PCDForum Column #12 Release Date April 15, 1991
by David C. Korten
In 1992, the governments of the world and thousands of
citizens organizations will assemble in Brazil for the UN
Conference on Environment and Development There they
will formalize agreements intended to resolve major
global environmental problems. Countless environmental
issues have been identified. Yet three fundamental questions, the answers to which are essential to any successful
conference outcome, have been consistently sidestepped
in official forums.
Question 1: Is sustained economic growth possible
within a finite ecosystem?
The prevailing wisdom says that economic growth will
provide us the additional wealth needed to invest in
cleaning up the environment. This answer argues in favor
of business as usual, only applying greater skill, wisdom,
and commitment in the quest for sustained economic
Yet the data indicate that environmental destruction
is a direct consequence of a world economy that has
outgrown the capability of earth’s ecology to sustain it. If
so, then more aggregate growth will only exacerbate the
problem and hasten ecosystem collapse.
Those who challenge the conventional wisdom are
dismissed as insensitive to political reality and the needs
of the poor. The real issue, however, is the reluctance of
the wealthy to accept the obvious implication that if
further aggregate growth will not resolve the global crisis,
then the only option that will assure the survival of human
civilization is a massive reallocation of existing global
wealth. Unfortunately, self-deception will not save us.
Question 2: Is the removal of barriers to the free
international flow of trade and capital consistent with
the essential need for community and environmental
Conventional wisdom says that economic growth, and
thereby the well-being of people, is best served by the
elimination of barriers to the free flow of trade and capital
across national borders. We face two problems here, the
first being the growing body of evidence indicating that
increases in economic output do not necessarily result in
improved human well-being.
The second is less evident, yet even more basic. The
competitive market is a powerful force for human advancement and one of the most important institutional
inventions of human society. However, as with any
powerful force, including the state, it may turn destructive
if unrestrained. In the East we have seen the bonds of
community and the values of environmental stewardship–both essential to a just and peaceful human society living
in sustainable harmony with its natural environment–sacrificed to the unrestrained power of the state. In the
West they are being sacrificed to the unrestrained forces
of the market. Herein lies a simple lesson. The forces of
both state and market must be balanced one against the
other, and held accountable to the people’s interests
through the mechanisms of civil society. Both balance and
accountability are lost when goods and capital move freely
across national borders and people thereby lose their
ability to regulate their own national economies.
Question 3: Is official international assistance part of
the solution or part of the problem?
According to conventional wisdom increases in international assistance are essential to environmental protection
and the eradication of poverty in the South. While international assistance has continuously increased over the past
four decades, poverty and environmental destruction have
consistently worsened. In the meantime assisted economies have become strangled with debt–the majority of it
from official sources–further deepening poverty and
pressing assisted countries to mine environmental resources for foreign exchange.
Even if we discount the growing number of donor
assisted projects actively exacerbating these unfavorable
trends, we must conclude that if its purpose has been to
create equitable and sustainable prosperity for assisted
countries, official international assistance has failed. There
is every reason to expect that more aid will only make the
The official agencies responsible for the UNCED are not
asking these basic questions. To the contrary, they repeatedly reaffirm the conventional wisdom with such ideological commitment that those who harbor doubts prefer to
hold them in silence lest they be branded heretics.
It is unlikely that the delegates to the UNCED will
find the right answers to our global crisis without first
asking the right questions. Concerned citizens have no
alternative. We must commit ourselves to assuring that
these and other fundamental questions–no matter how
heretical they may seem–are asked and thoroughly
examined within the context of the UNCED and other
David C. Korten is founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column is prepared and
distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum.