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If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant. If what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone. If this remains undone, then morals and acts deteriorate and justice goes astray. Hence, there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.


The Sustainable Development Puzzle: We are faced with two problems: the first is to determine why sustainable development is so difficult to understand at a practical level and the second is to discover what it is about sustainable development that makes it better than just plain development in the first place. Literature on these topics seems to suggest that at least some of the answers to both problems reside in whether or not the conflicts created by the development process are discovered sufficiently early and treated sufficiently well.

For example, political agreement, cost efficiency, local input, and sectoral integration are all important pieces of a development decision and decisions taken which ignore any of these pieces often lead to failure (Buckles 1998). Seldom, however, do development actions fall short because resources are inadequately assessed or because the needs are misread. Failure occurs because one or more of the many conflicting demands made by humans on the systems they share are not discovered early enough, are known but not included in the analysis and treatment, or, there is no consensus gathered around the process, the product, or both. The reactions of unsatisfied or disenfranchised affected parties (including a significant portion of the political establishment) are what make development proposals and actions fail. They do so because of unresolved conflict.11

11There are certainly other reasons why development fails, or, better, why "de-development" exists. Among these are war, civil strife, corruption, xenophobia, arrogance, incompetence, and the occurrence of natural hazardous events. It is interesting that many of these causes of "de-development" are also amenable to the methods used to reduce development conflict: transparency, participation, integration, dispute resolution, and equity. For a short discussion of these topics and their relationship to sustainable development see Saunier, R. E. 1999. "Sustainable Development, Global Sustainability." In, Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Edited by David E. Alexander and Rhodes W. Fairbridge. Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Pp. 587-92.
This is important since failed development actions are examples of unsustainability. Conflicts in development can seemingly come out of nowhere. However, a look at the current debates on sustainable development suggests that, rather than coming out of nowhere, they follow from many of the most widely accepted beliefs, definitions, and concepts of sustainable development itself.

Definitions: Prior to the Earth Summit, numerous definitions of sustainable development were offered but most often they represented variations of the definitions given in the report of the Bruntland Commission or in the World Conservation Strategy. On the other hand, post Earth Summit definitions of sustainable development are conspicuously absent; speakers and writers on the topic have become embarrassingly adept at skirting the issue altogether. They need not do so, however, because finding a consensus definition of sustainable development, at this point in time, is simply not important. What is important is the extensive list of sustainable development's most cherished words, concepts and understandings that unintentionally mislead because they are incomplete, misunderstood, or totally in error. They are a guaranteed source of conflict.

Human Environment. For example, "environment" is perhaps the most often used yet least understood term employed in the search for sustainable development. The word has been misused for decades, of course, and only recently have writers begun to use it in a way that describes what it has always meant: anything outside an object of interest that influences the health, welfare and behavior of that object at a given moment in time.12 Thus, like all environments, human environments are predominately local, always personal, and continuously transitory-and there are a great many of them.13 Any definition or use of the term "human environment" that faithfully describes its concept will show that, outside of naming a specific time, a specific place, and a specific owner, something called the environment does not exist. More importantly, solutions to the problems of environment and development obligate us to understand the term as a plural rather than as a singular. "Who's environment?" is a very important question. It is the question asked by the developing countries in Stockholm and again in Rio de Janeiro.14 To answer that there is only "the environment" hides conflict instead of managing it, misguides development choices, and, therefore, misdirects energy and resources.

12A human environment is "the compendium of natural, social, and cultural values existing in a given place and moment that influences the material and psychological life of man" (Pequeño Larousse) and "all the conditions, circumstances, and influences surrounding and affecting the development of an organism or group of organisms" (Webster).

13See Hawley, Amos H. 1986. Human Ecology: A Theoretical Essay. Chicago, Ill. The University of Chicago Press; Gallopin, G. 1981. "Human Systems: Needs, requirements, environments and quality of life." Lasker, G.E. editor: Applied systems and Cybernetics. New York. Pergamon Press; and Platt, R.B. 1971. Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. New York. McGraw-Hill.

