Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why Sustainable Development Must Be Abandoned

The ecological economist Herman E. Daly insists on a basic distinction between “sustainable growth” and “sustainable development.” Sustainable growth is impossible because continual growth is impossible; as an economic goal it is bad policy. Sustainable development, on the contrary, is for Daly both possible and desirable. Let’s look at Daly’s argument in his own words:

“Because qualitative and quantitative change are very different it is best to keep them separate and call them by the different names already provided in the dictionary. To grow means ‘to increase naturally in size by the addition of material through assimilation or accretion.’ To develop means ‘to expand or realize the potentialities of; to bring gradually to a fuller, greater, or better state.’ When something grows it gets bigger. When something develops it gets different. The Earth ecosystem develops but does not grow. Its subsystem, the economy, must eventually stop growing but can continue to develop. The term ‘sustainable development’ therefore makes sense for the economy but only if it is understood as ‘development without growth’ — i.e., that qualitative improvement of a physical economic base that is maintained in a steady-state by a throughput of matter-energy that is within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Currently the term ‘sustainable development’ is used as a synonym for the oxymoronic ‘sustainable growth.’ It must be saved from this perdition” (“Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Valuing the Earth, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, MIT Press, 1993, pp. 267-8).

Can the term "sustainable development" be saved? (And is it worth saving?) My own view is that it is more difficult now than ever to do so. As a scientist, Daly understands that scientific terms have correct and incorrect definitions, and that their meanings may be controlled by a community of scientists granted such authority. In science this is indeed the case; terms like “force” and “energy” do have precise scientific meanings, and one of the goals of science education is to make certain that students understand exactly what these terms mean in the world of physics. But in the world of public debate, as Daly also understands, it is very difficult to patrol the borderlands of word meanings, particularly when words become laden with values. (He writes elsewhere about this ability of certain words to contain both themselves and their opposites.) Sustainability itself is one such word. Development is another.

Daly made a mistake, I think, in turning to “the dictionary” as he did. Perhaps he went to a dictionary and found the definition of development that suited his meaning. However, there is more than one current definition; Daly’s is not the only one. Indeed, the definition of “develop” has, itself, developed. The Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (OED) tells us that the English word “develop” comes from the Old French, desveloper, literally to un-enclose, to unwrap, to expose. In England "develop" was first used in the 18th century and it had this same meaning: to unfold and bring out a potential that was already latent. It still has this meaning, and this is the meaning that Daly takes from the word. Daly writes that “Sustainable development [is] development without growth—that is, qualitative improvement without quantitative increase” (Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, p. 3).

But the OED recognizes another meaning for development, involving evolution and growth. Identification of the word development with growth came by the mid-19th century through botany (a plant develops and grows through its life cycle) and evolution (a progressive movement from simpler to more complex life forms). And in the late 19th century the word began to take on a growth orientation for property as well as for organisms. Development came to mean to realize the potentialities and value of a site, estate, property, and so forth by converting it to a new purpose or making it suitable for residence, industry, or business. By 1966, my first year of graduate school, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defined “develop” both in the sense of “unfolding” and in the sense of growing. To develop was “to evolve, differentiate; broadly, to grow.” Today’s most frequently used on line dictionary,, also invokes the earlier definition, “to bring out the capabilities or possibilities”; but its usage example suggests growth: “to develop natural resources.” also identifies development directly with growth: “to cause to grow or expand.”

In short, as much as Daly would have us understand the term “sustainable development” as sustainable change without growth, it is impossible for him or anyone else to fix its meaning. Those who wish to think of sustainable development as synonymous with sustainable growth have dictionary authority to do so, just as Daly has for its opposite. No one has the authority to impose a single meaning on this word today. Just as human beings run into trouble when we try to dominate or “master” the natural world, so we cannot “master” the meanings of words. We are, at best, their stewards.

Lewis Carroll, author of Through The Looking-Glass (1872), understood this more than one hundred years ago. In a famous passage from that book, Humpty Dumpty has this conversation with Alice:

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice observed.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

But much as Humpty Dumpty would have it otherwise, it is the words that are masters. It is a mistake to think that one can control the meaning of words in public discourse. One can, of course, try to shape public understanding, but doing so with words that signify in unfortunate ways strikes me as being what Daly would term “uneconomic”; that is, cost outweighs benefit. And so it is time to abandon the term “sustainable development” and look for others, such as continuity, whose meanings are more congruent with the dynamics of tradition. Otherwise sustainability, in music as elsewhere, will become captive to the destructive idea that music cultures must grow in order to sustain themselves.


  1. I agree sustainable development is often co-opted by those who want it to mean sustainable growth. But it's more complicated: growth for the poorest is the most sustainable option, while sustainable development in a country like the United States actually is synoymous with DEGROWTH. We must degrow as quickly as politically possible if we except to maintain even the most basic level of development and security in decades to come. For if we maintain current consumption levels we guarantee a significant climate shift, which will cause catastrophic changes in human settlement and undermine civilization's stability. Fortunately, the fledgling "degrowth" movement is making some inroads in Europe and Canada. While it'll need a different name to thrive in the US, perhaps we'll be able to sell the idea as the recession continues over the coming years.

  2. That's very interesting. Growth for the poorest and degrowth for the richest is similar to what Daly advocates when he writes about re-distribution of wealth in order to achieve social justice throughout the world. Thank you for the comment.