Selfishness or Altruism?
An Historical Perspective of Sustainable Development, Economics and
of Earth and Geographical Sciences,
The University of Western Australia
concept of sustainable development is now pervasive in Australian policy.
It is especially prominent in issues that affect Australia’s
agricultural sector where land and water degradation have become
significant threats, not just to Australia’s primary production
capacity, but to the rural lifestyle and commercial survival of thousands
of farming families. Why, with a framework for sustainable development
firmly in place, is it so difficult for decision-makers to agree on
practicable policy to deal with problems like dryland salinity?
In the Brundtland Report
(Our Common Future) sustainable development was defined as:
'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. (WCED, 1987, p.
43). In Australia the concept became known as 'ecologically sustainable
development' (ESD) and was described by the Commonwealth Government as:
'development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the
future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life
depends' (Commonwealth of Australia 1994, p. 2). While there are many
different definitions of sustainable development, the idea clearly
involves present and future economic development, maintenance or enhancement
of the natural environment, the long-term productivity of living resources
and ecosystems, and a measure of social justice. Pearce (1999) concluded
that the main problem with sustainable development was to realise it,
rather than to define it (p. 69).
While they vary in detail, policies and
‘mission statements’ on sustainable development tend to embrace a mix
of commercial development, conservation and social equity. In addition,
all such documents usually claim an ethical, or altruistic, motivation
that aims to enhance economic growth and the distribution of wealth, while
improving the natural environment. These parallel approaches to
development, equity and conservation are not new to social and
environmental policy, although claims to be able to achieve all three
simultaneously appear to be a recent phenomenon. In the Western Australian
draft State Sustainability Strategy, Focus on the Future, the goal is to achieve 'simultaneous
environmental, social and economic improvement', (DPC, WA, 2002, p. 8).
The complementary objectives of improving
commercial outcomes, environmental conditions and social equity have been
proposed by scientists, social reformers, philosophers and economists
since the eighteenth century. This approach has had significant impacts on
society, culture and law in the years subsequent to the nineteenth century
Victorian ‘intellectual revolution’. However, in nineteenth century
political economy there was recognition of the need for priorities and
trade-offs between the goals goals of political economy and these placed
moral duty first. There were, indeed, many intellectuals who strongly
disagreed with the science of political economy. Some, like the poet
William Wordsworth and the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, predicted that
political economy would turn moral values into a ‘cost calculus’
Beginnings in the Eighteenth Century
There was a strong reaction against
'mercantilist thought' in the middle of the eighteenth century. Around
that time the Italian tradition, founded by the Neapolitan economist
Ferdinando Galiani, emerged with, but diverged from, the French
Physiocratic and Scottish Schools. All were loosely based upon the concept
of a utility-based theory of natural value, and their areas of
disagreement were focused on the role of the state as an economic entity.
Francois Quesnay (1694-1774), physician to the French king, founded the
French physiocratic school of political economy, and in 1758 he published
the Tableau Economique which was
translated into English in 1766 (Quesnay, 1758). Quesnay, as both the
physically based doctor and the conceptually based political economist,
saw a link between the body politic and the human body, which was
reflected in the relationship between the health of nature and the health
Adam Smith (1723-1790, founded the Scottish
School of political economy and his ideas were later interpreted and
adopted across Britain. His was a conceptually based duality since he was
both a moral philosopher and a political economist. Thomas Malthus
(1766-1834), was much concerned with what would probably now be known as
human ecology, and he published his controversial ideas on the economics
of population growth in 1798. Historically a number of writers have argued
that political economy pre-dated Galiani, Quesnay and Smith. For example
Jevons (1881), maintained that the original ideas for eighteenth century
political economy, which included theories expounded by both Smith and
Malthus, were proposed by Richard Cantillon (1680? - 1734) who developed
the 'Land Theory of Value'. Cantillon's work was first published in
English in 1759, but was originally published earlier in French, probably
in 1725. Smith acknowledges Cantillon in his own work, and Jevons argued
that both Hume and Malthus drew on Cantillon. He illustrated this by
quoting from Cantillon (chapter XV, p.87, p. 110, in Jevons 1881, p. 7) as
In a word, we can multiply all sorts of
animals in such numbers that we could have them even to infinity, if we
could find lands to infinity proper to nourish them; and the
multiplication of animals has no other bounds than the greater or less
means remaining for their subsistence.
Cantillon's ideas cited in the quote above
also proposed notions that became embedded in the subsequent work of Paley
and Darwin. These scientists were to participate with the political
economists and philosophers in the Victorian intellectual revolution that
laid the foundations for the concept of sustainable development. The
original essence of political economy, and its support of free markets,
was strongly allied to notions of truth and liberty. It was driven by the
desire to improve the well being of the majority of people by finding a
way to redistribute wealth according to the natural laws of production.
