The term, sustainable development, is a contradiction. Quantitative growth has proven not to be sustainable because infinite quantitative growth requires even greater use of our finite ecosystem.
The environmentalist Johan Rockström describes the heresy of an economy growing at the expense of the very raw resources that allow it to exist, "The world population increases, consumption increases, but the Earth, she, does not increase." We do not have more than one livable planet.
A more balanced solution may be what I call sustainable harmony. In light of the current world situation, it seems wiser to pursue qualitative growth based on better living conditions rather than trying to achieve quantitative growth based on ever-increasing consumption. The respect for human values embodied in altruism contributes to a pragmatic method of how best to achieve sustainable harmony.
It provides people with a decent way of life and reduces inequality while ceasing to exploit the planet at such a drastic speed. It is a proven fact that unbridled material growth is not a necessity for well-being.
In order to create and maintain this harmony, we must reduce the rampant consumption that takes place in rich countries on one hand, and, on the other, lift a billion people out of poverty. Is it useful to have a rich and all-powerful nation populated by unhappy people?
A well functioning, positive society must provide an appropriate way of life for the present generation by alleviating poverty, while at the same time serving future generations by staving off the planet's destruction. According to this perspective, quantitative growth should be secondary to establishing a balance between people's present aspirations and a sustainable harmony that factors in the fortunes of generations to come.
This can only be made possible in a context where altruism and cooperation prevail. Only the realization of these two goals will allow us to overcome the challenge of reconciling the demands of prosperity, quality of life, and environmental protection, for the short-, medium-, and long-term. Altruistic behavior is not just an idealistic endeavor, but a solution to the complex dilemmas we are all facing.
Reference: Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., ... others. (2015). "Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet." Science, 1259855.
Photo by Matthieu Ricard.