The Anatomy and Physiology of Unsustainable Development

As a one-time nurse, I know only too well that a successful treatment depends on a good diagnosis. Treating someone for a stomach ulcer when they are suffering from a heart attack, for example, may even make things worse. The best diagnosticians know enough about the body’s anatomy and physiology (how everything works) to quickly appraise the symptoms, make a good diagnosis and get on with the treatment.

Exactly the same principles apply when it comes to diagnosing and treating unsustainable development. Indeed, James Lovelock describes himself as a ‘general practitioner of planetary medicine’. This is not a bad metaphor for positive deviants to adopt, though it is well to remember St Luke’s injunction that first the physician has to heal himself.

This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectability of society.Thomas Malthus, First essay on population, 1798

In Chapter 1, therefore, I try to give you a good enough overview of the various symptoms of unsustainable development, enough for anyone unfamiliar with them to be able to explain them to others. I draw parallels with the human body, so, for example, biological resource depletion represents a wasting of the flesh and scarring of the skin of the Earth.

Like the human body, the anatomy of the Earth operates according to certain principles, which I have called ‘laws’. Chapter 2 starts by looking at how we have broken, and are still breaking, these laws. For a long time I would have said we did this out of ignorance or for want of reflection, but now there is a strong element of wilfulness as the consequences become more obvious. Which is why one symptom – a heart attack in the human economic system – is presented as a whole system or physiological failure. A diagnosis is made.

The treatment proposed in Chapter 3 is not so much a detailed prescription, but a consideration of the sort of treatment that will be needed to get the patient (i.e. ALOE+US) back on its feet. The idea is to help you differentiate between good and bad planetary medicine, and perhaps concoct a few remedies of your own.

Subsequent  chapters are about leadership, and how to grow your capacity to offer sustainability-literate leadership in such critical times, becoming an effective planetary physician yourself. But this section is about why it matters, and why positive deviants have such an important role to play in what happens next.