Citation: Sharon Beder, The Hidden Messages Within Sustainable Development, Social Alternatives, vol.13, no. 2, July 1994, pp. 8-12.

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

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

    1. Cooption of Language
    2. Shift of Priorities 1 - Environment as Part of Economic System
    3. Shift in Priorities II - Primacy of the Market
    4. Shift in Priorities III - Economic Growth Before Environment
    5. Hidden Assumptions - Substitutability of Capital For Nature
    6. Hidden Agendas - Consensus Vs Change
    7. Future Visions

Many of the key voices in the drive for sustainable development have an agenda that most environmentalists would not accept were it made explicit. For this reason environmentalists should be wary of grasping onto what seems to be common ground in the fight to protect the planet without first examining the implications of such liaisons.

Sustainable development is not about giving priority to environmental concerns, it is about incorporating environmental assets into the economic system to ensure the sustainability of the economic system. Sustainable development encompasses the idea that the loss of environmental amenity can be substituted for by wealth creation; that putting a price on the environment will help us protect it unless degrading it is more profitable; that the `free' market is the best way of allocating environmental resources; that businesses should base their decisions about polluting behaviour on economic considerations and the quest for profit; that economic growth is necessary for environmental protection and therefore should take priority over it.[1]

1. Cooption of Language

Sustainable development represents a cooption of the term sustainability which once represented ideas of stability and equilibrium and harmony 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 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.[2]

In contrast, advocates of sustainable development in the 1980s sought to find ways of making economic growth sustainable, mainly through technological change.[3] In 1982 the British government began using the term sustainability to refer to sustainable economic expansion rather than the sustainable use of resources. Third World environmental activist Mohamed Idris argues,

The term `sustainable' from the ecological point of view means the maintenance of the integrity of the ecology. It means a harmonious relation between humanity and nature, that is, harmony in the interaction between individual human beings and in their interaction with natural resources. The term `sustainable' from the point of view of non-ecological elites means `how to continue to sustain the supply of raw materials when the existing sources of raw materials run out.'[4]

The term development is also ambiguous and in the context of sustainable development, development is a synonym for economic development, and therefore economic growth. The editor of the environmental science journal, Ambio, Arno Rosemarin, wrote in April 1990:

The two words sustainable and development are in a strict sense contradictory. Sustainable implies the elements of long-term renewal, maintenance, recycling, minimal raw material exploitation and management of people's needs on a collective basis. Development can be interpreted in many different ways but according to our present industrial-based culture it implies short-term planning, minimal maintenance, waste, maximal exploitation of raw materials and emphasis on the individual.[5]

With this change in conception of sustainability and the focus on economic development 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. Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Britain, has described environmental protection in these terms: "no generation has a freehold on the earth. All that we have is a life tenancy - with full repairing lease".[6]

The extent of the takeover of the environmental agenda by economists was indicated by a speaker at an OECD workshop in 1990 who observed: `one can track the evolution of environmental concern over twenty years by watching it move from the back page of major newspapers to the front page, and now to the financial page'.[7]

2. Shift of Priorities 1 - Environment as Part of Economic System

Sustainable development means incorporating the environment into the economic system. David Pearce and his colleagues, in their report on sustainable development to Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister at the time, said that the principles of sustainable development meant recognising that `resources and environments serve economic functions and have positive economic value.'[8] 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.

D.J.Thampapillai, a lecturer in Economics at Macquarie University says in his text on Environmental Economics;

Clearly, the natural environment is an important component of the economic system, and without the natural environment the economic system would not be able to function. Hence, we need to treat the natural environment in the same way as we treat labour and capital; that is, as an asset and a resource.[9]

David James, as Commissioner of the Commonwealth Government Resource Assessment Commission has said:

With better management of natural resources we could obtain a larger supply and wider range of goods and services. This is the central notion of sustainable development. It involves making decisions about the optimal composition of the economy's capital stock, including human capital, man-made capital and natural resource stocks. We should be attempting to manipulate the total capital stock in such a way that the welfare of society is maximised.[10]

Whilst James, as an economist, puts forward an obviously economic definition of sustainable development, the usual definition by the Brundtland Commission - "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"[11] - is not so different. James points out that economists are interested in the environment to the extent it can ensure a continuous supply of goods and services to meet human wants and this seems to be the intent of the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development which makes no specific mention of the environment.

