Sustainable Development

History and evolution of the concept

Authored by: Delyse Springett , Michael Redclift

Routledge International Handbook of Sustainable Development

Print publication date:  March  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415838429
eBook ISBN: 9780203785300
Adobe ISBN: 9781135040727




When the Club of Rome 1 coined the term, ‘The Global Problèmatique’, for the environmental crisis of the early 1970s, it was intended to capture the connections and dynamic interactions between the various aspects of the problem – those linkages and knock-on effects that reverberate throughout the world (Reid 1995; Rockström et al. 2009). The institutional roots of the crisis, with its social, political and economic dimensions and the associated cultural, spiritual and intellectual implications, can be traced back to the emergence of the capitalist economy from the scientific and industrial revolutions in England (Merchant 1980; Capra 1983; Spretnak and Capra 1985; Carley and Christie 1992). Central to the changing world-view was the shift in attitudes towards nature wrought by the ideology of the Enlightenment, leading to nature’s ‘disenchantment’ and the dissipating of its power over physical and spiritual aspects of human life (Merchant 1980; Eckersley 1992). 2 The new scientific paradigm at the core of the Enlightenment that transformed the human–nature relationship, combined with the capitalist model of production and consumption, produced a degree of change and scale of degradation not previously possible (Merchant 1980). Along with this, the Northern 3 process of domination, effected through colonization in pursuit of resources, markets and land – and later extended through the globalization of trade, technological expertise, the money market and communications ( The Ecologist 1993) – eventually resulted in global impacts on nature and the lives of people. Two decades ago, Vitousek et al. (1986: 1861) stated: ‘any clear dichotomy between pristine ecosystems and human-altered areas that may have existed in the past has vanished’. Today, the Earth is beyond the point where boundaries can be ascribed to environmental problems and the associated social impacts. However, the sharing of the impacts is not equitable, as the eco-justice movement underlines: the poor disproportionately shoulder the consequences of environmental degradation (Faber and O’Connor 1989; Dobson 1998; Agyeman et al. 2003; Martínez-Alier 2003). These social and environmental impacts and the struggle to deal with them led to the coining of the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and its appearance on the international agenda in the 1970s (Carley and Christie 1992).

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Sustainable Development

When the Club of Rome 1 coined the term, ‘The Global Problèmatique’, for the environmental crisis of the early 1970s, it was intended to capture the connections and dynamic interactions between the various aspects of the problem – those linkages and knock-on effects that reverberate throughout the world (Reid 1995; Rockström et al. 2009). The institutional roots of the crisis, with its social, political and economic dimensions and the associated cultural, spiritual and intellectual implications, can be traced back to the emergence of the capitalist economy from the scientific and industrial revolutions in England (Merchant 1980; Capra 1983; Spretnak and Capra 1985; Carley and Christie 1992). Central to the changing world-view was the shift in attitudes towards nature wrought by the ideology of the Enlightenment, leading to nature’s ‘disenchantment’ and the dissipating of its power over physical and spiritual aspects of human life (Merchant 1980; Eckersley 1992). 2 The new scientific paradigm at the core of the Enlightenment that transformed the human–nature relationship, combined with the capitalist model of production and consumption, produced a degree of change and scale of degradation not previously possible (Merchant 1980). Along with this, the Northern 3 process of domination, effected through colonization in pursuit of resources, markets and land – and later extended through the globalization of trade, technological expertise, the money market and communications ( The Ecologist 1993) – eventually resulted in global impacts on nature and the lives of people. Two decades ago, Vitousek et al. (1986: 1861) stated: ‘any clear dichotomy between pristine ecosystems and human-altered areas that may have existed in the past has vanished’. Today, the Earth is beyond the point where boundaries can be ascribed to environmental problems and the associated social impacts. However, the sharing of the impacts is not equitable, as the eco-justice movement underlines: the poor disproportionately shoulder the consequences of environmental degradation (Faber and O’Connor 1989; Dobson 1998; Agyeman et al. 2003; Martínez-Alier 2003). These social and environmental impacts and the struggle to deal with them led to the coining of the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and its appearance on the international agenda in the 1970s (Carley and Christie 1992).

There were early precedents for today’s lack of ecological justice. In England, by the mid-nineteenth century, a far-reaching experiment in social engineering had been undertaken through state intervention. This had started with the appropriation of common land, which was presented as an ostensibly public and democratic process controlled by Parliament, while actually driven by big property owners (Gray 1998: 8). The transformation of England to an industrial society through the force of capitalist industrialization provided a microcosm of today’s global money economy and prevailing paradigm of profit and domination. 4 It signalled how future trade that developed between the colonizers and the colonized would become skewed (Carley and Christie 1992), and how the lives of people in the South would be transformed by powerful and seemingly indomitable Northern interests. The new scientific and industrial revolutions of the twentieth century meant that Northern power would go on to impact on developing nations under the guise of ‘development’ and of ‘aid’. 5 Adam Smith’s concept of ‘the invisible hand’ 6 was reconstructed to endorse whatever operations the capitalist free market economy called for. The plans of the Allies crafted at Bretton Woods after the Second World War resulted in extended ways of exercising power over people and nature through the globalization of the economy, strengthened by the creation of Northern-dominated global structures such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization (Lang and Hines 1993; Esty 1994; Brack 1998). 7 , 8 These institutions, set up to run the world in a ‘democratic’ fashion, have proved to be deeply undemocratic (Monbiot 2003). They imposed liberal market structures onto the economic life of societies worldwide, creating what amounts in many ways to a single global, asymmetric ‘free’ market (Gray 1998: 2), which, to the poor and the powerless, has represented an ‘invisible elbow’ (Jacobs 1991: 127). From the early 1990s onwards this neoliberal ascendancy (the ‘Washington Consensus’) used fiscal incentives and sanctions at the international level to ‘roll back’ the state, in both developed and emerging economies, and to give free rein to the market through abolishing government subsidies to producers, combined with the overhaul of external tariffs (‘structural adjustment’). These market reforms eventually paved the way for accelerated economic growth, notably in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) at the expense of growing internal inequality and the plunder of natural resources.

The neo-Marxian contribution to the environmental debate that emerged in the late twentieth century helped to expose the effects of earlier domination, and tipped the discourse on ‘sustainability’ from a Northern-dominated focus on ‘nature conservation’, based on a scientific paradigm, to one which examined the inextricability of environmental and social responsibility, and exposed how power and knowledge are used to dominate the environment and people. 9 The root causes of the global problematic were deemed to be the capitalist means of production and consumption, the institutions set in place to support this, and the asymmetric power that those institutions represent. However, this analysis, with hindsight, was only partially accurate and seriously over-deterministic.

The global problematic today mirrors the intensified outcomes of the capitalist political economy and its historical colonization of much of the globe, encompassing both ‘liberal democracies’ and authoritarian capitalist economies, notably Russia. Moreover, in China, a hybrid economy developed in the period from 1990 that combined elements of state socialism with a highly dynamic market-based system. Massive increases in world trade, and especially the rise of China, have continued to benefit the developed world, not least from reducing living costs for its domestic populations, 10 while the broad secular trends of Northern capitalism have taken root in newly industrializing countries (NICs). Inequalities between rich and poor countries have forced the poor countries to adopt ‘market-friendly’ policies and to embrace a liberal market version of capitalism (Carley and Christie 1992). Developing countries have emulated Northern consumerist aspirations, with Southern elites enjoying new-found life-styles while basic levels of health, welfare and education for the majority fail to be attained (George 1976; 1988). The process of globalization, exercised through both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media and consumption patterns, has ensured the continuing hegemony of market-based values, notably through the dissemination of the Internet. This global reach of information technology and the new media might even be seen as a refinement of earlier processes such as the capture of the commons and the drive for imperialism (Newby 1980; The Ecologist 1993; Diani 2000; Van Aelst and Walgrave 2007; Van Laer 2010). However, today’s ‘imperialist’ powers are likely to be transnational corporations, often richer and more powerful than individual governments (Korten 1995; Madeley 2007; Bonanno and Constance 2008), whose policies include at least token reference to ‘corporate social responsibility’. They are also more elusive, and able to shift wealth and physical plant around the globe. The crisis provoked by economic and cultural globalization also has a physical parallel in the problem of anthropogenic climate change, which presents a challenge to international policy that is both enormously complex, and has created a new site for political contestation. Compliance with the requirements of climate change policy demands a serious reduction of the environmental impacts of industry, which in turn calls for fundamental changes in economic structures and processes which conventional economic analysis ignores, and which is denied and resisted at industry and institutional levels.

The essential character of production and consumption patterns is the basis of the most serious environmental problems (Jacobs 1996), as is the issue of values. Redclift (1996) points out that we have confused the ‘standard of living’ with the quality of life, making the consumer society that underpins the capitalist goals of business easier to manipulate (see also Marcuse 1964; Robertson 1990; Durning 1992), and destroying Marx’s vision of the proletariat as agents of change. This legitimates corporate control over expectations and behaviour, where individual acquisition of the status symbols of the capitalist version of ‘the good life’ outpaces concern for ‘the common good’ (Daly and Cobb 1989). A corollary of this has been the emergence of social movements which, despite their epistemological and political differences, are linked by their concern for environmental, social and equity issues. These may represent a potential force for change which could provide a powerful alternative paradigm to that of the capitalist political economy (O’Connor, J. 1998; Doherty and Doyle, 2008).

The environmental backlash

The counter-attack against the power of globalization and market capitalism is observed in the outcry against their impact on the environment (if not against other institutional forms of hegemony). This was initiated with Rachel Carson’s 11 exposé of the chemicals industry (1962), and is well documented, needing only a brief summary of key points here. The environmental discourses of the 1960s and 1970s were grounded in a perspective that was broader and more ‘political’ than the earlier ‘conservation’ discourse. 12 They exposed the outcomes of capitalist industry and economics and cast doubt on the dominant political conception that economic growth itself, left unfettered, would resolve environmental as well as social problems. The energy of that early movement, with its emphasis upon environmental and public virtues, may be reflected today in new social trends, such as the protests against genetically engineered food, globalization and the destruction of ‘nature’. For its part, the ‘environmental’ movement itself has to a large extent become engulfed in the predominating environmental management paradigm and has relinquished some of the moral leadership it once represented (Sachs 1993). A Blueprint for Survival ( The Ecologist, 1972) forecast the irreversible destruction of life-support systems and the breakdown of society. The establishment of the Club of Rome and the publication of Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972) 13 re-launched a neo-Malthusian 14 discourse, expounding the problèmatique as arising essentially from exponential population growth and reinforcing Hardin’s argument (1968) that people are incapable of putting ‘collective’ interests before ‘individual’ ones. As neo-Marxists joined the debate (for example, Redclift 1987), the Limits to Growth focus on ‘scarcity’ was exposed as ignoring the discourse of ‘distribution’. 15 The contestation had already become a struggle as to who should define and construct the discourse, based on the nexus between power and knowledge. Detractors of the environmental backlash scoffed at both the ‘doomsday scenarios’ and the ‘utopian’ alternative that A Blueprint for Survival presented. Cornucopians 16 like Beresford (1971) and Maddox (1972) placed their faith in technical expertise – plentiful resources and energy, the ability of the ‘green revolution’ to feed starving populations, and technical solutions to problems of resource production. Business – caught on the back foot initially in the face of this backlash – soon gathered its considerable weight to undermine the environmental cause through various means of coercion, mostly based upon extending its control over public attitudes through a pervasive hegemony that colonized the life-world of the public through the media (Rowell 1996; Beder 1997; Mayhew 1997; Welford 1997).