Contrary to some current interpretations of free-market economics, one
policy often proposed by early political economists was to tax wealth by
taxing land ownership, and redistributing the revenue to people like
landless peasants, whose labour was used to generate wealth from the land,
but who owned no capital. Adam Smith wrote in the Theory
of Moral Sentiments (1759):
And thus, place
… is the end of half the labours of human life; and is the cause of
all the tumult and bustle, all the rapine and injustice, which avarice and
ambition have introduced into this world.
the reasons for the suffering of the ‘greater part’ of society, the
ethics of human action, and the apparent paradoxes of human altruism and
human self-interest in his Theory of
Moral Sentiments. Smith went on to develop theories about how
selfishness might be used, in a constrained manner, for the good of all
members of society. An Enquiry into
the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Wealth of Nations examined the results of economic freedom,
including the division of labour, the functioning of markets, and the
international implications of a laissez-faire
economy. Smith appeared to see the lot of the poor and the
dispossessed as being linked to mercantalism and the activities of the
‘merchant classes’ Smith famously wrote (1776):
To found a great empire for the sole
purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear a
project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers.
It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of
shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation that is governed by
Concern for the plight of women,
particularly for the plight of poor women, was one of the moral issues
addressed by political economists and social reformers. Adam Smith and
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) focused, to different degrees, on the lot
of women. Smith wrote: "it is not uncommon … in the highlands of
Scotland for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two
alive" (Smith, 1776, qtd Helibroner, 1972, p.63). Wollstonecraft
stated simply "I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but
over themselves" (Wollstonecraft, 1792, ch 2).
Wollstonecraft’s writings and protests
preceded those of the successful nineteenth century suffrage movement
which involved many later social reformers such as Harriet Martineau
(1802-1876). Martineau was to be disparagingly identified with
Wollstonecraft by reviewers of her own work.
The focus on moral duty, justice and ethics
grew as the nineteenth century progressed. Political economists recognised
the tradeoffs between wealth generation and justice (ethics). Unlike some
of today's sustainability strategies and policies (eg UN, 2002), which aim
at the simultaneous realisation of economic efficiency, social justice and
ecological conservation, the early political economists almost always put
justice before wealth. The current well-intended approach of 'triple
bottom line accounting' can rarely be realised because of the inherent
tensions between its components. Ultimately, when tensions exist, the
traditional bottom line of tangible economics tends to win through.
Ideas of the Nineteenth Century
Many of the nineteenth century thinkers,
such as Paley (1743-1803), Carlyle (1795-1881), Martineau (1802-1876),
Mill (1806-1873), and Darwin (1809-1882) promoted what would now be
considered as multidisciplinary approaches to scientific, social and other
intellectual arguments. Even Church of England clergymen played a role in
the scientific debate1. Thinkers from the British isles, like
those identified above, and others, such as Karl Marx, Auguste Compte and
Henry George from Europe and the Americas, made important contributions to
scientific, philosophical, political and economic theory. While sometimes
considered eccentric or even outrageous, both at home and abroad, such
thinkers were often also involved in campaigns for the emancipation of
women, the abolition of slavery, and the education of the poor.
Many of the nineteenth century intellectual
reformers tended, without any suggestion of a paradox, to couple ethical
humanist considerations with respect for nature and utilitarianism. They
did this in pursuit of ideas about how to improve human ‘development’,
social justice and man’s treatment of the natural environment (Lumley,
2001). Appreciation of the importance and implications of the future
seemed common to Victorians. However, intellectual reformers, like Mill,
Malthus and Martineau, in addition to expressing explicit concern for the
future, coupled this concern with concern for the welfare of humanity, and
even of the earth itself. These interconnected concerns appear to form a
basis for present ideas about sustainable development. John Stuart Mill
If the earth must lose that great portion
of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of
wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of
enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population,
I sincerely hope, for the sakes of posterity, that they will be content to
be stationary2, long before necessity compels them to it.
In an echo of Cantillon, Malthus had
commented, a number of years before Mill addressed this topic,
"Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.
Subsistence only increases in an arithmetical ratio" (Malthus, 1798).
