a critique from Ken Meyercord

What do environmentalists, corporate heads, presidential hopefuls, and even the head of the Federal Reserve, have in common? They are all talking in terms of "sustainable development".

With such diverse voices singing in unison, one has to wonder if the phrase has any meaning. Can ecological economists wailing about the folly of unrestrained resource depletion and capitalist cheerleaders ballyhooing the booming economy possibly have the same thing in mind when they talk of sustainable development?

In fact, they can, but only because the phrase "sustainable development" is so amorphous it almost defies definition. The closest environmental lexicographers have come is, basically, "leaving something for future generations". Who can be opposed to that (at least openly)? Who is for "unsustainable development"? If there is no opposition, what use is the term?

In arguing for sustainable development ecologists offer the usual gloomy observations on dwindling resources, wasteful consumption, and expanding populations. Behind their arguments can be detected the conviction that development as we have known it over the last 100 years must be radically altered. But what "sustainable" alternatives do they, or can they, propose: conservation, recycling, renewable energy. These are all well and good, but are they "development"? In a world of finite resources supporting growing economies and populations aren't sustainability and development in contradistinction?

In the good old days (circa 1970), ecological economists talked openly about limits to growth. No doubt the adverse reaction to such heresy pushed the more public relations sensitive into speaking in less threatening, more acceptable terms.

We at Zero Growth believe this is a mistake. In opting for "sustainable development" ecologists may have gained adherents but they have lost coherence. If real change in people's attitude toward growth, i.e., "development", is to be achieved, we must be clear about what is required, not speak in oxymoronic phrases, no matter how much antipathy our terminology might arouse.

The prospect of zero growth is a bitter pill to swallow. Sugar-coating the medicine man must take to face his uncertain future may make it seem sweeter but it also lessens its effectiveness.