Published here October 2006.


Musings Index

Is Sustainable Development an Oxymoron?

No doubt like many other cities around the world, there is much discussion locally about the environment and global warming. These are grandiose terms that, in the general public's mind, boil down to traffic congestion on the one hand and the smog that we breathe daily on the other. The issue is: What can we do about it, or in the language of the project manager, what projects can we launch to deal with these evident needs?

Clearly, responding to these challenges constitute "Management of Change" projects. "Management of Change", as I hope everyone knows, is not the same as "Change Management".[1] "Change Management" has to do with the formal process through which changes to the project plan are approved and introduced.[2] "Management of Change", on the other hand, may be defined, at least in business, as the means by which the "people issues" surrounding business process reengineering is managed. Along with the reorganization of people, it often involves a cultural shift in attitudes, expectations, opportunities, training and future prospects.

The fact that it means a "shift in attitudes" implies that we need to know where we are today and how we got there, before we can assess the merits of projects for where we go from here. So the following is my perception of how we got to where we are. With little modification it can apply to almost anywhere and, because it is almost timeless, it seemed appropriate to write it in a sort of modernized biblical style. Vancouver, by the way, sits in the "Lower Mainland", that is, the part of the Fraser Valley where the mighty Fraser River meets the sea. And, yes, this is written with tongue-in-cheek.

In the Beginning ...

First there was the Fraser Valley and it was all treed bush, marshlands and wetland. Then came man who carved out small areas from the bush to live and grow food for survival. But that didn't matter because there were not many men and lots of bush.

And the land was so good for growing food that other men came. And they brought their wives and had large families because they needed "manpower" to work the land to support the large families.

And soon the offspring got bored so they wanted to visit other families in the area for "social contact" and to do things like trading and "begetting". And so they built roads that were not very good, and there were obstacles like rivers and streams to cross.

And so they invented "engineers" to conduct projects like building roads and bridges. But the people were not satisfied because they didn't like the mess that was developing. So they invented "architects" who don't like anything unless they have created it themselves. And this led to a hodgepodge of development.

But the people were still dissatisfied and so they invented "planners" who planned things like shopping plazas and super markets that collapsed[3] and road networks called "infrastructure" on the basis that if it has a grand sounding name it must be all right.

And suddenly people realized that the land was almost all used up and so they had to rely on growing things someplace else and transporting them in from afar. But "horses and carts" the traditional form of farm transportation was very slow, so they invented steam engines and, later, automobiles that emit obnoxious gases.

And so it was much easier to get around, so more people wanted to get around, and so they did, until everyone realized that it was beginning to get very crowded especially in the shopping malls where they needed to go and buy stuff.

Public Participation

And then came a man who felt so strongly about the over crowding that he blamed the pope for encouraging too many people. But he soon realized that the pope was more influential than he was because the pope rules over more people. And so a local lobby group was formed, with the objective of assembling people with like minded ideas about there being too many people.

And the group invited a speaker, a professor from Simon Fraser University, a place where they "educate" young people and do other useful things. And the speaker said he was an "ecologist" and everyone listened intently because no one present really understood what an ecologist is or does.

And the speaker recommended a book called How Many People Can the Earth Support?[4] by Joel Cohen. Which book, after more than 500 pages, fails to answer that question, perhaps because the author was politically astute and recognized the inadvisability of providing a definitive answer.

And the speaker went on to describe the history of Easter Island and how the Polynesians built statues all over the place to honor their memory even after their august civilization collapsed because they had cut down all the trees that supported their life style.

And the speaker went on to describe how, at the level of the Canadian "lifestyle" each person requires about four and a half hectares to support that life style. And nobody present could visualize that because they were, for the most part, of the older concerned generation who measured in acres.

And the speaker described how the present global population expropriates around 40% of the sun's energy cycle and that in about 30 years the growth of global population will have expropriated all of the energy cycle. And the group had difficulty in grasping that proposition also because, to support the Canadian life style, people already rely heavily on consuming part of the historic energy cycle (by consuming fossil fuels) and on consuming part of the future energy cycle (by loading the atmosphere with more pollution than it can handle.)

And the speaker mentioned that to support everyone on earth at the same level of the present Canadian life style, it would require two more earths like ours. And the people had difficulty in grasping that idea too, because no one could think of where they could find two more earths like ours, especially empty ones.

And in spite of all this, people are understandably reluctant to change their life style, because they need food to eat, which means money to buy, which means jobs to earn, which means consuming natural resources, for the most part non-renewable, to work with.

And the people present recognized the problem and said what can we do? And the speaker said there are lots of things you can do individually but above all there needs to be more open discussion about population by forming groups like this one.

Lack of Action

And people went away with worried looks on their faces, because they knew there was a serious problem here, because they recognized the enormous changes that have taken place since they remembered what it was like in the "good old days". Even Dr. David Suzuki[5] recognized this in a powerful presentation to a local school in 1996, though he seemed unwilling to connect it with there being too many people.

And so it was that people failed to realize that each new generation forms its own "baseline view" of what the world is like when they first become sufficiently observant (in their twenties). And it takes many years, when they are generally far too busy anyway trying to support their families and seeking to survive in a deteriorating environment, before they recognize the changes and trends towards environmental degradation (by their fifties and sixties.) At which time their priorities are to secure survival in retirement. And by the time they feel sufficiently confident and strongly about the situation to do something about it, their influence has waned in the face of the new baseline view established in the minds of the up-and-coming generation.

And so it will be that nothing tangible will be done and the trends will continue until, like the host of maggots devouring the meat on an abandoned carcass, the population is always largest just before the meat runs out. So, like the Polynesians before them, all that will remain of present humanity to intrigue future life forms in the aeons of the universe to come, will be the remnants of the concrete monuments that the architects and engineers left behind them on this particular planet.

1. Notwithstanding extensive misuse of the terms on the web by people who should know better.
2. Change Management - [D04398]
3. A reference to the Station Square Development roof collapse in 1988, in the Greater Vancouver area, Canada. The case was investigated by a Commissioner Inquiry and was widely reported in the project management press in North America. The roof failure was attributed to a specific flaw in the structural roof design. However, any project manager reading the Commissioner's report would recognize the chain of events, the adverse decisions, and the structural warnings prior to the failure as a failure of "project management attitude".
4. Cohen, J. E., How Many People Can the Earth Support?, 1995, available from
5. Suzuki, Dr. David, an eminent local environmentalist who has broadcast extensively on Canadian TV programs and has established the David Suzuki Foundation, see
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