Challenges in Sustainability | 2013 | Volume 1 | Issue 1 | Pages 3–15
Why 'Sustainable Development' Is Often Neither:
A Constructive Critique
* and Sabina Lautensach
School of Education, University of Northern British Columbia, 4837 Keith Ave. Terrace, B.C. V8G 1K7, Canada;
Tel.: +1 250 615 3334; Fax: +1 250 615 5478; E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Human Security Institute,1025 Farkvam Rd. Terrace, B.C. V8G 0E7, Canada
* Corresponding author
Submitted: 19 December 2012 | In revised form: 1 February 2013 | Accepted: 22 March 2013 |
Published: 10 May 2013
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 externalization 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;
© 2013 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).
Following the dominant convention in the literature,
we define development as multidimensional
innovation or growth that achieves positive outcomes
for the quality of human lives and/or for human
security. It can manifest in the areas of financial
income, employment, distribution of wealth,
education, political autonomy, basic needs for survival,
health of populations and ecosystems, equality, self-
esteem and dignity, and freedom . The latter
includes Sen's  standard of individual capability.
Those areas cover people's social, biological, and
economic environments and have been recognised as
the main indicators contributing to the human
development index  and human security index .
Sustainable development, then, includes any such
innovation or growth that does not compromise the
ability of future generations to develop along the
same lines (, p. 2). This corresponds to the
definition by the World Conservation Union (IUCN),
"improving the quality of human life while living within
the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems" (,
p. 6). Thus, sustainability is all about avoiding to
transgress systemic limits.
The above listed areas in which development can
manifest suggest directly some ethical reasons why
affluent countries engage in international
development aid: When the citizens of a poor country
suffer deprivations in those areas, and their own
government and communities are not in a position to
alleviate their situation, international aid seems
indicated for several moral reasons. One of those
reasons, though rarely explicated, is self interest.
Helping a country develop into a valuable trading
partner and enabling that country to purchase goods
and services from the donor country (so-called tied
aid) are in the obvious national self interest of the
donor. The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness 
paved the way for development aid to become untied,
broadly coordinated among donors, and designed and
implemented by the recipient countries. But
oftentimes political and strategic considerations still
dominate the allocation decisions .
Much more widely advertised is the utilitarian
motivation, under which helping a sufficiently large
group of people transcend a situation that caused them
to suffer inordinate deprivations, at only minor sacrifice
to the donor, provides the necessary and sufficient
justification for aid. Likewise, deontological and virtue-
based ethics recognise a duty to relieve suffering, often
manifesting in the mission statements of charitable
organisations both religious and secular. Arguments in
support of that duty often invoke human rights and
basic needs. In practice, such humanitarian motives
tend to focus on situations where the deprivation is
most easily quantified, as in cases where populations
experience extreme poverty, unemployment, under-
education, poor health, or homelessness.
The basic and widely shared agreement underlying
these ethical motives is that knowledge of human
suffering implies a duty to actively help. Much less
general agreement is found when it comes to
choosing the most appropriate ways to help. Short
term relief measures dominate in cases of natural
disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake which
displaced about 2.3 million Haitians (almost one
quarter of the total population) and killed or injured
over half a million. The UN's relief program focuses on
the restoration of the island's economy and public
Designed as immediate disaster relief, it largely
ignores how the island's climate, soil conditions,
environmental trends, and population dynamics
constrain its long term prospects for development.
Those issues are considered beyond the program's
time horizon and beyond its goals of providing
immediate relief. In other words, international disaster
relief is seldom justified by arguments invoking
sustainability, nor would many suggest that it needs
to be. This sets it apart from international
development aid where the absence of a long-term
focus can raise considerable problems, as we will
2. Disaster Relief and Development Aid
The short term humanitarian priorities in disaster
relief often seem relatively straightforward, suggesting
unequivocally not only the need for immediate action
but also what choices of aid measures might be
indicated. Yet, as soon as the time frame is extended
to the medium and long term, those choices become
more debatable. This is most evident in cases of
famine relief. For example, Peter Singer  considers
the relief of human suffering to be a paramount moral
duty; he argued that a famine always demands
immediate food aid from any who are reasonably
able. Arguing on the same humanitarian and
utilitarian grounds, Garret Hardin  comes to the
opposite conclusion, that famine relief in the form of
food donations would be the worst anybody could do
to a poor country. Because it promotes population
growth without addressing the reasons for the famine,
it will only cause worse famines in years to come.
