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 Global Perspective

April 30, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 5

global perspective
Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian liberation theologian and author of "Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor: Ecology and Liberation, a New Paradigm," Orbis Books. He is also a member of the execuive committee of the Earth Charter Organization. To learn more, follow these links: These links are provided as a service to our readers.



(Editor's Note: "Sustainable development" has become a catchphrase in international development circles. It can embrace projects as diverse as village-based micro banks and corporate foreign direct investment in Third World countries.

The phrase, born during the U.N. Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, has in fact become institutionalized in the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), which operates under the guidance of "Agenda 21", a so-called "blueprint for the 21st century" drafted by participants of the Rio Earth Summit to set standards and goals for nations to achieve in their sustainable development efforts.

Some -- people like Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff -- question the concept's legitimacy.)

(Un)sustainable Development

By Leonardo Boff

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- "Sustainable development" has become a magical formula with which the world system of production pretends to solve the problems that itself has created. No matter how official it be, "sustainable development" is a contradiction in terms and an illusion.

It is a contradiction since the two terms are mutually exclusive.

The category "development" comes from the area of the dominant economy. It obeys the iron logic of maximalization of benefits with the minimalization of investment in terms of both money and time. To meet this end, all productive forces are assembled in order to extract from the Earth literally everything that is consumable. The Earth is tortured by technoscience and is subjected to a systematic assault on its soil and subsoil and on its atmosphere and oceanic riches. The result is a fantastic production of material goods and services that are unfairly distributed. This imbalance is destroying peace among the peoples and threatening the biosphere, which is being subjected to an almost intolerable stress.

The category "sustainability," coming from the field of biology and ecology, signals the tendency of the ecosystems to dynamic equilibrium and emphasizes the interdependency of all systems, guaranteeing the inclusion of every being, even of the weakest. It is obvious that to link this concept of sustainability to that of development as outlined above is a complete nonsense. The logic of sustainability is contrary to this type of "development."

The concept of "sustainable development" is a contradiction in terms because it proposes as a cause that which is in fact an effect.

"Sustainable development" says poverty is the cause of ecological degradation. Therefore, the less poverty and the more development, the less ecological degradation. If, however, one analyzes the real causes of poverty and degradation, one sees that they are precisely the result of the type of development that is being practiced in the world today. It exploits people by impoverishing them and it exhausts nature's resources by degrading it.

So, the political use of the expression "sustainable development" is a trap set by the prevailing political system. Using this ecological terminology (sustainability) empties it of its meaning, thereby disguising the true cause of the social and ecological problem (i.e., development), which is the prevailing political system itself.

Finally, the expression "sustainable development" is an illusion. It postulates a development that moves between two infinities: the infinity of the Earth's resources and the infinity of the future. Such a scenario requires the Earth's resources be inexhaustible and the future limitless. Well, these two infinities are illusory: the resources are finite and the future is limited. If India wanted to be as England is, it would need two Earths to exploit, as Gandhi ironically used to say in the '50s.

"Sustainable development" is not a panacea, but a placebo. To insist on applying it is to deceive the patient, killing him or her, perhaps. This is the danger for the biosphere. To understand this contradiction is to understand why the Earth Summit in Rio '92 and in Johannesburg '02 ended in impasse.

We must focus on sustainability and not development. We need a sustainable Earth, a sustainable society and a sustainable human life. Without this there can be no sustainable development. This is what the lords of "(un)sustainable development" do not understand at all.

The Titanic is leaking water on every side. We have no time to lose. We have to wake up otherwise it will be too late. This is not being apocalyptic, but simply realistic.

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