The Necessity of Sustainability

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World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)

From the Foreword by Chairperson Brundtland (pages ix – xiii)

“A global agenda for change—this was what the World Commission on Environment and Development was asked to formulate. It was an urgent call by the General Assembly of the United Nations:

To propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond.

To recommend ways concern for the environment may be translated into greater cooperation developing counting and between countries at different stages of economic and social development and lead to the achievement of common and mutually supportive objectives…

To consider ways and means by which the international community can deal more effectively with environmental concerns; and

To help define shared perceptions of long-term environmental issues and the appropriate efforts needed to deal successfully with the problems of protecting and enhancing the environment, a long term agenda for action.”

“The present decade has been marked by a retreat from social concerns. Scientists bring to our attention urgent but complex problems bearing on our very survival:  a warming globe, threats to the Earth’s ozone layer, deserts consuming agricultural land. We respond by demanding more details, and by assigning the problems to institutions ill equipped to cope with them. Environmental degradation, first seen as mainly a problem of the rich nations and a side effect of industrial wealth, has become a survival issue for developing nations.

From Overview (page 1 & 4)

“In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time. Historians may eventually find that this vision had a greater impact on thought than did the Copernican revolution of the 16th century, which upset the human self-image by revealing that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils. Humanity’s inability to fit its doings into that pattern is changing planetary systems, fundamentally.”…

“The planet is passing through a period of dramatic growth and fundamental change. Our human world of 5 (sic) billion must make room in a finite environment for another human world. The population could stabilize at between 8 and 14 billion sometime next century, according to UN projections. More than 90 per cent of the increase will occur in the poorest countries, and 90 per cent o that growth in already bursting cities.

Economic activity has multiplied to create a $13 trillion world economy, and this could grow five- or tenfold in the coming half-century. Industrial production has grown more than fiftyfold over the past century, four-fifths of this growth since 1950. Such figures reflect and presage profound impacts upon the biosphere.”


Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010)

 From Chapter One  (page 1 – 3)

“Imagine we live on a planet. Not our cozy, taken-for-granted earth, but a planet, a real one, with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place.

It’s hard. For the ten thousand years that constitute human civilization, we’ve existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged; globally averaged, its swung in the narrowest of ranges, between fifty-eight and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. That’s warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centers of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water….

“Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has—even if we don’t quite know it yet….

“By burning fossil fuel, have raised the temperature of the planet nearly a degree Celsius (more than a degree and a half Fahrenheit). A NASA study in December 2008 found that warming on that scale was enough to trigger a 45 percent increase in thunderheads above the ocean…generating “supercells” with torrents of rain and hail.”

From Chapter Four  (page 183 –185)

“To begin with, by this point it should be pretty clear that fossil fuels define “too big to fail.” By burning every gallon of oil and cubic meter of gas and ton of coal we could find, we’ve managed to end the climatic stability that’s marked human civilization. We’ve also managed to be our entire economy on the belief that these supplies will last forever, a bet we’re now in the process of losing….

“So here’s the needle we need to thread: in the space of just a few years we’ve got to switch away from fossil fuel.

First: if we are serious about returning the atmosphere to 350 parts per million carbon dioxide—which is what we must to do stabilize the planet even at its current state of disruption—we need to cut our fossil fuel use by a factor of twenty over the next few decades….

Second: it would be nice to replace at least some of that fossil fuel with something else, so that we’re not returned entirely to a world of manual labor, where muscle power provides almost all the energy. Remember, a barrel of oil equals about eleven years of manual labor, and the average American uses the equivalent of sixty barrels a year.

Third: there is no easy way out. I’ve already described why we’re not going to be able simply to build a lot of nuclear plants—expense mainly—or just convert our whole corn crop into gasoline (we need to eat it). But we’re not going to toss up some solar panels and windmills and carry on as before either. We had our magic fuel: coal and gas and oil were amazing stuff, incredibly concentrated….

“Job one, on almost anyone’s list, is conservation, because the less power we use, the less sun and wind we’ll need to capture. The numbers are huge: the consulting firm McKinsey estimated in 2008 that existing technologies could cut world energy demand by 20 percent by 2020.”


Amartya Sen Development is Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 1999)

From The Preface (page xi – xiii)

“And yet we also live in a world with remarkable deprivation, destitution and oppression. There are many new problems as well as old ones, including persistence of poverty and unfulfilled elementary needs, occurrence of famines and widespread hunger, violation of elementary political freedoms as well as of basic liberties, extensive neglect of the interests and agency of women, and worsening threats to our environment and to the sustainability of our economic and social lives. Many of these deprivations can be observed, in one form or another, in rich countries as well as poor ones.