A different kind of attack and a different hegemonic contestation arose from socially concerned groups who perceived the ‘ecological crisis’ as being employed to legitimate inattention to the problems of social injustice, of war and the impacts of capitalism, further disempowering the poor and weak. Clarke (1975: 62) pointed out at the time that the ecological crisis was not a diversion from social ills, but a result of them. However, the perception of a dichotomy emerging between ‘environmental’ and ‘social’ concerns and the suspicion that social justice was taking a back seat in favour of the Northern focus on environmental issues became a growing concern, especially in developing countries. It impacted on the international environmental discourse, particularly in the lead-up to the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE 1972), and found its legitimation in the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) Report, Our Common Future, in 1987. 17

Another potential form of hegemonic appropriation requires comment: the epistemological and ontological basis of the analysis of the global problematic has come chiefly from the North. Accounts of the growth of environmentalism have themselves mostly arisen from the industrialized world (Adams 1990); and Redclift (1984) warned against international comparisons based entirely on European or North American experience. These cautions from the North echoed those of writers from the South who claimed that Northern environmentalism was an extension of the pervasive Northern hegemony and its ‘global’ reach (Biswas and Biswas 1984; Shiva 1991; 1993; Beney 1993; Gudynas 1993). The ‘framing’ of the concept of ‘sustainable development’ reflected Northern constructions, and a particularly invasive form of Northern appropriation and domination that sometimes attempted to disguise the origins of the problematic while taking the higher moral ground. There is, for example, a continuing tendency to ascribe the causes of unsustainable development to other sources, such as the behaviour of the poor in the developing world (and see Martínez-Alier, 2003, on the environmentalism of the poor). We would seek to argue that what is required today, as in 1987, is a more inclusive problematization of the concept that takes into account world-views and cultures other than those of the North alone, and that takes a much broader-based, discursive approach.

The international contestation of sustainable development

The environmental movement of the 1960s was based largely upon a concept of nature that was scientifically constructed by the North (Hays 1959; Evernden 1992; Eder 1996a), chiefly rooted in the earlier American ‘conservation’ movement and perceived by O’Riordan (1981) as organized resource exploitation and regional economic planning. As the debate became affected by ideas and concepts from the field of development (Redclift 1987; Adams 1990; Goulet 1995a; 1995b), the dialectics of ‘environment and development’ produced a new discourse, though the North continued to identify the problems and solutions, chiefly from a ‘conservation’ perspective. The adoption of the term, ‘sustainable development’, brings with it epistemological and practical problems that have led to strong contestation; but it signifies a transformation being made in the environmental discourse. The contestation – even repudiation – of the term, 18 has not excluded its capture by some groups, to become a key concept in the rhetoric of ‘green’ business. Against negative perceptions, some authors always understood the concept as capable of emancipating more democratic and inclusive approaches to living with nature and each other (O’Connor, J. 1998); while others saw it as legitimating perspectives from the South (Redclift 1987; Jacobs 1991).

International fora on environment and sustainable development from the Stockholm Conference in 1972 19 to the UNCSD (Rio+20) in 2012, as well as key international Strategies and Reports, have tended to legitimate the North’s power over and domination of the construct, while appearing to be seeking ‘solutions’. A great deal of hope for the necessary discursivity in addressing sustainable development had been pinned on these fora. However, they were organized by the Northern-dominated United Nations and promoted largely North-driven agendas, even though they also formed sites of protest. The agendas have been as remarkable for their lacunae as their content; and the significance of the attendance or non-attendance at these fora of key political figures from the North, such as the President of the USA, and their powers of veto, signal where the power lies. Institutional hegemony at these fora has also been shown to be heavily dependent upon the support of corporate power. The fact that collusion between these dominant forces governs the outcomes of international debates on environment and sustainable development has been difficult to overlook. The voices of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the South have gradually been heard after much struggle, though without achieving equal power.

Such discord between North and South characterized the preparations for the Stockholm Conference (UNCHE, 1972), as it has all subsequent international fora and official rhetoric on environment and sustainable development. The South’s struggle against a Northern-dominated vision of protecting the environment against industrialism and pollution (Adams 1990: 37) tipped the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) agenda from a focus on ‘environmental responsibility’ to include the twin moral principle of ‘social justice’ (Redclift 1996: 13). The exposure of a one-sided discourse that bypassed the concerns of the poor majority, who sought their own right to developmental progress through industrialization, demonstrated the extent to which the North had taken for granted its economic ‘superiority’ and scientific ‘expertise’. Its agenda rested upon a neo-Malthusian doctrine that was ‘deeply unattractive to and mistrusted by’ developing country representatives (Adams 1990: 37). The extent to which the views of developing countries actually influenced the discourse of UNCHE remains open to debate. Some new conceptual ground was broken (ibid.); but there was little focus on the dialectics of ‘poverty and pollution’ 20 – a foretaste of the lacunae of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) debate 20 years later. At the same time, environmentalists contested the ‘remedial focus’ of limiting damage to the environment without checking development and the apparent determination ‘to legalise the environment as an economic externality’ (Colby 1991: 201, original emphasis). Both analyses indicate that the struggle for economic power that was legitimated by the Conference would ensure that the losers would be the environment and the poor of the South. However, in a Foucauldian sense, the capacity of the developing world to exercise the power to influence the international agenda had been demonstrated. It could tilt the domination exercised over the environmental/sustainable development agenda, though the possibility that this would awaken renewed determination to maintain Northern power over the agenda was an outcome to anticipate in later fora.

The World Conservation Strategy (IUCN et al. 1980) did little to allay the South’s fears that the North would continue to dominate the agenda. The stated overall aim of achieving sustainable development ‘through the conservation of living resources’ (IUCN et al. 1980, IV, emphasis added) overlooked sensitive and controversial issues of international and political order, war and armaments, population and urbanization (Khosla 1987). 21 The World Conservation Strategy foreshadowed the World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED) definition of sustainable development by focusing on the needs of future generations; but its Judaeo-Christian affirmation of domination over nature – and, by implication, humankind – was unpopular, as was the stance on ‘scarcity’ as opposed to ‘redistribution’ (Redclift 1992; Achterhuis 1993). The strategy was still environment-dominated with pervasive Malthusian overtones, ‘repackaged for a new audience’ (Adams 1990: 47; Reid 1995); and it failed to examine the social and political changes that would be necessary to meet its conservation goals (Redclift 1992). The essentially political nature of the development process was not grasped, the naïve assumption being that ‘conservation’, rather than being a social construct and essentially political (Redclift 1987; Eder 1996a), was above ideology. The Strategy failed to acknowledge that human societies construct their views of nature to reflect human problems and that the Northern construction of environment did not reflect the views of the South.

The power of Northern hegemony met some resistance from the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which included a large number of Commissioners from the South. The Brundtland Report (1987) placed the discourse much more firmly in the economic and political context of international development. Efforts to limit the agenda to ‘environmental’ matters and a critique of conventional environmental management as practised in developed countries were resisted (Redclift 1987). The preliminary consultative process itself provided something of a model of democratic participation (ibid.), and the Report was altogether more ‘political’ and radical than the Stockholm Declaration (1972) or the World Conservation Strategy (1980). It took a stance that was more challenging of traditional power structures, acknowledging the inseparability of environmental and development issues and the link between poverty and environment – ‘the pollution of poverty’ that Indira Ghandi had brought to the attention of the Stockholm Conference (Adams 1990). It was motivated by the ‘egalitarian’ concept of sustainable development (Jacobs 1999) and the concern to find an equitable form of development (Reid 1995) closer to the understanding adhered to by the South (Jacobs 1999). Its dialectics, therefore, focus on the moral imperative of equitable sharing, intra- and inter-generationally, with more even distribution, foreshadowing profound effects for poor and rich. Nevertheless, the fact that the social and economic objectives for sustainable development were based on the premise that further growth was necessary encouraged scepticism among eco-centrists who did not equate the shift to sustainability with the growth paradigm, as well as ecological economists, who feared the surpassing of limits unless quantitative throughput growth could be stabilized and replaced by qualitative development (Daly 1990; 1992; Goodland et al. 1991; Goodland 1995). The Commission was castigated as having sold out to the power of big business. The Report emphasized producing more with less (a precept that business has readily absorbed for its profit motive, if not for reasons of sustainability), reduction of population levels and the introduction of a level of redistribution. 22 It catalyzed the ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of economic growth, strengthening the discourse about the ‘political’ role of growth as it dominates not only business but governmental policy-makers and consumers (Ayres 1998). Its radical force may also have reinforced the determined ‘silences’ that continue to characterize the debate on sustainable development, particularly in the business discourse.

Despite the criticisms, the Commission presented a political vision of sustainable development: it called for institutional restructuring of national politics, economics, bureaucracy, social systems of production and technologies, requiring a new system of international trade and finance. 23 It was, perhaps, the neo-Marxist movement, newly taking the environment into its consideration in the late 1980s, that best perceived the potential the Report brought for significantly new ways of doing things within a revised capitalist framework. The anticipated need for a five-to-tenfold increase in manufacturing output, the halt to the rising living standards of richer nations and the emphasis upon redistribution brought the Commission closer to a Marxian analysis of the environmental problematic, but possibly tolled the Report’s death-knell. On account of its compromise with growth, it would be subject to both the force of the eco-centric critique, which dismissed it as a pawn of capitalist hegemony and to appropriation by business and dilution to fit the business-as-usual paradigm (Soussan 1992; Goodland et al. 1991). An epistemological perspective on its comparative failure to inspire change is that it offered a consensus view of sustainable development where none existed previously (Smith and Warr 1991: 267). This is still a problem of the discourse today, particularly in the light of limited dialectical discursivity and lack of inclusivity. The Report did, however, offer a challenge to traditional sources of power, of whatever hue, by lifting the debate from a focus on scarcity and counteracting ‘the sectoral bias and compartmentalism’ that had marked much of the work on the environment (Redclift 1992: 33).