Both Singer and Hardin agree that family planning
and contraception programs must be included in any
such relief program. Curiously, neither author engages
with deontological or virtue-based rationales for aid,
which emphasise the charitable act as a duty
independent of consequentialist considerations.
The difference between the two positions lies of
course in the time frame and the preferred balance
between the strategies of short-term alleviation versus
long-term prevention. As it turns out, Singer's view
usually carries the day with many relief programs,
except that family planning is seldom included as an
integral part [12,13]. That omission again underscores
the short term perspective taken by such programs.
Yet the conflict between the two strategies points to
an ethical dilemma. One wonders just how severe the
suffering and misery must be before we ought to
ignore potential long-term complications, or how
disastrous the long-term consequences of the relief
action must be to justify the withholding of aid.
In the case of disaster relief we see no room for
justifiable compromise; its concerns lie by definition in
the short term, amounting to moral blinkers. The
challenge of finding appropriate compromises
becomes much more pressing where it regards
programs for development aid which pursue explicit
aims that extend into the medium and long term
future. We would expect such programs to be guided
primarily by considerations of long term benefits
which would logically include sustainability if the time
horizon is not specified. Thus, as long as the goals of
a development program are not delimited in time, that
development is automatically governed by the
constraints of sustainability. Conversely, a program or
initiative that promotes evidently unsustainable end
states should come with clear temporal demarcations
and disclaimers abrogating any responsibility for
consequences that might ensue beyond those dates.
We base those expectations on the ideals of
beneficence and veracity that inform the professional
codes of conduct of development workers and
academics. In this study we examined to what extent
major development programs live up to those
Among the many programs at the national and
international levels that all share the label of
sustainable development, international development
aid tends to benefit from a supranational perspective
and a grounding in scientific analyses of needs and
potentials. Rather than attempting to gauge the
successes of individual programs we chose to examine
the cumulative and synergistic outcomes occurring in
their most deserving recipients, the world's poorest
developing countries. We selected our sample
countries on the basis of their rankings on the Human
Development Index  and the Human Security Index
. Countries that scored low on both indices not only
receive rather a lot of development aid, in many cases
they represent situations that render development
fundamentally imperative on humanitarian grounds.
Development in this case is hardly a whimsical option
but the only defensible course of action. Yet, unlike
disaster relief, these programs explicitly pursue long-
term goals. The question is: what shape do their
strategies take, stopgap or long term?
In order to maximise the chances of those
development efforts to achieve their objectives we
excluded from our sample of poorest countries any
that showed a failed states index (FSI) greater than
100, which includes the top thirteen . Failing
states are unlikely to provide the minimum
requirements of infrastructure and political stability for
successful development. In other words, they need
more than the average kind of development aid,
ranging from peace keeping to broad social reform,
often supported by armed intervention. Because of
recent destabilising developments, Mali was omitted
from the sample in the revised version of this paper.
A program for sustainable development based on a
genuine long term perspective would seek either to
ensure the sustainable flourishing of the economy and of
human well-being, or to pave the way for a smooth
transition towards more sustainable structures and
practices. The extent to which a country operates
sustainably can be estimated by comparing its citizens'
average ecological footprint (reflecting its demand of
resources and its ecological impact) with the amount of
biocapacity available for each citizen (reflecting its
resources and ecosystem services, also referred to as
natural capital) [15-17]. Based on a previous report 
we use the country's sustainability quotient or SQ—the
ratio of per capita ecological footprint over its available
per capita biocapacity. An SQ of less than 1 indicates
sustainability while greater than one indicates ecological
overshoot . The data are summarised in Table 1.
To assess the development of the sample countries
for its sustainability we identified a major
development aid program for each country, verified
that it explicitly named sustainable development
among its aims, and examined its major strategies for
their effects on the country's biocapacity factors
(bioproductive area and bioproductivity) and on its
ecological footprint drivers (population growth,
consumption of goods and services per person,
footprint intensity; , p. 41). The sum of those
effects would cause its SQ to either rise or fall. The
trend by which the SQ changes over time indicates
how sustainable the development of a country or
region is, and whether the risk of ecological overshoot
is increasing or decreasing. Where possible we
selected grant programs over loan programs as the
former contribute to Third World debt which itself
contributes significantly to unsustainable practices
(such as the replacement of food crops with
exportable cash crops). The findings are summarised
in Table 2.
