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The Unsustainability of Development

IJED, Vol. 3 No. 1, (2001)

For more than a decade now, the issue of sustainable development has been, in rhetoric at least, the load-star of scholars, organisations and governments alike. As a political buzz-word, the concept has attracted legions of supporters who rather unquestioningly aim to realise ‘sustainable development’. It has been taken more or less for granted that sustainable development is achievable in the north as well as in the south. There is, however, little consensus about the meaning of the concept, or even of ‘sustainability’, just as there is widespread disagreement about the meaning of ‘development’. Moreover, if, as is sometimes argued, development must be at the same time both ecologically, economically and socially sustainable, the concept becomes really problematic. It is, for example, often claimed that economic development takes place at the expense of social and/or ecological sustainability, or vice versa.
In spite of the enormous attraction of ‘sustainable development’, this paper argues that sustainable development is a misnomer and that sustainable development is not achievable. The two concepts ‘sustainability’ and ‘development’ are, in my view, not compatible (depending, of course, on how they are defined). Hence, it is futile to aim for sustainable development. There is no doubt that in parts of the world development is necessary. However, in other parts of the world it would be more realistic to strive for a sustainable level of development, rather than for a sustained process of change. In the article, the sustainability complex is analysed in terms of growth vs. development and development vs. sustainability. This discussion is illuminated by empirical examples from ‘developed’ as well as ‘underdeveloped’ societies.

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