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"Sustainable Development" is Oxymoronic

Updated on March 31, 2013

Development is a systemic trajectory of change whereby energy resources become progressively marshaled, by way of growth and differentiation, toward the realization of a specific end. Thus, whether we are speaking of economic development, ecological development, organismal development, or meteorological development, we are referring to the same general pattern of change: a trajectory wherein a relatively indeterminate situation, milieu or primordium is transformed into a highly specified system of energy-consuming processes whose very existence depends on said consumption. In the limit, development produces what amounts to a fully determined machine that specializes in (is specifically ‘designed’ for) carrying out some form of work that dissipates an available resource.

In other words, development is that which gives rise to dependency. Mechanisms emerge developmentally, as do habits and addictions.

Implicit then in the concept of development is an end, or telos—the Greek word that is the root of the term ‘teleology’. Since development is (by definition) a trajectory of systemic change toward a defined end, it implies the Aristotelian concept of final cause: the need-fulfilling goal or purpose toward which any given action is directed. Developmental actions are inherently teleological. This does not in any way imply that they are conscious or intelligent. A tornado develops to a defined end without consciousness or intelligence. It is nevertheless 'well-designed' to do what it does, which is to dissipate a thermal energy gradient. The ‘goal’ of the tornado is to carry out the dissipative mandate of the second law of thermodynamics.

A number of natural philosophers have thus proposed that the final cause of any natural phenomenon is the second law: systems develop in order to dissipate free energy. That is why life developed on earth, and why an organism, through ontogeny, develops specific anatomical and physiological features that are 'well-designed' to degrade a specific energy resource—whether it be provided by the sun (degraded by plants) or stored in another organism (degraded by animals, fungi, and heterotrophic micro-organisms). The goal of the trophic web of life is to dissipate whatever chemical energy is available to be dissipated. It is no accident then that on earth, life is found wherever there is an energy-rich resource.

Nor is it an accident that human beings are working toward the same ultimate goal, by developing technologies directed toward the dissipation of the resources present in fossil fuels and nuclear materials. Arguably, this end is the final cause for the development of any technological civilization.

Sadi Carnot (1796-1832)
Sadi Carnot (1796-1832)

Development and Evolution

Although "development" and "evolution" are often used interchangeably, it is useful to distinguish between them. Following Stan Salthe, I define development as the predictable maturation of a system owing to growth in the face of limited resources, whereas evolution is unpredictable change engendered by random chance, subject to natural selection. Development establishes the context for natural selection, and hence for evolution. But while development implies a defined end, evolution does not. Development of a system typically progresses through canonical stages of immaturity, maturity, and senescence. As I see it, the reason evolutionary change often occurs in fits and starts--"punctuated equilibria"--is that the opportunities for creative change are maximized in immature systems that are nested within senescent systems, which provide sustenance on the one hand, but little resistance to growth of the immature system on the other. It appears to me that civilization is currently entering senescence, so opportunities for evolutionary change abound. But what that will amount to and where it will lead is difficult if not impossible to predict.

Because development is a one-way trajectory of systemic change toward a defined end, there is no such thing as “sustainable development”: the phrase is oxymoronic. “Sustainable development” is no more realistic than the “perpetual motion machine” sought by engineers in the early nineteenth century, before Sadi Carnot discovered that (what later became known as) the second law of thermodynamics makes such a thing quite impossible. The second law is the reason that the arrow of time is unidirectional, and the reason that development becomes increasingly (and competitively) selective for a subset of systemic processes, producing a trajectory of increasing determinacy (and dependency) that increases the efficiency of the task toward which those processes are directed, and the efficacy of their energy dissipation. Development must come to an end however, because once a system has achieved the maximum efficiency possible for a given form of work, all available degrees of freedom for further development of that particular system have been sacrificed. At that point the only choices that the system has for changing its modus operandi (while still remaining intact) are de-development, i.e., transformation to a less mature (i.e., more indeterminate) configuration, or the launching of a completely new developmental trajectory that is directed toward dissipating a different resource. Such a trajectory must by necessity begin in a state of relative indeterminacy. If successfully launched, it will create a new system (resultng in evolutionary change).