Table 1. Eleven of the world's poorest countries are compared to the European Union and the world
average in their extent of sustainability. Example: Each citizen of Eritrea uses the equivalent of 0.9 global
hectares to sustain their livelihood; the country of Eritrea has 1.6 global hectares of bioproductive land to
offer to each citizen; this results in an SQ of 0.563, meaning that Eritreans live within the carrying capacity
of their land. Sources: [19,20].
Country Ecol FP
(gha per person)
(gha per person)
SQ HDI ranking
Max = 187
Max = 232
Burkina Faso 1.3 1.3 1.0 181 210
Burundi 0.9 0.5 1.8 185 225
Eritrea 0.9 1.6 0.563 177 218
Ethiopia 1.1 0.7 1.571 174 221
Guinea-Bissau 1.0 3.2 0.31 176 208
Liberia 1.3 2.5 0.52 182 229
Mozambique 0.8 1.9 0.421 184 198
Niger 2.3 2.1 1.10 186 222
Rwanda 1.0 0.6 1.67 166 220
Sierra Leone 1.1 1.2 0.92 180 224
Togo 1.0 0.6 1.67 162 219
European Union (27) 2.7–8.3
Eur. Av. 4.8
Eur. Av. 2.2
Eur. Av. 2.2
World 2.7 1.8 1.5 1–187 1–232
4. Finding: 'Sustainable Development' Is Often
Tab le 1 lists the state of sustainability in eleven of the
world's poorest countries, compared to the EU and
the world average. The distribution of SQ values
shows six countries operating sustainably—i.e.
drawing only on the interest from their natural capital.
The other six have exceeded their sustainable limit
and are drawing on both principal and interest. Yet
only four of those SQ values match the world average,
and none of them comes close to the kind of
overshoot exemplified by the European average of 2.2
(2003) or the US value of 2.1 (2007) .
The data confirm our earlier findings on South-East
Asian countries , as well as global surveys ,
namely that poor countries tend to have the
advantage of greater sustainability except in cases of
excessive population size. In those cases ecological
overshoot occurs in spite of small per capita footprints
because the biocapacity resources are shared among
too large a population, resulting in rampant poverty,
often aggravated by post-colonial legacies of
inequitable power structures and mismanagement.
Those examples (in our sample, Burundi, Rwanda and
Togo, and to a lesser extent Ethiopia) show that the
SQ says nothing about a country's level of
development; it only indicates how sustainably it
In contrast to those high SQ countries, many
developing countries with smaller populations show
considerable potential to achieve the transition to a
sustainable economy, aided by the fact that their
natural capital has not yet been greatly reduced .
In our sample, those would be Niger and Burkina
Faso. Suitable development aid could provide crucial
support at the right time to make that transition
possible before further population growth removes it
beyond the horizon.
The remaining countries in our sample (Eritrea,
Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mozambique, and Sierra
Leone) show SQ values below 1.0, indicating that they
are conducting their affairs sustainably for the time
being. This encouraging finding needs to be evaluated
in the light of the abject poverty that abounds in all of
them. This means that the state of sustainability
represents only one of several necessary conditions
for human security and well-being. Moreover, their low
SQ does not necessarily indicate that these countries
have more resources to offer those poor multitudes;
more likely their excess productivity is exported
abroad to support other countries' overshoot. Yet, low
SQ also indicates a significant opportunity for
development aid—the chance that with the right kind
of support those countries could remain sustainable
while still relieving their poverty. The question is: are
they likely to receive such support?
This leads to the problem posed by the dynamics of
the situation. The SQ values in Tab le 1 only provide
snapshots in time; they say nothing about the
directions in which those countries are developing. An
indication about probable changes for each country is
given by its major source of development aid. Ta ble 2
lists one major donor program for each country in the
sample, along with its stated goals and the resulting
ramifications on footprints and biocapacities. The data
suggest a slim chance for an affirmative answer to the
question raised in the preceding paragraph.
