Sustainable Development


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Sustainable development is the term applied to a wide range of approaches that address the conditions under which human development can be ecologically sustainable. In simple terms, human development or the forms of human organization and economic relations human have created have, over the long run, changed the conditions of life for humans. Human now consume more than they once did. Sustainable development research asks whether continued human development can be sustained ecologically – that is, continue without causing the kinds of adverse ecological consequences that can lead to ecological destruction and collapse. Sustainable development takes seriously the observation that ecological resources are finite, and examines how humans should reorganize society so as not to undermine ecosystem health. The goal is to discover the conditions under which human productivity can continue indefinitely without producing ecological destruction, and t promote human development that does not exceed the ecological system’s carrying capacity (e.g., on this point see for example additional discussion related to planetary boundaries and the ecological footprint).

There are several varieties of sustainable development arguments. An important work on this issue was the 1987 report by the United Nations (World Commission on Environment and Development) entitled, Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report, link). In that report, the UN defined sustainable development as a form of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In addressing the issue of sustainable development, the UN argued that it was necessary to address the needs of the world’s poor, but falls short of suggesting that developed nations need to constrain or reduce consumption to enable developed in underdeveloped nations. The Brundtland Report was indeed widely criticized for the position it took with regard to the environment and the poor (e.g., Lele, 1991).

While the literature on sustainable development agrees that sustainable development is a valuable outcome, it does not agree as to how that outcome should be accomplished. One of the most outspoken critics of orthodox/neoclassical sustainable development approaches and theory is Herman Daly, along with the ecological Marxists. Daly proposed that ecological sustainability can be achieved through “steady state economics” and “zero sum growth” (1977, 1997, Daly and Farley, 1999). A steady state economy is relatively stable in size, experiencing zero-sum growth (constant production) that is either equivalent (or less than) in its consumption of ecological resources to ecological biocapacity or ecological carrying capacity. (For additional information see, the Center for the Advancement of Steady State Economy, LINK). Like ecological Marxism, steady state economics posits that there are limits to economic growth and that these limits are set by the boundaries of the ecological system.

In contrast to the steady state economic and ecological Marxist views, some propose that sustainable development can be pursued by modifying the way capitalism is practiced. Among the latter group are L. Hunter Lovins, Amory Lovins and Paul Hawkins (1999) and by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2013, 2002). The natural capital view of Hawkins, Lovins and Lovins is widely embraced among progressives in the business community, and has been endorsed, for example, by the Wall Street Journal as a responsible business plan (LINK). McDonough and Braungart’s most recent book bears an introduction by former US President, Bill Clinton. While these works contain critiques of traditional forms of capitalism such as industrial capitalism, they maintain that the ecological crisis can be solved by capitalism through production methods that facilitate ecological stability and sustainability. This can only be done, however, if the economic accounting of natural resources changes which take the limited nature of ecological resources into account.

Hawkins, Lovin and Lovin propose that there are four pillars of a new form of capitalism that ensures ecological sustainability: (1) conservation of resources via improve manufacturing effectiveness generating less waste; (2) the reuse of waste, (3) a change in economic values from quantity to quality, and (4) creating investments in natural capital. McDonough and Braungart not only propose similar orientations, but have been involved in the restricting of manufacturing facilities and urban areas to make them more sustainable (see for example, their website and this video of a presentation by William McDoungh.

The problem with sustainable development is implementing the suggested practices, and globally little headway has been made with transforming capitalism into a sustainable form of economic relationships.

Further Reading


Braungart, Michael and William McDonough. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things. NY: North Point Press.

Daly, Herman E. 1997. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Daly, Herman E. 1977. Steady State Economics. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Daly, Herman E., and Joshua Farley. 1999. Ecological Economics. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. 1999. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown.

Lele, Sharachchandra M. “Sustainable development: a critical review.” World Development 19, 6: 607-621.

McDonough, William and Michae Braungart. 2013. The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. NY: North Point Press.

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