Although development is not itself sustainable, the end that it constructs can be sustained indefinitely if (and only if) the resource that is being dissipated is not limited. Thus, a forest will develop to a mature steady-state ‘climax’ that is sustained by the essentially limitless energy of the sun. This stage represents the culmination of development however—the climax forest cannot develop further. It is fully determined, and will only change into something different if it is perturbed so as to revert to a less mature state (e.g. by a forest fire).

Peak Oil
Peak Oil | Source

Arrested Development

Although development is not sustainable, it can be suspended by balancing growth with attrition. This occurs in some animals (e.g. Hydra), or in some of our tissues (e.g. skin, intestine, blood), in which growth continues indefinitely (via cell proliferation) but is balanced by cell death. So one way to keep growing in the face of limited albeit renewable resources is to discard "the old" in order to make room for "the new". Of course, space itself is a resource, as is the ecological network in which a system exists. So it behooves the system to recycle that which is discarded, and to keep whatever waste is created as non-toxic as possible.

But when resources are limited—as they are for example when a tornado develops to dissipate thermal gradients, or when a civilization develops to dissipate fossil fuels—then the system that develops by virtue of those resources cannot be sustained. Depletion of the sustaining resource leaves only two alternatives: catastrophic collapse (death) of the system, or its de-development, via de-growth and/or de-differentiation, to a configuration that can be sustained by whatever resources remain. Either way, at least part of the system will be sacrificed. With de-development, the parts that are most specialized (i.e. most dependent on a specific resource) are the ones that “get the axe”.

This is a reality that many (perhaps most) of us appear not to have yet come to grips with. Development is inherently unsustainable. And when the final cause of development is the dissipation of a limited resource, the system that develops must eventually come to an end.

So, to avoid catastrophic collapse, human civilization has the following options:

(1) It can discover and then develop a new energy resource compatible with (i.e., with enough free energy to support) the extensive system of dependencies that have already developed. Some possibilities that have been touted include hydrogen, bio-fuels (e.g. produced by genetically engineered algae), and thorium-based nuclear power. None of these has yet been developed to a high enough level of certainty to know whether they are at all realistic, and what their costs (in terms of human and ecological health etc.) might eventually be.

(2) It can de-grow, by way of decreased human reproduction and/or increased mortality, to a level that can be supported by available renewable resources (solar, hydro, wind, etc.), which by themselves are insufficient to support civilization at its current size and level of complexity. The path of decreased reproduction (which is already happening in many “developed” countries) would involve significantly less suffering than the path of increased mortality. Nevertheless, demographic trends indicate that increased mortality is inevitable within the coming decades.

Although option (1) would appear to be the most desirable, it is by no means assured, so working toward that option to the exclusion of option (2) increases the risk of catastrophic collapse. Unfortunately, economic de-growth is a path that very few economists are willing to even consider as an intentional strategy, and its pre-requisite, population reduction through birth-control, is actively opposed by many human cultures. So we are largely left with (1), and can only hope that science and technology will hit the jackpot, and come up with a new resource to develop to a rate of throughput that suffices to support our current rate of consumption. It’s a gamble and race against time, and every year that goes by without launching a new developmental trajectory, based on an as-yet untapped resource, brings us closer to catastrophic collapse.

Tick tock.....

What do you think will happen?

See results

Further Reading

My book with Don Mikulecky, Global Insanity (2012, Emergent Publications), explores this topic in greater depth.


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    • Joyus Crynoid profile imageAUTHOR

      Joyus Crynoid 

      8 years ago from Eden

      Thanks Letitia. I'd be curious to hear what your friend has to say. Epistemology has become a favorite subject of mine of late (although truth be told I don't really 'know' much about it!). Semantics is another. I guess whether you believe development is sustainable or not depends on how you define the words. Be that as it may, I think the basic argument I made here about the existential problem confronting civilization is valid, whatever words are used to describe it.

