ecostory 5/2006
Daly - Definition of "Development"
home | growth dicussion | sustainability | back

This is the copy of an email sent to Mr. Herman Day in 1996

Wellington, 19 June 1996

Dear Mr. Daly,

The Ecol-Econ email forum ( had an extensive discussion on the issues of "SD", "SG", and various forms of "efficiency", entropy, Pareto optimality, and so on.

One discussion partner recently referred (off-list) to your definition of "Development", claimed to be "increases in quality of life while holding throughput constant, or declining".

Because of your reputation (you were even once mentioned in an adjective form) I tried to find references in your original texts (references below), but without straight-forward success. However, the outcome of my reading made it very improbable for me to conclude that the above cited definition could be correct.

Below I attach a copy of my todays mini-essay "Sustainability Revisited" to the ecol-econ list. I have taken care not to divulge your email address, not knowing whether you would like a possible bombardment of your mail box. But perhaps I was overprotective. I found your email on the Uni of Maryland server after I asking Andrew Steer at the Word Bank for your address.

Briefly who I am: 54; B.Sc. Mech.Eng. Arnhem 1962; Post-graduate management course 1963 Amsterdam; international sales and sales management of capital equipment (mainly machine tools) till 1987 (Holland and Switzerland); Ms.Soc.Sc. Psychology 1992 Hamilton New Zealand; undergraduate courses Economics 1993-1995 Basel University; working towards the start of a PhD in Psychology on the subject of Economic Paradigm Change since January 1996 at Victoria University of Wellington; NGO activist since 1980; delegate for the Swiss NGO umverkehR-Retrotrafic at the 1995 Berlin Climate Conference.

I trust that this email finds your interest (given the description of your present course at the School for public Policy) and hope for your comments.

With kind regards ... Helmut Lubbers

111-A Grafton Rd., Wellington, New Zealand, Phone: +64-4-3846632.

>>>> Copy of my today's posting to the ecol-econ list >>>>

>From Jun 19 18:15:49 1996 Date: Wed, 19 JUN 1996 18:14:35 +0000 From: Helmut Lubbers To: Cc: Subject: "Development"

Dear Co-listers.

(1) This posting was sparked by an off-list claim that Daly defines "Development" as "increases in quality of life while holding throughput constant, or declining", put forward as evidence against my position that "Sustainable Development" is self-contradictory.

I bring the subject to the valued attention of the list since I believe that various theoretical and practical interpretations of "Development" are one major source for the continuation of environmental degradation.

Theoretical definitions also "degrade", on their way down from academia to common everyday practice. The definitions tend to lose their restrictions for validity, their IFs and WHENs. Academia can argue, when they slip over the conditions. Practice tends to just go for the most rewarding interpretation and use of the concept. Common practice may even be the outright opposite of the best intentions of the concept creator.

This split between theory and practice tends to widen to a gap, IF academia stays in "ivory towers" (Ed Deak) or what I named "aircon shelters". Ideally, the theoretical terminology and its definition must be resistant to the wear and tear of its operationalisation in everyday life.

The below discussion tries to strengthen the connection between the theory and practice of "Development", and therefore rejects the related concepts of "Sustainable Development", "Sustainable Growth", and "Qualitative Growth".

(2) On a theoretical level:

(2.1) "'Growth' should refer to quantitative expansion in the scale of physical dimensions of the economic system, while 'development' should refer to the qualitative change of a physically nongrowing economic system in dynamic equilibrium with the environment" (Daly 1989, 71).

I use this as a basic definition, assuming that "qualitative change" refers to an increase in subjective personal well-being (quality of life) (not material welfare), whilst recognising that well-being depends on "sufficient material welfare" (independent of its extent or definition, often dependent on local criteria).

On the surface the acclaimed definition under (1) seems consistent with the one I found, and cite under (2.1). However, (1) may refer to an early phase in the debate, since "holding throughput constant" clashes with the requirement to reduce our impact on the environment. In 1991 Daly writes about "[...] evidence that we have ALREADY [original italics] gone beyond a prudent Plimsoll line for the scale of the macroeconomy" (Daly 1991, 257-258). William R. Catton Jr. (1980) provides an excellent theoretical foundation. The ecol-econ co-listers did not seem to oppose statements that our impact on the Earth amounts up to four, or even forty times the sustainable level. (The Plimsoll line is the "safe" water level mark on a ship's hull.)

(2.2) "Any physical subsystem of a finite and nongrowing earth must itself also eventually become nongrowing. Therefore growth will become unsustainable eventually and the term 'sustainable growth' would then be self-contradictory" (Daly 1989, 72).

Thus "Sustainable Growth" can be ruled out by definition and by eco-logic reasoning. The sporadic "Immaterial Growth" is economically as non-existent as one only angel or one million angels on the tip of a needle. Reflections on "Qualitative Growth" follow further down.

(2.3) "But sustainable development does not become self-contradictory" (Daly 1989, 72).

However, on a practical level "Sustainable Development" does become self-contradictory, as I will try to explain in the following.

(2.4) "[...], strong sustainability would require maintaining both humanly created and natural capital intact separately, on the assumption that they are complements rather than substitutes in most production functions (our reasons for believing that this is the case are given in chapter 10 [From Matter and Rent to Energy and Biosphere]. We advocate the strong sustainability approach to operationalizing sustainable development" (Daly 1989, 72-73).