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. And this means that sustainable development may curb the worst instances of environmental degradation when they are foreseen but in the event of a clash between economic and environmental goals, economic goals will take precedence.

3. Shift in Priorities II - Primacy of the Market

If the environment is a set of resources for the economic system then, economists argue, the market is the most efficient way of allocating those resources:

Any economist will tell you that the environment really ought to be classified as a resource; hence it should fall fairly and squarely into the policy arena concerning the allocation of resources. Management of the environment is essentially an economic problem.[12]

Economists argue that environmental degradation has resulted from the failure of the market system to put any value on the environment, even though the environment does serve economic functions and provides economic and other benefits. It is argued that because environmental `assets' are free or underpriced they tend to be overused or abused, resulting in environmental damage. Because they are not owned and do not have price tags then there is no incentive to protect them. This is a view shared by business people. The Business Council of Australia argues that it is not economic growth that is the real problem;

Rather, it is that important environmental assets tend not to be priced in a market like other assets. These assets are common property - they belong to everybody, and to nobody. Without ownership rights there is not the incentive for any person or group to look after them properly... if the environment has a zero price to users it will eventually be used up.[13]

In order to fix this perceived problem, sustainable development involves putting a price on the environment and charging people to use it, privatising the commons, and creating artificial markets and price mechanisms through economic instruments and tradeable rights to pollute. The idea is that "the power of the market can be harnessed" to environmental goals.[14]

However, the real problem is not that the environment is not privately owned or valued on the market but rather that economic considerations take priority in most countries around the world. The tragedy of the commons is not that there are commons but rather the freedom of the commons. The lack of legal sanctions combined with a value system that promotes the raising of individual economic interest to a primary decision-making principle is what destroys the commons.

Seen in this light, economic instruments, privatisation and environmental `valuation' are all mechanisms for perpetuating the central problems that caused environmental degradation in the first place. They ensure priority is still given to economic goals and they enable individuals and firms to make decisions that affect others on the basis of their own economic interests. The primacy of `free' markets in environmental decision-making ensures that power remains in the hands of those who direct and control financial resources; the wealthy, the corporations and the economists they employ.

Vandana Shiva, an Indian activist, points out that sustainability should require that markets and production process be reshaped to fit nature's logic rather than "the logic of profits and capital accumulation, and returns on investment" determining nature's fate. Instead, she says, sustainable development "protects the primacy of capital. It is still assumed that capital is the basis of all activity."[15]

4. Shift in Priorities III - Economic Growth Before Environment

Sustainable development obliterates the argument that economic growth and environmental protection are incompatible by asserting that we can have both. In fact the Canadian environmental group Green Web suggests that the concept of sustainable development is an "ideological cover or legitimization for greatly expanded economic growth; hence expanded or accelerated environmental destruction."[16]

Those environmentalists who favour sustainable development tend to bow out of this debate over whether economic growth is desirable or not. Australian mainstream groups have differentiated between growth and development and prefer the term "Ecologically Sustainable Development" to Sustainable Development because it "emphasises the qualitative aspects of development, as opposed to the traditional emphasis on quantitative growth."[17]

The Commission For the Future argues:

Rather than growth or no-growth, as the debate about environment and development has sometimes been cast, the central issue is what kind of growth. The challenge of sustainable development is to find new products, processes, and technologies which are environmentally friendly while they deliver the things we want.[18]

In theory economic growth could probably be achieved without additional impacts on the environment but this would mean many 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. Because some environmental groups are concerned to appear reasonable, cooperative and not anti-development, they do not debate the merits of economic growth whilst business groups still push it as a social priority. For example, the International Chamber of Commerce argues