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED 1992), the agenda of which arose largely from the Brundtland Report, demonstrated what may happen to any serious challenge to traditional forms of power. The Conference potentially represented a ‘turning point’ (Gore 1992; Frankel 1998) and the opportunity to address the worsening socio-economic disparities between North and South along with the environmental degradation associated with these. Opinions on the achievements of UNCED are divided between confidence in significant progress being made and the belief that the Conference was a failure, even a charade stage-managed by business. 24 , 25 The UNCED process revealed that it served powerful interests. The critique of the process and the Alternative Treaties produced by an international consortium of NGOs reveal the key ‘silences’ and ‘non-decision-making’ that characterized the formal agenda. For example, Agenda 21 has clauses on ‘enabling the poor to achieve sustainable livelihoods’, but none on how the rich would do so; a section on women, but none on men. Only the Alternative Treaties speak of debt forgiveness and redistribution of wealth, or examine issues of militarism, transnational corporations (TNCs) and alternative economic models. Business, which had played a ‘lukewarm’ role at UNCHE, but had taken its place in the discourse after Brundtland, now assumed a central role at UNCED. 26 The discourse of the Conference took for granted that economic development was the sine qua non – where no growth meant more poverty and degradation to the environment, whereas continued economic growth would protect the environment and reduce both population and poverty. 27

The UNCED process, which ideally would have provided a key site of contestation, proved to be another example of the exercise of power by the North to continue its own domination (Rich 1994) – even though the South had a bargaining chip this time in that its co-operation was needed for the major conventions. It became clear that the industrialized nations were ready to commit much less to the developing nations than had been hoped for. Important connections between institutional, social, environmental and economic policy failed to be made (Redclift 1996). Climate change, deforestation and biodiversity predominated over the ‘issue that Rio forgot’ – population – as well as the trade, poverty and debt crisis issues raised in the alternative proceedings. The implications of profligacy, rather than growth, and the neglect of poverty left an agenda still to be dealt with (ibid.). In 1992, it was clear that business had prepared itself very well to shape the sustainable development agenda and the outcomes of UNCED, and this embargo on real institutional change taking place continued at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 and at Rio+20 in 2012. NGOs were also seen to have made a vast compromise by legitimizing a process they had been opposed to. Sustainable development is an essentially political project with the political power to bring about social change, possessing the agency to challenge the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism. It calls for emancipation, more equitable distribution of power and resources, shifts in human behaviour and the redefinition of the roles of public, private and political institutions. In short, the potential of sustainable development to be paradigm-changing, calling for structural change, would have been sufficiently radical to totally alienate business, providing corporations with an even stronger impetus to appropriate the sustainable development agenda (Springett 2013). Finger (1993) highlights the UNCED process as accelerating the move towards ‘global management’, using the environmental crisis as a pretext to hasten the establishment of a ‘world technocracy’, stemming generally from industrial development, which would manage resources and ‘so-called environmental risks’ (ibid.: 36, emphasis added). The ‘global crisis management’ that this would lead to would use fear and threats to legitimize a militaristic and technocratic approach, leaving the world still with a ‘profound absence of vision and leadership’ (ibid.: 47, emphasis added).

However, since UNCED, the balance of power has shifted. While the struggle at that and earlier fora can be seen as being between ‘North’ and ‘South’, the gap today is also between the poorest countries, with no resources to attract investment, the developed countries, and the new ‘rapidly developing’ economies. Notable among these are the BRICs, 28 which may symbolize a shift in global economic power away from the G8 towards the developing world. In the meantime, dominant discourses and the interests they reflect and defend guarantee that the EU and developed world countries, as well as rapidly developing countries such as China, will make adjustments to deal with the crises of debt in developed nations such as Greece, but fail to respond to similar needs of resource-poor developing countries in Africa and South America.

The process and outcomes of the WSSD (2002) were more widely disseminated through the development of the ‘web’: the commentaries of specific fora set up to discuss the WSSD agenda and process 29 meant that a considerable amount of dialogue from NGOs and others accompanied the ‘formal’ discourse. This revealed that corporate capital had not only continued to exercise enormous power since UNCED, but that governments appeared to have little control over corporate behaviour (Springett 2013). This focused especially on the lack of legal instruments and agencies capable of regulating TNCs. The fact that the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations and its Code of Conduct for TNCs had virtually disappeared close to the time of UNCED remained a cause for concern. New guidelines and frameworks were seen as lacking effective authority over corporate behaviour: for example, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (2000) contained the possibility of government intervention, but this was not widely recognized or acted upon (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions/ICFTU 2002); and the UN Global Compact (2000), which prominent TNCs had signed up to, was viewed as the ‘smuggling of a business agenda into the UN’ (Bruno and Karliner 2002). The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) had assumed a prominent role since 1995 as an advocate of ‘sustainable business’, but this was doing little to alleviate the milieu of ‘tremendous inequality’ within which its corporate members operated (Bruno and Karliner 2002). During the decade since UNCED, corporations had lobbied to make a case for their ‘sustainable’ activities; but not to change an unjust and unsustainable global economic system that was the fundamental obstacle to solving the global environmental and social crisis (Hoedeman 2002).

A cause of extreme scepticism for many observers was the establishment of Type One (Statutory) and Type Two (Voluntary) partnerships between government, business and NGOs to tackle social and environmental problems in developing countries. This was perceived by some as NGOs selling out to business; and as paving the way for more corporate business opportunities. Government reliance on corporations to keep national economies afloat underlined their inability to put the required regulations in place without corporate retribution, so that government focus was perforce on the immediate rather than the future. 30 It was proposed that what was needed was a new ‘Global Deal’ – sustainable development legislation wherein corporations, civil society and governments could negotiate a binding international convention on the key issues. However, this did not emerge from the WSSD; and the idea of a rule-based International Institute for Sustainability was rejected by the USA.

It was to be anticipated that corporations and their front groups would play a similarly powerful role at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) 2012 (Springett 2011; 2012a; 2012b; 2013). With its key overarching themes of a ‘Green Economy’ and an ‘Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development’, UNCSD caused some general concern. While the agenda appeared to promise a different approach to economic decision-making, the fear for many was that it was little more than a manoeuvre to replace sustainable development with ‘ecological modernization’ or ‘greener business as usual’: many perceived the ‘green economy’ as a pseudonym for the new OECD mantra of ‘green growth’ – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jackson (2012) noted, post-Rio+20, that, rather than questioning the existing economic model, which is leading us to environmental and social disaster, Rio+20 betrayed the vision of a green economy through a staggering linguistic turnabout that equated ‘green economy’ with ‘sustained economic growth’. People in developing countries were particularly suspicious of the new agenda, which was predominantly championed by the North: they perceived it as an attempt to re-write the sustainable development narrative, replacing it with one with a weaker emphasis on social concerns.

The big gamble at Rio+20, as at UNCED, was that governments would play safe under pressure from big business and avoid difficult decisions, while business organizations had again readied themselves for the conference (Guardian Sustainable Business 2011). For example, the draft International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) contribution (2011) for the Rio+20 Compilation document began with a dispute over the language of a ‘green economy’, preferring a reference to ‘greener economies’, which, it was claimed, better acknowledged the many challenges and opportunities present across sectors and value chains. While the ICC was not alone in considering that ‘green economy’ is a problematic concept, their own alternative might be accused of adding other levels of ‘fuzziness’.

However, for the purpose of the upcoming UNCSD, the ICC acknowledged the term ‘green economy’ as a policy term and a unifying theme to articulate ‘sustainable development’ as the ‘direction’ towards which all economies need to strive while acknowledging existing tensions and current global economic turmoil. The general tone of the ICC’s contribution, as is usual with the business groups, sounded ‘reasonable’. Ten systems or conditions were advocated for a transition towards a ‘green economy’, including those for social, economic and environmental innovation with some mutually reinforcing cross-cutting elements and an emphasis on what would make markets more successful. Similarly, the key messages for improving the institutional framework for sustainable development focused strongly on the integral role of business and business interests.

In a sense, however, Rio+20 was doomed even before it began. Countries and the media were slow to engage with the agenda. Some of the malaise must be placed at the door of the UN, an institution set up in Cold War conditions more than 60 years ago, now proving unable to respond to contemporary challenges and casting doubt on its own suitability and effectiveness to further the agenda of sustainable development. People had not forgotten the ‘débâcle’ of UNCED ( The Ecologist, 1992), nor the failure to agree a climate change settlement in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010. The apparently intractable geopolitical stand-offs in the negotiations pointed to a crisis within the international community. The lower profile but still significant failure of the nineteenth session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (May, 2011) to reach an agreement on a series of environmental and development issues provided further evidence of widening distrust and an unwillingness to co-operate on some of the most urgent global issues of our time.

New realities: the development of the ‘emerging economies’ and the progress of globalization

The hope that markets and technology would solve the environmental problems associated with accelerated economic growth and the enormous rise in global consumption were about to be challenged by a number of events at the beginning of the twenty-first century, which nation states came to prioritize over the institutional changes associated with public endorsement of sustainable development. Foremost among them was the ‘financial crisis’ that afflicted Europe and North America after 2007.

This major disruption in the economic development model was a crisis fed by the personal greed of many bankers and financial managers, and fuelled by the virtually unregulated production of credit – not because interest rates were low, but because in some countries the price attached to housing equity (the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and Ireland) was unrealistically high. The financial crisis was fuelled by cheap credit, and in this sense the absence of sustainability made most consumers complicit with the model. The rise in ‘sub-prime’ lending and borrowing took place under systems of ineffective governance that emphasized everybody’s right to property regardless of collateral and debt levels. Politically it was ‘sold’ as everybody’s right to credit rather than their right to debt. The financial crisis revealed that it was completely unsustainable. There were several obvious corollaries:

  1. The policy response paid lip service to the rapidly disappearing Green agenda, but did not support this rhetoric with effective interventions. (Compare the almost derisory role of new Green investment in attempts to address the financial crisis.)

  2. There is now considerable evidence of the effects of the financial downturn on migration, as well as poverty, notably in China, which supported the United States’ debt through buying in to its financial packages, and supported raised consumption in the West generally, by lowering the costs of manufactured goods there.

  3. Another process that has gathered speed is that of transnational sourcing of food, minerals and other resources. The internationalization of capital movements and the need to secure resources have led to increased transnational acquisition of land and minerals, on the part of China and some of the Gulf States, principally in Africa. Rather than depend exclusively upon trade relations to meet their domestic resource deficiencies – trade contracts during an economic recession – the advantages of acquisition of land, water sources, food (via ‘virtual water’) became evident, especially for their geopolitical reach. Land displacement for crops like soya had already changed international food/land imbalances.

Natural resources and the modern food system

The modern food system developed to meet the needs of the industrialized countries, where technological changes and the growth of domestic markets served to initiate industrialized agriculture (Goodman and Redclift 1991). In the 1970s, the prevalent view was that food production could not keep pace with population growth – the first sense of ‘natural limits’ discussed at the beginning of this chapter. To some extent, the success of the much-vaunted ‘Green Revolution’ in basic grains was to discredit this rather simplistic view of limits. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s impressive gains were made in the productivity of basic grains – especially rice, corn and wheat – aided by enhanced irrigation systems and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

However, apart from growing inequality in many countries, between rural and urban sectors and within the rural sector itself, the Green Revolution gains could not be continued exponentially, and the costs of maintaining irrigation systems and dealing with the environmental ‘externalities’ from the Green Revolution grew in importance. Today about 12 per cent of global cereals are traded between states on the international market: about half the 300 million tons annually between the North and the South. The South is still a net importer of cereals: not Latin America but much of Asia and North Africa experience net deficits in cereals. In 2006, the United States exported 82 million metric tons of cereals, compared with 22 million metric tons from the European Union. Projections for the year 2020 suggest that the United States will trade about 119 million metric tons of cereals by this date (SCOPE 2009). The drivers of cereal imports in the South include population growth, changing diets (which substitute grain-fed animals for vegetable protein) and non-food land uses, particularly the development of biofuels. Additional factors which are likely to drive the import of cereals to developing countries include increasing energy and fertilizer prices and climate change effects in the tropics.

In addition, biofuel production has made the prospect of serious food shortages much worse than it might otherwise have been. The United States embarked on a very large-scale ethanol production programme under President George Bush, not primarily to address climate change but to provide an alternative source of energy to hydrocarbons. Biofuel production requires heavy use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and often diverts land away from food production or forest/grazing land. The increase in biofuels production thus reduces carbon sequestration from the atmosphere and serves to jeopardize climate change from a land use perspective, while making only small gains from substitution of hydrocarbons in energy systems. Biofuels are not ‘carbon positive’ in that nitrous oxide emissions increase with only modest benefits in reducing carbon emissions – the new effect on greenhouse gas emissions is negative.

