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 day.

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 poor.
  • 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, 1990).

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