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A short dicussion with the IUCN on
sustainability and "Sustainable Development"

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Surfing for some references we accidentally hit on the following page referring to sustainability and "sustainable development":
There are hundreds of definitions of sustainable development and the concept of sustainability is continually evolving.

World Commission on Environment and Development 1987
"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." From World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987): Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

Caring for the Earth 1991
"Improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems." From IUCN, UNEP, WWF (1991): Caring for the Earth. A Strategy for Sustainable Living. Gland, Switzerland.

The Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit 2002
"Sustainable development is often thought to have three components: environment, society, and economy. The well-being of these three areas is intertwined, not separate." In McKeown, R. (2002). The ESD Toolkit 2.0. Web-published document.

Forum for the Future 2006
"A dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential and improve the quality of their life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth's life support systems. "

Global Footprint Network 2007
"Sustainable development occurs when all human beings can have fulfilling lives, without degrading our planet".
[Announcement of a video interview:]
Mr. Achim Steiner
Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme Nairobi, Kenya "Environmental Sustainability as the Basis of Economic Growth"
None of the "definitions" actually define sustainability. They all refer to so-called "sustainable development", which is an oxymoron.

This is our transcript of Mr Achim Steiner's statements in the video:
    "For much of the 20th century we believed and were led to believe that environmental sustainability and economic growth or the environment and the economy were really two forces pulling in opposite directions. I think the interesting thing that we now face at the beginning of the 21st century - particularly on the back of all the lessons we've learnt about climate change - is that that really is a false dichotomy."

    "Economic growth, sustaining the economic development, ultimately will be threatened by environmental destruction by the risks that unsustainable use of our natural resource base or indeed the impact of economic development on the atmosphere, on the hydrological cycle, will have."

    "So I think that the fascinating point in time that we have reached now is that sustainability becomes in many ways a precondition for future economic development. And that means we need to recalibrate the basic policy - economic and investment parameters - as we look at the future economic development path."

    "Sustainability is now a defining and enabling condition for economic growth. We haven't reached that point yet but I think that is the discussion that is now happening in our societies, in businesses, in board rooms.".
Mr Steiner, head of UNEP, is turning things upside down, falling victim to economic theory. Sustainability is needed for growth, Mr Steiner claims, not considering that
1. humankind has grown - in numbers and resource use - far beyond sustainability levels, in almost every area, not just climate (compare overshoot);
2. economic growth is factually increasing the depletion rates of non-renewable resources, including a normal climate;
3. growth and development are two names for the same thing: expansion, meaning more non-renewable resource consumption;
4. economic growth is accounted in the GDP, and each money unit represents a certain amount of materials. Immaterial growth, decoupling, different or qualitative growth - all these theories fail the reality check. Three percent more GDP means three percent more cars, greenhouse gas emissions, raw materials, and computer, transportation and other services used.

The earth, as we all know, is a globe and finite. We talk environment since 40 years. But we keep growing, in numbers and in consumption per capita.
The destructive effects - not the so-called "risks" - of continued expansion become more serious year after year: growing resource scarcities - water, food, climate, arable soil, biodiversity, fish stocks, space for people and wilderness for nature, etc. Yet our leaders claim we must grow further.

The Financial Times, the Wallstreet Journal, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development provide ample evidence of the preoccupation of the boardrooms: profitability and economic growth - "sustainable", of course, whatever that means from their perspective.

Board members may well discuss environmental matters. But our experience tells us that the typical leader either has no clue what sustainability really means, or s/he knows and repressess the scary consequencies. And s/he is neither aware of the dire environmental situation, nor of the immediacy of the threatening collapse, nor of the real feasibility of proposed "solutions".

So we wrote an e-mail to the IUCN, received a reaction and we replied, the essence of which is reproduced further down.

What would you comment?
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-----Original Message-----
From: ecoglobe @ gmail . com On Behalf Of Helmut Lubbers
Sent: 22 July 2008 20:48
To: ...
Cc: ... ... ... ... reinhard @ christeller . net; Britt-Marie's eco list
Subject: Sustainability definition

Dear ...

On your web page
one can read five descriptions relation to "Sustainable Development".

Would you see a need to add a definition of "sustainability" proper?

"Sustainable Development" is a non-existing entity since no development can ever be sustainable, as development is commonly and in daily practice always understood as an increase. No increase can go on forever in a finite environment.

Sustainability is a societal situation wherein resource use is balanced with the regenerative capacity of the environment.

Unfortunately human resource use is far higher than sustainable. We have overshot the earth's carrying capacity beyond proportion and the situation is getting worse because of 1. continued population growth, and 2. continued economic growth and the resulting increase in sesource consumption.

One should realise that immaterial growth does not exist. Economic growth is expressed in Euros or Dollars of GDP and each money unit represents an amount of goods produced. So-called services also need material resources, so as long as the total GDP rises, the resource depletion increases.

Therefore, if we want to reach a state of sustainability, we must 1. stop population growth and economic expansion, and 2. thereafter start reducing resource use per person and population reduction.

It can be reasonably defended that a state of sustainability for mankind could exist with a world population and and resource throughput equivalent to pre-industrial age, i.e. before 1765 (James Watt).

Getting there is a huge unertaking and consequently any development for poor regions must be compensated by a relatively higher reduction in resource use in the rich parts of the world.

Only then can we hope to achieve a state of sustainability and thus survival of humanity.

In the video interview Mr. Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, claims that environmental protection is a condition for economic growth. Mr Steiner is putting the cart before the horse. In the real world economic growth means more cars, more roads, more electricity, less water, less biodiversity and less space and resources for nature, all happening in a finite and increassingly depleted environment.

