainable development of any use to help setting boundaries or limits to the ecological pressure we exert on the planet ? Is it possible to say, in the name of sustainable development, that we should fish so much, or put so much CO2 into the atmosphere ? No: it is perfectly impossible to associate to the definition of sustainable development a particular state of the physical world, because nobody knows how to define in a non ambiguous way the present needs of humankind, and hence the amount of resources that are necessary to get there.

Have we "met our needs" since the average life duration has gone over 40 years ? Or will we have to wait until everybody turns 120 to consider that it is the case ? Have we "met our needs" when we have 100 square feet of heated living space per person, or will it be the case only when every inhabitant on Earth will own 1500 square feet with central heating, air con, plus a jacuzzi and a private spa ? Have we "met our needs" when every person on Earth may get 0,5 tonne oil equivalent (about the present consumption of an inhabitant of India), or is it 7 tonnes oil equivalent par inhabitant of the planet (the present consumption of an Amercan) that corresponds to this state of plenitude ?

Do we "need" to travel by plane 1, 50, or zero times during our life ? Do we "need" to eat 20, or 100 kg of meat per year ? Do we "need" 1, or 10 birthday presents every year ? Do we "need" zero, one or two car(s) per household in the world ? One must admit that it is the very notion of "needs" that, once we have satisfied our truly vital needs (drinking, eating, sleeping, protecting oneself from cold and predators, and all this at least until we are able to perpetuate ourselves), over which an consensus remains possible, does not correspond to any precise consumption of natural resources. There is no help to set a goal or a limit in the definition of sustainable development, whereas managing whatever system (Earth included) always almost includes setting objectives and limits.

And at last our individual "needs" and our collective "needs" may be perfectly antagonistic, and then "sustainable development" does not provide us with the slightest beginning of a solution to make a compromise: in the name of social considerations, we "need" to grant every adult the individual right to drive, but in the name of the preservation of the environment we "need" to collectively emit less greenhouse gases, which is difficult to conciliate with the present amount of car driving. Where is the solution to choose between the two in the defintion of sustainable development ?


We are not done with our difficulties: it is also totally impossible to associate to this notion of "sustainable development" a particular state for the future world. First, what time horizon are we talking of when we use the word "future" ? Must the present "development", that is, to be clear, the prolongation of the present trends, be "sustainable" for at least 10 years ? 50 ? 2 centuries ? 3 millenias ?

Then it is even more arduous to try to define in physical terms a world that would enable our descendants to "satisfy their needs". If one had asked to Europeans of the 17th century, that were, for the huge majority, peasants living in a one or two room house, resting one day per week at best, never having any holidays, dying twice younger than today (the average life expectancy in Enrope at the time was lower than 30), being often cold and hungry in the winter, were was the start of "needs being satisfied", I doubt very much that one would have heard the same answer than if we give the same question to an "average" European of the year 2000....

So, not only is there no unique answer to what the "needs" of the present generations are, but knowing what will be the "needs" of future generations is nothing else than a wild guess. If the world has been deteriorated enough since then, maybe that dying at 40 after having eaten sufficiently during one's lifetime will be the best wish of our remote descendants in 2150, but if the "energetic miracle" has happened, maybe that going on the moon for one's twentieth birthday will be considered the minimum minimorum of all needs.....


However, what annoys me the most with "sustainable development", is the number of people that seem persuaded that the existence of this concept will allow us to violate the laws of physics, and that infinity is now at our doors. The very definition of sustainable development incitates us to do so letting everyone believe that it will be possible to satisfy everybody's needs, everywhere and forever, without mentionning any limit to this "satisfaction of needs", is definitely letting believe that it is possible to experience the perpetual material growth (because there is no objective limit to the needs), or that tomorrow there will be only free lunches, which means, in short, that infinity is within reach.

