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The Sustainability Debate

Graph by Dr. William Stanton

A short History

Some time ago I started to prepare a presentation about long term issues in future studies. Sustainability and sustainable development are certainly such issues, so to get started I assembled some books about sustainability from my bookshelves. During the years of my life, these books had been important for me personally and influenced my way of thinking about the future.

I listed what I had by year of publication. But, that made me feel that some very short summary, “a tweet”, of the main idea of the book would be helpful for my audience and also for me, when talking about this topic. Soon I realized that the list was quite interesting just by itself. It outlined in broad terms how the discussion about the sustainability, in half a century, had grown into one of the most important debates of our time. Finally it become so long that I made a separate post of it.

The history of the sustainability debate is a critically important story of the progress of mankind on this earth. Because of its obvious importance I tried to search for more academic investigations into the history of the idea, but I could not find anything satisfactory. However, there are a few interesting sites on the web describing how the debate about sustainable development has emerged over time. For instance, I found these two to contain useful information:

But both of these sites see sustainability as a relationship between nature and man. The issue is that we, mankind, should live within the limits of our finite planet, i.e. our finite nature. This perception of sustainability is certainly a valid one and it reflects history correctly – but, only to a point. My impression is that sustainability is in for a paradigm shift, or, at least facing an extension of the traditional understanding of what is meant by sustainability.

The extended Agenda

When looking at the list above, it seemed to me that from 1961 to 1999, the focus was on protecting the environment from pollution and overutilization. Taking better care of the human habitat was the main objective. But from the year 2000 there has been a new perspective. According to this emerging point of view, sustainability does not only concern how we humans treat the living planet. Sustainability also concerns how we treat each other. The planet can be exploited until its resources are exhausted, but so can mankind itself. The emerging insight is that our social structures – trade, justice, education, investments … – increasingly show signs of becoming self-defeating and therefore unsustainable. All of the books from Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty onwards bring up this concern in various ways.

Perhaps the most straightforward and uncompromising recent testimony is Stieglitz’ The Price of Inequality. USA was once the land of opportunity for those who were dedicated and tried hard enough. Ultimately the American dream would come true for you too. But no more. Those who succeeded early used legislation, taxation, cost of education and media to limit and eliminate the competition. They are today the top 1 percent who gained 93 percent of all additional income in the United States in 2010. It is nearly impossible to move from poverty to the middle class or to the top, because only the elite can afford to send their children to best schools. You inherit your position in the one percent in the same way as you inherit your poverty in the slum. In the contemporary world, inequality is dividing societies into the wealthy elite and the large majority of citizens being trapped in their social context. While Stiglitz mainly looks at United States, the processes that lead to inequality through accelerating concentration of economic wealth can be found everywhere – including in the Nordic Countries which Stiglitz often mentions as a model of a better system. Although difficult to admit, this may not be so different from how colonialism divided the world not that long ago.

Exploitation of other human beings may always have existed. For several centuries exploitation took the form of slavery. This was followed by excesses of colonialism. Sitting here in front of my computer and writing this story, I cannot understand how the cruelties carried out by “enlightened” Western nations in America, in Africa and in Asia were possible. Can anyone? Yet, the mindless destruction on societies and civilisations taking place during 1500-1950 were not clearly seen as a key subject in the early sustainability debate. But I believe that is changing. It strikes me as an afterthought that Franz Fanons The Wretched of the Earth published half a century ago prepares the ground for many of Stiglitz’s arguments. In the 1960’ Fanons book was seen as a fierce criticism of colonialism and the reckless and destructive power of western governments in Africa. But with 50 years of hindsight one can see Fanons book as an early warning of how power and politics more generally can build a momentum for social unsustainability.

I was a high-school student when Rachel Carlsons Silent Spring was published. I remember my indignation when I realized that industries in my town probably were polluting the forests nearby in the way Rachel explained. The book is now seen as the beginning of the green movement. A few years passed, and one summer I was hiking in the Scandinavian mountains in Northern Sweden. During the evenings in my tent I read Kenneth Galbraiths The New Industrial State. This book is not either seen as a book about sustainability, but Galbraith seemed concerned about how democracy would prevail in the balance between the state and the big industrial corporations. Again, with hindsight, he was very justified indeed.