[...] "For reasons elaborated in chapter 11 [Free Trade versus Community], we advocate seeking this complementary balance of humanly created and natural capital mainly within each nation than between nations" (Daly 1989, 75).

The requirement of "a physically nongrowing economic system in dynamic equilibrium with the environment" and the demand of "maintaining both humanly created and natural capital intact separately" is consistent with and will be supported by the proposal to seek "this complementary balance of humanly created and natural capital mainly within each nation than between nations". This provides support for my proposal to work out means for replacing unbridled "Free Trade" by "Localisation".

(3) On a practice level:

(3.1) Development towards sufficient material welfare for one part of the population can only occur without physical "growth" of the whole economic system IF it is offset by equivalent physical decrease by another population part. Common economic practice, however, is a general striving for increases in material welfare. The prevailing economic practice adheres to the "trickle-down" principle. This means that environmentally neutral welfare transfers do seldomly take place. An increase in material welfare for those people who need development usually consists of a share of the additional overall material welfare. Therefore the common economic practice of development means an increase in the physical scale of the economic system, and this is not consistent with the requirement of reducing our material throughput.

An aggravating circumstance is that in common daily understanding and practice "development" means building a new suburb on a previously piece of green land, increasing the size of a business, building a new road, making or expanding a holiday resort, and so on. The practice is not "in dynamic equilibrium with the environment".

"Sustainable Development" is thus constrained to a theoretical level. Its operationalisation conflicts with the requirements of "a physically nongrowing economy" and "maintaining [...] natural capital intact".

(3.2) In economics' teaching and in business practice it is frequently claimed that "Qualitative Growth" can be sustainable. Evidence, however, is only provided by redefining growth, thus separating the term from the common understanding of economic growth.

So-called "Qualitative Growth" can occur within the constraints of a well-defined small economic sub-system, such as a production process or a factory. Usually a higher material efficiency (higher production at the same material throughput or the same at reduced throughput) creates a higher financial profit. This is then called "Qualitative Growth". However, both types of "material efficiency increase" contradict the physical definition of growth.

The application of the term "Qualitative Growth" to well-defined microeconomic cases leads to faulty generalizations and opinions about "Sustainable Growth" of the macroeconomy.

The wide-spread use of the term "growth" for increases in financial results leads oddities such as "negative growth".

"[...] we hope they [the international development banks and agencies] will abandon the oxymoron 'sustainable growth' [...]" (Daly 1989,76).

(4) General comments:

(4.1) "One reason for the unanimity of support given to the phrase 'sustainable development' is precisely that it has been left rather vague - development is not distinguished from growth in the Brundtland Report [...]. Politically this was wise on the part of the author. They managed to put high on the international agenda a concept whose unstated implications were too radical for consensus at that time" (Daly 1989, 75-76).

Indeed. The use of precise terminologies has great power, reason enough for "Adam the first" to start his activities by giving names to all animals in paradise. Adam Smith supplied some tools for creating an economic temporary paradise for some people.

A terminology that implies goals which can not be achieved in practice can become useless or even counter-productive for its purposes. But one can choose environmentally more benign ways to say what is actually meant, in line with the veritable (intended) material outcome. One way out of the dilemma could consist in a persistent use of suitable descriptive adjectives.

(4.2) The controversial terms "Sustainable Development", "Sustainable Growth", and "Qualitative Growth" have serious negative practical impacts on the environment. For this reason I would suggest that "Development" and its derivates be ruled out and replaced by a terminology that meets common practice and language use.

(4.3) Development of poorer populations (requiring increased material welfare) seems to be an accepted goal.

For this purpose "Development" could be replaced by, for instance, "Correction of Underdevelopment Offset by Reduction of Overdevelopment" ("CUORO"). The term is slightly longer, but so what? Some of us have already got used to "she or he", aimed at changing the material (power) distribution between men and women.

(4.4) Minding the carrying capacity of our earth means taking care that we do not overload the Earth boat with our economic activities. The evidence for overload appears pressing.

Yet practically all - workers, opinion-leaders, academia, business management alike - call for and strive for economic expansion. The slogan is "Growth". The power of the "Growth" paradigm "sustains" the present road to environmental catastrophe.

The power of using precise and environmentally correct terminology supports the creation of awareness of factual realities. Each of us can then make an informed Ecologic Choice from Human Options. Your ECHO is my interest.


Catton, William R. (1980) Overshoot. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. [GF41C369]

Daly, Herman E. (1987) The Economic Growth Debate: What some economists have learned but many have not. In: Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 14, 323-336 (1987). [HC79E5J86]

Daly, Herman E. & Cobb, John B. Jr. (1989) For the Common Good: Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press. [HD75.6D153F]

Daly, Herman E. (1991) Towards an Environmental Macroeconomics. In: Land Economics, May 1991, 67(2): 255-59. [HD1401L253]

Daly, Herman E. (1992) Is the Entropy Law relevant to the Economics of Natural Resources Scarcity?-Yes, of course it is!. In: Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 23, 91-95 (1992). [HC79E5J86]

World Commission on Employment and Development (1987) Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [The "Brundtland Report"] [HD75.6 O93]

With kind regards ... Helmut Lubbers ________________________________________________________________________
Qui bono? My debating "ego" or sustainable economix? To whose advantage? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  • Your opinion or your argument
  • Initiative
  • growth discussion
  • Motivation - environmental psychology
  • back site map home... ecostory
    ecoglobe since 1997