Sustainable development: the second tower of Babel?

Article published on June 5, 2003
community published
Article published on June 5, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

A powerful and evocative concept, used the world over to mean everything, between myth and reality.

Genesis (XI, 1-9): The myth of the tower of Babel.

Chased out of paradise, mankind wanted to get closer to heaven by building an enormous tower, but God, offended, punished the people by confounding them with a confusion of languages. Unable to understand each other, man entered into conflict with fellow man, leading the tower to crumble and the human race to be scattered far and wide.

Sustainable development: neither myth nor reality - a symbol which encompasses both.

Much vaunted since the Stockholm Conference of the United Nations in 1972, the idea of sutainable development now informs all the debates from the North to the South, from the grassroots to the highest levels in all senses. For example, you can hear a general speak of sustainable development whilst celebrating the integration of a contingent of women in the army to celebrate Benin Independence. Of course, the champions of sustainable development are quick to react against the opportunism of those appropriations of the term which ignore the more generous idea behind it: that of satisfying the needs of present generations without compromising the chances of future generations to respond to theirs. It is usually suggested that, in order to be sustainable, development has to fulfil three conditions: it needs to be economically viable, ecological workable and socio-culturally acceptable. An elegant formula, but one which nevertheless visibly fails to satisfy all the actors in sustainable development, as witnessed by the numerous variations proposed by development literature. Even worse, these three dimensions may form the necessary conditions, but they cease to be sufficient when you look at them separately because a slippage of meaning can be observed which obscures the final objective. The whole is not the sum of its parts. In fact, these three dimensions, the economic, the ecological and the socio-cultural, correspond schematically to three irreconcilable images of sustainable development (1).

For the majority of industrialists, economists and politicians who have to tackle other questions than those relating to the environment, the question of sutainable development is reduced to the macro-economic principle of long-term growth. You can read in the reference manual which has educated and continues to educate generations of students that "productivity is not everything, but in the longer term it is almost everything. (2)" Seen from this perspective, sustainable development has no affect whatsoever on the logic of capitalist development which, in spite of everything, is still considered the most effective form possible. Yesterday's and today's problems caused by the fallout from rapid growth will be resolved tomorrow with the help of technology (3), and therefore development is necessary. The ends meet, or at least, they do in theory. The issue of the limits to that growth remains buried in the embattled discourse of experts (4).

For the majority of the ecologiest and NGOs who are concerned about the decline of the natural environment, sustainable development is defined as a way of using natural resources which respects the rules and rythms of nature - which raises the oft-repeated question over the extent to which the goals of conservation and development are compatible. For some, these goals are antithetical, since man's activities are the reason for the degradation of nature, whilst for others they are synonymous (5), so the jury remains out on this particular question. Perhaps there is a notion which should be explored in more depth if the mist surrounding the question of the sustainable use of resources is to be lifted: the idea of a 'dynamic equlibrium' which we should 'maintain' or 'restore' when we are confronted with 'change'. Given the time-scale in consideration, we might succeed in defining 'strong' or 'weak' options for sustainability, which is meaningless.

Finally, we come to the social scientists and humanitarians who are the champions of sustainable development as it has come to be known over the last 30 years. Their position can be easily grasped by considering the power relations between these three dimensions. The economic arguments have a political weight which far outsizes the two others, the large part of the research into sustainable development is monopolised by ecologists and agronomists, whilst the social sciences are dismissed and underrepresented.... Their criticisms are therefore aimed at the other two models. The economist's version of sustainable development is renamed sustainable under-development by Ivan Illich: "under-development is the result of the continual development of material aspirations which is arrived at by the intensive promotion of the markets"(7). Anthropologists and sociologists have decried the numerous human rights violations occasioned where models for the protection of nature have been rigidly applied, for example in the creation of national parks. Others even criticise the way naturalists manage natural spaces, and advocate an approach to managing nature which has a social focus, declaring that there is no such thing as the relationship between man and nature, but rather merely man's relationship to fellow man on the subject of nature.

What meaning is left in 'sustainable development'? Here is a concept which, despite its attractiveness or rather becuse of it, represents a real coup-de-force. If the concept has been accepted by (nearly) everyone, the differences in the debates give lie to the lack of action taking place on the ground, reflecting the diverging interpretations and revealing often contradictory logic. Perhaps sustainable development is one of these floating signifiers of which Lévi-Strauss speaks (9), one of those concepts whose numerous meanings hide a void empty of meaning? In the end, it does not really matter. As Maurice Godelier says "these interpretations tell us not a single truth nor falsehood about the world whilst saying a lot about the men who think them (10)". Now we are talking about myth, if only development could be just that! It would not be a bad thing if we considered myth as being some attempt to smooth out the paradoxes and all that is irrational covering over the nonsense and the inevitable blemish so that they are no longer noticable. The challenge to those active in the field is precisely that of managing to move beyond the contradictions between the various discourses so that a dialogue can begin to be negotiated and established. Between a meandering theory and, at best a practice which swings back and forth in its own contraditions, between the imaginary and the real there is a symbolic dimension of sustainable development. It serves as a mere intermediatory dimension. It is still too devoid of reality to become a founding myth.


It is now more than 30 years that we have been studying the plans for sustainable development's own tower of Babel. Among the many deceptions, some pioneering work has come to light. It does not take a genius to realise that the tower will collapse on itself if the builders ignore the work of the carpenters and if we still lack real architects.

1) According to Latouche S. (2001) in 1989 (two years after the Brundtland report appeared) John Pessey and the World Bank made an inventory of not more than 37 different definitions of the concept of sustainable development, whilst the researcher Francois Hatem has reputedly collected around sixty.

2) KRUGMAN P: (1990), quoted and praised by SAMUELSON P.A and NORDHAUS W.D (1998), pp. 329-330.

3)Example: GMOs enable us to fight against world hunger.

4) See the caricature seeking to expose this as quoted by SAMUELSON P.A and NORDHAUS W.D (1998) pp. 329-330

5) This is the view both of the American anthropologist Carl JORDAN, "conservation is a philosophy of managing the environment which neither wastes nor exhausts nor kills that environment nor that of the resources and values which it contains." (in HEYWOOD V., 2000), and a member of the Bakalaharil tribe of Botswana: "to us, preservation means to use, but with care so that you can use again tomorrow and the following year" (in POSEY D.A., ed., 1999, pp 129-130)

6) ILLICH I. (1969)

7) COLCHESTER M. (1999)

8) WEBER J. (2000)

9) LÉVI-STRAUSS C. (1950), p. XLIX

10) GODELIER M. (1996), p.34.