Economic growth provides the conditions in which protection of the environment can be achieved, and environmental protection, in balance with other human goals, is necessary to achieve growth that is sustainable.... Business thus shares the view that there should be a common goal, not a conflict, between economic development and environmental protection, both now and for future generations.[19]

Such views have also been reiterated by the Australian Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Groups. The Manufacturing Group argues that economic growth provides the resources for the new "cleaner" technologies, the capital to invest in "green" products and the leisure to enjoy them, not to mention an enhanced quality of life for all Australians.[20]

Because so many environmentalists are ready to give way on the issue of economic growth and deny there is a conflict, environmental protection must be argued in terms of its contribution to economic growth. When the inevitable conflicts come up in particular instances, the environment will only be protected where the economic costs are not perceived to be too high.

The Commonwealth Government, in its 1990 discussion paper on sustainable development, argues that it is the role of governments to resolve conflicts between economic growth and environmental protection as they arise. It argues that;

it is necessary to evaluate the risk to future economic prospects if business investment and growth is prevented or discouraged. In some cases it may be worthwhile paying the price of some environmental damage to ensure present and future economic benefits. This will be particularly relevant in commercial development of non-renewable resources, where at least some transient impact on the environment is inevitable.[21]

5. Hidden Assumptions - Substitutability of Capital For Nature

So long as the environment is seen to be a set of resources and assets that feed the economic system and economic growth has priority, then it makes sense to believe that substitutes can be found when some of these resources and assets run out or are damaged. Vandana Shiva argues that the fallacy of "the non-destructibility of capital and the substitutability of capital and nature" preserves the sanctity of economic growth:

since industrial raw materials and market commodities have substitutes, sustainability is translated into substitutability of materials, which is further translated into convertibility into profits and cash.[22]

This notion of substitutability is inherent in the idea of `valuing' the environment and also economic instruments. The way that environmental concerns are to be integrated into economic decisions is by estimating the monetary value of the environmental damage that an activity might do and weighing such costs against the benefits of going ahead anyway. This assumes that the financial and other gains from a project can make up for these environmental losses, that they are in some way substitutable for one another.

Likewise the argument for incorporating monetary estimates of environmental loss in measures of GNP also assumes that "natural capital" and "human capital" are interchangeable. The implicit premise is that such a modified GNP measure will then reflect increasing welfare as long as the total capital, natural plus human, increases. Accepting a GNP figure modified in this way means accepting that loss of nature can be made up for by corresponding increases in wealth.

Finally, economic instruments give individuals and firms the choice of paying charges or preventing pollution as if one were substitutable for the other. The purpose of pollution charges, for example, is to internalise environmental costs so that they become part of a firm's profit calculations like the costs of labour, materials and services that they obtain on the market. The firm can then choose to reduce those environmental costs by reducing their pollution. On the other hand the firm may chose to reduce other costs instead, for example labour costs.

The purpose of giving environmental `resources' a price is so that they will be valued in the same way that other resources that are on the market are valued. Some environmentalists may be reassured that this means more account will be taken of the environment. On the other hand, this can be seen as a devaluation of the environment because it brings it down to the same level as other commodities that can be bought and sold. Its value is reduced to an economic value and it is then treated as a substitutable part of the economic system.

6. Hidden Agendas - Consensus Vs Change

Sustainable development is an attempt to reduce the politics in decision-making by artificially replacing conflict with consensus, by emphasising technocratic decision-making processes such as cost-benefit analysis and economic instruments, and by ensuring environmental conflicts are increasingly decided by the market. Such moves will increase business autonomy, free market ideology and the power of those with money to make decisions affecting the environment.

For economists, politicians, business people and others, the concept of sustainable development offers the opportunity to overcome previous differences and conflicts by forging a new consensus that environmental protection and economic development can go hand in hand. Instead of being seen as contributing to environmental problems, as they were in 1970, technology and industry are now seen to provide the solutions to those problems.