14See the discussion above on Environmental Protection pages 7-8.

Environmental quality has to do with how well the specific environment where we happen to find ourselves satisfies our needs. Thus, because each of us lives in a different and changing environment, environmental quality can be good for some and poor for others. Some environments are rich and rewarding. Others are totally lacking in the means required to satisfy human needs (Saunier 1991). Furthermore, without substantial effort to the contrary, work to improve one individual's environment will deteriorate the environment of another. Thinking of environment as a plural allows isolation and treatment of problems. Thinking of environment as a singular confounds the issues. The first responds as much as possible to the complexity of our universe, while the second oversimplifies to an extreme. The first allows us to understand the sources of conflict, the second hides conflict until it explodes and becomes unmanageable.

What about "the environment" of planet Earth? Does it exist? Most certainly. However, that environment has little to do with the way most individuals or groups perceive the problems found in their own private and local environments (Saarinen 1974). What about the ozone hole and climate change? Are they not environmental problems? Certainly they are. However, the citizens of island nations and extreme latitudes are much more concerned about these issues than are those individuals living in areas that are higher in elevation and nearer the equator. They live in different environments altogether.

Nature and Natural Resources. One of the myths surrounding the issue of sustainable development closely ties sustainability to an assumed "balance of nature" where disturbances initiated by humans lead to disharmony, development failure, and, ultimately, chaos. However, science has discovered this balance, when it occurs, to be highly dependent on the scales of time and space. Indeed, for all practical purposes, this kind of balance does not last and development must either adapt to change or fail. Change takes place in any of the goals of development as well as in the resources available to service the demands humans make on the systems that surround them. Because nature is always changing, adaptability of development is as important for its sustainability as is conservation of the status quo.

Discussions of the use and protection of natural resources have been around for as long as humans have sat around campfires. Both human need and natural resources have evolved considerably. For example, Allen (1955) cited the natural resource groupings at that time as, "waters, soils, forests, grasslands, wild-animal life, and minerals." He proposed his own classification of sixteen (Box 1) and the tendency to disagregate, mix, and match continues (Box 2). Today, a list of the "resources" available from any relatively large ecosystem would contain at least a hundred and a new list needs to be developed for each and every ecosystem as it is being studied or treated. This is because the definition of "resource" is very much dependent on the needs and wants of a given individual or population and not just on the characteristics of the structure and function of the ecosystem in question (Meganck and Saunier 1983).

Box 1: Natural Resource Grouping according to Allen (1955)

Inexhaustible natural resources

Human powers

The Atmosphere

Those of the body

Water in its cycle

Those of the spirit

Replaceable and maintainable natural resources

Irreplaceable natural resources

Water in place



Mineral fuels and lubricants

Land in its spatial sense

Miscellaneous non-fuel, non-metallics

For human activities

Land in natural condition

For the scene and other amenities

Natural study areas


Specimen wildernesses

Forage and other cover plants

Wild animal life

For these very reasons natural resources are today variously called "environmental services" (Dasgupta 1982), "ecosystem services" (Ehrlich and Moony 1983), "natural goods and services" (OAS 1984), or "environmental functions" (DeGroot 1987). Making a distinction between resources and services allowed two important advances in environmental management: a) the economic valuation of specific services that before were impossible to make since they were confounded by their aggregation; and, b) the identification and management of conflicts arising from the design and execution of development projects based on but one or a few of these services.

Economic valuation of specific services, something that has tremendous value at the level of local studies, has led to oft-quoted figures for the value of "the world's ecosystem services and natural capital" of between 16 and 54 trillion US dollars per year (Costanza et al. 1997). However, the figures are also just as often criticized by economists for the authors' supposed use of inappropriate methods of analysis, and by conservationists who suggest that the figures are a serious underestimate of infinity. Most often though, the study is criticized as being unrealistic in terms of how political decisions are made (Bauer 1997)-the study forgot about conflict and its management.

