January 2, 1992, For publication in Development by the Society for International Development

David C. Korten
The People-Centered Development Forum

David Korten argues that the search for
solutions to the environmental crisis
generally misses an essential point, i.e.
that human economic activity has passed
a critical threshold and now fills the
available ecological space. Policy prescriptions that fail to acknowledge this
reality are deepening the crisis and
weakening society’s institutional ability
to address it. The crisis can be resolved
only through a transformation of thought
and institutions comparable to that of the
Copernican Revolution.

Five hundred years ago, when Columbus
landed in the Western hemisphere, the
prevailing system of human thought in
Europe maintained that our earth was flat
and the sun, stars and planets revolved
around it. These beliefs provided the
foundation of scientific thought and the
society’s institutions of moral and political authority. Then in 1543, the year of
his death, Nicolas Copernicus published
Revolution of the Celestial Spheres setting forth the thesis that the earth is only
one among the planets that revolve
around the sun–itself one of countless
such stars of the cosmos.

Copernicus spoke a humbling truth
regarding the insignificance of humanity’s physical position among the stars–considered a heresy in its day and a
threat to many cherished human institutions. His act and the resulting change in
perspective regarding man’s place in the
cosmos, deflating as it was of a long
standing human arrogance, liberated
human society from a number of debilitating intellectual and institutional constraints, ushered in the age of science,
and led to human accomplishments that
have exceeded even the most fanciful
imaginings of the greatest thinkers of his

This was not, unfortunately, the end
of human society’s propensity toward a
debilitating and, in our present case,
potentially fatal arrogance. The highly
evolved human intelligence that produced the scientific revolution and made
possible the industrial age has given our
species a decided competitive advantage
over other forms of life on this planet in
the competition for ecological space.
This success has been of such magnitude
as to lead us once again into a trap of
blinding arrogance–a belief that our
technology makes us the masters of
nature and places us beyond the reach of
natural law.

We now face the need for a new
revolution in our self-perception and
institutions, an ecological revolution,
with implications for human behavior
and institutions that may be more profound than those that followed from the
insights of Copernicus. While such a
revolution will be certain to bring its
own trauma, there is substantial prospect
that it may also release a new era of
progress as far beyond the current human
imagination as the accomplishments of
the modern era were to those who lived
in the Middle Ages. In the absence of
such a revolution we will almost certainly remain locked onto our present
course of social and ecological disintegration–the outcome of which may well
make life in the Middle Ages look advanced.

Three Heresies of the Ecological Revolution

Certain beliefs have become so deeply
embedded in the collective belief system
of most development institutions that to
challenge them is to set oneself apart
from the development profession–to
commit heresy against the faith and its
moral foundations. Three heresies
against mainstream development thought
define the foundation beliefs of the ecological revolution as it applies to the
development enterprise.

  • Economic Growth. Sustained economic growth is not possible because
    human economic activity already fills
    the available ecological space. Furthermore, economic growth is not
    the key to human progress. Human
    well being depends more on how
    available physical resources are used
    than on the rates of their extraction
    and consumption.
  • Economic Integration. Integration
    of the global economy will not result
    in growth in a full world ecology. It
    will erode institutional capacities to
    deal appropriately with ecological
    limits. It will also encourage unsustainable ecological exploitation and
    widen the gap between rich and
  • Foreign Assistance and Investment.
    Increased financial flows from North
    to South stifle sustainable development in the South. The key to Southern progress is to reduce the outflow
    of ecological resources from South
    that feed the North’s over consumption and increase the
    South’s access to and control over
    beneficial technologies.

Few discussions of sustainable development seriously raise such issues–consequently revealing how far we remain
from dealing in realistic terms with the
environmental and social crisis that currently grips our world.


What may be the ecological revolution’s
most important intellectual treatise to
date recently emerged from an unlikely
source, the World bank–contemporary
mother church of orthodox development
theology. Edited by Robert Goodland,
Herman Daly, and Salah El Serafy
(1991) and issued as a working paper in
July 1991 by the Environment Department of the World Bank, Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development:
Building on Brundtland
, challenges the
most fundamental premises of that theology, as set forward in the Bank’s World
Development Report 1991

The centerpiece of the Goodland,
Daly, and El Serafy heresy is the observation
that current economic theory and policy
are based on an assumption of an empty
world, i.e., a world in which the scale of
human economic activity is sufficiently
small relative to the scale of earth’s
ecological system that its impact is inconsequential. The contributors to this
unusual collection, who include two
Nobel laureates in economics, document
the increasingly evident reality that this
assumption no longer holds. We now
live in a full world, one in which our
aggregate economic activity fills the
available ecological space.

No single idea is more fundamental
to contemporary development thought
and practice than the premise that sustained economic growth is both possible
and the key to human progress.
It is the
foundation on which most of our institutions of economic management and assistance have been built.

Consequently, it is not surprising that
these institutions have had difficulty
coming to terms with the real meaning of
our environmental crisis, preferring to
view it as simply another investment
problem and insisting thereby that economic growth is basically good for the
environment because it creates the surplus resources required for investment in
environmental protection. The more
fundamental truth that the human economy is dependent on and subordinate to
earth’s eco-system is neatly sidestepped.
They call themselves green, request
additional funds for environmental projects, and proceed with business-as-usual.

Physical Throughput

It is useful to reduce the sustainable
development problem to its essential
elements. Much of what we measure as
economic growth depends on increasing
the flow of physical materials–such as
petroleum, minerals, biomass and water–through our economic system. We
depend on nature to supply these materials (input functions) and to absorb the
resulting wastes (sink functions). Nature’s capacity in this regard has proven
to be enormous, but not unlimited. We
have now reached those limits, particularly on the sink functions side. Systems
of economic thought and management
premised on the absence of such limits
must now be replaced by systems of
thought and management that acknowledge them.(1)

Arguments that our technology frees
us from such limits assume that manmade capital serves as an adequate substitute for natural capital. While this is
true to an extent–we have made considerable progress in reducing the amount
of scarce physical materials required to
serve specific human needs–such possibilities also face natural limits. In most
instances natural and manmade capital
are complementary–not substitutes.
Indeed many improvements in manmade
capital contribute primarily to our ability
to exploit natural capital. In the end, the
sawmill has no function without a forest.
The fishing boat has no function without
fish. The real issue is not economic
growth per se. It is the rate of physical
extraction from and disposal of physical
substances to the environment. The rate
of such throughput is highly correlated
with economic growth. Consequently, to
assume that economic growth, as we
currently define it, can continue without
limit is to posit an impossibility (Daly,

The debate as to whether it is the rich
or the poor who bear the primary responsibility for the environmental crisis is
readily resolved by a few simple figures.
According to the Worldwatch Institute
each American on average accounts for
the consumption of 52 kilos of physical
materials each day (Durning, 1991, pp.
160-61). This contrasts starkly with the
estimated average consumption of 1