The confusion doesn't stop here : many people also believe that such negative evolution regarding the environment can be compensated by such positive evolution regarding the economy; which means that we can sum up values of different nature to get to something more or less neutral. In other terms, after my teachers forbid me, for all my school years, to sum up cabbages and bolts, here comes the "sustainable development" that suggests to sum up increasing CO2 emissions but no kid under 10 at work, to multiply the result by the removal of heavy metals from the river Thames and the increase of the net profit of General Motors, then to divide by the increase of the life expectancy of African people and the halt of deforestation in South East Asia ? Is sustainable development the opposite of the elementary mathematical rules, painly learnt in the no less elementary school ?

After my science professors insisted so much on the importance of magnitudes, isn't "sustainable development" incitating to accept that solutions that are of the third order will allow to "cure" inconvenients that are of the first with our present lifestyles ? Almost every evolution today presented as being part of the "sustainable development" is missing the problem by a couple of zeros: with the present level of consumption, it is physically impossible to replace oil by biofuels, conventional coal fired power plants by wind power, fishing by aquaculture (most fish "cultivated" are carnivorous species, so we need to feed them !), coal by wood, plastics by line fiber....

It is still the "sustainable development" that will sometimes be put forward to explain that we can change only marginally fishing practices but nevertheless get back the ancient level of fish stocks (which is alas a dream), that we can build as many airports and highways as we want but still impede the growth of road and air trafic, that one can emit massive amouts of CO2 as a consequence of one's activity but still be a leading environmentalist (a number of companies, countries or individuals perfectly fit that description !), that developping countries have the right (or even the duty) to "develop" but the duty to emit less CO2 (someting impossible today), etc. Schizophrenic people of all countries, unite !


When analyzing environmental processes, figures can be hard to establish, but they have an objective meaning: land use, energy and water consumptions, the number of existing superior mammal species, or the amount of rain per year in England can be measured, and an hectare represents the same surface for everyone. It is possible to define a common language, and, as the case may be, to define a non-ambiguous objective, such as no more than X tons of CO2 per person and per year, or no more than Y tonnes of fish per country. And, most of all, when discussing interactions between humanity and the physical world, it is conceivable to define what is "sustainable", or more precisely what is not is obviously not sustainable any behaviour that requires a resource, or an elimination ability, that will become unavailable in a couple of decades !

But when turning to social matters, how can one define what is "sustainable" ? It is definitely possible to last forever with social inegalities, as history clearly shows injustice is as old as men ; there is no single exemple of perfect equality among the members of a human or animal community, but that never prevented organizations to self-sustain - with their inequalities - for very long times. If we discuss social justice, "sustainable development" may mean in country A that no kid under 8 is at work, when in country B it will just mean that no kid under 8 will do a penible job ; it might mean here that a factory worker earns no less than a tenth of the salary of his boss, when in another place a 1 to 100 ratio will be accepted, etc. Where is the norm ?

And at last, when we come to economics, the objective definition of what can be sustained is even harder: what is a sustainable GDP, or a sustainable turnover ???

The main interest of this concept, and sometimes I wonder whether it has not been invented just for this purpose, is that anyone a little astute can always use it to justify - through underlining the social or economic aspects - a behaviour that, with respect of purely environmental criteria - that is objectively measurable - is obviously "not sustainable".

The existence of a "sustainable development report", in 2002, is no guaranty that the organization that issued it has a "sustainable" activity, even though there might be, inside the said organization, some individuals that sincerely hope that it is the opposite.

So we should not hide behind our little finger the most frequent ways to translate in the facts a "sustainable behaviour", today, are, as the case may be, to include in this concept only what one has a solution for and nothing else, a wishful thingking, an intellectual crookery, or a perfect exemple of schizophrenia.

Should we pay no attention to limits just before this concept has no practical interest ? Of course not, because in a finite world trees don't grow to the sky. We are accustomed to consider that our choice is between "restrict ourselves forever" or "gobble ourselves forever", but this is an illusion for any limited resource, or limited elimination capability, that we presently rely on, the choice is alas only between managing ourselves an unavoidable decrease, with a pace that we can choose so that it is as pleasant as possible, or waiting for the regulation to happen alone, history telling us that the second possibility is generally very much more unpleasant.

The good question, unfortunately, is not to wonder whether the decrease of the consumption of any resource available in a limited amount will happen, but just when. I am not sure that "sustainable development" is of any help to get accustomed to that conclusion.

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