Sustainable Development And Sustained Growth
The notion of sustainable development refers to an economic system that is ultimately based on the wise utilization of renewable natural resources in a manner that does not threaten the availability of the resources for use by future generations of people. It is also important that damages to non-valuated resources be kept within acceptable limits.
Clearly, the existing human economy is grossly unsustainable in these respects. Modern economies are characterized by resolute economic growth, which is achieved by the vigorous mining of non-renewable resources, potentially renewable resources, and environmental quality in general.
Since the mid-1980s, when the notion was first introduced, "sustainable development" has been enthusiastically advocated by many politicians, economists, businesspeople, and resource managers. However, many of these have confused sustainable development with "sustained economic growth," which by definition is impossible because resources eventually become limiting. The first popularization of the phrase "sustainable development" was in the widely applauded report of the World Commission of Environment and Development, also known as the "Brundtland Report" after the chairperson of the commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. However, this report appears to confuse some of the fundamental differences between economic growth and sustainable development.
Although the Brundtland Report supports the need for sustainable development, it also calls for a large increase in the size of the global economy. The Brundtland Report suggests that a period of strong economic growth is needed, in concert with a redistribution of some of the existing wealth, if the living standards of people in poorer countries are to be improved. It is believed that once this has been accomplished, social and economic conditions will favor an end to population growth and the over-exploitation of natural resources, so an equilibrium condition of a non-growing economy can be achieved.
However, the sorts of economic growth rates recommended in the Brundtland Report are equivalent to an increase of per-capita, global income of 3% per year, sufficient to double per-capita income every 23 years. The economic growth must also compensate for growth of the human population, which amounts to about 2% per year. Therefore, the adjusted rate of economic growth would have to be about 5% per year (that is, 3% + 2%), which would result in a doubling of the global economy every 14 years. Of course, in poorer countries with even higher rates of population growth, including most of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the rate of economic growth would have to compensate and be correspondingly larger. In total, the Brundtland Report suggested that an expansion of the global economy by a factor of five to 10 was needed to create conditions appropriate to achieve a condition of sustainable development.
The Brundtland Report not only recommends a great deal of economic growth; it also recommends the development of technologies that would allow a more efficient economic growth, which would consume fewer resources of material and energy per unit of growth achieved. Additionally, the report advocates a redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer people and countries, as well as greater efforts towards the elimination of population growth.
The Brundtland Report, like other champions of "sustainable development," actually promotes economic growth as a cure for the present ills of human economies. However, there are profound doubts that a five-to-10-times increase in the size of the human economy could be sustained by the environment and its ecosystems. Economic growth may, in fact, be more of a cause of the environmental crisis than a cure.
Resolution of the environmental crisis and achievement of sustainable economies may require the immediate, aggressive pursuit of more difficult and unpopular solutions than those recommended by the Brundtland Report. These would include much less use of resources by richer peoples of the world, immediate redistribution of some of the existing wealth to poorer peoples, vigorous population control, and an overall focus on preventing further deterioration of ecological integrity and environmental quality more generally.
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