The most serious effect of the growth in the biofuels market is that land and water uses are transformed in ways that increase food and water insecurity. The conversion of land from forests and grasslands to biofuels production is one of the key factors. However, biofuels also make enormous demands on scarce supplies of fresh water and contribute to air pollution by increasing vehicle emissions of nitrogen. Another important effect is the runoff from nitrates that contributes to water pollution, and has been a major factor in the water sources ending in the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, biofuels are very land-intensive: three and a half times as much energy can be produced from grassland as from biofuels conversion.

There are also several major new problems that have arisen as a result of the cereal dependency of the developing world, including the newly industrializing countries of Asia. First, land itself is being acquired by China, South Korea and some of the Gulf States. In addition to the crops that the South grows for trading with the North, notably soya, land is being bought by these countries to supply their own domestic markets. The poorest countries in the South are least able to avail themselves of this possibility, and as a result their own domestic food supply is in jeopardy.

Second, there is the continuing problem of trade barriers erected by the industrialized world against cheap food and fibre imports from the South. The protection afforded domestic agricultural producers in the North, especially the United States, the European Union and Japan, continues to undermine food security in the South. At the same time the environmental services provided largely by tropical countries – such as forests, water courses and extensive grasslands – are not being paid for or supported by trading partners in the North. The global environment is being depleted without compensation being offered to most of those on the ‘sharp end’ of the process of depletion.

The financial crisis, sustainable development and consumption

The changes in the way that materials, food and energy are sourced globally have usually been discussed without much reference to sustainable development. The expansion of credit in much of the developed world, and the associated levels of personal and corporate debt that has affected most financial institutions since September 2008, led to an economic downturn and period of recession from which we have still not emerged in 2014. An understanding of the ‘limits’ imposed by shifts in demand needs to be complemented by an analysis of the rising levels of personal consumption and debt, not only in the developed world but in many middle-income and fast-growing developing economies.

The ‘toxicity’ of many financial institutions, which prompted national governments to bail out much of the banking sector, was triggered by excessive lending in a number of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and Ireland, and especially on house purchases. This brought about a loss of confidence in the ability of the lending institutions to recoup their assets, and national governments acted to guarantee the private banking sector against a feared ‘run on the banks’. These developments occurred within a context of relatively high personal (and institutional) indebtedness since the 1980s.

At the same time, another shift had been occurring in consumer policy, this time prompted by the much wider acknowledgement of global climate change, especially after the Stern Report was published in 2007 (Stern 2007). The need to pursue ‘low carbon’ solutions to economic growth rapidly altered the policy discourses surrounding consumption, and it has become an article of faith for public policy that economic growth is only tolerable if it does not exacerbate existing concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. At one level such an acknowledgement of the importance of ‘sustainable development’ is both positive and challenging. In 2008, the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Bill was introduced, establishing a very ambitious target for carbon reductions of 80 per cent by 2050. This policy activity has been accompanied by sustained lobbying on the part of NGOs and others in the United Kingdom, including Rising Tide, the Campaign Against Climate Change, and the series of Climate Camps that have repeatedly mobilized the public in their thousands to call for urgent action on climate change and a new approach to economic organization. Nevertheless the impact of budget cuts in the UK and throughout many of the countries of southern Europe, has jeopardized pro-environment policy and targets.

The characterization of climate change as a ‘market failure’ immediately offered economists, businesses and governments a lifeline (Stern 2007). Rather than necessitating expensive and comprehensive restructuring in systems of provision, or even reduced volumes of production and consumption, Stern’s neoclassical view that sustainability could be delivered through increased consumption of particular kinds of products, simultaneously feeding the economy, has come to typify the mainstream sustainable consumption discourse, while serving to turn sustainability thinking on its head. In addition, such developments in the economy and in public policy raise some awkward questions for our understanding of sustainable development and the policy discourses which have characterized the field. There is a very substantial literature (see, for example, Hobson, 2002; Seyfang 2005; Jackson 2005) that suggests there is still considerable confusion over the most effective way to achieve more sustainable consumption, and several of the assumptions about consumer behaviour – such as the role of an ‘information deficit’ about the environmental costs of products and services, and the targeting of personal responsibility for policy solutions as being sufficient to lead to voluntary behaviour change (Redclift and Hinton 2008). Remarkably, these assumptions are largely untested and circumstantial. While policy-makers and pundits alike tend to measure progress towards sustainable consumption in terms of the numbers of purchases of particular ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ commodities, where success is framed in terms of market share, an alternative discourse suggests that sustainable consumption involves frugality, thrift and a kind of voluntary austerity. If this is indeed the case, then a focus on economic growth – low carbon or otherwise – may still be unsustainable.

As the Stern Report suggests, climate change is now regarded as a ‘given’, markets are now considered more relevant to policy solutions than ever before, and the reduced dependency on hydrocarbons is widely regarded as the single most urgent policy challenge facing us. It is also widely assumed that evidence of a slow emergence from economic recession in the developed world will only serve to intensify this process, creating policy tensions and more opportunities for fiscal sacrifices.

This chapter began by arguing that the ‘contradictions’ of thinking about sustainability and development have merged into distinct policy discourses on the idea of ‘natural limits’, resource capacity and (un)sustainable consumption. These discourses can be usefully informed by recent work in the social sciences. A realist, science-driven policy agenda has been paralleled by a science-sceptical post-modern academic discourse. Neither position represents a threat to the other – since they inhabit quite different epistemological terrain, and address different audiences. In the process, however, we have seen an enlarged academic debate, and one that closely examines the way environmental language is deployed, while at the same time recognizing that public policy discourses themselves carry weight. The language of ‘green consumerism’ can reduce the politics of climate change to the size of a green consumer product. The policy debate has proceeded through assumptions about ‘choice’ and ‘alternatives’, that have been largely devoid of any critical, structural analysis, and frequently narrow the field of opportunity, by assuming that people act primarily as consumers, rather than citizens (Redclift and Hinton 2008). There is clearly room for more rigorous analysis of what is a very broad social terrain.

The discourse of sustainable development: problematizing the concept

This brief genealogy of sustainable development, the contestation for the concept at international level and the changing realities that the progress of globalization brings with it explain the power and hegemony exercised in the struggle for ‘ownership’ and definition of the concept. It discloses why the discourse has been narrowly controlled and why a dialectical, relational approach is needed to open up the still-evolving process (Harvey 1996). A more dialectical approach might produce, not a two-dimensional, undialectic ‘map’, but something more discursive, akin to multi-dimensional ‘cognitive mapping’ of the many discourses of sustainable development. The importance of maintaining discursivity is that it is the discourse that is ‘creating’ sustainable development (Foucault 1972); the process is a dynamic one, where the concept should not be allowed to become a naturalized, ‘reified’ thing (ibid.). It comes down to a struggle between discursivity and control, an inherently ideological process (Redclift 1996), which is witnessed at the international level. The international literature reflects the ‘stakes in the ground’ of specific groups: 31 economics, ecology, environmental management, environmental philosophy, the claims and contestations of academic disciplines, views from the South and political and corporate positions all reveal the political, ideological, epistemological, discipline-based and philosophical approaches that compete for legitimacy. Broadly speaking, these fall into three major camps: ecology-centred, market-based and neo-Marxist approaches. From a critical perspective, sustainable development is perceived, not only as a social construct, but a multi-constructed and strongly contested concept (Eder 1996b; Dobson 1996) that is political and radical (Jacobs 1991). The dismissive charge of ‘vacuousness’ that has been made needs to be explored to discover whether such ‘vacuity’ is used as an obfuscatory gag on the radical aspects of the concept – a way of excluding competing views in the struggle for ownership – or whether the concept is, indeed, vapid jargon.

‘Sustainable development’ or ‘sustainability’?

The contestation for the definition of sustainable development 32 is made additionally problematic by the ways in which the terms, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’, have been counter-posed (Dobson 1998). For purists, the terms are almost diametrically opposed, sustainable development represents a threat to sustainability on account of its ‘dangerous liaison’, particularly since the Brundtland Report, with economic growth. This liaison smacks of positivism and modernism, since the concept is seen as emanating from the very cultural and economic sources that gave rise to ‘unsustainability’. Much of the concern focuses upon Northern domination and the assumption that (Northern) ‘management’ can solve the sustainable development dilemma. The increasing domination and ‘eco-cracy’ (Gudynas 1993) stem from the fact that, institutionally, we have bought into an all-engulfing management paradigm (Redclift 1996) that introduces new institutional structures for environmental management 33 that give scant attention to the actual processes through which the environment has been transformed and commodified. Against this is the body of opinion that believes that sustainable development encapsulates the understanding of the need for radical change to a different way of life – what has been characterized as a ‘painfully difficult turn towards material simplicity and spiritual richness’ (Worster 1993: 132). In this sense, it is a strongly normative goal imbued with values and implying that value judgements need to be made (Redclift 1996): a social goal for guiding behaviour at the individual, institutional, national and global levels. This shifts sustainable development out of the paradigm of management where business locates the concept (Springett 2006). It also confirms it as a political concept. It is not surprising, then, that discussions of sustainable development generally ignore the epistemological dimension of the construct, the assumption being that Northern knowledge and expertise have developed a ‘universal epistemology’, whereas, in reality, the ubiquity of Northern science succeeds in fragmenting the knowledge of the South (Redclift 1991), even though this knowledge may be increasingly important in terms of sustainable development.

Some argue that the ambiguous theoretical basis of sustainable development and the lack of consensus about its meaning make its implementation almost impossible: there are conceptual, political and ethical dilemmas in recasting ‘development’ activities as ‘sustainable’, and then declaring this a new paradigm for human interaction with the environment (Sneddon 2000). In its mainstream guise, sustainable development is in danger of privileging global environmental problems and global (i.e. ‘powerful local’, Shiva 1993) institutions which are largely the province of the North, and which choose to focus, for example, on the problem of poverty rather than the origins of poverty-production. This curtails the ability of the concept to act as an instrument for a ‘transformative politics’, whereas the concept of ‘sustainability’ is seen as not having been co-opted into the unilinear, mainstream hegemony to the same degree (Adams 1995; Sunderlin 1995; Sneddon 2000). It ‘carries less political baggage’ (Paehlke 1999), sparing us some of the problems associated with sustainable development. It is seen as having a ‘multiplicity’ of meanings, for example, leaving open the question of GNP (ibid.: 243), whereas sustainable development assumes that growth is possible and desirable. Both terms view the economy, the environment and society as inevitably bound up with each other, but sustainability does not assume that economic growth is essential, nor that economic growth will inevitably result in net environmental harm (ibid.).

However, like sustainable development, sustainability has a ‘complex conceptual structure’ (ibid.: 246), and is also deplored for its ‘vague, ill-defined character’ (Becker et al. 1999). It is also seen as introducing ‘normative commitments to the development problematic’, calling for justice for future generations and implying that the economic process should be ‘subordinated to social and ecological constraints’ (ibid.: 5). This strongly accords with the conception of sustainable development propounded by Redclift and others. Despite the calls for sustainability to be extricated from the sustainable development discourse – or to replace it – there is also evidence that a number of writers have in mind an all-embracing concept that eschews neo-classical economics, calls for better understanding and treatment of nature, demands social equity and eco-justice based on a less instrumental understanding of democracy, and that this overall conception of ‘the good life’ is sometimes referred to as ‘sustainability’, and sometimes as ‘sustainable development’.