Sustainable development is an attempt at conflict resolution which has spawned a number of consensus decision making processes including the Ecologically Sustainable Development process in Australia. This involved nine working groups representing a range of interest groups sitting down at the table together and examining ways of achieving sustainable development in different industry sectors.

This consensus approach favoured the status quo because change had to be agreed to by all parties to meet the consensus criterion. Radical change rarely emerges from such a process. The consensus approach also favours the status quo by taking the discussion behind closed doors. In the case of the ESD process, admission was limited to chosen representatives of recognised interest groups who had faith in the process. Environmentalists were therefore represented by two mainstream environmental groups and more radical environmentalists were marginalised. Public discussion was severely reduced by inadequate public consultation procedures and because disagreements between the parties only appeared publicly as unsupported recommendations in the reports which appeared at the end of the process.

The reduction in public participation in environmental decision-making combined with the renewed emphasis on economic growth and the incorporation of the environment into the economic system will ensure that business can go on as usual but it is also likely that the environment will continue to deteriorate. The imperative that environmental deterioration might once have had for social and political change has been dissipated by the cleverly constructed notion of sustainable development.

7. Future Visions

Whilst the public is led to believe that sustainable development can achieve environmental protection, opportunities to discuss possible alternative futures are minimised. Why look for something else if you think the existing system can be adapted to solve the problem? It is the lack of discussion about possible futures that reinforces the idea that the present system is the only feasible option...


  1. The ideas in this paper are expanded upon in S. Beder, The Nature of Sustainable Development, Scribe, Newham, Victoria, 1993.
  2. The Editors of The Ecologist, A Blueprint for Survival, Penguin Books, England and Australia, 1972, pp. 1, 26.
  3. D. Pearce, A. Markandya and E. Barbier, Blueprint for a Green Economy, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 1989, p. 21; Commonwealth Government, Ecologically Sustainable Development: A Commonwealth Discussion Paper, AGPS, Canberra, June, 1990, p. 3.
  4. S.M.M. Idris, `Going green- A Third World perspective', Chain Reaction 62, October, 1990, p.16.
  5. A. Rosemarin, Editorial, Ambio, April, 1990, p. 1.
  6. Margaret Thatcher quoted in S. Harris, Ecologically Sustainable Development: Implications for the policy process, Paper presented to Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration Conference on Ecologically Sustainable Development, Canberra, 9 December, 1991, p. 3.
  7. quoted in B. Long, `Managing the environment', The OECD Observer, No. 168, Feb./Mar., 1991, p.5.
  8. Pearce, p.5.
  9. D.J. Thampapillai, Environmental Economics, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p.5.
  10. D. James, Economics, Environment and Sustainable Development, Resource Assessment Commission, RAC Occasional Publication No 1, June, 1991, p.4.
  11. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Australian edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, p. 87.
  12. James, p.2.
  13. Business Council of Australia, Achieving Sustainable Development: A Practical Framework, BCA, 1991, p. 9.
  14. T.H. Tietenberg, ``Using economic incentives to maintain our environment', Challenge, March/April, 1990, p. 42.
  15. V. Shiva, `Ecologically sustainable: What it really means', Third World Resurgence 5, January 1991, p. 9.
  16. The Green Web, Sustainable Development: Expanded Environmental Destruction, Green Web/WellSpring, 1990, p.6.
  17. W.L. Hare (ed), Ecologically Sustainable Development, Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace (Australia), The Wilderness Society, World Wide Fund for Nature - Australia, 1990.
  18. The Commission for the Future, 'A sustainable future for Australia', in World Commission on Environment and Development, p. 27.
  19. Quoted in Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Groups, Final Report - Manufacturing, AGPS, Canberra, 1991, p. 219.
  20. Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Groups, p54.
  21. Quoted in Commonwealth Government, p.9
  22. Shiva, p.9.