    • LetitiaFT profile image


      8 years ago from Paris via California

      It's interesting to see that the answers to your poll are equally divided for the moment between a new high-energy power source and catastrophic collapse, and that only one person thus far has deemed de-development plausible.

      Your article is fascinating. I'm going to pass it on to an epistemologist friend at the National Natural History Museum here in Paris who, incidentally, wrote about an interesting decision that was made a few years ago at state level in France just as the notion of sustainable development was becoming "popular." It involved a deliberate shift away from "développement soutenable" which is closest to the English, to "développement durable" meaning lasting development, which is more in line with what you're saying here. Obviously, the semantic gap is huge. You wouldn't believe how the chosen term is being applied in all of French industry now, with few who remember that social and environment were ever part of the configuration.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile imageAUTHOR

      Joyus Crynoid 

      10 years ago from Eden

      "Maintaining a balance should be our priority."

      Exactly so! Thanks mrpopo.

    • mrpopo profile image


      10 years ago from Canada

      Very intriguing, and I agree. Our exponential population growth is going to reduce the quality of life very quickly and eventually our previous lifestyle will not be possible.

      Your skin cell example is perfect in outlining this. That sort of arrested development is a balance. I can't help but think of our present situation as what happens when growth isn't regulated, like the growth of a tumour.

      Unfortunately, as optimistic as I find the development of new technology, I simply can't see it developing faster than our population. That's why it slightly bothers me that we focus on reducing our expenditures in energy and water, which isn't bad in itself but in reality if we can't keep up with these expenses we should stop growing until better technology comes along.

      Maintaining a balance should be our priority. I can't say whether our not our present technology can support any further growth (I mean it can, but with declines in quality of life I wouldn't say it's beneficial), but since our current growth is exponential it's probable we'll surpass it in a short time anyway.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile imageAUTHOR

      Joyus Crynoid 

      10 years ago from Eden

      Secularist--I agree with you for the most part. I don't think conventional nucs will save us, although I am intrigued by the prospects of thorium. I am also not a fan of Kurzweil's "singularity" scenario. Mainly because I think it is based on a mis-conception of life. So even if something along those lines does come to pass, I suspect it would produce something like the Borg in Star Trek TNG, or possibly the machine world in "The Matrix". Either outcome would suck.

      Lonestar--Good points all. I agree that my definition of development may be too limited, but I made it that way intentionally in order to capture a phenomenology of systemic maturation that I think is generally overlooked in discourses concerned with the nature of change. Systems clearly do mature, and many overshoot that and become sensescent, which is a developmental phenomenon. But they can also keep renewing themselves in ways that you suggest. I would call this evolutionary rather than developmental change...

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 

      10 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Profound and well-thought-out, but perhaps not entirely complete.

      You've given one definition for "development," that is perhaps compelling, but not entirely convincing. You've shackled the idea of development with the notion that it is a fixed entity. It need not be. For example, development can start with fossil fuels and grow into new forms of energy production and consumption. That's something called "power change," where a system reaches its best potential and shifts into a new game. Humanity is not too swift ("intelligent") on this technique, yet.

      The idea of "sustainable growth" is also problematic for some of the same reasons you mentioned. One resource for which humanity will easily run out of, is space, unless we get really good at space travel, terraforming and interstellar flight.

      Then, of course, there is the refinement of the term "sustainable." It's not an oxymoron to consider as valid sustainability over a certain period of time. Fossil fuels had its day. Solar energy might have a longer runway--and during the length of that runway we could validly say that growth or development were sustainable. Here we're talking about finite sustainability rather than infinite, but "finite" can be for a billion years.

      One wicked element in the game of humans on Earth involves ego. With this element in play, sustainability is much less certain for even the finite "runway" variety. It is a force every bit as powerful as entropy.

      And perpetual motion? The coarse, macro-level machines invented by man fall down on this quest because of friction. That's the big gotcha. But remove friction, and we have perpetual motion all around us--electrons orbiting their atomic nuclei. And on a larger scale, planets and moons orbiting their primaries.

