DOI: 10.12924/cis2013.01010003 |Publication Date: 10 May 2013

Why 'Sustainable Development' Is Often Neither: A Constructive Critique

Alexander Lautensach 1, * and Sabina Wanda Lautensach 2
1 School of Education, University of Northern British Columbia, Terrace, BC, Canada
2 Human Security Institute, Terrace, BC, Canada
* Corresponding author
Abstract: Efforts and programs toward aiding sustainable development in less affluent countries are primarily driven by the moral imperative to relieve and to prevent suffering. This utilitarian principle has provided the moral basis for humanitarian intervention and development aid initiatives worldwide for the past decades. It takes a short term perspective which shapes the initiatives in characteristic ways. While most development aid programs succeed in their goals to relieve hunger and poverty in ad hoc situations, their success in the long term seems increasingly questionable, which throws doubt on the claims that such efforts qualify as sustainable development. This paper aims to test such shortfall and to find some explanations for it. We assessed the economic development in the world’s ten least affluent countries by comparing their ecological footprints with their biocapacities. This ratio, and how it changes over time, indicates how sustainable the development of a country or region is, and whether it risks ecological overshoot. Our results confirm our earlier findings on South-East Asia, namely that poor countries tend to have the advantage of greater sustainability. We also examined the impact that the major development aid programs in those countries are likely to have on the ratio of footprint over capacity. Most development aid tends to increase that ratio, by boosting footprints without adequately increasing biocapacity. One conceptual explanation for this shortfall on sustainability lies in the Conventional Development Paradigm, an ideological construct that provides the rationales for most development aid programs. According to the literature, it rests on unjustified assumptions about economic growth and on the externalisation of losses in natural capital. It also rests on a simplistic version of utilitarianism, usually summed up in the principle of  ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. We suggest that a more realistic interpretation of sustainability necessitates a revision of that principle to ‘ the minimum acceptable amount of good for the greatest sustainable number’. Under that perspective, promoting the transition to sustainability becomes a sine qua non condition for any form of ‘development’.

Keywords: conventional development paradigm; human security; overshoot; sustainable development; utilitarianism


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