Overcoming these problems is a central part of the exercise of development. We have to recognize, it is argued here, the role of freedoms of different kinds in countering these afflications. Indeed, individual agency is, ultimately, central to addressing these deprivations. On the other hand, the freedom of agency that we individually have is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities that are available to us….

“Expansion of freedom is viewed, in this approach, both as the primary end and as the principal means of development. Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency….

“This work outlines the need for an integrated analysis of economic, social and political activities, involving a variety of institutions and many interactive agencies. It concentrates particularly on the roles and interconnections between certain crucial instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and political security. Societal arrangements, involving many institutions the state, the market, the legal system, political parties, the media, public interest groups, and public discussion forums, among others) are investigated in terms of their contribution to enhancing and guaranteeing the substantive freedoms of individuals, seen as active agents of change, rather than as passive recipients of dispensed benefits.”

From the Introduction (pages 3 – 4)

“Development can be seen, it is argued here, as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization. Growth of GNP or of individual incomes can, of course, be very important as means to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by the members of the society. But freedoms depend also on other determinants, such as social and economic arrangements (for example, facilities for education and health care) as well as political and civil rights (for example, the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny). Similarly, industrialization or technological progress or social modernization can substantially contribute to expanding human freedoms, but freedom depends on other influences as well. If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for concentrating on that overarching objective, rather than on some particular means, or some specially chosen list of instruments. Viewing development in terms of expanding substantive freedoms directs attention to the ends that make development important, rather than merely to some of the means that, inter alia, play a prominent part in the process.

Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity or repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers—perhaps even the majority—of people. Sometimes the lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. In other cases the unfreedom links closely to the lack of public facilities and social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programs, or of organized arrangements for health care or educational facilities, or of effective institutions for the maintenance of local peace and order. In still other cases, the violation of freedom results directly from a denial of political and civil liberties by authoritarian regimes and from imposed restrictions on the freedom to participate in the social, political and economic life of the community.”

From Chapter 12 (page 292 – 293)

“I must also briefly discuss another relation which invites a comment, to wit, the relation between the literature on “human capital” and the focus in this work on “human capability” as an expression of freedom. In contemporary economic analysis the emphasis has, to a considerable extent, shifted from seeing capital accumulation in primarily physical terms to viewing it as a process in which the productive quality of human beings is integrally involved. For example, through education, learning, and skill formation, people can become much more productive over time, and this contributes greatly to the process of economic expansion….

“How does this shift relate to the view of development—development as freedom—presented in this book? More particularly, what, we may ask, is the connection between “human capital” orientation and the emphasis on “human capability” with which this study has been much concerned? Both seem to place humanity at the center of attention, but do they have differences as well as some congruence? At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the literature on human capital tends to concentrate on the agency of human beings in augmenting production possibilities. The perspective of human capability focuses, on the other hand, on the ability—the substantive freedom—of people to lead the lives they have reason to value and to enhance the real choices they have. The two perspectives cannot be but related.”


Herman E. Daly & John B. Cobb Jr.,  For the Common Good: Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994) 

From the Introduction (pages 3 – 5)

“The wild facts of today and their conflict with standard economic theory both have a well-known history. During the past two centuries, the economy has transformed the character of the planet and especially of human life. It has done so chiefly by industrialization. Industry has vastly increased the productivity of workers, so vastly that in spite of the great population increases in industrialized nations, the good and services available to each have increased still more….

“But the industrial economy has consequences for the greater economy of life. Psychologists have been disturbed by what is happening to individuals. In 1937, Karen Horney cited the pressures on Americans created by their industrial, competitive, materialistic society. She noted that three basic value conflicts had arisen: ‘aggressiveness grown so pronounced that it could no longer be reconciled with Christian brotherhood; desire for material goods so vigorously stimulated that it can never be satisfied, and expectations of untrammeled freedom soaring so high that they cannot be squared with the multitudes of restrictions and responsibilities that confine us all’ (Hazel Henderson, Creating Alternative Futures, 1978, p. 25). Walter Weisskopf (Alienation and Economics, 1971) more recently has engaged in an extensive study of what the economy has done to human beings morally and existentially. He sees that it has worked against objective judgments of value and encouraged moral relativism. It has also emphasized a few aspects of human existence at the expense of others, and thus caused alienation.

Other critics have pointed out the negative social effects of economic progress. In moving words, Karl Polanyi, a great economic historian, described the social developments associated with the rise of the market as the “Satanic Mill.” The opening sentence of his 1944 work states; ‘At the heart of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century there was an almost miraculous improvement in the tools of production, which was accomplished by a catastrophic dislocation of the lives of the common people.’ (Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 1957 p.33)  Joseph Schumpeter was equally troubled. He sees economic thought as part of the utilitarian philosophy that dominated the nineteenth century. “This system of ideas, developed in the eighteen century, recognizes no other regulatory principle than that of individual egoism….The essential fact is that, whether as cause or consequence, this philosophy expresses only too well the spirit of social irresponsibility which characterized the passion, and the secular, or rather secularized, state in the nineteenth century.’ (Schumpeter, History of Political Economy, 7, no.3, 294-298).