The need to disaggregate groupings of natural resources in order to locate potential conflicts is not a new idea. Herfendahl (1961), for example, looked at the meaning of natural resources in 1961 and correctly decided that statements regarding the use or conservation of a specific aggregated resource group would lead to problems:

Consider, for example, just a few of the various parties with at least partially conflicting interests in the way land and streams are used. There is irrigation vs. power, irrigation vs. domestic and industrial water use, uses requiring dams vs. the scenery, fishing, etc., associated with flowing streams, in particular the whole complex of benefits associated with flowing streams vs. domestic and industrial water use. There is the sand and gravel pit or the clay pit with its ugliness and sometimes dangerous pools of water vs. the residential area with its small children, logging vs. scenery, highways bringing a greater density of people to remote areas vs. solitude, logging and grazing vs. the people downstream who want a slower runoff, and so on.
He also correctly observed other reasons why conflicts occur: a resource for some is not a resource for others, a resource in one area may not be a resource somewhere else, and what is a resource now may not be a resource later and may not have been a resource at an earlier time. As can be seen, the concept of natural resources is now severely outdated and the emerging paradigm is telling us so.

Ecosystem Structure and Function. Ecosystem services arise from ecosystem structure and function. Ecosystems are arbitrarily defined pieces of space having biotic, physical, and chemical components (called structure and function) which interact to establish networks of information and energy flow, and cycles of materials (Smith 1972). Ecosystem structure and function, in turn, are both the foundation for, and often the result of, human efforts at development.

Both natural and human-derived components and processes are present to varying degrees in an ecosystem. Human activity can impair or improve any of these components and processes. When an ecosystem attribute, naturally occurring or human contrived, is used to improve or maintain human life quality, it is a service (Box 2). The process of photosynthesis, for example, produces food and fiber; water in its cycle can be used for drinking, irrigation, power generation, temperature control, or the fulfillment of aesthetic or recreational interest; and information is stored and transferred in the genetic makeup of individuals and populations, in libraries and classrooms and in the relationships we have with one another.

Manipulation of all of these to improve life quality (including manipulation for the objectives of conservation) is what we know as development. The problem is that the structure and function of systems are integrated and anything short of their integrated manipulation will create conflict. For example, water can be used to dilute contaminants or wastes and it can be used for human consumption or for bathing. However, both uses at the same time in the same place is impossible if life quality is to be improved. Only an integrated response will suffice.

Box 2: Potential goods and services arising from the natural components and processes of ecosystems (Meganck and Saunier, 1983).


Potable water: surface, ground

Early warning system: weather, climate change,

Industrial water: surface, ground

Hazardous events

Nutrient distribution: floods, dust, sediment, transport

Moisture modification

Temperature modification


Light modification


Filtration of ultraviolet and other radiation


Storage of genetic information


Other scientific values



Mineral cycling

Energy sources: wind, solar, hydro, tidal,

Habitat for local land, air and aquatic animals, insects and other life forms.

Biomass, Geothermal

Feeding, breeding,

Dilution of contaminants

Nursery shelter areas

Decomposition of contaminants, oxidation, evaporation, dissolution

Habitat for migrating land, air and other life forms. Feeding, breeding, nursery shelter areas

Transport of contaminants by wind and water,


Animal consumption, dilution by air and water Storage of contaminants



Erosion control

Recreational use of water: swimming,

Sediment control

boating, water skiing, sailing

Flood control

Recreational use of land: hiking, climbing,

Other control of water regime


Ground water recharge

Recreational use of air: flying, gliding, parachuting, hang-gliding

Space for urban, industrial, agricultural occupation, roadways, canals, airports

Recreational use of animals: sport hunting fishing, insect collecting, photography, observation

Physical support for structures

Recreational use of ecosystems: sightseeing, tourism

Climate control and protection

Scientific tourism

Disease control and protection


Storm buffering

Historical values

Cultural values

Concepts: Thus, sustainable development is difficult to define because of conflicts that appear within and among its most basic tenants as well as in the methods, we, its proponents, put forward. This, of course, doesn't mean that what we propose is not useful; it only means that the differences need to be acknowledged and ways sought to overcome them.

