Current Economic Development is Unsustainable. How Can We Reverse this Trend?

By Jacques Prescott

In 1987, with the publication of the Brundtland report, the world was confronted once again with the dire reality of a collapsing environment and the concept of sustainable development emerged as a solution. Thirty years later, despite tremendous efforts at the global and local levels, real progress towards sustainability seems to be deterred by the dark forces of the markets, financial systems and corporate lobbies.  What can be done to reverse the situation and achieve sustainable results?


Sustainable Development, A Promising Concept

Following an international consultation chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was then the Prime Minister of Norway, the UN Commission on Environment and Development published “Our Common Future”.1 This report described the daunting environmental problems of the 1980s: uncontrolled population growth, excessive deforestation and grazing, destruction of tropical forests, extinction of living species, increased greenhouse effect causing climate change, acid rain, erosion of the stratospheric ozone layer, etc. It also emphasised social-economic issues and in particular the perverse effects of unbridled economic growth and over-consumption of resources by the better-off.

The Commission proposed a definition of sustainable development that is still widely recognised and seen as a beacon to guide our efforts towards a better world: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The Brundtland report succeeded in demonstrating that the global economy and ecology are deeply intertwined. Beyond the economic interdependence of nations, we must now deal with their ecological interdependence. Since the development crisis is global, the solutions must be as well.

To this end, the report proposed a series of strategic objectives that included changing the quality of economic growth, controlling demographics, meeting basic human needs, preserving and enhancing the resource base, taking into account the environment in developing new technologies and integrating ecological and economic concerns into decision-making.

Brundtland identified solutions that apply on a global scale. For example, reduce energy consumption in industrialised countries and develop renewable energies, encourage massive reforestation in countries affected by desertification, implement tax and land reforms to reduce pressures on ecosystems and adopt an international convention for the protection of biodiversity. Although these measures were aimed primarily at protecting the environment, the Brundtland Report stressed the importance of combating poverty and injustice, which are both causes and effects of environmental problems.

To realise and finance this ecological shift, the Brundtland Commission requested to reform international institutions, notably the World Bank and the IMF, which should better take into account social and environmental objectives and alleviate the debt of the poorest countries. The Commission also recommended a reorientation of military spending for the fight against poverty and inequality and challenged large companies to engage in more responsible production and consumption.


How did we progress since the Brundtland report?

Brundtland’s global perspective and recommendations have guided the United Nations for the past thirty years. From the Earth Summit of Rio in 1992, to the adoption of the 17 global sustainable development goals in 2015 and the 2016 Paris agreement on climate change, governments of the world have time and again agreed on a set of guiding principles, objectives and agendas towards sustainability. Around the world, businesses, institutions, non-government organisations and local authorities followed suit with engagements and actions. As new approaches developed, we have seen the rise of organic farming, renewable energy production, ecological design, environmental certification, corporate social responsibility, responsible investment, green economy, multiple capital accounting, life cycle and sustainability analysis, the greening of production processes and green marketing; the latter all too often leading to unscrupulous green-washing.

This collective action brought its share of progress. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced, more people have access to safe drinking water, fewer children die in early childhood and fewer mothers die during childbirth. We’ve also seen a stabilisation of the stratospheric ozone layer, a promising decline in the rate of deforestation in some regions, and a rapid growth in the renewable energy sector. But the key issues raised by the Brundtland report are left unresolved. A group of 15,000+ scientists from 184 countries recently stated that current economic development clearly is unsustainable, impairing the life-sustaining mechanisms of the biosphere and putting at risk humanity’s future.2 As Professor James H. Brown puts it: “Continual population growth and economic development on a finite Earth are biophysically impossible. They violate the laws of physics, especially thermodynamics, and the fundamental principles of biology. Population growth requires the increased consumption of food, water and other essentials for human life. Economic development requires the increased use of energy and material resources to provide goods, services and information technology”.3

Motivated by short term economic growth at any cost and personal gains, political leaders are more inclined to fulfill the demands of oligarchic lobbies than the legitimate expectations of their constituents.

Under present conditions, the plundering of natural resources and the degradation of the environment continue unabated, climate change threatens more than ever the most vulnerable people and ecosystems, and the planet’s carrying capacity is about to be exceeded. The gap between rich and poor is steadily widening, food insecurity and indebtedness are advancing, democracy is on the wane and propaganda is invading mainstream media. The unprecedented level of prosperity and wealth showed by a bunch of happy few countries and individuals is deceptive and definitely unsustainable as it doesn’t take into account the negative ecological and social impacts of economic activity.

