Citation: This article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Adapting the Economic System to Fit the Environment', Engineers Australia, September 2000, p. 50.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Sustainable development represents an evolution of the term sustainability which once represented the notion of living in harmony and equilibrium with nature. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the term was used in the context of the limits to growth debate as part of the argument against economic and population growth. For example the editors of the magazine The Ecologist argued in 1972 that economic growth could not continue on into the future without disaster:

"The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable... By now it should be clear that the main problems of the environment do not arise from temporary and accidental malfunctions of existing economic and social systems. On the contrary, they are the warning signs of a profound incompatibility between deeply rooted beliefs in continuous growth and the dawning recognition of the earth as a space ship, limited in its resources and vulnerable to thoughtless mishandling."

However in the greed-oriented1980s the idea of sustainability was hijacked by economists and politicians and turned on its head. Whereas sustainability had implied that economic growth was not sustainable, the new conception of sustainable development insinuated that economic growth was necessary to protect the environment. The limits-to-growth model was replaced with a sustainable development model which supported ever increasing production and consumption and offered no threat to the existing arrangement of business as usual.

Advocates of sustainable development in the 1980s sought to find ways of making economic growth sustainable, mainly through technological change. In 1982 the Thatcher government began using the term sustainability to refer to sustainable economic expansion rather than the sustainable use of resources. The most common definition of sustainable development used today was put forward by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 - "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

With this change in conception of sustainability has come a more pervasive use of economic language in environmental discussions. Much of the discussion of sustainable development describes nature and the environment in economic terms, as natural resources or natural capital, and the community's stock of assets. Australian environmental groups tried to keep the focus on the environment by insisting on the term ‘ecologically sustainable development’ but happily adopted the economic terminology.

Sustainable development today means incorporating the environment into the economic system rather than adapting the economic system to fit with the natural environment. Considered as a component of the economic system, the environment is seen to provide raw materials for production and to be a receptacle for wastes from production.

When viewed in this way, as a source of inputs and a sink for outputs of the economic system, the protection of the environment moves to a secondary and indeed supplementary position with respect to economic goals. Sustainability becomes a problem of how to sustain the economic functions of the environment rather than how to sustain the environment. Sustainable development does not recognise the argument that economic growth and environmental protection are incompatible. It asserts that we can have both.

In theory economic growth could perhaps be achieved without cumulative impacts on the environment, however, there will always be situations in which the goals of economic growth and environmental protection are irreconcilable and choices have to be made. For economic growth to continue without harming the environment such choices would have to be made in favour of the environment. Some activities that might otherwise provide economic growth would have to be foregone and this will not happen whilst priority is given to achieving economic growth.

It is now more than a decade since most of the nations of the world endorsed the concept of sustainable development and there is no evidence that the hard choices are being made. Sustainable development measures have involved only small low-cost adjustments to the way we do things. Economic growth is still taking priority at the expense of the environment and the environment is still being degraded.