Table 2: For each of the eleven countries listed in Ta ble 1, a major source of development aid is examined for its goals and its objectives regarding footprint
and biocapacity. In cases where no explicit objectives were given, probable consequences are stated. Sources are: a) Burkina Development Partnership.
http://www.burkinadevelopmentpartnership.org/index.php?id=4 (accessed on 2 March 2013); b) Burundi: Development & Cooperation – Europeaid.
http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/where/acp/country-cooperation/burundi/burundi_en.htm (accessed on 2 March 2013); c) Eritrea – UN Development Assistance
Framework. http://www.er.undp.org/un_eritrea/docs/undaf_pub_eritrea.pdf (accessed on 2 March 2013); d) Development Without Freedom. http://www.
hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/ethiopia1010webwcover.pdf (accessed on 2 March 2013); e) Ethiopia: Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction
Program (SDPRP). http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPRS1/Resources/Ethiopia_APR2-PRSP(March2005).pdf (accessed on 2 March 2013); f) Guinea-
Bissau: Development & Cooperation – Euopeaid. http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/where/acp/country-cooperation/guinea-bissau/guinea-bissau_en.htm
(accessed on 2 March 2013); g) Document de stratégie pays et programme indicatif national pour la période 2008-2013. http://ec.europa.eu/
development/icenter/repository/scanned_gw_csp10_fr.pdf (accessed on 2 March 2013); h) History of USAID in Liberia. http://liberia.usaid.gov/node/82
(accessed on 2 March 2013); i Projects of Germany. http://220.127.116.11/reports/donors/12 (accessed on 2 March 2013); j)Commission proposes to gradually
resume development aid to the Republic of Niger. http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/10/1004&format=HTML&aged=0&language=
EN&guiLanguage=en (accessed on 2 March 2013); k) Country Context. http://web.undp.org/evaluation/documents/ADR/ADR_Reports/Rwanda/ch2-
ADR_Rwanda.pdf (accessed on 2 March 2013); l) DFID Sierra Leone – Operational Plan 2011-2015. http://www.dfid.gov.uk/Documents/publications1/
op/sierra-leone-2011.pdf (accessed on 2 March 2013); m) Togo Country Strategy Paper 2011-2015. http://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/
Project-and-Operations/Togo-CSP%202011-2015%20(3)%20Full%20Final.pdf (accessed on 2 March 2013).
Major Source of
Goals of Development Program Stated objectives regarding
Stated objectives regarding
Burkina Faso BF Development
Small business development
'Get out of poverty' None
Burundi European Development
'Rural rehabilitation, health and general
budget support'; agricultural
'Reduce poverty and return to
Biodiversity and environmental quality
are included among aims
Eritrea UN Development
Basic social services; MDGs; food
security; 'emergency & recovery';
'Enhance productivity, export
expansion, and trade and
investment in high potential growth
MDG 7: environmental sustainability is
mentioned but not explained
Ethiopia World Bank SDPRP;
Ethiopia is a major
recipient of aid; also a
Agricultural growth and food security;
accelerating private sector growth;
strengthening of public institutions
Economic growth is emphasized Agricultural productivity to increase; but
food aid hinders.
Guinea-Bissau European Development
Infrastructure development, conflict
prevention, water safety, energy
sources, economic growth
Most objectives contribute to an
increase of the footprint
Strengthening biodiversity in the coastal
region is among the projects
Major Source of
Goals of Development Program Stated objectives regarding
Stated objectives regarding
Liberia USAID Sustainable development in political
structure and education, agriculture,
infrastructure & energy
Most objectives appear neutral
toward the footprint
Renewable energy sources are to be
Ministry for Economic
43 projects on education,
administration, HIV/AIDS control,
transport & infrastructure, 'sustainable
Increase of emissions is likely Improved education likely to decrease
Health care, transport, social protection
& development (small business)
Improved roads are likely to result
in increased emissions
Reproductive health and rights are likely
to decrease population growth
Rwanda World Bank MDGs, national reconciliation, economic
growth, poverty reduction, increased
Most objectives contribute to an
increase of the footprint through
High population density and
environmental deterioration are not
Sierra Leone UK—Department for
'Macroeconomic stability', increased
revenue base, increased foreign
investment, economic growth
Footprint is likely to increase
Togo African Development
Bank & African
Good governance; infrastructure;
regional trade; agricultural sector
Road building is likely to increase
emissions; 'economic growth' to
Agricultural productivity to increase
Even considering that each country receives aid from
multiple other donors, the data indicate that these
particular donors have not fully understood the
challenge. Of even greater concern is the fact that if
development aid tends to fail in the cases of those
sustainable countries by not preventing them from
slipping into overshoot, it is even less likely to succeed
in the cases of unsustainable countries in helping them
reduce it. This reinforces critiques that point to
widespread failures of development aid in other areas
besides sustainability .
