Sustainable ‘development’: A Trojan horse in the courtyard of the ecologist movement

Article originally published on the Extinction Rebellion Spain blog, on 22nd March 2019

When I hear the term ‘sustainable development’ from the lips of a person genuinely concerned about the ecological problems we face, I immediately hear a voice in my head that says: ‘We are not on track’. But why do I think this?

            The concept of sustainability was introduced in 1981 by Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, a highly respected authority on environmental issues. Shortly thereafter, in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development published the Brundtland Report, where the concept of ‘sustainable development’ first appeared. The problem appeared when the term ‘development’ was given an economic and quantitative connotation, instead of keeping it in what was –we would like to believe– its original conception; that is, the systemic and qualitative connotation, as a fundamental property of life supported by the autopoiesis theory. The problem is that the term ‘development’ itself, adhered as a barnacle to the concept of sustainability, has become a Trojan horse through which the most profoundly transforming essence of the environmental movement has been aborted.  In fact, in my opinion, the term ‘development’ has been the wedge introduced by the economic thinking of markets to neutralise the increasingly powerful environmental movement.

            A good number of authors have spoken about the difficulty of this term (Capra & Luisi, 2014; Gadotti, 2002; Hedlund-deWitt, 2014; Kahn, 2008). Brazilian educator Moacir Gadotti commented specifically about this:

…development and sustainability would be logically incompatible. For us, sustainable is more than a qualification of development. It goes beyond the preservation of natural resources and the viability of a development without aggressions to the environment. It implies a balance of the human beings with themselves and, consequently, with our planet (and even more, with the universe). (Gadotti, 2002, p. 31)

It is precisely here, in the domain of Education Sciences, that the problem is illustrated more clearly.

            Helen Kopnina (2012), examining the implications of the change that led from Environmental Education (EA) to Education for Sustainable Development (EDS) came to say that there was ‘an elephant in the room’ of which almost nobody talked about. According to her, the ‘elephant’ was the fact that the ESD had carried out a radical change of approach which had led to environmental protection having given ground to social problems.

            Such a change of approach had occurred, according to Kopnina, with the publication of Agenda 21 in 1992. Chapter 37 in the Agenda indicated that there must be a balance in addressing the needs of the environment and those of humanity. There was the intrusive element. From here this approach went to school curricula around the world. Kopnina explains it in this way:

While the earlier forms of EE, such as naturalist, systematic, scientific, value centred, or holistic perceived the environment as nature, system, object of study or field of values, ESD conceives environment as ‘resource for economic development or shared resource for sustainable living’ (Sauvé 2005, 34). (…) While the Belgrade Charter is more focused on the environment than on human development, emphasizing the need of environmental protection from human activities, ESD only places further emphasis on human rights issues… (Kopnina, 2012, p. 703)

That is, in ‘sustainable development’ and in ESD, human problems are given priority over environmental protection. This points directly to an anthropocentric and instrumental worldview. This is the same worldview that has led us to the situation of ecological collapse in which we find ourselves (on the key importance of worldviews in the construction of cultures and civilisations, please see Cutanda, 2016, chapters 1 and 2).


Faced with the ancestral anthropocentric approach (remember that of ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it’, in Genesis 1:28), the only view of the world that can get us out of the serious planetary problem we have would be a complex-systems and ecocentric worldview. From this approach the Earth’s Community of Life is seen as a whole where every species has an intrinsic value. This is to say that its value is not determined by its usefulness for the human being; it is valuable in itself and by itself, and therefore must be respected and taken care of. Here, the role of the human beings would be to protect the rest of species, limiting their own interests if necessary (Leopold, 1949; Eckerley, 1992).

            This anthropocentric-ecocentric polarity may seem insignificant, and yet it is key. We have empirical evidence (Casey & Scott, 2006; Hedlund-de Witt et al., 2014; Kortemkamp & Moore, 2001; Thompson & Barton, 1994) that shows that those who develop an ecocentric worldview ‘are more likely to act on their pro-environment attitudes and engage in conserving behaviors. In contrast, anthropocentric interest is associated with more apathy toward the environment and less conserving behavior’ (Thompson & Barton, 1994, p. 156).

            This leads us to the necessity of raising the need for a deep educational work from ecological organisations and social movements through which we make global society understand the huge need to move from an anthropocentric approach –which is taken for granted as ‘normal’– to an ecocentric approach, where the Community of Life –the entire planetary life– is at the centre of the priorities of all human activity. As the educator María Novo points out, we need

a new philosophical view: the one that sees human beings not as dominators or ‘owners’ of nature, but as part of it, as a species that, with its undoubted singularities, is challenged to understand itself and develop in harmony with the rest of the biosphere. (Novo, 2009, p. 202)

The voice in my head is not wrong. If you see that the term ‘sustainable development’ is introduced in political and economic debates together with a smile of acceptance of accountability towards the environment, please be suspicious. At the very least, suspect and let your head tell you ‘We are not on track’, because it may well be a gigantic wooden horse abandoned at the gates of the global environmental movement.


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