Sustainable Development is an Oxymoron

Published by Chris Oestereich on

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.

[bctt tweet=”Given the goal of a low-carbon economy by 2030, the fastest and safest way to achieve it would be to turn everything off. “]

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.

[bctt tweet=”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.”]

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.

1 Comment

Garry Bowen · January 5, 2016 at 03:11


The term ‘Sustainable Development’ is only an oxymoron for those who think of a conflict between “sustainable” & “development” – when doing work for both the AIA & APA (American Institute of Architects & American Planning Association, respectively), the word ‘sustainability’ is not “perceived to be” the common reference as you suggest – “the ability to perpetuate something” – it is the more simpler ‘ability to sustain’, which we are losing ever-quicker by overwhelming so many of the Earth’s systems, which on a timeline means that we will no longer have the time to maneuver our way back to system health – ever. . .

Perpetuation is dangerous, as too many in both academia & the “professions” are doing just that – the very nature of established ‘status quo’, instead of. . .

“Better, (not just) more” can be a prelude for your use of the Precautionary Principle, as it is consistent with most people’s idea that it “can’t really be all that bad”, as we will figure out a way either legislatively (Congress or UN COP’s ?) or technologically – neither of which will derive the personal responsibilities that will be most certainly be necessary – [either lazy:’someone else will “figure it out”, so that I won’t have to, or lazy politics: something will be proposed to which I can either rebel against or vote “up or down” – in our democratic dogma]

You are correct in being skeptical about geoengineering, as that is the hubristic way of satisfying one of the ‘ways’ above, but a reading of Janine Benyus’ “Biomimicry” [2002: subtitle: ‘Innovation Inspired by Nature’] will reveal the idea that nature designs systems way better than Man will ever be capable of. . . therefore, all of ‘Nature’ would be wiser to comprehend & follow than to “overcome”, rather than programmed & trained as we are, as necessary – the true nature of “sustaining”. . .

“No energy” is not a solution, either, as energy is the mostly forgotten part of nature (being one of the three reasons for life as we know it: water, DNA, & ENERGY – all the way down to the molecular mitochondria level). . .

“Turning every thing off”, while a pragmatic ‘slam-the-door’ on more-damage-approach, is more probably better served by a ‘weaning-off’ process: drive at least 20% less for most travel (i.e.,via using more walkable, bikable communities), better & safer fuels, with waste eliminated, & overall better sustainable design for all projects, the reason I coined the term “sustainable economic development”, as there are still too many that have not connected those dots in making them amenable to change. . .we still have an ‘either/or mentality’ that mostly makes the obvious conspicuously “mutually exclusive”, which is now not the case at all anymore. . .but results in the political “choose between either of these” practice now way too prevalent. . . conversely, too much expected choice is a bane of ours as well.

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