Bases. Denis Goulet (1986), for example, suggests that development decision-making is flawed because of a failure to confront conflicts between three different "rationalities" that compete in decision-making. These are: technical, political, and ethical, each of which will try to impose its view over the others during the decision-making process. If these conflicts are not recognized, bad decisions can be made and development efforts will fail.

According to Goulet, technical actors include economists, agronomists, engineers, planners, and financial experts, among others. Their view "is to get things done, control nature, perform a concrete task, and to eliminate any opposition to meeting their assigned goal."

The political actors are completely different in that their goal is to "preserve their institutions." To do this, compromises are often made with any and all: opposition, support groups, constituencies, etc., and if a project is criticized, it may well be dropped in order to preserve the institution. The ethical rationality has "values as its goal and its proponents create, nurture and defend values felt to be worthy for their own sakes." They make moral judgements about what is good and bad and right and wrong and seldom, if ever, back away from them. Again, according to Goulet (1990), if the conflict is not confronted, the result is "technically sound decisions which are politically infeasible or morally unacceptable, or, in other cases, ethically sound choices which are technically inefficient or politically impossible." The problems of the sustainable development movement are created in large part because it contains all three of these rationalities - sometimes within the same project or policy-and it is why development projects, and their sustainability, have such difficulty. In addition, it is why the process leading to development decision-making is so important. Each of the three positions, of course, has something to contribute to development. The differences between them, however, are not nearly as harmful as not allowing a debate between their proponents, or in being unaware that the differences exist in the first place.

Exclusivity. Similarly, according to Pannell and Schilizzi (1997), the three most commonly listed "principles" of sustainability are mutually exclusive: a) protection of "nature" for its own sake, b) efficiency in the use of resources; and c) intergenerational equity. However valid and well-seen these may be as individual objectives, they cannot be offered as a package deal. For example, use of the first and second of these principles, creates a conflict between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" values. Extrinsic values of an environment exist because certain of its attributes satisfy human needs. This is true even if one of these attributes is an "existence" value, i.e. knowing that something exists regardless of any other use, satisfies a need. Intrinsic values are those that exist without being useful to humans. Consequently, a decision in favor of something having intrinsic value can mean a decision against our own welfare.

The third principle, that of "intergenerational equity," likewise makes sustainability difficult to understand. Of course, the problem of intergenerational equity and resource use has always existed but it has generally been ignored because the unknowns make practical application impossible (Brown Weiss 1983). For example, one must ask "Equity of what?" Is it opportunity, income, welfare, rights, resources or something else? Even if it is equity in terms of available options with regard to the "resource base," misunderstandings arise because, again, a resource for one person is not a resource for another; a current resource may not be a resource later and may not have been a resource before; and, a resource in one place may not be a resource somewhere else.

The above discussion suggests that the quality of an environment depends on the demands being made on it as much as on the attributes that it has. Demands for intergenerational equity seem to deny the differences in human values. And, although an answer as to how to accomplish intergenerational equity has been assigned (conservation), the problems of who? what? where? and when? are nowhere near resolution (Romm 1993).

Scale. The dimensions of time and space, levels of government, size of financing, statistical relevance, degree of complexity, area and intensity of management, and frequency and density of occurrence, all have to do with scale and there will be winners and losers regardless of the choice that is made. Things must be looked at and interpreted where they are on a scale and not where we think they may be by themselves. Doug MacCleery (1994) gives an example: "...reducing federal timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest to protect the northern spotted owl did not eliminate the impact of timber harvesting. It merely transferred it to ecosystems somewhere else-to private lands in the Pacific northwest or to the U.S. South, to British Columbia, or overseas. It also resulted in higher consumer prices for wood products and increased the use of wood substitutes, such as steel framing, which requires considerably more energy to produce than does wood, therefore putting more CO2 into the atmosphere."