Recently it has been ecologists especially and those whom they have aroused who have turned on the economy as the great villain. They see that the growth of the economy has meant the exponential increase of raw material inputs from the environment and waste outputs into the environment, and they see that little attention has been paid by economists either to the exhaustion of resources or to pollution. They complain that economists have not only ignored the source of inputs and the disposition of outputs, but also that they have encouraged he maximization of both, whereas living lightly in the world requires that throughput should be kept to the minimum sufficient to meet human needs.”….

“Toward a Paradigm Shift in Economics:  When a discipline is both this successful and this severely criticized, one may assume that its assumptions and methods apply well in some spheres and poorly in others. The key assumptions in this case have to do with Homo economicus, that is, the understanding of the nature of the human being. Economic theory builds on the propensity of individuals to act so as to optimize their own interests, a propensity clearly operative in market transactions and in many other areas of life. Economists typically identify intelligent pursuit of private gain with rationality, thus implying that other modes of behavior are not rational. These modes include other-regarding behavior and actions directed to the public good.”

From Page 21

“But a deep level of our being we find it hard to suppress the cry of anguish, the scream of horror—the wild words required to express wild realities. We human beings are being led to a dead end—all too literally. We are living by an ideology of death and accordingly we are destroying our own humanity and killing the planet. Even the one great success of the program that has governed us, the attainment of material affluence, is now giving way to poverty. The United States is just now gaining a foretaste of the suffering that global economics policies, so enthusiastically embraced, have inflicted on hundreds of millions of others. If we continue on our present paths, future generations, if there are to be any, are condemned to misery. The fact that many people of good will do not see this dead end is undeniably true, very regrettable.”


David C. Korten The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (Bloomfield CT & San Francisco: Kumarian Press &       Berrett-Koehler, 2006)

From pages 10, 11 & 13

“When power is centralized in distant government agencies or corporations, the life is sucked out of the community, and services are organized to serve the needs and convenience of the providers. Those who make the decisions prosper, and the local people bear the consequences….

“The centralization of authority was rarely the consequence of malicious intent. More often people were simply trying to do their jobs, unaware of the consequences of their actions. If things were going badly, the problem was assumed to be local, likely a failure to follow prescribed procedures. Training and tighter controls to assure compliance were the standard solutions—thus affirming the expertise and authority of the central power holders and the incapacity of those at the bottom….

“In its simplest terms, the theory underlying corporate-led economic globalization posits that human progress is best advanced by deregulating markets and eliminating economic borders to let unrestrained market forces determine economic priorities, allocate resources, and drive economic growth. It sounds like decentralization, but the reality is quite different….

“These costs have awakened millions of people to the reality that the health of a community depends in substantial measure on its ability to set its own economic priorities and control its own economic resources. Strong communities and material sufficiency are the true foundation of economic prosperity and security and an essential source of meaning. Street protests are one response to this awakening. Calls for reform of corporate legal structures are another. Less visible, but even more important, is a spreading commitment to rebuild local economies and communities from the bottom up.”

From page 75

“As the familiar cultural and institutional guideposts of Empire disintegrate around us, we humans stand on the threshold of a rebirth no less dramatic than that of the monarch caterpillar….

“The conditions of the human rebirth are likely to be traumatic and filled with a sense of loss, particularly for those of us who have enjoyed the indulgences of Empire’s excess. Our pain, however, pales by comparison with the needless, unconscionable suffering  endured for five millennia by those whose humanity and right to life Empire has cruelly denied. If we the privileged embrace the moment, rather than fight it, we can turn the tragedy into an opportunity to claim our humanity and the true prosperity, security, and meaning of community.

The cultural and spiritual awakening underlying the prospective human metamorphosis is driven by two encounters: one with the cultural diversity of humanity and the other with the limits of the planet’s ecosystem.”

From page  313

“The work of the Great Turning is not to fix Empire. It is to birth a new era that makes the choice for life, gives expression to the higher potential of our nature, and restores to people, families, and communities the power that Empire has ursurped. The work is not to claim the dominator power of hierarchy for a better cause. It is to distribute power and eliminate the hierarchy….

“Offer a framework to help us all see more clearly how our often seemingly small and fragmented individual efforts can add up to a powerful social force to change the course of history as we break the silence, end our isolation, and change the story. Specifics will vary from country to country, depending on their distinctive histories and circumstances. The examples focus on the United States, where the challenge is particularly daunting. The principles are universal.”