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#624 - Sustainable Development -- Part 1, 11-Nov-1998

The phrase "sustainable development" was coined by the World Commission
on Environment and Development (the "Bruntland Commission") in 1987.
The Commission defined "sustainable development" as material
improvement to meet the needs of the present generation without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
[1] This definition emphasizes an important aspect of our ethical
relationship to the unborn, yet it remains too vague to be truly useful
as a guide for human activity because we cannot agree on the meaning of
"needs." We can't really know what the "needs" of future generations
will be, and we can't even agree on what we ourselves "need" vs. what
we merely want.

Fortunately, more useful definitions of "sustainable development" are
coming into focus. By "more useful" I mean definitions that will allow
us to reach agreement, thus giving us a common basis for action. In his
book BEYOND GROWTH,[2] economist Herman Daly defines "sustainable
development" as "development without growth --without growth in
throughput beyond environmental regenerative and absorptive
capacity."[2,pg.69] This is an important definition, worth examining.

First, let's look at "throughput." Throughput is the flow of materials
and energy through the human economy. It includes everything we make
and do. When we speak of "growth" we are talking about growth in
throughput --people making (and throwing away) more stuff and using
more energy to do it. The totality of the human economy is throughput.
It is calculated as the total number of people multiplied by their

The "regenerative and absorptive capacity of the environment" refers to
the ability of the environment to provide (a) materials for our use,
and (b) places where we can throw our wastes. This gets a little more
complicated. It refers to two things --(1) the ability of the
environment to provide us with the high-quality raw materials we need
to make things, and (2) the ability of the environment to break down
our wastes and turn them back into raw materials, an essential service.

Let's take waste first. When we throw things away, nature begins to
take them apart and recycle them. For example, when we throw away wood,
natural agents (called "decomposers"), such as termites, begin to eat
our wood waste and break it down into raw materials --carbon, hydrogen,
oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and so forth. Creatures such as earth worms
use the termites' wastes as raw materials for soil, which provides
nutrients for new trees to grow. This is called the "detritus food
chain" and it is essential to life on earth, though largely invisible
from a human perspective. The detritus food chain is made up of
insects, bacteria, funguses, and other creatures that most of us know
little about. But without their workings, the world would become
overloaded with wastes and biological processes would become clogged
and stop working.[3] If you've ever visited a modern hog farm, you have
an idea of what it means to exceed the capacity of the local
environment to absorb waste. It is unpleasant and hazardous.

A second major benefit that nature provides for us is high-quality raw
materials that we can use. Herman Daly calls these "natural capital,"
of which there are two kinds. The first kind of natural capital takes
the form of a stock, a fixed quantity, such as oil or coal or rich
deposits of copper. We can use these stocks of natural capital at any
rate we choose, but when they are used up (dispersed into the
environment as wastes), they will no longer be available for our use,
or for the use of future generations. (The second law of thermodynamics
guarantees that we can never take highly-dispersed atoms of, say,
copper and gather them back into a highly-concentrated copper deposit.
The energy requirements of such an operation are simply too great. If
the second law didn't hold true, as Herman Daly says, we could make
windmills out of beach sand and use them to power machines to extract
gold from seawater. Unfortunately, the second law DOES hold true, and
once we disperse highly-concentrated ores, we cannot afford to
reconcentrate them.)

The second kind of natural capital takes the form of a flow. In general
these flows are continuous (though human bungling can interrupt some of
them). Examples include sunlight, the capacity of green plants to
create carbohydrates by photosynthesis, rainfall, and the production of
fish in the oceans. These forms of natural capital are endlessly
renewable but can only be used at a certain rate --the rate at which
nature provides them. Example: So long as we cut trees at a certain
rate, and no faster, then nature will produce new trees fast enough to
maintain a constant supply of cuttable trees. If we cut trees faster
than that, nature will not be able to keep up with us and then people
in the future will have fewer trees to meet their needs. The capacity
of the Earth to support life will have been diminished. This is an
example of exceeding the capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate

Growth, then, means quantitative increase in physical size.
Development, on the other hand, means qualitative change, realization
of potentialities, transition to a fuller or better state. On a planet
such as Earth, which is finite and not growing, there can be no such
thing as "sustainable growth" because growth will inevitably hit
physical limits. Because of physical limits, growth of throughput is
simply not sustainable indefinitely. But development CAN continue
endlessly as we seek to improve the quality of life for humans and for
the other creatures with which we share the planet.

To repeat, then, sustainable development means development without
growth in throughpout that exceeds the regenerative and absorptive
capacity of the environment. Sustainable development and the standard
ideology of growth stand in contrast to each other and, in fact, are
incompatible with each other.

