“Sustainable Development” and Global Salvationism

David Henderson

In light of the way that ideals of environmental stewardship and resource responsibility have been taken to extreme levels at many colleges and universities, NAS asked several scholars to comment on the question, “Has sustainability become a dogma?” David Henderson, former Head of the Economics and Statistics Department of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD) in Paris, contributed a short excerpt from chapter 4 of his book The Role of Business in the Modern World, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2004.

Over the past half-century, two strands of thinking about world problems have been much in evidence and have received continuing support. The first relates to problems of poverty and economic development, and the second to environmental issues. In both, two elements are combined.  One is a generally dark – not to say alarmist – picture of the world’s current state and future prospects, at any rate unless timely and far-reaching changes are made. The second element is a conviction that remedies for the present highly alarming situation are known, and that they require the adoption by governments and “the international community” of concerted strategies and programmes. “Solutions” are at hand, given wise collective decisions and actions. It is the combination of alarmist visions with confidently radical collectivist prescriptions for the world as a whole that characterises global salvationism.

Gradually, the two strands have drawn closer, so that they have now effectively merged to form a salvationist consensus; and over the past 10-15 years the consensus has gained in influence, because it has acquired new aspects and sources of strength. This recent evolution of ideas, perceptions and institutions has brought with it, among other things, the emergence of, and growing support for, the doctrine of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). 

A leading factor reinforcing the hold of global salvationism has been the increasing and now general acceptance across the world, as a guiding principle for all, of the notion of sustainable development. From the 1970s onward, this notion began to enter into the vocabulary of the environmental strand of salvationist thinking, since it seemed fitting to label as unsustainable a process which (as it was argued) involved depletion of non-renewable resources, destruction of species and habitats, and the creation of increasingly unmanageable problems of pollution and waste. In the late 1980s the term came into more general use, and acceptance, after it had been made the centrepiece of the 1987 report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report). By this time it had been enlarged in scope, so as to include developmental as well as environmental goals: sustainable development was now taken to involve a closing of the gap between rich and poor. It became the watchword, the focus, of the salvationist consensus; and as such, it was the main theme and the central organising principle of the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit.” 

The Rio meeting brought a notable gain, not only for the concept of sustainable development but also for consensus ways of thinking. For the first time, an international conference on this range of topics was attended and supported by heads of state and heads of government: over 120 of these actually came to Rio. The various agreed resolutions and decisions thus acquired an extra authority which earlier documents of a similar kind had lacked. In large part, this resulted from the new and widely shared official concerns about the possibilities and risks of future climate change; but these concerns were incorporated, as an additional reinforcing element, into the already existing dark salvationist message which up till then had not been so generally endorsed.  In the Rio documents and resolutions, this routine standard message was neither qualified nor watered down. It was given clear and undiluted expression in the agreed programme of action that was adopted at the Summit, entitled Agenda 21. The preamble to this document opens as follows:

Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities within and between nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continued deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being

The proposed remedies for the ills thus outlined were to be given effect through “a new global partnership for sustainable development.” Such was the salvationist diagnosis and prescription which all the participating governments proved ready to accept, many of them at the highest level.

Since the Rio Summit, the ground thus won by salvationism, against the weight of economic evidence but without serious opposition, has been consolidated and extended. In particular, sustainable development has become the watchword of governments all over the world. International conferences pay tribute to it in their documentation and communiqués. In the United Kingdom, it was formally endorsed in a statement of policy by the then Conservative government in 1994, and under the present Labour government it has been further emphasised as the basis for government policies in general.[1] In France, there is now a minister for it. The notion is rarely questioned today, and then only by unrepresentative persons in universities and think-tanks. It has conquered the world.

Four related features of this triumph of sustainable development are to be noted. First, its many proponents, official and unofficial, typically speak and write as though people everywhere were agreed on just what the concept means and how it is to be pursued and achieved. In fact, however, it is neither well defined nor above question.[2]

Second, its adoption as a guiding principle has gone together with uncritical acceptance of the dubious accompanying notion that it has three distinct aspects or dimensions – economic, environmental, and social. In Britain the present government, in announcing its allegiance to sustainable development, specifically made the point that the notion was now to be interpreted as covering not only environmental and economic aspects, which had been the focus of the previous official statement of 1994, but “social” aspects as well. Again, the OECD ministerial communique of 1999 included the statement that:

The pursuit of sustainable development . . . is a key objective for OECD countries. Achieving this objective requires the integration of economic, environmental and social considerations into policy-making . . .

In fact, however, these are not watertight categories. Most of the aspects that are labeled “environmental” or “social” are economic issues, for which economic analysis and criteria offer a means to integration.    

Third, the notion of sustainable development, thus interpreted, has moved from being the property of the consensus to become the watchword of virtually all. In particular, it has been endorsed by governments as a whole, as in the OECD communiqué just quoted, so that every department of state is now committed to it. This marks a significant gain for global salvationism: its central concept has been taken up by the world in general. In the process, the salvationist beliefs themselves have become more widely accepted, or, at least, now pass relatively unchallenged.

Fourth, the rise of sustainable development has led directly to that of CSR. As seen in Chapter 1, CSR is defined with reference to the pursuit by companies of sustainable development. The sub-title of Walking the Talk is “the business case for sustainable development,” and this wording echoes earlier WBCSD publications and many other treatments of the subject.  Again, the notion of “meeting the triple bottom line” derives from the distinction between what are misleadingly taken to be sustainable development’s three separate aspects. Both in the business world and outside it, CSR is viewed as a means to an agreed end. It is defined, presented, and advocated as a way of giving effect to sustainable development.

David Henderson was formerly (1984-92) Head of the Economics and Statistics Department of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD) in Paris. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, and Chairman of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.


[1] The references here are: first, Sustainable Development: The UK Strategy, London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1994; and second, A better quality of life: a Strategy for Sustainable Development in the United Kingdom, London, Department of the Environment and Transport, 1997.

[2] This theme is taken somewhat further in Chapter 3 of Misguided Virtue

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