In "The Cornucopia Scam: Contradictions of Sustainable Development," Sandy Irvine warns that we cannot hold out hope for sustainable development until and unless we develop an ethic for sustainability. Irvine is co-editor of REAL WORLD and an associate editor for THE ECOLOGIST. Packaged within "The Cornucopia Scam" we find guidelines to help us chart a path toward sustainability as we begin to work on local and broader-scale sustainable development endeavors. --6 pages.-- d.

The Cornucopia Scam:
Contradictions of Sustainable Development
by Sandy Irvine*

Part 3 -- Not Sustainable Development, Development of Sustainability! This is the third of a three-part series from WILD EARTH. WILD EARTH (ISSN 1055-1166) is published quarterly by the Cenozoic Society, Inc., P.O. Box 455, Richmond, VT 05477. Subscriptions are $30/yr. Reproduced with permission from WILD EARTH.
The path to real sustainability cannot be found by simply amending the programme of sustainable development--it is too deeply buried in the human-centered, expansion-oriented worldview of industrial society. Sound policies can be developed only on the basis of a sound value system. The main contours of a distinctively ecological way of valuing, thinking about and doing things would appear to be:

The primary task today is to reduce human impacts upon the environmental systems, including other forms of life. Though individual lifestyle change is certainly vital, the most important challenge is to bring the institutional framework into harmony with that goal. Diversity, sufficiency, and stability would become the critical yardsticks of progress in a sustainable earth society, not the development processes of homogenisation and expansion.

Human numbers, per capita consumption levels, land uses, and technologies will have to be limited to levels that do not deplete non-renewable resources faster than safe and sustainable substitutes become available; do not consume renewable resources faster than they replenish themselves; do not exceed the safe absorption capacities of local watersheds, soil systems, and airsheds; do not endanger the continued existence of other species; and neither exploit other species, except for essential purposes, nor inflict avoidable pain and suffering.

These are not easy aims to define or measure. Relevant evidence often relates to a failure to achieve them (e.g. illness and death from pollution, exhausted fisheries); it is difficult to identify in advance specific benchmarks of success. At the very least, however, the above principles do offer a radically new agenda and framework for debate and policy development. The more detailed problems of definition should be seen as a constant challenge to evaluate and re-evaluate human impacts on the environment, to seek new ways of minimising actual and potential harm and waste. The unacceptability of many current practices is quite clear for example, once the rights of other species are taken fully into account.

Decision-making on these issues will always take place against a background of considerable uncertainty. Fortunately, though, measures to halt such anthropogenic problems as global warming will be solution multipliers since they will help resolve many other social and environmental problems. To that extent, the balance of 'opportunity costs' favours action now, even if subsequent research demonstrates that the greenhouse effect was nothing more than the mirage produced by a few overheated imaginations.


The following criteria suggest a framework for judging sustainability. All proposers of developments should be required to demonstrate--in an 'Ecological Improvement Statement'--how the proposal would lead to a higher rating on such criteria than that scored by the current land use.

Technological Products and Processes

Social, Economic, and Political Framework

In case this list is thought fanciful, note that a growing number of buildings, such as the new Ecover factory in Belgium (complete with meadow roof!), incorporate many of the above points. There are similar examples in energy supply, agriculture, and forestry--despite an economic framework stacked against them. The same applies to the success stories in the field of small-scale, community enterprises. Also many instances of product regulations, not least the famous purity laws in the German brewing industry, demonstrate that business enterprise and public protection can be harmonised.

Of course, high 'scores' in some respects cannot always be compared meaningfully with lower ones elsewhere. One crucial test can resolve such conflicts: whether it maintains and, if necessary, restores biodiversity. No other issue provides so clear and challenging a parameter. Therefore, the test policy to resolve conflicting priorities should be the maintenance of viable native populations and the habitats required. Granted, no fixed baseline of species diversity and richness in changing ecosystems exists, but the rate of extinction now is orders of magnitude above normal levels.

In most situations no one policy will suffice. A mixture is needed, including direct taxation, incentives, regulation, exhortation, and especially education. The following are suggested as a possible core programme:

Many of the above measures are inherently labour-intensive (e.g. repair and retrofitting work) and will take people off the dole queues. By contrast, as argued above, growth-oriented policies tend to encourage automation and job shedding. However, it is vital to avoid the left-wing trap of promising a return to 1950s-style full employment. In today's unsustainable economy, the creation of more jobs on traditional lines might offer temporary relief but cannot create longer term security. Traditional Keynesian public investment or 'pump-priming', for example, will simply eat up physical resources and dry out the 'ecological well' (the New Deal programmes of the Roosevelt administration caused great environmental damage and it was the advent of war that really soaked up unemployment). There is an urgent need for large-scale public investment but within a strictly ecological framework.