Thus to be sustainable, the human economy (our throughput) must not
exceed a certain size in relation to the global ecosystem because it
will start to diminish the capacity of the planet to support humans
(and other creatures). If the human economy grows too large, it begins
to interfere with the natural services that support all life --services
such as photosynthesis, pollination, purification of air and water,
maintenance of climate, filtering of excessive ultraviolet radiation,
recycling of wastes, and so forth. Growth beyond that point will
produce negative consequences that exceed the benefits of increased

There is considerable evidence that the throughput of some parts of the
human economy has already exceeded the regenerative and absorptive
capacity of the environment. The problem of climate change and global
warming is an example; it provides evidence that we have exceeded the
capacity of the atmosphere to absorb our carbon dioxide, methane, and
nitrogen oxide wastes. Many of the fresh water fish of the world now
contain dangerously elevated levels of toxic mercury because we humans
have doubled the amount of mercury normally present in the atmosphere -
-evidence that we have exceeded earth's capacity to absorb our mercury
wastes.[4] Depletion of the ozone layer is evidence that we have
exceeded the atmosphere's capacity to absorb our chlorinated
fluorocarbon (CFC) wastes. This list can readily be extended.

There is also considerable evidence that we have already diminished
several important stocks and flows of natural capital. The U.S.
economy, for example, is now dependent upon oil imported from the
Middle East because we have depleted our own stocks of oil. Most of the
world's seventeen marine fisheries are badly depleted --a flow of
natural capital that we have overharvested, in some cases nearly to the
point of extinction. (See REHW #587.) This list, too, can readily be

One particular limit seems worth noting at this point. In 1986, a group
of biologists at Stanford University analyzed the total amount of
photosynthetic activity on all the available land on Earth, and asked
what proportion of it have humans now appropriated for their own use
(mainly through agriculture)?[5] The answer is 40%. This leaves 60% for
the use of non-humans. But the human population is presently doubling
every 35 or 40 years. After one more doubling, humans will be using 80%
of all the products of sunlight, and shortly after that, 100%. Don't
get me wrong --humans are important. But I don't know very many people
who think it would be smart to deny every wild creature access to the
basic food and habitat resources of the planet just to keep the human
economy expanding. Even if we thought we had the right to use 100% of
the green products of sunlight for our own purposes, the human
population would have to stop growing at that point because there
wouldn't be any more sunlight to appropriate. That time is less than
one human lifetime (70 years) away.

Thus we soon will reach --or more likely have already reached --the
point at which growth of the human economy does more harm than good.
What is needed under these circumstances is to stabilize total
consumption, total throughput.

There are two basic rationales for doing this, one based in science and
one in religion. Herman Daly offers both. We have heard the scientific
argument, above, which says that the capacity of the Earth to support
life is being --or soon will be --diminished by growth of throughput
and that sooner or later we can only hurt ourselves and our children if
we persistt on this path of unsustainability. The religious argument
goes like this:

"I believe that God the Creator exists now, as well as in the past and
future, and is the source of our obligation to Creation, including
other creatures, and especially including members of our own species
who are suffering. Our ability and inclination to enrich the present at
the expense of the future, and of other species, is as real and as
sinful as our tendency to further enrich the wealthy at the expense of
the poor. To hand back to God the gift of Creation in a degraded state
capable of supporting less life, less abundantly, and for a shorter
future, is surely a sin. If it is a sin to kill and to steal, then
surely it is a sin to destroy carrying capacity --the capacity of the
earth to support life now and in the future. Sometimes we find
ourselves in an impasse in which sins are unavoidable. We may sometimes
have to sacrifice future life in order to preserve present life --but
to sacrifice future life to protect present luxury and extravagance is
a very different matter."[2,pgs.222-223.]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Gro Harlem Brundtland and others, OUR COMMON FUTURE (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1987).

[2] Herman E. Daly, BEYOND GROWTH (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

[3] See any ecology textbook; for example, G. Tyler Miller, Jr., LIVING
IN THE ENVIRONMENT Ninth Edition (Belmont, California: Wadsworth
Publishing, 1996), chapter 5, "Ecosystems and How They Work."

[4] F. Slemr and E. Langer, "Increase in global atmospheric
concentrations of mercury inferred from measurements over the Atlantic
Ocean," NATURE Vol. 355 (January 30, 1992), pgs. 434-437.

[5] Peter M. Vitousek and others, "Human Appropriation of the Products
of Photosynthesis," BIOSCIENCE Vol. 34, No. 6 (1986), pgs. 368-373.

Descriptor terms: growth; sustainable development; brundtland
commission; world commission on environment and development;
throughput; economics; herman daly; beyond growth; ecosystem
functioning; detritus food chain; natural capital; development

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