The findings also raise the question about the
possible impact that this development aid could have
on the sample countries, in relation to their own
domestic investments. For the countries with SQ values
greater than 1.0, the total development aid received in
2011 ranges from 3.5% of GDP (Ethiopia) to 10.8% of
GDP (Burundi) [22,23]. For the countries in the
sustainable group those percentages range from 3.8
(Eritrea) to 8.1 (Sierra Leone), except for Liberia which
received aid amounting to 35.9% of GDP. In the latter
case certainly the specific development projects
sponsored by the aid can be expected to exert a
significant effect on the future state of sustainability
status of the entire country. But even for the other
countries in the sample the lower impact of aid does
not mean that its effects will be negligible.
The main issue addressed by this paper, however, is
not the projected impact of aid but to what extent aid
projects labeled as sustainable development deserve
that label. Having established that sustainability is
hardly prevalent among the probable outcomes of the
development programs in our sample, the question
arises to what extent unsustainable development can
or should qualify as development at all. Given our
definition in the introductory paragraph, development that
is not sustainable would reduce the ability of future
generations to develop further in the same areas as are
currently envisioned. A historical example for this situation
is the early history of Cyprus where the resident
population developed the island's abundant copper
deposits by fuelling their smelters with the island's pine
forests. Today Cyprus shows neither a viable copper
industry nor any substantial pine forests .
Contemporary examples of unsustainable
'development' include the numerous incidences of
regional ecological overshoot where populations
demand more resources and services than their region
can sustainably deliver. The inevitable consequence is
that future generations will find their options reduced
in terms of some or most of the ten areas of
development we referred to earlier: financial income,
employment opportunities, distribution of wealth,
education, political autonomy, basic needs for survival,
health of populations and ecosystems, equality, self-
esteem and dignity, and freedom . Fully half of
our sample countries fall into that category. A well
known global example is the explosive expansion of
petroleum-based industries over the past century,
bound to run its course within the next few decades
and to be entered in history as the peak oil
phenomenon [26-28]. While it lasted it brought
unprecedented affluence and comfort to much of
humanity; however, its negative long term
consequences are likely to complicate the lives of
many future generations. Whether peak oil should be
regarded as development in the sense of our
definition depends entirely on the observer's time
frame. We must conclude that over the long term no
development in the true sense will happen in those
examples. Only over short terms can unsustainable
practices qualify as development, if at all.
Ignoring the risk of tautology, authorities have
invoked 'sustainable development' as a guiding
concept at least since the Brundtland report ;
certainly no administration would admit to its
development policies as being unsustainable. But in
order to avoid the tautology, development needs to be
understood as any measure that furthers the
transition to sustainability, to a more inclusive respect
for grantable human rights (that includes future
generations) , and a general commitment to the
non-violent resolution of conflicts.
The stated goals of the programs listed in Table 2
generally emphasise poverty reduction through
economic growth. Poverty provides the motive while
economic growth is their remedy of choice. Thus
these programs represent chimaeras of disaster relief
and development aid, set on alleviating an
objectionable situation without too much concern
about the long term implications of continuing growth,
or about any limiting variables that may create
additional problems over the long term. This raises
the question how so many well-paid, highly educated
experts can persist in recommending such erroneous
courses of action while any substantial progress
towards sustainability continues to elude us.
5. Why Is Sustainable Development So Rare?
The finding that very few countries in our sample are
moving towards sustainability according to this
analysis (Burundi, Liberia, and possibly Mozambique
appear to qualify) seems tragic though not entirely
unexpected. Too many development program
documents seem to promise everything to everybody,
resembling election propaganda more than genuine
plans towards the enduring welfare of humanity. The
language of the UN document on indicators of
sustainable development is devoid of any reference to
limits . Another example are the UN's Millennium
Development Goals , listed in Ta ble 3. Likewise,
the Rio+20 United Nations Conference for Sustainable
Development revealed a curious combination of
multidisciplinary analysis and inattention to limits .
This widespread bias toward wishful thinking has
ideological origins, which we will examine presently.
Table 3. The Millennium Development Goals and Current Accomplishments ([32,35], adapted from ).
