Sustainable Development is an Oxymoron

Source: NASA

Before I get to the question, I need to explain the title of this post, as what we mean by sustainable development can vary greatly. If we can agree that a fair, basic definition of sustainable is “the ability to perpetuate something,” then we just have to deal with the development bit. Merriam-Webster offers us a few options there.


This is where I think we tend to go awry. The first definition is the one I perceive to be commonly referred to in this phrase, and it’s used in reference to economic growth—biggering and biggering the economy—but I don’t think of that as being inherently sustainable. It could be, but this often manifests at best as more of things that are “less bad.” I think we should instead be aiming for the third definition, “the state of being created or made more advanced.” Tie that idea to “sustainable” and you might be on to something. Better, rather than more.

Back to the question at hand…

What are the policies that governments should take to encourage public-private partnership and enable the private sector to develop the goods and services necessary for a global transition to a low-carbon economy by 2030?

Given the goal of a low-carbon economy by 2030, the fastest and safest way to achieve it would be to turn everything off. No electricity. No cars. No running water. Nothing. Do it now.

Given the goal of a low-carbon economy by 2030, the fastest and safest way to achieve it would be to… Click To Tweet

I’ve thrown this idea around plenty, and along with no longer getting invited to cocktail parties, I’ve learned that most people are not excited about this path (even though we’re living on the only planet that’s known to host life), so let’s assume for now that extreme is off the table.

At the other end of the spectrum is full-steam ahead geoengineering. We give up nothing and instead continue to “develop” our economies by burning up every ounce of fossil fuels that we can get our hands on, while also working to counteract the effects of such through the use of new technologies which may help re-balance planetary systems.

This idea may hold water with some, but it scares me to no end. We’re just waking up to the damage we’ve already wrought, and we think we can undo it by doing more tinkering with the atmosphere. (This seems more like the addition of another layer to the house of cards than a solution, but I digress.) We may yet find geoengineering to be our only hope to blunt some of the worst effects of climate change, but I think we need to look at it as a last resort that we know might not work, rather than allowing people to view it as a potential silver bullet. Otherwise, some might set themselves at ease, rather than maintain the vigilance that’s needed going forward.

We’re just waking up to the damage we’ve already wrought, and we think we can undo it by doing more… Click To Tweet

So if we toss out the extremes, we’re left with the middle. If I was to plot a hypothetical path between them, I’d suggest that we lean hard towards the “no energy” path in developed countries. By doing so, we’d greatly reduce our outsize impacts and help reset global expectations for what a reasonable lifestyle might be. If we head down that path, we’ll help stave off some of the worst impacts of climate change, while also leaving the door open for a shift in the direction of “more” should we learn things aren’t as bad as feared. (I know. We “greens” and our Precautionary Principle…)

Governments should encourage us to dig in hard as consumers and business leaders, and provide incentives for pursuing technological advances that would help us replace old comforts with new, sustainable ones.

We’re on the Titanic, and we can see the iceberg ahead. Will we choose to throw enough of our baubles overboard in time to allow the ship to turn?


This post is part of the 2016 Masdar Engage Blogging Contest page.