“The Fashionable Oxymoron of ‘Sustainable’ Development”

A reader sent me a link to the article below and it was so powerful that I am reprinting the entire piece for my readers. It was written by University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown, an Adjunct Professor with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and permission is granted for my use of the material on their website here.

The Fashionable Oxymoron of ‘Sustainable’ Development

By Harold Brown

What is so attractive about concepts that defy definition? The concept du jour is “sustainable,” a fashionable adjective for many objectives, an umbrella for many agendas.

“Sustainable” development is the ecologist’s goal, the new urban trend, the green way to build. A “sustainable” world is the promise of salvation for future generations. The U.N. Millennium Declaration (2000) states, “The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.” The U.N. 2005 World Summit Outcome contained some form of the word “sustain” 58 times in 38 pages.

Yale and Columbia university centers, which jointly rank countries for environmental “sustainability,” put the United States between Armenia and Myanmar in 2005.

But what does it mean? What are we trying to sustain?

Webster’s Collegiate dictionary has eight meanings for “sustain.” The first is “to keep in existence.” Neither this nor any of the others suit the adjective now tied to environment and development. Sustainable development is an oxymoron. A developed property is not sustained. It’s changed. Development is not meant to keep things the same.

So, is “change” the facilitator or the antagonist of sustainability? If “sustainability” means changing a practice to maintain an existing enterprise, the possibilities are endless and the concept useless. The horse and carriage were changed by eliminating the horse.
The carriage (and a way of life) was improved. Was it sustained or eliminated? That’s the problem: “Sustainability” can justify any course of action if defined carefully.

A Web site for the federal Environmental Protection Agency explains that widespread use of “sustainability” started with “Our Common Future,” a 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. That report defined sustainable development as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This presumptive definition requires knowledge of the needs of future generations. The notion is ridiculous that we can manage the resources of future generations. Thinkers of five generations ago would have wished for a better horse and buggy or a quieter steam engine.  Had the “sustainability” experts gone to work to forego fossil fuel to “save  the earth,” today’s world would be more impoverished than we can imagine.

Five generations ago, nothing was known  about the potential of petroleum fuels. Today, we know nothing about the fuels five generations hence. It is arrogant and pretentious to claim to know the  needs and limitations of our great-grandchildren’s grandchildren. We ought to  practice preparing this generation for the next, not by teaching and preaching  “cutting back” or “status quo.” Respect future generations enough and advocate  not fear of the future but the noble — and proven — knowledge that humans  have almost limitless potential for innovation to cope in a world of endless  opportunities and possibilities.

Hundreds of developments would be  pronounced “unsustainable” if human ingenuity and innovation were discounted. Take two old examples of coping with the sea. Today’s environmentalists would  scoff at dikes like those on the Netherlands coast begun over a thousand years  ago, but some of the best farmland and 60 percent of the population are behind  those dikes. They would be equally aghast at Venice, Italy, building on wooden  pilings in salt-marsh, beginning 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. These audacious
humans would be mocked by modern ecologists, who are convinced that the sea is  rising at its fastest rate since the last ice age. These two developments are  not “sustainable” by current usage of the word. Yet the Dutch and Venetians  have “sustained” them, securing their future by coping, not by cutting back.  And human ability to cope has advanced dramatically since the Dutch polders  were built and Venice was raised.

Global-warming alarmists stress havoc  from more and stronger hurricanes now and in the future. But 81 percent of all  U.S. deaths from hurricanes occurred before 1930. And the South Atlantic and  Gulf coastal counties’ population is almost seven times the 1930 number.

If “sustainability” is leaving  resources unused for future generations, shut down the industries now.  Thousands of generations will presumably follow. Just how much cutting back now  will satisfy them later?

Humans are infinitely better  qualified today to cope with the world because of our exploitation of resources  as opposed to cutting back, sustaining the “way of life” of previous centuries.  The “sustainability” mindset would have us “maintain” a way of life that pays a
dubious debt to the future. If sustainability means anything about providing for future generations, cutting back is not the way. The answers lie in education, freedom and the inspiration to cope.


University of Georgia Professor  Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation
(October 3, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

I would like to thank Professor Brown for wriitng this insightful article and allowing me to share it with my readers.

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3 thoughts on ““The Fashionable Oxymoron of ‘Sustainable’ Development”

  1. I’ve been perusing the documents referred to in this article. There are lots of interesting (troubling?) items in each of them but I found this interesting “strategic imperative” in the Our Common Future document.


    54. Urbanization is itself part of the development process. The challenge is to manage the process so as to avoid a severe deterioration in the quality of life. Thus the development of smaller urban centres needs to be encouraged to reduce pressures in large cities. Solving the impending urban crisis will require the promotion of self-help housing and urban services by and for the poor, and a more positive approach to the role of the informal sector, supported by sufficient funds for water supply, sanitation, and other services. See Chapter 9.

    What is the informal sector?????

    Make sure to look at each of the aforementioned documents for yourself.
    The local North Fulton tea party has also been talking about a lot of this stuff as well.

  2. Reminds me of a book I am reading called Earth Politics by Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker, c.1994.

    Book thesis: transition from policy based on economics to policy based on environment. The author maps policy direction in every sector from agriculture to transportation. Very interesting! Looking through the UN documents cited in Professor Brown’s article, I see the same themes emerging. Weizsacker was instrumental in setting European policy, BTW.

  3. Interesting perspective. The important things to sustain ought to be human life, human rights, the environment, and the environment’s rights.

    After all our two greatest assets are our blessed minds and our blessed environment that allows for life.

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