Goals Current accomplishments
Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger On track to reach below the target of
23% poverty rate
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education Some countries on track, others
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women Some progress in education, little in
employment and political
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality Some regions on track, most
developing countries behind
Goal 5: Improve maternal health Largely behind
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases Largely behind on HIV and malaria, on
track for TB
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability Far behind, despite vague definitions
Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development Mostly on track but definitions are
confusing and contradictory
Following Singer's view , the MDGs emphasise
the eradication of poverty and disease as implicit
moral duties. However, explicitly those goals are
framed as fulfilling an entitlement, the right to enjoy
'freedom from want' . As we elaborated elsewhere
, the problem with such a right, while everyone is
of course free to claim it, is that no authority could
grant it to the more than seven billion people
inhabiting this planet at this time. The fact that the
MDGs make no mention of limits to growth implies a
worldview that considers business as usual not as
problematic but as extendable into the indefinite
future. Only someone who believes that the Earth's
resources are unlimited can regard their allocation as
a universal right for an indefinitely large population;
and only someone who believes that the world's
population and its impact have not even come close
to the Earth's carrying capacity will consider the goal
of eradicating epidemics to be realistic. In addition to
this fundamental flaw, the MDGs have been hampered
by a lack of political commitment and consensus, and
by the worldwide economic slowdown . As Table 3
indicates, most of the MDGs are not being achieved
by their target date of 2015. Instead they are to be
replaced by a new set of goals, called Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs), to be formulated by
September 2013 .
An explanation for this discrepancy between wishful
thinking and practical failure must take into account
the diversity of beliefs, values, and ideals—often
summarised as ideologies—that inform people's
notions of what constitutes progress . Sometimes
those notions create what Ronald Wright (, p. 8)
referred to as 'progress traps'. Of particular
importance are those beliefs that delimit the realm of
the possible. An obvious example is cornucopianism,
the belief that the growth of populations and
economies is not subject to physical limits . Under
the cornucopian delusion, progress takes a very
distinct shape of unending growth in human numbers,
their consumption, and the quality of their lives. The
absence of any scientific justification for this belief has
relegated it to the realm of implicit yet powerful
assumptions that still inform certain schools of
academic thought such as neoclassical economics
Some of the listed programs for sustainable
development seem indicative of cornucopianism. At
least they do not explicitly acknowledge limits to
growth or local overshoot, nor do they tend to take
into account global environmental change resulting
from the present situation of global overshoot. Many
rely on economic growth (usually measured as GDP
increase) as a means to raise income levels and
provide trickle-down benefits from investment, the
large-scale extraction of non-renewable resources to
boost employment and trade balance, and converting
from subsistence agriculture to staple industries for
export. Those policies are supported by a trust in
global trade relationships and an optimistic outlook on
the potential of market forces, complemented by
some regulation, to rectify global inequities and to
eliminate poverty worldwide. The future is envisioned
as a repetition of the past, only more of it. Raskin et
al.  referred to this ideology as the Conventional
Development Paradigm (CDP).
The well-publicised manifestations of the global
environmental crisis (under the broad phenomena of
climate change, pollution, resource scarcity, and the
loss of biodiversity), as well as the abundant evidence
for its anthropogenic causation, render the CDP a
rather unrealistic kind of long term thinking. This is
the kind of perspective that still moves people to
welcome the discovery of new oil deposits as good
news; without the denial of anthropogenic climate
change such news would be received with
ambivalence at best. It is also unrealistic because it
assumes that the same institutions, regimes, and
ways of thinking that undoubtedly contributed to the
global environmental crisis are able to help us
transcend it. This assumption can only be upheld if
one denies or disregards the true extent of the crisis.
It makes for an overly simplistic, laissez-faire type
interpretation of sustainability that contradicts the
bulk of the evidence reported by environmental
While those ideological deficiencies provide a
plausible explanation for the failures of the MDGs and
related development efforts, they do not explain their
sporadic successes, and they offer little help towards
finding ways out of the conundrum. Most of the
development programs listed here derive their support
partly from sources that are not as readily quantified
as is bioproductivity—human ingenuity and spirit,
social capital, and potential for learning. Also,
ecological overshoot can proceed for quite some time
without the loss of natural capital necessarily causing
any immediate calamities . Thus, development
that is unsustainable can continue sometimes for
generations before collapse becomes imminent. This
undoubtedly contributes to the slowness of the
collective learning process, as do a diverse assortment
of counterproductive myths, cognitive biases, moral
ineptitudes, and mental habits, all well characterised
in the literature on what might be summarised as
'human nature' [38,45-48].
6. A Utilitarian Theory of Development that
Humanity Can Live With
The contingencies of overshoot render it unlikely that
the problems associated with underdevelopment can
be effectively remedied by efforts that only focus on
'eliminating poverty' as the humanitarian ideal
demands—regardless of how one defines poverty
[49,50]. Two reasons conspire towards this obstacle:
The first arises from the counterproductive effects of
further global economic growth under overshoot; they
necessitate that any growth in a poor country be
accompanied by restraint in a rich country—a
politically unlikely proposition.