Despite their outspoken commitment to sustainable development, governments fail to deliver positive results on this front. Motivated by short term economic growth at any cost and personal gains, political leaders are more inclined to fulfill the demands of oligarchic lobbies than the legitimate expectations of their constituents. How can you explain otherwise that despite their commitment to reduce GHG emissions, G20 governments still spend nearly four times more on fossil fuels than developing renewable energy?


The Role of Finance and Corporate Sectors

Economics is seen by sustainable development theorists as a tool or a mean to achieve sustainability. Accordingly, the banks and the financial systems, commerce and trade regulators, and private corporations have an inescapable role to play and a responsibility to assume if we ever want to succeed on this path.

In Europe and America, central bank policies are dictated by private bank lobbies. Current economic frameworks promote easy access to credit, leading to overconsumption and outrageous levels of indebtedness. According to the Institute of International Finance, the public and private indebtedness of the 44 richest countries reached 235% of GDP in 2017 compared with 190% in 2007. Governments and people alike are becoming hostages of the banks and their fraudulent monetary system. The 2008 collapse of the banking sector mainly caused by the Federal Reserve policy of low interest rates, easy money, junk mortgages and inadequate banking regulation led to the bankruptcy of thousands of households.4 In recent years the bankruptcy rate of mismanaged private banks around the world reached an outstanding summit to the detriment of numerous small savers. Even though the finance world recently adopted environmentally and socially responsible investments schemes and promoted green funding, their contribution to sustainable development is rather dire. This led the UN and the World Bank Group to issue a roadmap that proposes “an integrated approach that can be used by all financial sector stakeholders – both public and private – to accelerate the transformation toward a sustainable financial system”.5 Will the financial community by itself take effective measures against deregulation, tax evasion, large-scale market manipulation,6 corruption and money laundering? Probably not, unless it is forced to.

Driven by short-term gains and easy money, the business sector is flooding consumers with publicity, promoting questionable lifestyles, cheap short-lived products and encouraging overconsumption and wasting. Extensive use of bribery and corruption to access markets and resources, fiscal evasion, cartelisation, relocation of industrial jobs and social exploitation of workers are just a few of the unsustainable and unacceptable practices plaguing this sector. Despite a welcome engagement in fulfilling the UN sustainable development goals, green reporting and the adoption of social and environmental management standards, the business community has yet to develop and implement a more responsible growth pattern.

According to the Institute of International Finance, the public and private indebtedness of the 44 richest countries reached 235% of GDP in 2017 compared with 190% in 2007.

Similarly, international trade and commerce is controlled by giant multinationals promoting free trade agreements that expand their hegemony at the expense of small-scale local producers. It is a well-known fact that small island sugar cane producing states would simply need to be paid a fair price for their production to become economically sustainable. When will the World Trade Organization genuinely integrate fairness in its decision-making process? When will it act effectively against illegal cartels and trade dumping?

The military-industrial complex or the war/security industry constitutes in itself a major deterrent to sustainable development. This industrial sector has a strong record of engaging in threat inflation. In his recent book, Indefensible – Seven Myths That Sustain the Global Arms Trade,7 author Paul Holden points to “how the defence industry, the military, like-minded leaders and a pliant commercial press can collude to create magnified perceptions of threat to justify unpopular military endeavours, pursue particular foreign policy ideologies and divert massive financial resources to the industries and individuals who will be paid to defuse the threat”. The worldwide increase of military budgets seen in recent years (a rise of 43.6% since 2000 in the US alone to reach $611 billion in 2016;8 according to a 2017 study by Brown University in Rhode Island, a total of $5.6 trillion were spent for the US wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and post-9/11 veterans care and homeland security since 20019 is diverting huge amounts of money from badly needed social and environmental investments. According to various reliable sources and analysts, the military activity of the United States and other NATO members conducted under the false pretext of humanitarian motives, would have as main objectives to protect their economic hegemony, eliminate competition and enslave the people by destabilising and destroying emerging countries.

As economist Rodrigue Tremblay, sums it in his book, The Code for Global Ethics,10 humanity needs a serious moral stroke, to continue his march in a context of continuous progress and increased freedom. Finance, business and political leaders suffer from a lack of morality and must therefore adopt and practice a universal code of ethics that improves people’s lives. An ethics that concerned authorities have the responsibility to translate into concrete prescriptions.


A Four-pronged Approach to “Genuine” Sustainability

Thirty years ago the Brundtland report rightly identified the global challenges we are still facing today and offered a realistic way forward. It uncovered fundamental truths and demonstrated the interdependence of environmental protection and the reduction of poverty and the need to respect the biophysical limits of our world. In view of the current environmental and social crises, one must admit that despite the tremendous efforts of dedicated individuals and organisations, the UN and other international institutions chronically failed to counter the real deterrents to sustainable development and particularly neglected to address the deleterious impacts of unbridled economic growth and overconsumption mentioned by Brundtland.

A close look at the negotiation tables of international forums would show a complete control of Western governments over the agendas, resolutions and action plans. Third world states do not even have enough resources to participate to the discussions and even less influence the debates. As a result, most international agreements are designed to support the supremacy of the wealthier over the poorer states. Socially-oriented initiatives and nationalistic policies adopted by progressive developing states are much too often denounced, demonised or directly obstructed by imperialistic governments driven by private lobbies. Should national sovereignty and the rights to development not be respected by all?

Ecologists and a growing number of scientists, economists, jurists, opinion leaders and ordinary people have long advocated a simple strategy for sustainable development based on sobriety, simplicity, joyful austerity, respect and compassion aimed at reducing consumption of assets and resources while providing room for more socially and ecologically responsible investment. But can this be sufficient to convince the wealthiest to change their consuming habits and their ways of doing business?

The Brundtland report paved the way forward to a development centered on collaboration, sustainability, well-being, prosperity and peace. It is our duty to make it happen.

Although there is no quick-fix solution to this complex issue, a four-point ecological strategy proposed as early as 1984 by Michel Jurdant in his seminal book Le défi écologiste11 might provide a lead forward:

raising awareness on the extreme gravity and the deep causes of the global crisis, in order to better understand the relations between consumerism and ecological degradation of the biosphere, and question our current development schemes;

demystifying quantitative economic progress based on technical solutions that contribute to deepen inequalities in favour of a development based on well-being and quality of life;

proposing alternative lifestyles that are more sustainable and respectful;

encouraging a democratic public debate where alternative scenarios are designed and discussed in order to put back decision-making in the hands of local communities.

This strategy might succeed if young and old are adequately educated about the principles of sustainable development; if the financial community and the corporate sector is better regulated and honestly adopt and practice an ethical approach; if we focus on subsidiarity and encourage the accountability of elected officials and leaders; and especially learn to recognise and tame the influence of interest groups.

The Brundtland report paved the way forward to a development centered on collaboration, sustainability, well-being, prosperity and peace. It is our duty to make it happen.


Featured Image: Gro Harlem Brundtland, Chair of the Brundtland Commission on sustainable development 1987 ©

About the Author

Jacques Prescott M.Sc., is a biologist and a consultant working for international and local organisations, author of several books, articles, reports and guidelines related to biodiversity and sustainable development policies, strategies and action plans. He is Associate Professor and Chair on eco-advising at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, Canada.



1. The World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 400 p.
2. Ripple, W. J. et al., 2017. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. BioScience, Oxford Academics.
3. Brown, J.H., 2015. The Oxymoron of Sustainable Development. Bioscience 65(10):1027-1029
4. Tremblay, R., 2013. The Fed’s Monetary Policy of Zero Interest Rates. Global Research, March 05, 2013.
5. UN Environment and the World Bank Group, 2017. Roadmap for a Sustainable Financial System.
6. Zero Hedge, 2016. Every Single Bloody Market Is Manipulated.
7. Holden, P., 2017. Indefensible – Seven Myths That Sustain the Global Arms Trade. Zed Books, U.K.
8. Beaudoin, D. 2016. Quels pays ont le plus augmenté leur budget militaire? La réponse en carte. Radio-Canada, 20 mai 2016.
9. Crawford, N.C., 2017. United States Budgetary Costs of Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2018: A Summary of the $5.6 Trillion in Costs for the US Wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Post-9/11 Veterans Care and Homeland Security. Watson Institute, Brown University.
10. Tremblay, R., 2010. The Code for Global Ethics: Ten Humanist Principles. Prometheus Books.
11. Jurdant, M., 1984. Le défi écologiste. Éditions du Boréal Express, Montréal, 432 p.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.