Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sustainable development: critique of the standard model

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The official documents of the UN and the current draft of Rio +20 devote much space to the model of sustainable development: it must be economically viable, socially just and environmentally sound. It is the famous triplet called the Triple Bottom Line (the line of the three pillars), created in 1990 by Britain's John Elkington, founder of the NGO SustainAbility. But this model does not withstand serious criticism.

Economically viable development: In the political language of government and business, development is equivalent to the gross domestic product (GDP). Woe to the company and the country that don't have positive annual growth rates! They are in crisis or a recession with a resulting decrease in consumption and generation of unemployment -- in the business world, this is making money with the least possible investment, with the highest possible return, with the strongest competitiveness and in the shortest possible time.

When we talk about development here, we are not talking about just any development, but the one that really exists, which is the industrialist/capitalist/consumerist one. This is anthropocentric, contradictory and wrong. Let me explain.

It's anthropocentric because it focuses only on human beings, as if the community of life (flora and fauna and other living organisms), which also needs the biosphere and requires sustainability as well, didn't exist.

It's contradictory because development and sustainability obey opposite logics. Actually existing development is linear and growing. It exploits nature and favors private accumulation. It is the political economy of the capitalist sort. The sustainability category, however, comes from the life sciences and ecology, whose logic is circular and inclusive. It represents the tendency of ecosystems towards a dynamic equilibrium, interdependence, and cooperation of all with all. As is apparent, they are antagonistic logics -- one favors the individual, the other, the group; one promotes competition, the other cooperation; one, the evolution of the fittest, the other, the interconnected evolution of all.

It is wrong, because it claims that poverty causes environmental degradation. Therefore, the less poverty, the more sustainable development and the less degradation there would be, which is a mistake. However, critically analyzing the real causes of poverty and the degradation of nature, we see that they are -- not exclusively but mainly -- the result of the type of development being practiced. It is what produces degradation because it squanders nature, pays low wages and thus generates poverty.

This sustainable development is a trick of the existing system: it takes on the terms of ecology (sustainability) to make them meaningless. It assumes the ideal of economics (growth), masking the poverty that it itself produces.

Socially just: If there is one thing that the current industrial/capitalist development can not say about itself, it is that it is socially just. If it were, there wouldn't be 1.4 billion hungry people in the world and most nations in poverty. Let's just linger on the case of Brazil. The 2010 Brazilian Social Atlas (IPEA) reports that 5,000 families control 46% of the GDP. The government devotes 125,000 million reais annually to the financial system to make payments with interest on loans it has borrowed and devotes only 40,000 million reais to social programs that benefit the poor majority. This shows up the false rhetoric of socially just development, which is impossible within the current economic paradigm.

Environmentally sound: the current type of development is waging an unstoppable war against Gaia, pulling out of her all that is useful and profitable, especially for the minority who control the process. According to the Living Planet Index of the UN (2010) in less than 40 years, global biodiversity fell 30%. Just from 1998 to now, there has been a 35% jump in emissions of greenhouse gases. Instead of talking about the limits to growth, we had better talk about the limits to aggression to Earth.

In conclusion, the standard model of development which we want to call sustainable is rhetorical. In it, there is evidence of progress in low carbon production, the use of alternative energy, the reinforcement of degraded areas, and the creation of better eliminations of waste. But watch out: all this is always done where the profits are not at risk or competitiveness weakened. The use of the term "sustainable development" has major political significance: the necessary change of the economic paradigm if we want real sustainability. Within the current one, sustainability is either localized or nonexistent.

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