The “Myth of Sustainable Development?”

The “Myth of Sustainable Development?”

One problem, experts opine, is that “there's no consensus about what ‘sustainable development’ actually means and how it should be measured.” To which I agree – it is *a* challenge.

The subhead to the article reads, “Sustainable development won't solve environmental crises, say these experts. It's simpler than that.”

But is it? Is it simpler than ‘that,’ whatever ‘that’ is?
Sustainability is unrealistic and we need to go back to basics, say experts
Some experts say the concept of sustainable development has been hijacked by corporate interests and inconsistent standards has allowed many to game the system.

The first 80% of the article presents an argument that the status quo of sustainable development efforts is doomed to fail, despite institutional (i.e., UN), corporate, and popular support and interest.

Dr Christopher Barnatt, from the website ExplainingTheFuture.com, describes sustainability as a ‘dangerous’ concept. “It gives the impression,” he is quoted, “that we could all go on living exactly as we live today but sustainably — with this sort of magic thing wrapped around it.”

But does it though? Does being sustainable mean living exactly as we live today? I would argue that many, if not most people I know in cocoa and chocolate, know that being sustainable requires significant changes in behavior.

“The answer,” Dr Barnatt continued, “is not only to consume less but to value more. We don't have to go back that far to find generations of people who saved up to purchase objects which they kept, in many cases, for a lifetime. They valued the things they had. Consuming less doesn't necessarily mean having a less material world. It just has to be a material world in which we have the things we have for a longer period of time.”

How is turning back the clock of capitalism 50+ years a simple solution?

While I agree in spirit with parts of the arguments being made (I think it might be a part of a solution), the challenge I have is that the proffered fix to sustainable development is abstract and ... academic. There are no proposed method by which this vision could realistically be achieved. Much (all?) of modern capitalism is based on the notions of disposability and planned obsolescence.

Moving from what I think of as extractive capitalism to what I like to refer to as regenerative capitalism would require restructuring the entire legal framework of global capital markets. The essence of Milton Friedman/Chicago School economic theory is that maximizing shareholder return is the only measure of success for publicly traded companies, with a myopic focus on the next 90 days.


I don’t have a solution to the challenges presented in this article. What I do have is a response to how to define sustainability, from which it should be possible to create a framework for how to measure success against that definition. Two caveats drove my thinking in developing and refining my definition:

  • The components must be presented as commitments, not goals.
  • The definition must be easy to understand.

Two of my fundamental problems with the UN SDGs are a) they are framed in complicated language, and b) they are independent where, in fact, there are complex interdependencies that must be explicitly acknowledged if the challenges are going to be successfully addressed.

The true benchmark for sustainability is generational, and here is my working definition of sustainability in the context of cocoa and chocolate.

  1. Environmental Sustainability – the cacao trees and their supporting and dependent ecosystems need to be managed so they are healthy and thriving 100 years from now;
  2. Economic Sustainability – cacao farming families need to earn a sufficient return for their labor and skill, with enough additional income to fulfill environmental sustainability objectives;

    An important aspect of both environmental and economic sustainability, in my view, is that no externalities are tolerated – impact and costs must be acknowledged and paid for on annual balance sheets, not pushed off onto others to remediate and pay for, especially at taxpayer expense.
  3. Social Sustainability – cacao farming families live in communities that need to be healthy and thriving 100 years from now;
  4. Market Sustainability – there need to be sufficient upstream markets that are willing to pay what it takes to pay for achieving the environmental, economic, and social sustainability objectives, or why do the work in the first place?;
  5. ResilienceMonocultures of ideas are more harmful than monocropping. It is necessary, to mash metaphors, to throw lots of different kinds of past against lots of different types of vertical surfaces to see what sticks – and then to propagate best practices that are contextually relevant. There is no single silver bullet solution that will address all ills.

Featured Image: original photo by quokkabottles on Unsplash


Your thoughts? Did I miss something or misinterpret the argument? Let us know in the comments.

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