A question of definition: competing certainties versus discourse

Part of the ‘problem’ of sustainable development is the contestation for its definition: so intrinsically political is the concept that it elicits attempts by widely disparate vested interests to frame its meaning. The power of definition, and of determining the language that characterizes a concept, are seminal ways of staking and holding claims to domination (Beder 1996; Livesey 2001; Ralston Saul 2001); while dismissing that concept on account of its lack of clear definition also restricts any inherent potential for change from being liberated. The debate on sustainable development has ranged from a call for consensus on a definition that can lead to action (Carpenter 1994) to proposals that the term be abandoned on account of its ‘vacuity’ and ‘malleability’ (Lélé 1991; Sneddon 2000) and its lack of ‘objective analysis’ (Reboratti 1999). Redclift notes that it is ‘about meeting human needs, or maintaining economic growth, or conserving natural capital, or all three’ (1999: 37, emphasis added). The alleged vagueness and ill-defined character of the concept (Becker and Jahn 1999) have been attributed both to a lack of theoretical underpinning and to the ways in which the concept itself was constructed and framed (Sneddon 2000). Built upon the dual and opposing concepts of ecological sustainability and development/growth, the complexity of the construct promulgates not only different and conflicting theoretical perspectives, but also the ensuing ‘semantic confusion’ that arises from these (Sachs 1999). Its conceptual capacity and the normative and political dimensions of the concept only increase the ambiguity: it has come to be used as though it has ‘universal and temporal validity’ and general acceptance (Reboratti 1999: 209; see also Smith and Warr 1991), while, at the same time, its lack of objective analysis has led to its being dismissed as a cliché.

Some perceive the ideological repackaging of the discourse of development planning in the 1980s as a cynical attempt to construct a ‘green cover’ for business-as-usual and the ongoing exploitation of people and resources (Willers 1994; Adams 1995; Escobar 1995): a political cover for otherwise unacceptable corporate practices (Paehlke 1999) and an attempt at ‘semantic reconciliation’ of the irreconcilable ideologies of ecological transformation and economic growth. The lack of clear definition of sustainable development – its ‘opaqueness’ – is also seen as symptomatic of this underlying ideological struggle. However, it might also be argued that the failure to deliver a tight definition reflects the futility – even the danger – of trying to capture a complex construct in simplistic terms. 34 Perhaps the most serious aspect of the problematic for ‘sustainable development’ is that the ambiguous theoretical basis and lack of context-specificity and clarity (Sneddon 2000) disable implementation of a concept that does not have time on its side (Redclift 1987; Lélé 1991; Frazier 1997). The dismissal of the concept as a force for power has been widespread: its ‘populism’ is seen as resulting in confusion and ambiguity (Lélé 1991; Redclift 1991; Reboratti 1999), reducing it to a ‘quasi-rhetorical term’ and a ‘must word’ (Reboratti 1999). Lack of academic rigour in the initial formulation of the term has relegated it to the popular status of a ‘catch-phrase’ (Lélé 1991), with an accompanying ‘fuzziness’ surrounding its definition and interpretation. Indiscriminate use of the term disguises the fact that it is ‘hard to pin down and convert into a useful methodological tool’ (Reboratti 1999): even the ‘relatively acceptable’ WCED needs-based definition focusing on inter- and intra-generational equity is dismissed as ‘wishful thinking rather than conceptual framework’ (ibid.: 213). It has lost further credibility and meaning on account of the ease with which it has ‘passed into the everyday language of politicians’ (O’Brien 1991) with the consequent danger of losing all meaning, though it has not impacted substantially on the platforms of political parties (Reboratti, 1999). The other cause of scepticism is the ease with which the construct has been colonized by business and become part of its own rhetoric.

The debate reflects the contestation by those who aim to neutralize the potentially political role that lies at the heart of the concept. This prevents serious change from taking place (Lélé 1991) and disempowers its radical core of meaning. The general use of the concept indicates a poor understanding of the institutional causes of poverty and environmental degradation, confusion about the role of economic growth, lack of clarity about the concepts of sustainability and participation, with all of this constraining the democratic force of the concept (ibid.). It has also been argued that the vagueness surrounding the concept forms part of its ‘appeal’ (Redclift 1991): it can mean different things to ecologists, environmental planners, economists, business people and activists. Such ‘vagueness’ may be a politically expedient aspect of the concept, not only to play down its potential power, but also to emancipate that power (Lélé 1991): a more specific definition might represent a reactionary force, a means of control that restricts discourse (Ralston Saul 2001). In other words, the ‘ambiguity’ 35 of the concept may be its central virtue and strength, inviting discourse (Redclift, 1987; O’Riordan 1993; Wilbanks 1994).

Dryzek (2000) advocates, not a definition, but a discourse about sustainable development that is shaped by a shared set assumptions and capabilities and embedded in enabling language. Discourses are social and act as sources of order by co-ordinating the behaviour of individuals who subscribe to them. 36 , 37 At the heart of the debate over sustainable development lies the question of power, and, specifically, the potential for political and structural change that is central to a radical interpretation of the concept (Springett 2005). Its political significance is underlined in part by the fact that it has been generated through the power of Northern institutions, as well as academic debate (Reboratti 1999). At the same time, the lack of specificity clouds its normative role as a social goal which can only be achieved through examination of our own behaviour (Redclift 1996), not ‘fixed’ by management and technology. For Redclift, it is a policy objective rather than a methodology – an overarching concept and ‘unapologetically normative’ (1996: 37), calling for a more ‘human-focused’ approach. The discourse is full of contradictions. Borrowing from the natural and social sciences, the concept is seen as a major constraint on human ‘progress’ – the price the conventional growth model must pay if the ‘biospheric imperative’ is ignored, calling for different technologies and more realistic assessment of environmental losses. Another contradiction concerns the implications of ‘human progress’ for nature, with people from different ideological persuasions calling for an examination of the ‘ends’ as well as the ‘means’ of development. Central to the problem are the unanswered questions about recovery of our control over consumption (ibid.). The Brundtland Report’s focus on ‘needs’ still left unanswered questions about the needs of future generations, the changes in needs, the ways in which development contributes to or creates needs, and how needs are defined in different cultures. No answer has been found to the question of what is to be sustained (Redclift 1999: 60). Redclift defines the key question as being distributive, calling for a redefinition that would incorporate future population growth and the ensuing demands on the environment, as well as necessary changes in individual consumption patterns. The discourse rarely stops to examine those real needs (largely of the South and the poor of the North) that are consistently not being met (Durning 1992; Elkington 1995), and this brings the heart of the problem back to the materiality of the environmental experience without which culture itself cannot exist (Ingold 1992). Concepts of nature are always cultural statements (Beinart and Coates 1995; Redclift 1999), and the ‘environment’ is the creation of human activity, socially constructed like all discourses, and based upon ecological principles that are themselves constructs of a science that is part of human culture (Redclift 1999: 67).

One danger of the contestation over definition is that it will deflect attention from these unanswered questions that signify the need for an essentially political project to bring about changes in human behaviour (1997). Competition over definition helps to obscure the more basic need to redefine the roles and functions of public and private institutions that support unsustainable behaviour – not only business, but political and administrative institutions. It is a political act to contest the definition of sustainable development, and the endless contestation may cover up embarrassing questions such as government unwillingness to promote, for example, major fiscal or financial reforms; or to significantly decentralize power; or to recognize that scientific knowledge as a basis for ‘rational’ decision-making has limitations. In a sense, the debate about definition can be seen as a displacement activity or a deliberate barrier to the recognition of the sustainable development imperative. Contemporary market economies have ideological mechanisms for silencing opposition (O’Connor, J. 1994), one being the act of ‘semiotic conquest’ of language and agenda. Endless contestation deflects the radical core of sustainable development into a confusing, de-energizing struggle for ‘meaning’ rather than action. In terms of business, the capitalist appropriation of nature and communities is seen by O’Connor as attempting to find its own legitimation through the ‘sinister double play’ of the rhetoric of ‘greened growth’ as opposed to a focus on sustainable development. Radical constructions of sustainable development view it as a potentially energizing force in its own right (Redclift 1987; Dovers 1989; O’Connor, M. 1994; O’Riordan and Voisey 1997), with the potential to create important social change, but calling for a myriad of institutional changes that are not necessarily promoted by the sustainable development agenda. This radical view suggests that many strategies will be employed to obscure or dilute that power, not least by capitalist business itself.

For social change to take place, there needs to be, not a ‘definition’, but some consensus about the core meaning of the term and the moral imperative it offers for ‘the good life’. This is not easy when the concept is viewed as propping up the fundamental processes of capitalist exploitation (Jacobs 1999: 22). The demand for a cut-and-dried – and, therefore, almost inevitably ‘technological’ – definition raises the spectre of ‘reason’ metamorphosing into ‘technology’ (Horkheimer 1947), already seen in the domination and instrumentalization of nature. A dialectical approach to sustainable development, not pinned to a specific definition, would be more likely to question the instrumentalist epistemic shift of science in the 1920s, the rapid growth of big bureaucracies in public administration, humanity’s colonization of nature through technology, and the capitalist management of the administrative apparatus of the state that worked together to create the need for the construct. Such dialectical discourse would be more likely to unearth the origins of the term, and the archaeology of the institutional infrastructure that supports these systems. Shifting from ‘definition’ to ‘discourse’ might elevate the power of sustainable development as a ‘site of political contest’, the source of a new political world-view that contests the status quo (Jacobs 1999). It would suggest that sustainable development may become part of the deliberative turn to a more discursive theory of democracy (Dryzek 2000), whereby, through a process of dialectical discourse, sustainable development could contribute to a new, more inclusive theory of ‘the good life’. Inherent in such a theory would be considerations of environment, equity and ethical issues – factors it is difficult to ‘value’.

The areas of core meaning that characterize the belief in the political power of sustainable development, as identified by Jacobs (1991), are:

  • the entrenchment of environmental considerations in economic policy-making;
  • a commitment to equity;
  • an appreciation that ‘development’ is wider than growth.

Based on this, any interpretation implies change for economic policy and exposes the additional conflict that sustainable development is the beginning, not the end, of the debate: it provides a ‘common currency’, bringing together conflicting vocabularies to a common, though contested, one (Jacobs 1999). The focus on social equity, global justice and human rights presents a constructivist interpretation based on human relations, culture and politics (Lash et al. 1996). This moves away from the major response since Brundtland, focused on ‘managing’ the Earth through technological expertise, and the framing of the concept by powerful groups of the North (Becker 1999). Nevertheless, much of the debate has continued to focus on ‘definition’ rather than imperatives; and the business incursion into the debate has increased the focus on both definition and ‘management’.

A ‘beggar at the feast?’ Peak oil, and de-growth theory

As we have seen, much of the recent debate about ‘sustainable development’ has focused on the ‘capture’ or normalization of the term, especially by business and government. However, parallel with this process is another – which casts the discussion rather differently and refers back, albeit sometimes obliquely, to the concept’s origins in ‘steady state economics’ and the ideas of ‘sufficiency’ (Daly 1977). This is the discussion and practices around ‘peak oil’ and, more particularly, the ‘de-growth theory’ and related social movements.

The debate around ‘peak oil’, which gained renewed momentum in the first decade of the twenty-first century, has parallels in the discussion of the ‘limits to growth’ in a previous epoch. Adherents of the ‘peak oil’ thesis argue that production capacity in the hydrocarbon industries will remain the principal brake on supply, and that the decrease in production, to which this will lead, constitutes a bottleneck in the economy (Sorrell et al. 2010; Chapman 2014; Madureira 2014).