The statements made in this interview are in direct and stark conflict with the aims of the UICN, to protect nature and thereby also protect the future of humanity. so I would recommend that this interview is removed from the IUCN web site.

I intend publishing this email as an ecostory on the web site, but before doing so I would appreciate if you could give me your comments.

With thanks and kind regards ... Helmut Lubbers
-- Helmut E Lubbers Ingénieur, MSocSc, DipEcol, editor of and ecology discovery foundation ecoglobe Wellington New Zealand and Geneva Switzerland 14 bd Carl-Vogt 1205 Genève +41 22 3212320

<<< reference your mail : 23.07.2008 10:51 >>>

Dear Mr Lubbers

Thank you very much for your email, and interesting comments. You are the first first person to comment on the definitions and the interviews on this website - so I am pleased to get your feedback.

The objective of conducting and posting the interviews is to solicit a range of different views and to stimulate reflection and open debate. So although I can sympathize with your opinion of Mr. Achim Steiner's views, I do not intend to remove the interview from the IUCN website. It would seem to me to defeat the objective of trying to encourage debate.

I appreciated your comments about sustainable development. And I can see what you are saying about 'no development can ever been sustainable'. However, I think this assumption may rest on a uncritical perspective of development itself. Ideas about development are evolving too.

As part of the IUCN Future of Sustainability project we have been reviewing conceptions of 'development', as well as sustainability. We believe that leaders need to reconceive development for the 21C, and that society needs to challenge the preoccupation with 'growth' and 'GDP', which are imperfect measures of happiness or human wellbeing, and which are also causing so much damage to the environment. Although we need to find ways of expressing these ideas that do not get shot down as uncaring about the poor.

I attach an article entitled 'Dethroning Growth', which is, unexpectedly, by Adair Turner - former head of the UK Confederation of British Industry. It one of a series of interesting articles in a new wave of economics challenging our preoccupation with GDP and showing the disconnect between growth and wellbeing. It is from Simms, A, and Smith, J. (2008): "Do Good Lives have to Cost the Earth?" Constable. UK. I hope your find it interesting.

IUCN is just about to publish its second report under its Future of Sustainability project entitled: "Transition to Sustainability: Towards a diverse and humane world", which will discussed at the Congress in October. Please do look out for it. It hope to post it on our website in September.

With best wishes,


Dear ... ,

Many thanks for your reply.

Very briefly, trying to avoid a lengthy debate:

1. "trying to encourage debate". I do not believe Mr Steiner's opinions encourage a debate. He's just repeating what virtually all opinion leaders believe and promote: that the earth is endless and that we can and must grow, albeit "differently", "immaterial", "sustainably".

2. "Ideas about development are evolving too". No. as I wrote, "development is commonly and in daily practice always understood as an increase". So SD is a misnomer, it is deluding oneself, like with many other terms, where "sustainable" is used as an adjective - and not a noun that can be defined. Your page offers no definition of sustainability.

3. "leaders need to reconceive development for the 21C". Yes. Except that most leaders have lost the faculty to listen and reconsider. Their models are cristalline and unshakeable. So how can things be reconceived if there's no debate and their opinions are not contested?

4. " 'growth' and 'GDP' [...] are also causing so much damage to the environment". Exactly. That's why people who support these notions should not be given a platform without being contested at the same time, i.e. Mr Achim Steiner on your site. Uncontested means approval.

5. "uncaring about the poor". That's why I wrote "any development for poor regions must be compensated by a relatively higher reduction in resource use in the rich parts of the world." It's a matter of redistribution. In hard reality, however, we do not really care about the poor. Our financially controlled society condones almost everything as long as it generates profits. We will only start dealing with climate change when our own mountain slopes come down and rupture our nice and cosy high-speed and just-in-time lives. Then it'll be too late. Till then we believe that Switzerland has hardly any greenhouse gas emissions and we forget that they are emitted in our name elsewhere for all products that we import.

6. "Dethroning growth" (and climate change and the Nicolas Stern report. compare e.g. by Adair Turner needs a separate discussion, and critique. You may compare "Limits to Growth" or for a fundamental critique. Others, like Daly & Cobb, have designed a better measure for well-being than GDP, the ISEW - Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare.

7. "Transition to Sustainability", "21C" has 92 years left. Too much "future" compared to the the speed of environmental developments: more depletion, more biodiversity loss, more greenhouse gases, more conferences with the usual frontal forum debate style with more useless words, more water scarcities, more people, more toxification, more droughts, more glacier melting, more torrential rainfalls, and finally also more deaths and wars for the remaining livelihoods. Peak oil is imminent and thereafter industrial production and agricultural outputs will start declining, thus adding to the plight to come.

And this will be far far sooner than people believe. The present development (=growth) unchanged, the earth will not get at the 9 billion people predicted, since resources will run dry sooner. Those are the realities as ecoglobe sees them - and we are by far not alone.

"Leaders", however, put optimism and hope before realism. They may also be afraid of the enormity of the task and thus shy away from the stark facts. But we are inclined to believe that they live in clouds of illusionary solutions and have no idea of realities.

Some of my input might be used fo your "Transition to Sustainability" report. I'll be pleased to exchange views in this regard in a personal encounter, assuming you live in the Geneva area.

Thanks again and kind regards ... Helmut Lubbers
Helmut E Lubbers Ingénieur, MSocSc, DipEcol,
editor of and
ecology discovery foundation ecoglobe
Wellington New Zealand and Geneva Switzerland
14 bd Carl-Vogt 1205 Genève
+41 22 3212320 helmut @ ecoglobe . ch