The second reason lies in the futility of
redistribution efforts; at this point in time, if a global
dictatorship allocated exactly equal amounts of
resources to every human being, we would still all
starve, albeit rather slowly . The fact that our
current demand can only be sustainably met by about
1.5 planets means that even assuming perfect equity,
at the current consumption level one third of
humanity would be consuming part of the food
producing 'machinery' itself . People living in more
extreme biogeographical regions and latitudes would
be hardest pressed. Moreover, population growth
would still proceed while food prices rise and fresh
water and soils grow scarcer . This means that
the redistribution of resources cannot be the sole
prescription for food security, even though it would
certainly help alleviate some of the worst shortages.
In order to ensure lasting environmental security
and acceptable survival  for all, humanity must
reduce its total environmental impact before nature
does this for us in very painful ways and before many
more species are lost. This imposes a tragic inversion
on the traditional humanitarian agenda of
development. What is inverted here is nothing less
than the holy grail of utilitarianism, often phrased as
'the greatest good for the greatest number'. Our
collective environmental impact, described by the I =
PAT relationship , clearly indicates a range of
solution states encompassing numerous combinations
of global population sizes and per capita affluence and
technology use; all those solution states are
sustainable and include population sizes below the
current level (how far below depends partly on how
long it will take us to get there). Furthermore, Potter's
 hierarchy of survival modes suggests that some
of those solutions are morally preferable to others
(e.g. miserable survival for all at 5 billion vs.
acceptable survival for all at 3 billion). Others (e.g.
[54,55,12]) have come to similar conclusions. The
holy grail of utilitarians now amounts to the minimum
acceptable amount of good for the greatest
sustainable number. This number is probably no more
than about four billion people, and perhaps less than
one billion [55-57].
What does this new inverted dictum mean for
development aid? The need to reduce our numbers
does not only arise from our excessive impact. The
growing scarcity of key resources, particularly food
and potable water, causes suffering that would be
avoidable with a smaller population. Cohen [54,55]
framed the challenge of global food security in the
analogy of a communal dinner table where some
guests go hungry; in his words, the problem can be
solved in three ways: (i) prepare a bigger dinner, (ii)
put fewer forks on the table, (iii) teach better
manners. Ehrlich and coworkers  reduced the
challenge to a 'race between the stork and the
plough'. Others (e.g. [59,60]) indicated that little, if
any, room remains to increase food supply (i.e., speed
up the plough, or make a bigger dinner), although
adherents to the CDP (e.g. in ) would disagree. In
effect, reducing the global population and changing
our 'manners' are probably our only remaining
The link between the emancipation and education
of women and decreases in reproductive rates seems
well established cross-culturally. Several aid programs
in our sample include educational components, and
even in the MDGs this opportunity has been
recognised under goal 3 (Table 3). Yet, as we pointed
out earlier, the need for population reduction is rarely
acknowledged explicitly. Family planning programs still
face the opposition of powerful religious and cultural
prejudices, spearheaded by collusive governments
. It is also clear that many manifestations of
anthropogenic global environmental change proceed
much too quickly at this stage for the documented
reductions in fertility (or the much invoked
demographic transitions to result from them) to effect
any significant mitigation. This means that both
environmental deterioration and population growth
will proceed, albeit perhaps at reduced speeds,
towards the inevitable collision point at which time
much of international aid will need to take the form of
As for our 'manners', one aspect of development
aid that could certainly benefit from revision is the
lack of honesty associated with using the label of
sustainable development. As we established earlier,
development that is truly sustainable must fulfil the
requirement of addressing the challenges of
population, distributional inequities, and overshoot. In
that sense, 'manners' include ethical standards and
dominant belief systems that bar the way towards
gains in efficiency, restraint in consumption,
adaptation to inevitable changes, and conducive
structural reforms. In all those directions, too,
reformed education can make substantial
contributions  and pave the way for a proliferation
in 'positive deviance' in Parkin's  sense. While she
applied her norms of 'sustainability-literate leadership'
mainly to individuals and sociocultural communities,
our conclusions suggest that they would be equally
beneficial among the international community.
