Sustainability and sustained economic growth have become key terms in the global economic and environmental policy context. Sustainability is a key word in the environmental movement, while sustained economic growth is an objective central to current neo-liberal economic theory and practice. The two terms contradict each other.
In a sustainable society, production and use of goods and services would be kept within the sustainable limits of the natural economy or ecosphere. This applies as much to local, national and regional ecosystems as it does to Earth itself. Regrettably, no world authority exists to monitor net primary production of the ecosphere, and that proportion of such production that humans can safely appropriate for their own use, while leaving enough for other life forms and future generations. Such studies as have been done indicate that by 1992, human appropriation of total biomass production was close to prudent limits, and hence unsustainable.
The term "sustained economic growth" is a contradiction in terms or an oxymoron; the falsehood upon which the present global human economy is based. It is the ultimate in human recklessness since it makes inevitable, sooner or later, exhaustion of Earth's resources. Signs of this are there for all to see.
So we could say that the main problem facing humankind is being advocated and practised as its solution.
Emphasis in future must be on maintaining and building natural capital - not destroying it. At the same time, we should be minimising the growth of human capital. This would involve converting many of our production systems and industries to this end - to reclaiming destroyed forest systems, deserts and degraded lands, saving and restoring productive soils, and above all, making efficiency a key word in all human activities.
Agenda 21, the main outcome of the UN 1992 Conference on Environment & Development, set out a detailed program to this end. While the UN is endeavouring to activate Agenda 21, there is little serious governmental or institutional support.
Environmental sustainability must be practised at all levels of society from the local to the global. The environmental NGO movement has achieved much in raising concern by advocating conservation measures based on efficiency in the use of resources. But this progress is being undermined by the drive for economic growth which breeds wasteful consumption.
Sustainable development should be seen as equally appropriate to its social context - improvement to the human condition. We should be speaking of sustainable human development.
National indicators should show social performance and national capital charges.
(Note: this chapter should be read in conjunction with the document Economic Systems - National and Human, and the PIRM report, "Why Economic Growth is Not Sustainable, Based on a Study of the World Food Situation", available from PIRM. Refer also to Reform of the UN System for the 21st Century, which sets out the case for resource management to be a central function of the United Nations - education, monitoring, research, analysis and allocation.
Refer also to "Reform of the UN System for the 21st Century", which sets out the case for resource management to be a central function of the United Nations - education, monitoring, research, analysis and allocation.)