The polarisation of the American society into wealthy business fundamentalists and a stagnant middle class is unsustainable and will lead to a deep social crises later this century. But what happens elsewhere? George Magnus in his book Uprising argues that export lead growth in China cannot continue forever because it will lead to massive unemployment in elsewhere. China’s leaders seem to be aware of this risk. They have for some time been feverishly searching for alternative ways of developing and maintaining economic growth. One approach has been increasing investments and business take-overs abroad. A critical branch of this process is addressed by Dambisa Moyo in her book Winner Take All. Her research shows how the need to maintain growth requires China to secure access to increasing amounts of raw-materials and other resources all over the world. China has already become the dominating buyer on all global commodities markets. Like export-lead growth this is becoming unsustainable too as other countries may not be able to compete with China as customers in the commodity markets.

Most observers agree that China’s development will be a dominating driving factor for the entire planet during the rest of the century. Climate change will affect China as it will affect the rest of us, so how China takes responsibility for its share of the planet is important for the sustainability of everyone. China’s leaders seem to be well aware of this too and China is already the leading manufacturer of solar panels, for example. But, like USA, China is a special case in its own way. Jorgen Randers invited experts to write glimpses of the future in his book 2052. One of the writers is Björn Brunstad, who starts his vision for China in the following way:

China in 2052 will not be a nation-state in a traditional sense. It will be a civilization-state, representing a modern incarnation of the Chinese dynasties that considered themselves the center of civilization in a world of barbarians.

In line with this prediction, the current Chinese leadership is nation-building by linking the dynamic present to the glorious past. This will energize China and give it the strength to become a truly global power.

Jorgen Randers repeatedly points out that short-sightedness of markets and political decision-making is the reason why the industrial world cannot agree on stopping global warming, pollution of the environment, over-exploitation of the resources of the planet – i.e. why the sustainable development everyone wants cannot be achieved. Similar thoughts are found also in Jared Diamonds book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond provides numerous examples from history of how politics failed to react even when the entire society was threatened and the solutions needed were known and available. Isn’t this our situation today? However, China may not suffer from incapacity to decide and short-sightedness to the same degree as the Western world. Unlike USA and EU, China has not had time to lock down its positions on democracy, economic growth, inflation, equality…. Because the system is more authoritarian, the Chinese leadership can make decisions Western democratic leaders are not capable of. For China, this is both an opportunity and a risk.

Here is my purely personal impression of some characteristics of Western and Chinese decision-making:

Democratic Capitalism

Capitalism with Chinese characteristics

Main structures:

Governments, institutions, representative bodies

Civilization, political elite and community

Development goals:

Based on voter perspective

Based on political party vision

Drivers of change:

Markets, Consumers

Political elite

Citizens perspective:



Security for the individual:

Protection by law

Protection by affiliations


Consensus before regulation

Business needs before consensus

Means and controls for globalization:

Law,  trade and military force

Trade, control of resources, affiliation

 Sustainability or overshoot again?

By reducing emissions and conserving energy and by perusing environmental protection more aggressive, China can become not only a world leader, but a model for the world. Hardly surprising, China is already trying to develop its own development model as an alternative to Western aid operations. By conducting large-scale business in cooperation with countries in Africa or South America, China can demonstrate concrete results much faster than bureaucratic aid programmes designed by EU or the World Bank. This is the good part.

The risk is over-confidence. Patriotism, nationalism and perceptions of cultural superiority lead France, Britain, Spain and Germany and most of Europe to exploit other societies in America, Africa and Asia in ways that have no defense. In Europe we want to forget this part or our history, or perhaps we want to be forgiven? But will China now repeat our mistakes and we be the exploited? As a global power China is young and enthusiastic. China can be more innovative, open minded and working without the burden of colonialism. At least for some, China already looks like the new land of opportunity. But, As Stiglizt has pointed out, the opportunity USA once offered has been eroded by its own success. Human pride and prejudice has always been a threat to the sustainability of societies.

The threat to sustainability is how we treat each other. China and globalization bring our societies right into the center of the sustainability debate.

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