The schizophrenia of environmental impact legislation is also a reflection of a problem of scale. Many such laws begin by saying that the objective of this specific law is to "protect the global environment" but the instruction given as to how this is accomplished is to ask the local population and let them help decide. Do we really think that if five and a half billion of us give our opinion we would reach a correct decision for the "global environment?" No. Local populations are consulted because it is the environment of a local population that will receive the brunt of the impact. Because of scale, the world is a much more complex place than any of us likes to think. And it doesn't get any easier when we attempt to launch our own interests into the future.

By the same token, sustainability is often broken down into its supposed parts, of which three are frequently suggested: cultural sustainability, economic sustainability, and ecological or environmental sustainability. However, use of a three legged stool to support sustainability is just not sufficient - especially when "ecological sustainability" is so suspect.15 Each of these legs needs to be disaggregated to consider the place, time, development concern, perceptions and values of the individuals being studied because they are often mutually exclusive.

15"Ecology" and, therefore, "ecological" has a definition that many in the environmental and sustainable development movements do not understand. As a consequence, the word is given a number of different meanings by those who use it according to their own interest. For example, in the context given here, does "ecology" mean nature, natural resources, environment, natural history, ecosystem structure and function, relationships, or green advocacy?
Science. Science, and how it is used, also creates a good bit of discord regarding how we collectively understand sustainability. For all its considerable value, science is fallible and scientists are human. Truth is hard to come by and if and when you get an answer from a scientist, it is neither value free nor uninfluenced by personal bias (Pouyat 1999). The scientific method is, of course, a tremendously powerful and useful tool that has enjoyed immeasurable success. Scientists, however, are aware of the frailties of the scientific method. They insist on "peer review" so that errors, in time, can be corrected, and they understand that scientific conclusions represent only observations and not "truth."

This is difficult for politicians and the media to understand and, consequently, they expect more from science than scientists can give. Less than 100% assurance regarding the truth of the matter doesn't fit well with the politicians who need to project self confidence and conviction; nor does it suit the media and their limit of column inches, sound bites, and reader/viewer attention span. Science cannot, on demand, give short and pithy statements concerning the events of the day. Consequently, the politicians and media do it themselves by removing qualifiers and forgetting statistical inference. Or, they go elsewhere to find an answer and confuse non-scientists for scientists (Pouyat 1999). Since representatives from NGOs or policy research think tanks are always conveniently available, they are chosen to fill in. However, although these representatives may look like scientists and though they may even speak science, they are generally not scientists. Nevertheless the politicians and the media like them because they give answers that are firm, and on demand.

Advocacy science is customarily the work of think tanks supported by special interests. Other advocacy scientists are around, however. For example, economists are now part of the conservation movement despite age-old animosities. They arrived as "ecological economists" who, as the name implies, are often more economist than ecologist.

Ecological economists understand that the original definition of economics implied an understanding, a caring for and management of human households, whereas ecology implied an understanding and appreciation of the interrelationships within nature's "household." These definitions have important elements in them, but they are misleading. Ecology, to be sure, is the study of households but neither its derivation nor its practice indicate a dedication solely to the study of "nature's household." Indeed, ecology successfully looks into many things beyond "nature." After all, human ecology is a thriving discipline that includes the urban and industrial facets of human existence in its studies.

The meaningful differences between the two terms are that ecology tends more toward the study of those "households" while economics tends more toward the management of those same "households." Understood in this way, the interesting connection between the two disciplines becomes quite clear and it is the one that sustainable development is beginning to understand. That is, management of a household (ecosystem, region, state, nation, project area) is more equitable, more effective and more efficient if it is based on findings from a study of that household.

An equally important distinction is that management (economics) presupposes "objectives" and we manage a household to meet a set of objectives. On the other hand, study (ecology) suggests "objectivity" and the effort, however difficult, is to impartially describe or predict a set of phenomena. We ought not confuse the two, lest we allow our objectives to overly influence the objectivity of our studies.

Nevertheless, advocacy science has done a great deal to further the ideas of sustainable development and, no doubt, it will do more. The value is that its proponents can set research on new trajectories, bring needed debate to the arena, and discover useful ways to solve at least some of the problems they see as relevant.

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