The revival of concern with the resource side of the resource/consumption equation is attributable to the fact that, since 1980, global oil discoveries have lagged behind annual production: global production has fallen since 2006 and population and oil consumption have continued to grow faster than oil production. International oil companies are now prospecting in remote fields or utilizing other forms of hydrocarbons, notably shale gas. In the view of ‘peak oil’ adherents the decrease in oil production will seriously undermine modern technological society, unless alternatives are found to the host of products with a basis in hydrocarbons, including fertilizers, detergents, solvents, adhesives and most plastics. The publication of the Hirsch Reports in 2005 and 2007, by the United States Department of Energy, suggested that to avoid the unprecedented risk of oil price volatility, viable policies to mitigate the crisis needed to be put in place at least ‘a decade in advance of peaking’. Needless to say, at the time of writing, such mitigation policies have not been implemented globally.

At the same time another debate has ensued with closer links to the ‘anti-globalization’ movement, and with roots in the more radical iterations of sustainable development, prior to the mainstreaming of the concept and its incorporation in government and business lexicons. We refer to the literature and social movements associated with ‘de-growth’, which have proved particularly important in France and North America. The ‘de-growth’ movement (or decroissance in French) is not simply a movement and intellectual position that supports negative growth, as the term implies in English. Rather, it represents a paradigm shift of some complexity, which parts company with the dominant model and culture of industrial society, based on the accumulation of goods through enhanced personal and social consumption. In this sense the ‘de-growth’ position is the complement to ‘peak oil’, arguing that radical shifts in demand are called for, in part to manage the expected fall in output of hydrocarbon-based consumer goods. Drawing on a key facet of sustainable development, the ‘de-growth’ position advocates reduced consumption, though this is presented by different advocates in markedly different ways. As Barry (2012) has suggested, the ideology of growth is structurally coupled with capitalist political economy, and is increasingly identified as a major underlying cause of climate change and natural resource depletion. Manuel-Navarrete (2012: 153), like Barry and most of the ‘de-growth’ theorists, argues for a ‘post-capitalist political economy’ that questions the very essence of economic growth as the driving force in the economy. The ‘de-growth’ theorists have, then, reopened a Pandora’s box of global capitalism’s ills, including, inter alia: how to delink wages from personal incomes to facilitate non-material co-operation, especially over leisure time; alternative types of currency and exchange free from commercial banking; new forms of democratic power-sharing and the reversal of inequitable income and wealth distribution (Binswanger 2001; Fournier 2008). Increasingly ‘de-growth’ adherents, like others advocating a ‘well-being’ approach to society, while still favouring the downscaling of production and consumption, do not seek individual ‘martyrdom’ and personal asceticism but an increase in the rewards of labour and recreational time from sharing work, consuming less and devoting more time to art, music, family and community. At the level of local communities, these objectives have been incorporated in the ‘Transition Towns’ movement in the United Kingdom, which places local accountability at the forefront of the ‘transition’ away from dependence on hydrocarbons and the practice of sustainable transport, agriculture and housing (North and Scott Cato 2012).

The scale and ambition of this alternative Green agenda reflect the intellectual contribution of a host of radical thinkers and practitioners from the past, including Thoreau, Ruskin, William Morris and Tolstoy. It also reflects the influence of a more recent generation, without whom the idea of ‘sustainable development’ would have been impossible: Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Jean Baudrillard, Andre Gorz, Ivan Illich and Edward Goldsmith among others.

Sustainable development: an oxymoron?

Polanyi (1967) stressed that economic rationalism, in the strict sense, does not answer questions of motivations and valuations of a moral and practical order. Yet the compromise constructed between sustainable development and economic growth suggests that equity, conservation and economic growth, while uncomfortable companions, are not incompatible (Jacobs 1991). Opponents view this as ‘a fatal co-option’ into technocentric management designed not to disturb the power processes of the growth economy and capitalist exploitation (Reboratti 1999: 22). Sustainable development has become part of the historical process linked to economics and political structures, transformed both existentially and by economic growth, but inextricably linked with the expansion and contraction of the world economic system (Redclift 1987). However, it calls for a competing paradigm that breaks with the linear model of growth and accumulation. This would be more inclusive, with economic forces seen as related to the behaviour of social classes and the role of the state in accumulation. The social and environmental impacts of capitalist development would not be regarded as beyond the aegis of market economics: they would no longer be permitted as ‘externalities borne chiefly by those without power, and which now need to be internalized within the economic model’ (Redclift 1987: 13). By strengthening the emphasis upon human need, the Brundtland Report itself provided an opportunity for a radical shift away from an economics epistemologically predisposed to a modernist, reductionist view of resources and exchange value (Norgaard 1985). Nevertheless, it is a ‘dangerous liaison’ (Sachs 1991; 1999): an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable (Benton 1999). It can be read as appropriation of the agenda of environmental responsibility and social justice by economists, still reliant upon economic instruments for environmental protection; and no more than a vehicle for ‘free market environmentalism’ dominated by neo-classical concepts for allocating resources (Beder 1996: 89). International agencies such as the OECD and fora such as UNCED have favoured such ideologically-based market solutions; but others see it as resulting in economic valuation that is another kind of ‘semiotic conquest’ (O’Connor, J. 1994), converting ecological entity to ‘natural capital’ and placing it on a par with other forms of capital. 38

It seems improbable that any agreement about sustainable development that adheres to the core themes identified in this chapter can be based on current global, cultural and political tradition (Reboratti 1999). Rather, it needs a new social covenant and a new set of ‘rules’, including economic rules and ways of thinking about growth. For example, instead of following the neo-liberal theory of the free play of markets as the system of economic regulation, economic activity would be re-located within society (Gowdy 1999). An emancipatory shift of this kind might mean learning from the complex social systems that have been sustained for long periods of time by people in developing nations, requiring a powerfully different conception of the role of economics in creating the ‘good life’.

Conclusion and structure of the Handbook

The dominant and contested discourses on sustainable development overviewed in this introductory chapter indicate that a more discursive theorization of the concept is emerging that challenges the control and hegemony that have been exercised over the discourse. In some cases, these discourses question reified institutions and the domination of the globalized economy, subjecting them to deconstruction of their origins and purposes, and their agendas in appropriating sustainable development. In other cases they put in place the need and the space for emancipatory shifts to what history has set in place, but which is ‘not allowed to settle’ (Foucault 1972). They represent an antithesis, and provide a ‘thinkable opposition’ to the modern meta-theory of economic rationality promoted through capitalist development by one that is based upon environmental justice, equity and ecological rationality (O’Connor, J. 1998; Dobson 2003; Barry 2013). A narrative of ‘the good life’ emerges that is characterized by democratic participation (Jacobs 1991) and deliberative democracy (O’Mahoney and Skillington 1996; Dryzek 2000) as well as a heightened concern with ‘well-being’ (Dasgupta 2001; Sachs and Reid 2006) and conceptions of what constitutes ‘happiness’ (Layard 2005). Such a vision is based on constructing sustainable development as problematic: not a discourse of environment and conservation and growing ‘eco-cracy’, but one of social crisis and human agency. The themes are echoed by voices from the South which also locate the roots of the crisis in global and Northern institutions which need democratizing (Shiva 1993).

The agendas of social and political institutions, and the institutionalization of the sustainable development agenda itself, need to be questioned (Redclift 1992; Sachs 1993; Martínez-Alier 1999). Indeed, one conclusion that can be drawn from the contestation for sustainable development is that power in itself does not provide vision or leadership. In a Foucauldian sense, that very exercise of power may give impetus to such leadership and vision being emancipated from below. Foucault (1980) maintained that power, while hierarchized, is not simply a top-down phenomenon, but also comes from below. The global and hierarchical structures in a society operate through local and low-level ‘capillaries’ of power relationships, raising the question of who holds ‘power’ over the concept of sustainable development and how sustainable development is constructed. The voices heard from NGO and grassroots groups at UNCED and Rio+20 as well as recent popular movements indicate that people are ready to exercise that power. Other ‘spaces of hope’ are opening up that may foster horizontal conjunctions of individuals to be included in the discourse, delivering greater social cohesion. We are witnessing new expressions of people power that may define ways of further democratizing the discourse, though not without bitter struggle.

The role of technology in empowering people to communicate and make their voices audible is changing the balance of power and providing new ‘capillaries’ for communication: the ‘Arab Spring’ signified a radical call for new institutions, while the ‘Occupy’ movement challenged the status quo and fired the imagination of many – ‘convulsions’ (Žižek 2012) that may be seen as contradictory, often perverse, sometimes reactionary, but which signal the possibility of an emancipatory future leading to social transformation. Such movements may drive more discursive or consensual decision-making. Hinton’s research (2011), focusing on sustainable consumption, examines the ways in which advocacy may be delivered by a range of cultural political actors including third sector organizations (TSOs). She argues that these groups occupy a privileged and interesting position within the advocacy landscape as trusted and apparently impartial experts, primarily motivated by altruistic concerns and causes. This indicates the possibility of a different administrative coalition assuming a focal role in the sustainable development discourse – one that is more inclusive and horizontal, that advocates for democratic participation, more in keeping with a radical construction of sustainable development. If the discourse were driven by deliberative principles, by collective deliberation, a more equal opportunity to contribute to the ethical project of sustainable development might result in a stronger movement towards ‘the sustainable good life’ and ‘our common future’. This opposing discourse of emancipation pre-supposes radical forms of political democracy (O’Connor, J. 1994: vii). To construct an ‘ecological’ society, we need liberal democratic forms of institutions and policies. It suggests a very different agenda from the one promulgated by corporations and the institutions that support them, and from the theorization of business and ‘greening’ that largely constructs their case.

This account of the history of the concept of sustainable development signally shaped the structure and content of the Handbook. It demonstrates that sustainable development is a contested concept, constructed, even appropriated, to meet a diversity of agendas. Because of this, the Handbook eschews the ‘triple bottom line’ agenda, promoted largely by business (‘the business case’), but now current in the academic literature, which focuses on social, environmental and economic issues. The Handbook addresses the multiple dimensions of sustainable development and its contradictions. It is structured around four key imperatives of sustainability, based on the ‘Prism of Sustainability’ (Spangenberg 2002) as they apply to sustainable development: the institutional, environmental, social and economic imperatives, as well as consideration of the future challenges that sustainable development holds for us. The four imperatives are closely interconnected, highlighting participation, burden sharing, justice, democracy, social cohesion, care, access, limited environmental throughput, eco-efficiency and a sustainable economy that advantages all at reduced environmental cost.

While it is not feasible to cover all possible perspectives within the limitations of the Handbook, this structure has enabled us to address major aspects of the discourse. For example, in Part II, addressing the institutional dimensions of sustainable development, Ray Hudson, in Chapter 2, notes that the extensive literature on relationships between the economy and environmental and socio-political sustainability generally overlooks both the prevalence of the illegal as a significant proportion of activity in the global capitalist economy and its significance for the legal economy. What does recognition of the significance of the illegal mean for the conceptualization of the economy, for the sustainability of the economy of contemporary capitalism and for environmental and socio-political sustainability? In Chapter 3, Michael Hall discusses the importance of island studies as a means of understanding broader issues of sustainable development writ small. He provides an analysis of small island developing states (SIDs) and notes the potential contribution of island studies to theories of sustainability and framing problems of sustainable development. He discusses the notion of islands of sustainability (IOS) and the consideration of islands from industrial ecology perspectives, and utilizes island biogeographical theory to provide insights not only into problems of maintaining island biodiversity, but also as a means of understanding issues faced by human ecological systems. In Chapter 4, Annika Skoglund and Tommy Jensen employ a post-Foucauldian approach to trace how the IPCC has refined its work around ‘uncertainty’ since the 1990s and promoted the professionalization of sustainable development as a solution. They reveal that talk about uncertainty justifies further knowledge production, moulds a scientific-consensual collective author subject, prepares for surprises and complexities and enforces reflection on and confession of the difficulty of policy-making where complexity prevails. These effects of uncertainty contribute to a forceful ethical programme for change in the neo-liberal sustainable development-resilience nexus. In Chapter 5, Tony McMichael points out that human health has much greater significance in the conceptualization of sustainability than being a mere consequence of environmental and social living conditions and personal choices. Trends in the profile of biological health and survival within a human population, measured over inter-generational time, provide a critical index of whether the combination of population size, social-cultural profile, prevailing technologies and economic intensity is environmentally sustainable. Environmental deterioration and social inequity undermine the prospects for health; indeed, the basic foundations of human health and survival (as for other species) reside in the natural world: food, water, energy, constraints on infectious agents, and physical buffering against natural disasters.

