Sachs, Wolfgang. 1991. "Environment and Development: The Story of a Dangerous Liaison." The Ecologist 21 (6): 252-257.


Sachs argues that the imprecise meanings assigned to the concept of sustainable development has led to contradictory applications. Ecological limits or constraints imposed on economic growth are recognized, yet there is a call to "manage," implying utilization (or "mastering"), the natural world.

Sachs discusses three factors influencing the reconciliation of environment and development:

"Continued growth not only depended upon capital formation and a skilled workforce but also on the long-term availability of natural resources" (p. 253);

Government and business leaders began to understand that economic growth does not necessitate increasingly utilizing the resource base, technologies may be available which are more efficient;

Finally, as a consequence of deforestation and desertification, poverty was identified as the cause of environmental degradation and the only solution to poverty identified as economic growth.

Sustainable development, as argued by Sachs, has been used to identify most development projects regardless of the environmental or social costs: "...every time in the last 30 years that the destructive effects of development were recognized, the concept was extended in such a way as to include both injury and therapy" (p. 254). Because development implies economic growth which increases GNP, Sachs argues that the bottom line remains economic.

One the side of ecologists, Sachs identifies a second division: the political protest movement and the scientific academics. Ecologists study ecosystem science which integrates physics, chemistry and biology thereby countering scientific modernism while also providing the ecological evidence used in political battles: "...the science of ecology gives rise to a scientific anti-modernism which has largely succeeded in disrupting the dominant discourse, yet the science of ecology opens the way for the technocratic recuperation of the protest" (p. 255). Sachs further discusses ecology as placed between "organicism and mechanism."

Next, Sachs discusses the advent of government power as a means of survival: "'Survival of the Planet' is on its way to becoming the justification for a new wave of state interventions into people's lives all over the world" (p. 256). This has led to increased bureaucratic organization as necessary monitoring systems, regulatory mechanisms and executive agencies are required in environmental management. Traditional cultures, however, do not need these experts in that "provision for the coming generation has been part of their tribal and peasant practices since time immemorial" (p. 256). Traditional means of subsistence or "local knowledge" is devalued and neglected by the by the experts developing "global knowledge."

The final section, "Towards a Global Ecocracy?" refers to the discourse surrounding environmental and development issues. Sachs argues that the discourse is biased in that it calls for extended management while ignoring possibilities for intelligent self-limitation. Two assumptions are evident: society will always be driven to test the limits of nature and that the exploitation of nature should be optimized rather than minimized or maximized (p. 257). This, according to Sachs, is merely a front for maintaining the industrial system. The real causes of environmental and cultural destruction are grounded in how societies live, how much it decides to produce and consume rather than in poverty and inefficiency. Therefore, more efficient production and better regulation is not an appropriate focus of sustainable development.

Keywords: economic and social sustainability, international equity, poverty, democracy