Book Review: Planet Dialectics by Wolfgang Sachs

 Planet Dialectics: Exploration in Environment and Development

by Wolfgang Sachs
Zed Books 1999
$25.00 paper
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

For nearly a decade, groups of unlikely bedfellows - environmental activists and industrialists, ecologists and financiers - have embraced the term "sustainable development" to describe schemes that reconcile the environmental pressures of economic growth with the environmental limits of the biosphere. Indeed, in the recently published Natural Capitalism, authors Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins provide evidence that existing technologies, combined with new design principles and managerial strategies, can dramatically reduce the environmental impact of economic development without compromising its ability to generate profit.


In Planet Dialectics, Wolfgang Sachs repeatedly asks the nagging question: "Whose development and of what?"

In the 12 essays that comprise Planet Dialectics, Sachs, a senior research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy and chairman of Greenpeace in Germany, explores a suspicion that "the Western development model is fundamentally at odds with both the quest for justice among the world's people and the aspiration to reconcile humanity and nature."

While Sachs wholeheartedly endorses efficiency measures and what he calls "eco-intelligent goods and services," he questions the notion that these innovations will enable us to continue our program of unrestrained economic growth. He argues that even if "sustainable development" were tenable from the standpoint of ecology and economics, it would still be largely undesirable from the standpoint of politics, culture, and social justice.

Sachs' arguments to support these claims are simple and elegant. He begins by dissecting the notion of development itself and exposes the arrogance that underlies the description of nearly 80 percent of the world's people as "underdeveloped." He then examines the effects of unrestrained economic growth on the environment and relentlessly questions the paradoxical notion that this growth (i.e., development) is both the cause of and solution to the world's environmental problems.

The fundamental flaw in the notion of "sustainable development," of course, is that continuous growth will eventually outstrip even the most dramatic gains in efficiency and resource productivity. Sachs thus confronts a problem that most treatises on sustainable development neatly sidestep: without first establishing limits to growth and questioning the growth paradigm itself, gains in efficiency and resource productivity buy us time but fail to address the underlying Western patterns of overdevelopment, overconsumption, and excessive affluence that are at the heart of the environmental crisis.

The beauty of Sachs' call for limits is that it does not claim to know what these limits are for a given society. He wisely refrains from proposing a "one-size-fits-all" solution, providing us with guiding principles instead. Taken together,these principles are a call to reinvigorate the anemic state of political discourse around the globe. They are meant to help societies figure out how limits can be productive and liberating.

Realizing the arrogance inherent in forcing a single development model (conventional or "sustainable") on cultures around the world with little regard for the details of history and place, Sachs instead calls on the affluent societies of the West, in particular, to invent ways of living that emphasize "well-being over well-having." Self-limitation by the West would give other societies room to explore their own political space and develop appropriate systems of production and social organization.

Contrary to popular belief, we are not at "the end of history." Effective systems of social organization other than neo-liberal capitalism are possible. Societies just need the space and time to invent them.

Sachs would likely agree that a plan of action similar to that outlined in Natural Capitalism may be appropriate for the West, but only after a discussion of limits and sufficiency is begun in earnest. Focusing exclusively on "doing things right" (i.e., efficiency) without first figuring out how "to do the right things" (i.e., sufficiency) is for Sachs like putting the cart before the horse.

In the end, Sachs demonstrates that the global environmental crisis is not simply a management problem. It is inescapably political, requiring all societies to seriously examine their beliefs about the nature of justice and well being. Authentic "sustainable development" is not really economic development after all, but rather a new politics of sufficiency and equity, supported (but not dominated) by modest technology that is appropriate, "lean," and elegant.

Misa Saros teaches physics at Viterbo College in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

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