Delyse Springett notes in Chapter 6 that commentaries and policies on the transition to sustainable development have frequently emphasized the central role that education must play in that paradigm shift. She argues that, in order for education for sustainable development (ESD) to assume the transformational role often ascribed to it, and in view of the urgency of the sustainability agenda and the radical re-think of societal priorities it demands, the challenge is to develop a critical theorization of ESD and a critical pedagogy for its delivery. Key stages in the history of education for sustainable development, including initiatives by multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, are overviewed to seek out similar calls for a critical pedagogy, and the institutional impediments that have made this a problematic area of the curriculum at all levels are considered. Major challenges include the education both of those who are to deliver ESD and of the decision-makers who manage key areas of our lives. Finally, she asks if ESD is addressing the real issues of sustainable development and how it might develop the transformational power to make a difference.

In Part III, focusing on the environmental dimensions of sustainable development, Stewart Lockie and Hedda Ransan-Cooper point out in Chapter 7 that biological diversity contributes to numerous ecosystem processes that support ecological, economic and social well-being. Reflecting this, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity explicitly incorporates the concept of sustainable development by aiming to ensure conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits that arise from utilization of genetic resources. Evidence to date, however, suggests that action to preserve and enhance biodiversity is either insufficient or ineffective. The chapter examines thus two relatively novel and globally-oriented initiatives with major implications for biodiversity governance: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. In particular, the chapter examines how these initiatives deal with the demands sustainability makes on learning, deliberation and accountability.

In Chapter 8, Naho Mirumachi writes about issues relating to water for sustainable development and the sustainable development of water. She points out that political recognition of the importance of water for sustainable development has resulted in the establishment of many policy initiatives, concepts and water management frameworks to facilitate the sustainable management of water resources. Nevertheless, challenges remain and critical analyses of the socio-economic conditions of water use and management are still needed.

In Chapter 9, Keith Bothwell, turning to sustainable architecture, uses examples of recent practice to describe the characteristics of sustainable buildings. From its roots in the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and in buildings constructed before the Industrial Revolution, sustainable architecture has grown to become mainstream, with sustainability now entrenched in building codes. However, environmental assessment methodologies used to calibrate sustainability indicators against a common scale are not altogether successful. Bothwell probes the possible future direction of sustainable architecture, acknowledging that buildings standing today will still be there in 50 years’ time and that their adaptation must form part of the overall picture. Focusing on sustainable design more generally, Martina Maria Keitsch reminds us in Chapter 10 that the Rio Declaration of 2005 states that designers can contribute to improved sustainability: this means creating products and services in line with the climate, the region and cultural conditions. To establish harmonious interactions with users, products should be well designed, easy to use and beautiful. Key ideas and practices in sustainable industrial design are presented with the help of examples. The sustainable design curriculum is explored along with discussion of how sustainable design strategies contribute to societal development.

The principles of sustainable development and ecosystem services (management) are tightly linked. In Chapter 11, Mark Mulligan and Nicholas Clifford clarify some aspects of the ecosystem services concept, highlighting, by use of examples, some operational principles and consequences for sustainable development of working with this concept. They describe the management of ecosystem services: whether it is possible; what the information requirements are and some key interventions that can be applied. They discuss whether ecosystem services management is necessary for sustainable development with a particular focus on water provision services. Finally, they consider whether ecosystem services management alone is sufficient for sustainable development or whether it represents one of many necessary tools. They argue that the ecosystem services concept provides a planning framework (a means of governance) but that its use as a tool for sustainable development is largely focused on the management (organization of) the interactions between societies and environment.

In Chapter 12, William Adams considers the close and paradoxical relations between conservation and economic growth through the long twentieth century, and analyses the long-standing dependence of conservation on market-based strategies with built-in high throughputs of energy and materials. He explores the possibility of conservation strategies that embrace de-growth, and considers the transitions in scale, definitions of nature, priorities, forms of organization and democratic control that such a model would demand.

In Part IV, focusing on the social dimensions of sustainable development, Robin Morris Collin and Robert W. Collin emphasize in Chapter 13 that sustainability and environmental justice are both tied to the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Processes for sustainable development expose disproportionate environmental and economic burdens. They point out that environmental injustices damage the economy, the environment, and the community and that sustainable development ignores any of these impacts at the peril of compounding mounting damage. In Chapter 14, Oscar Forero reviews the contribution of indigenous peoples to the transformation of the sustainable development concept and its practices. Indigenous peoples have fought hard to make it obligatory under national and international laws that biodiversity conservation and sustainable development projects in their territories should only be attempted when these initiatives unequivocally endorse the complete implementation of their human rights as individuals and as peoples. By discussing how indigenous peoples have dealt with the challenges posed by the sustainable development paradigm, Forero also contributes to the ongoing discussion that links management of sustainable development to implementation of human rights.

Emma Hinton, in Chapter 15, discusses some of the ways in which the politics of sustainable consumption can be understood. She outlines key milestones in international governance, discusses a range of types of sustainable consumption – including green and ethical consumerism, voluntary simplicity and anti-consumption – and considers the roles, responsibilities and agency of citizen-consumers. She critically examines the extent to which contemporary sustainable consumption politics may be considered to be an adequate response to consumption issues by working with distinctions between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ forms of sustainable consumption and considering the extent to which they may take on a ‘post-political’ character. In Chapter 16, Tony Johnston reviews the key literature on sustainable tourism development, particularly reflecting on new agendas in sustainable tourism development and the relationship between academy and practitioner research. A broad perspective on sustainable development is adopted throughout the chapter, incorporating economic discourse alongside institutional and socio-cultural perspectives. He provides a brief chronology of sustainable tourism development, from its primarily economic-oriented foundations to its current broader socio-environmental perspective. Later discussion in the chapter is focused on the sociology of academic and practitioner research in tourism.

In Chapter 17, Colin Sage explores a number of issues connecting food and sustainable development. He highlights some of the ways the dominant twentieth-century paradigm, productivism, exerts particular pressure upon resources and squeezes the entitlements of the poor. An alternative approach informed by sustainability not only works with nature but supports the claims of farmers and citizens to recover their rights to feed themselves. Nevertheless, meat remains a difficult issue to resolve, given its enormous environmental impact, yet with universal expectations around consumption.

In Part V, examining the economic dimensions of sustainable development, Robert Costanza et al. in Chapter 18 sketch a vision of what an ‘ecological economy’ might look like and how we could get there. They suggest that this option can provide full employment and a high quality of life for everyone into the indefinite future while staying within the safe environmental operating space for humanity on Earth. To get there, we need to stabilize population; more equitably share resources, income, and work; invest in the natural and social capital commons; reform the financial system to better reflect real assets and liabilities; create better measures of progress; reform tax systems to tax ‘bads’ rather than goods; promote technological innovations that support well-being rather than growth; establish ‘strong democracy’, and create a culture of well-being rather than consumption. The substantial challenge is making the transition to this better and more sustainable world in a peaceful and positive way. There is no way to predict the exact path this transition might take, but the authors hope that painting this picture of a possible end-point and some milestones along the way will help make this choice and this journey a more viable option.

Michael Redclift and Emma Hinton take a ‘long view’ in Chapter 19 of the attempts to grapple with the challenges of economic austerity during the economic recession that has characterized several major economies since 2008, by briefly examining the wartime austerity policies in the United Kingdom, which lasted from 1940 until the mid-1950s. The policies during this earlier period were not in themselves a response to the demand for sustainable development but, it is argued, provide a useful comparison with today’s attempts to develop sustainable development policy at a time of indebtedness and economic retrenchment. The chapter concludes that the period of austerity in the 1940s and the 1950s was not an historical parallel with today but can be understood as a preceding historical phase, in which enhanced personal and family security eventually prompted a large measure of personal and collective indebtedness.

Joachim H. Spangenberg points out in Chapter 20 that sustainable development indicators are tools for monitoring progress, specifically chosen according to targets and user groups. Consequently, the holding of different world-views leads to setting different kinds of targets, and to using different indicators. The two main schools represent the modificationists, who opt for minor changes of the current model, and the transformationists, who consider that a deep structural change is necessary. While the former often use monetary indicators, the latter hold physical measurement to be indispensable. The chapter presents the world-views and the resulting choices of indicators, indices and indicator systems of both camps, and the indicator quality criteria applicable for both. Tim Luke’s Chapter 21 revisits the growth of corporate social responsibility programmes as they have developed in response to cultural, political, and social pressures to reform various business practices to implement workable policies and practices in pursuit of environmental sustainability. He notes that, while some more far-sighted entrepreneurs in the USA took the initiative on their own accord, many firms responded only when pushed toward such changes by new social movements seeking greater ecological responsibility, government environmental regulations to encourage corporate social responsibility, and more aggressive commercial competitors that appeared more caring, innovative or responsible than companies that held back from making such changes in their business operations. His analysis reviews the gradual shift by many companies to at least appear as if they are equally worried about people, the planet, and profit, but he concludes that these campaigns, by and large, are sophisticated efforts at greenwashing, marketing changes or community co-optation. Peter Newman, Anne Matan and James McIntosh argue in Chapter 22 that the challenge for urban transport and sustainable development is to radically reduce resource consumption and the ecological footprint while improving the liveability of cities. While this seems rather daunting, the data from most developed cities suggest that the transition has begun. The peaking of car use, the rapid growth in public transport, bicycling and walking, the regeneration of central areas, all suggest a major transformation to reduce car dependence is underway. The growth of Walking City and the Transit City fabric will be the transformative force that can maintain the momentum of this process.

In an important case study that has implications for sustainable development in all of its manifestations, Arthur Mol points out in Chapter 23 that one of the key global battlefields for environmental sustainability is located in China. We felt it was important to include a chapter devoted to one country, China, for specific reasons. China is today a global leader in greenhouse gas emissions, active globally in natural resources consumption, with per capita greenhouse gas emissions already equal to the EU, and an ongoing high level of economic growth. Representing almost one quarter of the world’s population, China’s environmental policies deserve particularly close attention. The prospect of more sustainable development in China carries unique implications for the rest of the world. Mol formulates and assesses four discourses that can be extracted from the current literature on how China can/should/does address its sustainability challenges: (1) environmentally unequal exchange; (2) environmental authoritarianism; (3) (reflexive) ecological modernization; and (4) (local) environmental democracy. He points out that none of these discourses has yet a hegemonic position, and ideas from all four discourses are currently to some extent materialized in policies and practices.