Such deviance is necessary because it seems clear
that development initiatives that are primarily
informed by the CDP can only help in the short term
(as evident in GDP increases). In the longer term they
will do more harm than good by reducing natural
capital as evident in decreases of other statistics (e.g.
the Inclusive Wealth Indicator, IWI) and increasing
humanity's collective impact . Rising GDP and
shrinking IWI have been observed with some
'emerging economies' such as Brazil and India.
Another case in point is the much acclaimed 'green
revolution' that vastly boosted food production during
the 1970s. In the short term it relieved shortages and
prevented impending famines; in the long term,
however, it will be regarded a disaster, as Hardin 
predicted. The couple of decades of time that it
bought us were not used wisely; instead, they were
squandered on further growth under the belief that
this revolution would never end. Now we are again
facing famines—except that our numbers have
doubled, our ecosystems are weaker, tens of
thousands of species have disappeared, natural
resources are further depleted, and global pollution
has become worse. No other misadventure of
conventional development policy illustrates the failings
of the CDP better than this missed opportunity. Its
humanitarian goals are rendered unattainable by its
obsession with 'economic growth' as a human 'need'.
In the light of our earlier conclusions such policies
should not qualify as development proper. Not even
Sen's  more flexible principle of 'development as
freedom' is able to accommodate ecological
constraints or bring humanity closer to the new
utilitarian ideal of minimum acceptable amount of
good for the greatest sustainable number.
Utilitarian reinterpretations of development
sometimes meet with objections based on human
rights . Rights become limited by a partial
contradiction in the sense that insisting on some
rights (i.e., rights that are not grantable) will create
insecurity. In her critique of human rights theory
Thomas  referred primarily to the enshrining of
property rights under human rights law, which can,
under conditions of limited resources, work at the
expense of disenfranchised minorities. In the light of
overshoot certain other human rights seem similarly
counterproductive, such as the right to a 'clean
environment', 'safe drinking water', or 'adequate
nutrition'. Given a large enough global population
(today's seven billion plus would qualify) and a single
planet at our disposal, no world government could
grant such privileges to all. One additional 'right' that
has arguably proven not only ungrantable but outright
harmful is the right to procreate at will .
This need for changing our notions about rights
points to those challenges that are situated inside the
human psyche. By labeling nature as the non-human
'other', an inanimate heap of 'resources' for the
taking, consisting of marvellously useful little
automatons just waiting to prove their utility to
human endeavours, we ultimately set ourselves up for
moral bankruptcy and ecological suicide. What
emerges are not just the deeply problematic
ramifications of the dominant anthropocentric
environmental ethic behind such development
schemes as the UN's Millennium Goals, but a thorough
revision of what it means to be 'modern' and what
Besides the obvious need to change our notions
about human security, about nature, and about
modernity, another internal challenge that is evident
from the foregoing is the need to change our value
priorities with respect to each other. As ecologies
simplify and economies falter, centralised governance
and the rule of law will become more tenuous. Thus,
global development in the true sense means not only
that most of us need to re-learn how to run self-
sufficient, resilient local communities. It also means
that we exercise compassion for those whom the
crisis will have displaced from their homes. On 10
January 2012 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist once
more reset its Doomsday Clock closer to midnight,
citing dangers of nuclear proliferation, climate change,
and the failure of political leaders to change 'business
as usual' and to “set the stage for global reductions”
([65, p. 3). The ranks of displaced multitudes are
certain to swell once rising sea levels have inundated
some of the world's heavily populated coastal lands
. In the absence of decisive initiative by the
UNHCR that would impart on environmental refugees
the status of 'world citizens' (or at the very least
accord them full official refugee status) , their fate
depends on the charity of other countries and on
charitable NGOs—which, in the midst of shortages
and economic downturns, cannot be taken for
granted. Clearly the human conscience represents as
important a 'tipping point' as do geophysiological
variables. Many of these challenges have been
reiterated at the Planet Under Pressure Conference
(March 2012) leading up to Rio+20 .
Since sustainable development in the true sense
must incorporate all of those changes it comes as no
surprise that so little of it is in evidence. If the
developed world's idealistic efforts at development aid
were really motivated by the urge to increase justice,
human security, and well-being globally while
achieving the global transition to a sustainable world,
they would not hesitate to start at the top end and
reduce the obscene levels of consumption evident
there. In many respects that would be an easier
undertaking than encouraging development at the
lower end without also promoting net growth. Yet,
even if we end up not making use of any of those
opportunities we can be assured that sustainability
will come our way eventually at the hands of mother
This article is based in part on a paper presented at
the 2nd World Sustainability Forum (2012) and a
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