In 1987 when the United Nations’ Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, appeared to worldwide fanfare, its slogan of “sustainable development” reassured environmentalists, who focused on the term “sustainable,” while pleasing business interests, who understood “development” to mean continued material growth. It seemed we could have it all. But many thoughtful observers then and since have pointed out that “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. On a finite planet, we can’t have both sustainability and continued material growth. More than two decades after the Brundtland Report, it’s past time to abandon this linguistic sleight of hand and rally around a new, shocking but this time realistic slogan: sustainable shrinkage! Within this new perspective, we can get on with saving species, restoring wastelands, improving efficiency, putting our life-support systems on sustainable bases—in short, finding solutions.
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