Part VI turns to the future challenges that sustainable development still holds for us. Graham Woodgate focuses on agroecology in Chapter 24 as post-development discourse and practice. While detractors criticize post-development discourse for not offering viable alternatives, post-development processes since the 1980s have been building from the bottom up, one of the clearest examples of post-development in action being in agroecology which brings together agricultural practice, transformative agroecological science and agrarian social movements, set in motion through the politics of food sovereignty. As such, agroecology represents a clear and potent challenge to the corporate food regime and its neo-liberal discourse of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘food security’. In Chapter 25, Marco Grasso comments on the social dimension of sustainable development in major carbon-emitting countries. After pointing out why climate policy should be guided by sustainable development, he investigates the social dimension of sustainability through specific assessment of the equity and political feasibility of the major emitters’ climate policy. To conclude, he briefly describes some shared features of, and issues emerging from, the top emitters’ climate policy as evidenced by analysis. Raymond Murphy argues in Chapter 26 that learning how past disasters have been incubated is crucial to avoid the incubation of unsustainability. This involves learning to avoid the failure of foresight, the atrophy of vigilance, indifference to danger signs, error-inducing systems, the normalization of deviance, tightly coupled systems that magnify normal human errors, fantasy risk analyses, laxity of regulations and enforcement, the capture of regulatory institutions by industries being regulated, limited liability laws incentivizing recklessness, and the uselessness of potential market losses in preventing calamities. He argues that sustainable development is fostered only if societies accept the chronic burden of vigilance and the up-front costs necessary to maintain the services nature provides.

Yamini Narayanan, in Chapter 27, applies a religion and human rights perspective to the discussions on women and their participation in sustainable development, and demonstrates that it is a crucial way of understanding the particular ways in which these connections actively restrict – or, alternatively, provide the opportunity to enable – women’s active leadership and role in sustainable development. Specifically, she shows that religion impacts on four major fundamental rights of women, which in turn compromise their right to overall sustainable development: (1) the right to environment; (2) the right to safety and security; (3) the right to health and education; and (4) the right to mobility.

Finally, in Chapter 28, Ashwina Mahanti and David Manuel-Navarrete point out that governance and sustainability are inextricably linked. They discuss how different disciplinary approaches have framed the relationship between sustainability and governance and identify and discuss two dominant perspectives: the socio-political and the socio-ecological. They argue that these two perspectives have structured debates on the alternative ways in which sustainable development and sustainability transitions can be promoted through ‘governance’. Each perspective has provided a particular conceptualization of governance by placing different emphases on power, scale, systems dynamics, uncertainty, participation and solutions. However, the recent emergence of sustainability science has presented the need to transcend these two dominant perspectives and re-think governance along a solution-oriented approach that promotes structural transformations, both socio-politically and socio-ecologically.

The aim of the Handbook has been to show the continuity, if not coherence, of the concept of sustainable development over the last half-century and the contributions outlined above illuminate the evolving discourse. While grounded in theory, the chapters explicitly link theory to practices, redefine existing areas of research and highlight emerging areas within international scholarship and public policy. The Handbook is international in scope and interdisciplinary in outlook, suitable for audiences in the public and science policy areas, as well as academic social science departments. It will appeal to different audiences from academia, including students in the many academic courses now offered internationally, as well as to more general audiences who are keen to acquire a sound understanding of sustainable development as a basis for their own activities. It presents the implications of thinking about sustainable development for civil society, the international community, business and activist groups. It suggests that though the meaning and practice of ‘sustainable development’ have a disputed history, the idea has also served as an inspiration, for theorists and practitioners alike. It is far too early to write its obituary.


The Club of Rome comprised industrialists, educators, scientists and others who saw that the interdependence of the world’s economic, social, financial and cultural systems had resulted in the Earth becoming ‘a stressed system’, and feared the exhaustion of many key resources.

The scene was set for modernism and unsustainable development through the destruction of the organic world-view of nature and of her role as ‘nurturing mother’, effected through the new science of Newton, Hobbes, Descartes, Bacon and Locke. The shift was made from the world perceived as ‘organic, living, spiritual universe’ to ‘the world as machine’ (Merchant 1980).

The terms, ‘the North’, signifying the ‘developed’ countries, and ‘the South’ for the ‘developing’ countries (and bearing in mind that these terms emanated from ‘the North’), are used as convenient labels in this history of sustainable development until the post-UNCED shift in global economic power.

The changes in England did not take place without contemporary comment and action (see, for example, Engels, 1884, The Conditions of the Working Class in England), and social and political upsurge characterized the reaction of people denied their traditional ways of life then, just as globalization gives rise to a force of protest today. In a country rapidly increasing its colonial empire, ‘Luddites’, as well as ‘surplus’ population that it was sometimes difficult to feed, could be disposed of through a combination of transportation and settlement to colonies (Thompson 1963).

Northern domination of the developing world has resulted in the poor subsidising the rich through both debt repayment and parting with resources (Ekins 1992: 20). For example, Sub-Saharan Africa paid twice the sum of its total debt in the form of interest between 1980 and 1996, yet still owed three times more in 1996 than it did in 1980 (Monbiot 2003). McNeill (1989) points out that, while the world’s population tripled during the twentieth century, and industrial production increased 50 times, with 80 per cent of that increase taking place since the 1950s, intensified agricultural production has kept pace with population growth, but has also brought desertification, soil erosion and salination.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) advocated local accountability, moral reasoning and a limit to the large size of business, but his theories are now used to vindicate the actions of modern capitalism (Korten 1995).

Decisions made by the Allies at Bretton Woods in 1944 defined important aspects of the debate about political and environmental justice (Rich 1994) by setting in place the structures for increased control by the North – the ‘bailiffs’ of the world economy – putting the burden of maintaining the balance of international trade on the poorest debtor nations (Monbiot 2003).

The World Trade Organization (WTO) enforces free trade on weaker nations according to rules with which the richer nations do not comply. ‘Structural adjustment’ entails removing barriers to trade and capital flows, liberalizing banking systems, reducing government spending on everything except debt repayments, and privatizing assets to foreign investors (Redclift 1987; Lang and Hines 1993; Rich 1994; Monbiot 2003). In the meantime, rich nations maintain their own protection through tariffs, import restraints and subsidies that keep out imports from poorer nations.

See, for example, Commoner (1971); Bahro (1984); Adams (1990); Jacobs (1991); Smith and Warr (1991); Carley and Christie (1992); O’Connor (1994; 1998); Harvey (1996); Redclift (1987); Kovel (2002); and Panayotakis (2011).

The UN Annual Human Development Report (2003) charted increasing poverty in the 1990s for more than a quarter of the world’s countries owing to the combination of famine, HIV/Aids, conflict and failed economic policies (The Guardian, 9 July 2003: 1–2).

The way in which industry responded to Carson’s exposé was one of the first instances of industry ‘lash-back’ on the environmental critique (see Graham 1980).

See, for example, Marcuse (1964); Boulding (1966); Brower and Erlich (1968); Commoner (1971); The Ecologist (1972); Ward and Dubos (1972); Meadows et al. (1972); Schumacher (1973), Ward (1979); among others.

Updated in 1988, Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future, and in 2004, The Limits to Growth: The Thirty Year Update.

So called after Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on the Principles of Population (1798) propounded the theory that the Earth would run out of resources as population and consumption increased.

The ‘constructed’ nature of ‘scarcity’ had been critiqued earlier by Bookchin (1971) and Marcuse (1972). See also Achterhuis (1993).

This ‘scepticism’ is kept alive today through the alternative discourses on the environment of writers such as Beckerman (1994; 1996, 1999); Lomborg (2001) and numerous climate change deniers.

The WCED was the third commission set up by the UN in the 1980s, the others being the Independent Commission on International Development Issues (ICIDI), which produced the Brandt Reports, North-South: A Programme for Survival (1980) and Common Crisis (1983); and the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues (ICDSI), which produced the Palme Report, Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival (1983).

It is perceived as an ‘oxymoron’ (The Ecologist 1992; Rich 1994); a ‘dangerous liaison’ (Sachs 1993) or a ‘new jargon phrase in the development business’ (Conroy and Litvinoff 1988).

The UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972).

Several of the Principles and Recommendations produced in the major UNCHE outcome, the ‘Declaration on the Human Environment’, have been perceived not only as Northern-dominated, but ‘mildly eco-fascist’ (Adams 1990: 39).

The Strategy’s stated goal of the ‘integration of conservation and development’ based on ‘a more focused approach to management of living resources and … policy guidance’ (IUCN et al. 1980: vi, emphasis added) underlined the potential for ideological dissent and the emerging struggle for ‘ownership’ of the construct of sustainable development. It framed the goals in a Northern, scientific construction of the problem and a reductionist, managerial ‘solution’ by experts.

How such a massive transition from input growth to ‘qualitative development’ was to be made was not explained, possibly for the politically expedient motive of gaining a wider audience (Goodland et al. 1991; Soussan 1992). The dilemma for the Commission was how to take a strong stand on fundamental concerns while gaining political acceptance and support (Lélé 1991).

It was possibly this challenge to the major hegemonic forces of the capitalist economy that led to the Report’s being strongly criticized and largely ignored.

The Ecologist (1992: 1) underlined the control and self-promotion that the Conference endorsed:

The World Bank emerged in control of an expanded Global Environmental Facility, a prize it had worked for two years to achieve. The US got the biodiversity convention it sought simply by not signing the convention on offer. The corporate sector, which throughout the UNCED process enjoyed special access to the secretariat, was confirmed as the key actor in the ‘battle to save the planet’. Free-market environmentalism – the philosophy that transnational corporations brought to Rio through the Business Council for Sustainable Development – has become the order of the day, uniting Southern and Northern leaders alike.

See Holmberg et al. (1991); Luke (1997).

The privileged position afforded to business at UNCED is discussed in Chapter 5.

The increased level of growth based upon economic indicators since the early 1950s has been accompanied by the widened gap between rich and poor and the acceleration of environmental destruction (The Ecologist 1993; Monbiot 2003).

The countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China.

See Tisdell (1988).

See, for example, Pezzey (1989); Munro (1995).

Environmentalists themselves bought into the prevalent management paradigm, calling for better management strategies, where once they had called for new public virtues such as democracy, local self-reliance and cultural diversity, all championed within a ‘spirit of contention’ (Sachs 1993: xv).

Similar difficulties are associated with other fundamentally political ‘meta-constructs’ such as ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ when it comes to precise, contextual definition; yet there is a broad core of understanding of what they signify.

Jacobs (1999) identifies the irony of this ‘ambiguity’ that may have enabled the development of a radical discourse of sustainable development to emerge under the noses of the very structures that the concept opposes and that have, in turn, attempted to appropriate and neutralize sustainable development.

However, Dryzek (2000) does not see sustainable development as necessarily forming a part of the deliberative turn to a more discursive democracy on account of its accommodation to the capitalist economic system, though he does acknowledge that there is a radicalization of the discourse developing that might make it part of the discursive turn, and concedes that the concept seems ‘reasonably conducive to democracy’ as it emphasizes the role of a transnational civil society (ibid.: 123).

As noted in the previous note, Dryzek is more inclined to see sustainable development as being ‘accommodated’ to the capitalist economic system.

Harvey (1996: 156) points out that economic valuation represents a double-edged sword for its critics: they must beware of either eschewing the monetary evaluation of nature and thus remaining ‘irrelevant’ to the political debate; or risk reducing complex ecological processes to ‘the crude language of money’.


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