Short Termism vs. sustainable development

Published on Wednesday, 27 June 2012
Short Termism vs. sustainable development Image by Stephen Pennell via Flickr

Sustainable development is a sensible framework for looking at the system. It represents a fundamental shift in analysis from the “Washington Consensus”. The idea of examining economic, social, and environmental issues together as three, interdependent pillars of development was a sharp break with the idea that the market was king and that everything else should respond and adapt to it. The ambulances were to be dispatched to retrieve the bodies of the market’s victims from the economic battlefield. And the public was to be responsible for cleaning up the environment, preferably in a way that would generate profits for entrepreneurs.

The crisis showed that the concept of sustainability, by itself, has failed to put the market “in its place”. Some important changes have occurred, particularly in public attitudes, in large part due to the fear of global warming and the resentment of injustice, but those changes have not yet significantly altered the way that we work or co-operate.


The market is an important way to organise the economy. But, it is a mechanism, not a religion. Debate on sustainable development is impossible if it must be based on absolute “faith” in the market.


And, the market and its actors cannot be expected to replace governance or governments. The market has no face and no name. It can neither be elected nor removed from office. Only elected governments have the legitimacy and the mandate to take public decisions.

Sustainable development is long term. One of the reasons that the economy came unraveled is that it became short term. The imposition of requirements for high, rapid returns often left a company without the resources needed to advance and, sometimes, to survive. Unsustainable, private debt cannot be the model for development. Nor can such colossal failures be shifted without limit onto taxpayers. For decades, private debt has been at risky levels and the bill has come due.


Social sustainable development is social justice. Inequality has grown steadily over decades, as documented by the IMF, the ILO and the OECD. It has created a social structure that is “top-heavy” and that is neither fair nor stable. In recent decades, rather than improving social protections and respect for fundamental rights, risk has been shifted from employers, private and public, to their workers. The explosion of precarious work, often temporary and/or with blurred or ignored employment relationships, is just one dramatic example of social short-termism.


The global warming that threatens the planet and the exposure to hazardous substances and other risks that threaten workers and the general public has also developed over many years. It is clear that urgent corrective measures must begin to be taken, but that their impact will only be felt after many more decades have passed.


The world’s economic, social, and environmental problems have long-term causes and have suffered in all three cases from short-termism. Global, sustainable solutions must be long term. Processes are necessary to stimulate democratic solutions, to improve the observance of rule of law and the quality of governance, to re-build public services, and to generate the sustainable dialogue on which progress is dependent.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 July 2012

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Jim Baker

Jim Baker has held a number of positions in the US and international trade union movements over the last 40 years. His most recent responsibility was seven years of service as Coordinator of the Council of Global Unions (CGU). 

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