Current Economic Development is Unsustainable. How Can We Reverse this Trend?

January 18, 2018 • EMERGING TRENDS, Capitalism in the 21st Century, Climate Change & Society, World Development

By Jacques Prescott

In 1987, with the publication of the Brundtland report, the world was confronted once again with the dire reality of a collapsing environment and the concept of sustainable development emerged as a solution. Thirty years later, despite tremendous efforts at the global and local levels, real progress towards sustainability seems to be deterred by the dark forces of the markets, financial systems and corporate lobbies.  What can be done to reverse the situation and achieve sustainable results?


Sustainable Development, A Promising Concept

Following an international consultation chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was then the Prime Minister of Norway, the UN Commission on Environment and Development published “Our Common Future”.1 This report described the daunting environmental problems of the 1980s: uncontrolled population growth, excessive deforestation and grazing, destruction of tropical forests, extinction of living species, increased greenhouse effect causing climate change, acid rain, erosion of the stratospheric ozone layer, etc. It also emphasised social-economic issues and in particular the perverse effects of unbridled economic growth and over-consumption of resources by the better-off.

The Commission proposed a definition of sustainable development that is still widely recognised and seen as a beacon to guide our efforts towards a better world: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The Brundtland report succeeded in demonstrating that the global economy and ecology are deeply intertwined. Beyond the economic interdependence of nations, we must now deal with their ecological interdependence. Since the development crisis is global, the solutions must be as well.

To this end, the report proposed a series of strategic objectives that included changing the quality of economic growth, controlling demographics, meeting basic human needs, preserving and enhancing the resource base, taking into account the environment in developing new technologies and integrating ecological and economic concerns into decision-making.

Brundtland identified solutions that apply on a global scale. For example, reduce energy consumption in industrialised countries and develop renewable energies, encourage massive reforestation in countries affected by desertification, implement tax and land reforms to reduce pressures on ecosystems and adopt an international convention for the protection of biodiversity. Although these measures were aimed primarily at protecting the environment, the Brundtland Report stressed the importance of combating poverty and injustice, which are both causes and effects of environmental problems.

To realise and finance this ecological shift, the Brundtland Commission requested to reform international institutions, notably the World Bank and the IMF, which should better take into account social and environmental objectives and alleviate the debt of the poorest countries. The Commission also recommended a reorientation of military spending for the fight against poverty and inequality and challenged large companies to engage in more responsible production and consumption.

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About the Author

Jacques Prescott M.Sc., is a biologist and a consultant working for international and local organisations, author of several books, articles, reports and guidelines related to biodiversity and sustainable development policies, strategies and action plans. He is Associate Professor and Chair on eco-advising at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, Canada.



1. The World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 400 p.
2. Ripple, W. J. et al., 2017. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. BioScience, Oxford Academics.
3. Brown, J.H., 2015. The Oxymoron of Sustainable Development. Bioscience 65(10):1027-1029
4. Tremblay, R., 2013. The Fed’s Monetary Policy of Zero Interest Rates. Global Research, March 05, 2013.
5. UN Environment and the World Bank Group, 2017. Roadmap for a Sustainable Financial System.
6. Zero Hedge, 2016. Every Single Bloody Market Is Manipulated.
7. Holden, P., 2017. Indefensible – Seven Myths That Sustain the Global Arms Trade. Zed Books, U.K.
8. Beaudoin, D. 2016. Quels pays ont le plus augmenté leur budget militaire? La réponse en carte. Radio-Canada, 20 mai 2016.
9. Crawford, N.C., 2017. United States Budgetary Costs of Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2018: A Summary of the $5.6 Trillion in Costs for the US Wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Post-9/11 Veterans Care and Homeland Security. Watson Institute, Brown University.
10. Tremblay, R., 2010. The Code for Global Ethics: Ten Humanist Principles. Prometheus Books.
11. Jurdant, M., 1984. Le défi écologiste. Éditions du Boréal Express, Montréal, 432 p.

6 Responses to Current Economic Development is Unsustainable. How Can We Reverse this Trend?

  1. Fraser Liscumb says:

    In 1994 a Canadian realized that the 1989 economic downturn had just started to remove the foundation to a sustainable economic future. so developed a more 21st-century approach that did not change what humans do, but how they do it. Brought together a community supercluster using students, unemployed, several local inventors and small business operators to introduce the Canadian government to community incubators, and accelerators. thinking. Using a social Enterprise structure.Managed by what he called a resource based Investment system and Software. Most know the software now as Blockchain Technology. Using a more sustainable form of Crowd and resource funding system.. Tested all aspects of the system to show its potential or negative results when 20th century thinking was used to manage the effort . from 1995 to 2010 and now restructuring to use the new technologies available to see if it can finish what it started in 1995. Sustainable change is coming , just require time and removing or retraining 20th-century formally train leadership to accept there is a better way to address the problems by using innovation and collaboration to remove money and self-interest from being at the head of the table to being at the table to help not hinder the transformation from 20th-century thinking that money and self-interest are the only things of value . to a 21st century where sustainability is the only thing of value for all; not just a privileged few. Unfortunately, change usually only comes the hard way. so would say it going to be an interesting decade of change.

    • prescoja says:

      As I mentioned in the paper, the way to a sustainable future must be based on raising awareness, demystifying quantitative progress, proposing alternative lifestyles, and encouraging a democratic public debate. We must also educate young and old at the principles of sustainable development, further regulate and reduce the power of the financial community, focus on subsidiarity, empower leaders, promote independent information, and especially recognize the influence of interest groups.
      Jacques Prescott

  2. JDrolet says:

    Dear Jacques,
    like Siglitz, I do not believe that the institutions like IMF can walk the talk. I believe it can only come from the grassroot and I believe it has started. This means that the small and medium entreprises are going to make the difference. Then the bigger institutions will support and finally large corporations will not have the choice. And as always I do not see the individuals belonging to large institutions, goverments, nor those working in large corporations as corrupt or with bad will. But to “phoenix” ethic in a globalised world, we need to cultivate in all of us the abilities to think sustainable, emphatic and global. In that, we Academia failed. But that is another story. To work on

  3. This sounds very real and interesting.You have really addressed real issues especially that i’m much involved in environmental issues,i have gained interest in discussing environmental protection and conservation in particular including biodiversity conservation.YES, the environmental sector plays a key role than any other sector when it comes to development.Therefore, there is need to look at the sector very seriously.There is need to invest more in the environmental sector as it plays a critical role in development in terms of improving agriculture yields,reducing poverty,creating employment and improving people’s livelihoods.

    • prescoja says:

      No form of development can be achieved in a destroyed environment. How can you survive without clean air, water and food? Environmental protection is an inescapable condition to a better future.
      Jacques Prescott

  4. Hi Jacques! This is an idea that you might like:

    Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
    Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
    After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
    The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
    If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.

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