Future Economic Thought- discussion paper

by Richard Denniss and Richard Sanders

The goal of sustainability has been a dangerous and destructive distraction for both citizens and policy makers concerned with the development of a society that protects our natural environment and promotes the wellbeing of our citizens. This paper argues that the goal of sustainability needs to be abandoned in all but its broadest metaphorical sense. That is, while the concept of leaving the same environmental and social assets for the next generation that we inherited ourselves is an essential element of a just society that, it is time that the rhetorical and policy framework that has built up around the term sustainability was cast aside. The pursuit of a ‘sustainability agenda’ was well intentioned and had the potential to unite environmentalists, governments and businesses in the pursuit of significantly improved environmental outcomes, but it has achieved little and is increasingly acting to conceal rather than reveal the fundamental policy and behavioural problems that are damaging both the environment and society. Rather than fight to reclaim the meaning of the term sustainable from those who wish to use it to describe their uranium mines, their coal fired power stations and their aluminium smelters this paper argues that the pursuit of sustainability should instead be replaced with a fight against unsustainability. In a perfect world, with perfect foresight and perfect information the pursuit of sustainability and the fight against unsustainability would be opposite sides of the same coin. However, in a rapidly changing world, when we have imperfect knowledge about our ecosystems, and no idea what problems and opportunities we will face in 20 years time, the two goals become fundamentally different. Rather than seeking to define with precision exactly the kind of ‘sustainable’ transport, housing, manufacturing, consumption and agriculture systems we want in 50 years time, significant improvements in both environmental sustainability and personal wellbeing could instead be achieved via a focus on preventing the growth of unsustainable practices. The avoidance of unsustainable activities, rather than the pursuit of sustainable activities, can be pursued at the macro level as well as at the sectoral level. The same argument can be applied at a much broader level. Rather than trying to define what national wellbeing or sustainability is, or what rate of GDP growth is consistent with sustainability, significant gains can instead be achieved by simply accepting that a possible consequence of preventing some developments from proceeding is a slight reduction in the rate of GDP growth. Put another way, reducing GDP growth should not be an objective in itself, but the argument that the destruction of an ecosystem could help create jobs should be seen from the same point of view that abolishing occupational safety standards might help create jobs – i.e., irrelevant.

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