      Development is sustainable, I wager, if it can change to meet new conditions. Civilization might not look anything like it did a few centuries earlier, but it would still be civilization--sustained and thriving.

    • secularist10 profile image


      10 years ago from New York City

      I think one can imagine a scenario where significantly increased computing power enables physicists, chemists and others to play around with all sorts of chemical compounds and simulate complex scenarios involving trade-offs and limited resources, from the comfort of a desktop. All without needing to purchase materials, build laboratories to test the stuff or set up government commissions to study the long term impact of X fuel source. (Also, although it is a bad time at the moment to talk about it, nuclear fuel is really an excellent source.)

      I will also offer up this long but interesting article on rapid technological advance. Some believe technology will advance so fast in the coming decades that by the end of this century we will be all but immortal, and in a few hundred years we'll have command over all the matter in the universe.,8599,204...

      Seems crazy at first, until you realize it actually makes some sense. I'm not saying I'm a follower of this, but it's definitely food for thought. I think the truth is probably somewhere in between.

      I agree that low-to-no *population* growth is desirable. However, we can still have indefinite economic growth, for the simple reason that "economies" and "value" are simply concepts in our heads, once basic needs are met. We can imagine, for example, a future where almost all "economic" activity is in the service sector--rooted in the endless resource of human creativity and imagination and salesmanship.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile imageAUTHOR

      Joyus Crynoid 

      10 years ago from Eden

      Mentalist acer--good question. I would say we are fully constrained by nature, but that we don't know all of her secrets...

      Secularist--I agree with all of your points except the last. Even Moore's law has its limits. And the "as long as we have enough fossil fuel for the next century or so" is a mighty big if, given that we are already probably on the downhill slope of peak oil. Finally, all the computing power in the world won't produce the new insights needed for fundamental change, which is what needs to happen to avoid collapse.

      That being said, I find optimism (or at least hope) in the fact that many of the younger generation are catching on (at least those that escape religious indoctrination) and have a chance of figuring out creative solutions. The most important thing is to begin to bring the population down. But we can't do that within our current economic model, which relies on growth. We need to develop no-growth (or at least low-growth) economies, which will require major psycho-socio-cultural change...

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 

      10 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      Yea!Moore's Law.;)

    • secularist10 profile image


      10 years ago from New York City

      Fascinating stuff as always, Joyus.

      It is worth noting that human civilizations have undergone countless catastrophic collapses before our current prosperity--Rome, Greece, Spain, and many Chinese empires to name a few. Indeed, for the thousands of years preceding the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels, de-development and collapse were kind of routine.

      As various societies expanded and grew--without tapping new energy sources unknown to their forefathers--famine, civil strife, war over limited land and resources, and overall declines in wealth were inevitable. So even if our current era of prosperity in the west comes to an end, there is no reason to think it will be "the end." It might just take a while--maybe millennia--before humans discover a new, more potent source of energy. But as long as we aren't all wiped out by a giant asteroid, it will probably happen eventually.

      There is at least one major reason for optimism, and for thinking that our prosperity can continue more or less unabated in the coming decades and centuries: the exponential growth in technological development and computing power, typified by Moore's Law, that we are currently enjoying. This single phenomenon gives us reason to believe that, as long as we have enough fossil fuel for the next century or so to power ever-more advanced computers, we will be able to solve countless problems, including the question of continued prosperity growth. (Again, assuming the asteroid thing doesn't happen.)

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 

      10 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      Can man evolve beyond the enviromental constraints,you could say there's got to be a first time for everything,or are we doomed to the cycles of nature?

    • Joyus Crynoid profile imageAUTHOR

      Joyus Crynoid 

      10 years ago from Eden

      Thanks JR--I hope you and Bob Marley are right. Live long and prosper!

    • jrsearam profile image


      10 years ago from San Juan, PR

      Like the ostrich with its head in the sand, I say everything's gonna be alright! Besides, it won't be long before the Federation of Planets decides we are ready to join and we can begin to enjoy the benefits of other civilization's more advanced technologies. Live long and prosper, brother JC. BTW, very always.....JR


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