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Connections - Farm, Food and Resource Issues


Selfishness or Altruism?
An Historical Perspective of Sustainable Development, Economics and Science

 Sarah Lumley*,

School of Earth and Geographical Sciences,
The University of Western Australia


The 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’ (Hodgson, 1997).

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 of society.

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 follows:

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.

Smith examined 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 shopkeepers.

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 Intellectuals

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 (1849) wrote:

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 indigenous Australians:

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, 1996).

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).

Concluding Reflections

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 concern.


Armstrong, P. H  2003, Personal Communication, School of Earth and Geographical Sciences, the University of Western Australia.

Armstrong, P H 2000, The English Parson-Naturalist: a Companionship between Science and Religion, Gracewing, Leominster.

Beer, Gillian 1996, Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounters, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

Beer, Gillian 1983, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Cambridge University Press, New York and Cambridge.

Commonwealth of Australia 1994, Summary Report on the Implementation of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, Australian Government Publishing Office, Canberra.

Darwin, Charles: 1873, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex; first published by John Murray, 1871.

David, Deidre 1987, Intellectual Women and the Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Macmillan, London.

DPC 2002, Focus on the Future. The Western Australian State Sustainability Strategy, Consultation Draft, Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Perth.

Heilbroner, R. 1972, The Worldly Philosophers. The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, 4th edition, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Hodgson, Geoffrey 1997, ‘Economics, Environmental Policy and Utilitarianism’, in Foster, John (ed), Valuing Nature? Economics, Ethics and Environment, Routledge, London.

Jevons, William Stanley 1881, 'Richard Cantillon and the Nationality of Political Economy', Contemporary Review, January.

Lumley, S. 2001, ‘Harriet Martineau 1802-1876’, in Armstrong, P H and Martin, G (eds), Geographers: Biobibliographic Studies, Continuum, London and New York, 21, 46-64.

Malthus, Thomas Robert An Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society, published anonymously, 1798. Reprinted 1926 and 1966 with the original pagination, Macmillan, London.

Martineau, Harriet 1877, Autobiography: Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography with Memorials by Maria Weston Chapman, Smith, Elder and Co, London, pp. 461.

Mill, J S. 1849, Principles of Political Economy: With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, quoted by Gruen, L and Jamieson, D (eds) 1994, Reflecting on Nature: Readings in Environmental Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

Moore, George Fletcher 1835, Excursion to the Northward, Manuscript Journal of George Fletcher Moore Esq, in the collection of the Department of Land Administration, Midland, WA.

Paley, William 1825, Natural Theology, London. pp 331-332.

Pearce, D. 1999, Economics and Environment. Essays on Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Edward Elgar, Aldershot, p. 69.

Quesnay, Francois 1758, Tableau Economique, Paris.

Smith, A. 1759, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Chapter 2, Sect. 3, Pt. 1.

Smith, A. 1776, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol 2, Bk iv, Chapter 7, Pt 3.

U.N. 2002, United Nations: Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development,

WCED, 1987, Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Wollstonecraft, Mary 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Chapter 4, London.

* My 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.