Let’s Knock Down the Three Pillars of Sustainable Development

Let’s knock down the three pillars of sustainable development!  This wholly misleading picture, promoted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is still around.  The 2012 Rio conference is an opportunity to replace it with a very different picture.

The “three pillars” obscure the real relationship between the economic, the social, and the environmental.  They are not equals.  “The environment” is the physical reality all life depends on.  “The social” is about one of the species within the environment, our own, organising itself.  “The economic” is in turn one sub-set of the social.  Each is nested within the next: economic within social within environmental.

Apart from misrepresenting the reality, the “three pillars” picture has encouraged people to say “we need a balance” between economic, social, and environmental.  What that means in practice is that instead of pursuing sustainability, and forms of development which are sustainable, we get the pursuit of development which is semi-sustainable, to some extent aimed at keeping within environmental limits, but not doing so in any way which is really serious.

We should be aiming at development which combines economic, social, and environmental aims, not at development which compromises between them.  Why shouldn’t we have development which is both environmentally sustainable and delivers good things for society?  The outlook is unnecessarily grim if we can’t imagine such a combination, but always insist that one objective can only be pursued at the expense of one or both of the other two – the natural “trade-off” mindset of economists.

Although many such trade-off choices exist in the short run, in the long run if economic activity is not sustainable, it won’t be sustained, which means it cannot continue, and will defeat and destroy itself.  And if economic activity can’t deliver for society, there is little point in it (as we see at the moment with the many socially useless financial transactions which take place).

Basic pictures are important.  The “sustainable development community” has lived with the three pillars for too long.  It is time to move on to a more realistic and inspiring view.

This column is  part of the Sustainability in the Good Society Online Debate jointly run by Social Europe Journal, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London Office and Compass.

  • Neil Thin

    For the first full critique of the rising dominance of the absurd 'three pillars' framework, see Thin, Neil with Clare Lockhart and Gil Yaron, 2001 London: DFI‘Conceptualising Socially Sustainable Development’ Paper commissioned by the World Bank and DFID, background document for World Summit on Sustainable Development, and my follow-up book Social Progress and Sustainable Development. London: ITDG Publications (July 2002), which argued that this so-called 'framework' is better understood as a balloon (economism) and two pins (environmentalist and social critiques) than as an analytical framework.