Contrary to what is often alleged, a more ecological approach necessarily involves a social agenda. Indeed, as Ray Dasmann argued back in the 1960s, all human activities must be managed in the light of their environmental impact. The emphasis is switched from environmental management (e.g. dams and levees) to the management of people and their artefacts (e.g. land use zoning to keep settlements away from flood plains, protection of wetlands from human encroachment, taxation of excessive water use). At a governmental level, it will be necessary to harmonise with overriding ecological goals the policies not just of departments with more obvious environmental impacts (finance, transport, agriculture, industry, housing, defence, trade etc.) but also of educational, legal, welfare, and health services.

A more specific example might illustrate how appropriate 'social' policies could be identified. At present, there is a drive to put out to contract services once provided 'in-house'. An ecological approach would not start form some a priori assumption that one system is better than the other. Evidence suggests, however, that initiatives such as recycling and better waste management are more likely to flourish when staff do not come from an external and ever-changing pool of contract employees, with no experience and commitment to any particular firm. Status, security, and pay also seem to suffer in the contract system. Clearly, in these circumstances, the ecological approach would oppose contracting out, unless evidence demonstrated that such consequences could be avoided.

A stable and sustainable social structure gives all its members a real sense of participation and belonging. The leading advocate of 'steady-state' economics, Herman Daly, argues that a limit to income differentials is a critical tool for sustainability. Indeed, growth-oriented policies often have been favoured by the rich and powerful as a means of buying off demands for a fairer distribution of land and wealth, with the position of the poor usually ending up unchanged, if not worse.

The ecological programme must be thoroughly democratic: Totalitarian solutions are non-solutions since they are deeply unstable. Stalinism and Nazism, for example, destroyed human communities and environment. Interestingly, many of those who talk about the threat from 'eco-fascism' belong to political traditions which, unlike ecopolitics, denied or acted as apologists for the monstrosities committed in countries like Maoist China, where brutal oppression mirrored great environmental destruction. There are few, if any, examples of 'environmentally friendly' authoritarian regimes. The building of a sustainable society without popular consent and participation would be as unsuccessful as Prohibition was against alcohol consumption.


In terms of overall policy, 'sustainable contraction', not sustainable development, might be a more honest description of the task facing humanity. Of course, at present it is a deeply unpopular perception since we live in a culture where expansion and progress are seen as synonymous. Nevertheless, from the broad perspective of human evolution, Industrial Growth Society will prove to be a short-lived aberration. An increasing number of scientists, most notably Professor E. O. Wilson, are producing evidence that not just our physical well-being but our psychological and spiritual health depends upon the resumption of a more modest role in the totality of life. It is the transition to that goal that is so difficult, not the destination.

But we should not confuse the goal with the flexible strategies that may be necessary to popularise it. Perhaps this is the final indictment of the sustainable development bandwagon. Far from preparing society for the mammoth task ahead, it is reinforcing the complacent view that we need to make only minor changes to the way we live.

In many areas supporters of sustainable development and those committed to a deeper ecological vision can find common ground and work together. Perhaps the most important challenge of today, however, is not in terms of specific initiatives. It is of a more conceptual nature--in our hearts and minds. At the level of core values and goals it becomes clear that what may seem to be merely two different routes to the same destination are, in reality, radically different and fundamentally incompatible perceptions about both the human prospect and the place of humanity within nature's order.

* Sandy Irvine (Environmental Policy Unit, University of Northumbria, 22, Ellison Place, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 85T) is working on secondment as the Environmental Curriculum Development Officer at the University of Northumbria, seeking ways to introduce green issues into the curriculum. He co-authored A GREEN MANIFESTO (London: Optima, 1988) and subsequently wrote BEYOND GREEN CONSUMERISM (London: Friends of the Earth, 1989). He co-edits a quarterly ecological and political magazine, REAL WORLD, and is an associate editor of THE ECOLOGIST.
Text reference: "The Cornucopia Scam," WILD EARTH 5(1):76-80, Spring 1995.