Courtesy Reuters

Recovering Sustainable Development

A FASHIONABLE NOTION

The concept of sustainable development first emerged from academic seminar rooms two decades ago, thanks to a best-selling report called Our Common Future. Put together by the World Commission on Environment and Development, the report argued that boosting the economy, protecting natural resources, and ensuring social justice are not conflicting but interwoven and complementary goals.

A healthful environment, the theory goes, provides the economy with essential natural resources. A thriving economy, in turn, allows society to invest in environmental protection and avoid injustices such as extreme poverty. And maintaining justice, by promoting freedom of opportunity and political participation, for example, ensures that natural resources are well managed and economic gains allocated fairly. Civilizations that have ignored these connections have suffered: consider the Easter Islanders, who by denuding their forests triggered a spiral of economic difficulties and strife that eventually led to their civilization's collapse.

Yet even as sustainable development has become conventional wisdom over the past two decades, something has gone horribly wrong. Because the concept stresses the interconnection of everything, it has been vulnerable to distortion by woolly thinking and has become a magnet for special interest groups. Human rights watchdogs, large chemical companies, small island nations, green architects, and nuclear power plant operators have attached themselves to the fashionable notion only to subvert it for their own ends. Instead of bringing together nature, the economy, and social justice, sustainable development has spawned overspecialized and largely meaningless checklists and targets. Particularly harmful has been a series of consensus-driven UN summits that have yielded broad and incoherent documents and policies. Sustainable development, the compass that was designed to show the way to just and viable economics, now swings in all directions.

This deterioration was probably unavoidable. But the slide matters, and not only because sustainable development has become a cover for inaction and a black hole for resources; it is also a wasted opportunity. The concept has gained such a powerful following over the past two decades that

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