Korten, David C. 1991-92. "Sustainable Development: A Review Essay." World Policy Journal (Winter): 157-190.


Economic Growth does not equal development. Rather, sustainable development is "sustainable improvement in human well-being" (p.184). "Growth-centered development is itself inherently unsustainable" (169). "Only a radical transformation of thought, policies, and institutions will allow us to avoid a social and ecological breakdown" (p.160).


Korten provides a review of several institutional publications, and a couple of conceptual writings regarding the needs and prospects for sustainable development (pp.157-169). Articulating the seminal contribution of each, and its shortcomings, Korten then moves to a conceptualization of fundamental theoretical and institutional changes that approaching sustainability requires. Rejecting outright the equation of economic growth with development, Korten argues that sustainable development is "sustainable improvement in human well-being -- not economic growth" (p.184).

In reviewing published reports of the World Bank and development agencies, Korten observes that while some of the reports have been pivotal in bringing discussions of the environment from the periphery to the center of public policy concerns, with the exceptions of the marginalized "Building on Brundtland" and the Worldwatch Report, most have continued to provide recommendations based on the traditional tenets of neo-classical economics, even when their findings appear to refute the effectiveness of the prevailing economic paradigm. In the end, they recommend increased consumption by the North in order to promote economic growth in the South. They also recommend for developing nations increased "integration into the global economy," so that by participating in global trade, all will benefit. Korten builds upon Daly and Cobb's work (1989) to argue that an integrated global economy is in fundamental opposition to the requirements of sustainable development. Where there is unrestrained international capital, corporations are not constrained by the natural limits of any one region, nor are they bound by community commitments. Thus, all participants in international trade do not benefit. (pp.169-175).

Finally, Korten contends that mainstream economic theory is built upon a faulty assumption -- that the world is "empty" and that more ecological frontier exists. He holds that the theory collapses in light of true ecological limits, where man-made capital cannot be substituted for, but depends upon, natural capital. In his view, truly sustainable development will require that the global economy undergo fundamental changes such that it should be based upon systems of decentralized and locally accountable economies, transnational sharing of useful information technologies, and a democratic global movement to decentralize and localize transnational capital.

Documents reviewed by Korten:

Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report, 1987)

Cooperation for International Development: the United States and the Third World in the 1990's (Berg and Gordon, 1989)

World Development Report 1991 (the World Bank)

Human Development Report 1991 (United Nations Development Programme)

Building on Brundtland (World Bank, Environmental Dept., 1991)

State of the World 1990 (Worldwatch, 1991)

For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future (Daly and Cobb, 1989)

Keywords: sustainable development, transnational capital, ecological limits, well-being