Like Malthus, Harriet Martineau was a well-known political economist. In
1835 George Fletcher Moore, who was an agriculturalist, lawyer, and Acting
Colonial Secretary of the Swan River Colony before returning to England in
1852, cited Martineau’s work in his journal, in the context of the
The poor boy as he sat at the fire, had
just been transfixed by Nauderry with a spear, in order, I suppose to
adjust the balance of power upon the death of Billy, the son of
Midgerooroo. This, of course, will be followed up by a retaliation on the
part of the Waylo men; and thus is this country prevented from being
overstocked with people by a process which the Political Economist Harriet
Martineau would, perhaps, not acknowledge as one of her “mild preventive
checks to the super abundance of population”.
Unlike her male counterparts, Martineau’s
name is now rarely seen in the lexicon of scientists and economists. Like
many women from all walks of intellectual life, her fame is alive in, but
frequently confined to, the discipline of English literature. Modern
English literature analysts, as well as recognising women forgotten by
others, have also made a connection between the fluidity of nineteenth
century thought across the disciplines, and the links between evolutionary
theory in science and its parallels elsewhere (for example Beer, 1983,
In her drive to educate the literate
masses, Martineau popularised the ideas of Adam Smith, Malthus, and others
by publishing her work in the press. Some of Martineau's contemporary
reviewers were scathing about what they viewed as her role as a woman
wrongfully dabbling in science. Reviewers for both Fraser's
Magazine and the Quarterly
Review linked her ideas to those of Mary Wollstonecraft, and they
believed her work to challenge the subordinate role of women. As David
(1987, p.43) comments, Martineau's interpretations of Malthus' work were
said to deal with "unfeminine and mischievous doctrines".
Martineau wrote with a keen knowledge of
the works of both Malthus and Mill, and with a passion for morality, the
economics of Adam Smith, public education and the welfare of future
generations (Martineau, 1877).
Martineau may have found Smith’s work
appealing because his commitment to social justice, together with a strong
moral theme, formed the basis of much of his writing. Like Martineau, he
did believe in a vision of limited utilitarianism and economic development
that could break the power of the merchants whose social role he so
despised. There were also strong theoretical links between the ideas of
the political economists and those of the natural scientists. It is not
clear how much the economists’ ideas influenced the development of
Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory (Darwin, 1873). Some scholars argue
that Darwin was influenced by reading Thomas Malthus' Essay
on Population in 1838, others suggest that Darwin had read Adam
Smith's work. At the time that Darwin was working on his theory, Harriet
Martineau’s writing in the popular press was both influential and
prominent, and Darwin knew her personally. He is likely to have read her
interpretations of Smith's work, and that of the other important political
economists. Charles Darwin was certainly influenced by William
Paley’s Natural Theology (1802),
which Darwin recognised as being of great importance to him. Paley used
the same metaphor of the 'invisible hand' as Adam Smith, but with
reference to animal behaviour in the natural world. Paley, in his turn,
was influenced by the writings of Thomas Malthus.
Without doubt, there is a strong degree of
isomorphism between Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and Adam
Smith’s theory of economics and the ‘invisible hand’ which
encourages order in the world of laissez
faire capitalism (Armstrong, 2003).
Although disagreement exists about the
proper definition of sustainable development, the concept almost always
includes: the conservation of nature, commercial development, altruism and
justice, inter- and intra-generational equity and concern for the future.
The nineteenth century was indeed an age of utilitarianism and
competition. However, the competition was not to be unfettered and utility
had limited application. Ideas of altruism were intimately connected with
notions of the free market, but ethics, not economics, was to be the
‘bottom line’. That era was one of complex ideas, and the seeds of the
modern notion of sustainable development could often be detected in
scientific, economic, philosophical and literary discourses.
We have much to learn about the motives of
the early political economists, and from the historical context in which
their intellectual revolution took place. 'Market economics' is sometimes
used as a pretext for perpetuating injustices in social and environmental
policy. This pretext is often facilitated by a poor understanding of
economic theory, and an ignorance of its moral foundations. In addition,
an ideological application of the current interpretation of economics
frequently drives public policy. If there were better public knowledge of
the context in which economics, and parallel notions of moral justice,
were developed, the application of practicable and sustainable public
policy might progress further and faster. We might then be closer to a
solution to the apparently intractable problems of land degradation and
salinity, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, and the ongoing
arguments about the efficiency and equity of “who should pay?”
whenever a solution to such problems is proposed.
1. The role of Church of England clergy in
the development of natural history and conservation, particularly in the
nineteenth century is discussed in Armstrong (2000).
2. My emphasis: this appears to be a call
for sustainability with posterity (the future) being Mill’s main
Armstrong, P. H
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Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century
Fiction, Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge.
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grateful thanks go to Patrick Armstrong and Marion Hercock, both
multidisciplinary Bio-Geographers, and Judith Johnston, a 19th
Century English Literature expert, who have shared their knowledge,
ideas, inspirations, papers and books with me.