Sustainability -- Long View or Long Word?

Article excerpt


THERE IS AN ONGOING NEED IN THEORETICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM TO TAKE A LOOK into the bright corona of concepts and assumptions that surround the term "sustainability" and to examine the key issues governing its expression in mainstream developmental and political policy toward the developing world. The central theme of this article is that the epithet of sustainability, as currently understood in the "Northern" public arena and by many development agencies, is too plastic--or too loaded--to be of any authentic or practical use. Indeed, its current deployment on the global scene as a political catchphrase engendering a vague sense of goodwill toward the "Third World," and the environment generally, has done little to engender any radical shift in top-down development strategy and oppressive global trading practice. The conceptual and ethical limitations of the rallying cry of sustainability within our free-market global economic system therefore need to be debouched, so that genuine developmental alternatives may be more fully voiced for, and by, oppressed peoples. This brief commentary will delineate what those alternative forms of class/capital-conscious sustainability might be, but cannot cite extended case studies (which is a much larger project). Rather, the first step in this process is to explore the origins and associations of sustainability in a discursive manner, and thereby to map out the extent to which it underpins the status quo in the current ideological landscape. Although the issues covered here are global in scope, this article has a European emphasis. It is hoped that this alternative perspective will be of particular interest to readers of Social Justice in the United States.

The History of Sustainability

The primary genesis of sustainability (as understood in Europe) lies in the massively influential Brundtland report (1987), Our Common Future, which still figures prominently in the debate over long-term human survival. Although the notion of "sustainable development" entered the scene in 1980 through the World Conservation Strategy, and was reworked by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, only with the incorporation of these groups into the World Commission on the Environment and Development in 1984 did the concept take serious root in global economic evaluation. According to Brundtland's report, sustainability requires us to pass on to future generations something like the opportunities we currently enjoy. That goal presupposes a world system of economic activity that successfully integrates economic and ecological systems and whose benefits can be distributed more equably across the planet. Justice is also an important guiding principle in this process, since the conservation of resource s will be difficult to achieve where there is poverty and human conflict. After Brundtland, all nations and classes were to have a stake in the generation of global wealth, as long as the economic processes required to achieve this did not bring about an environmental cataclysm.

Unfortunately, the sustainability defined by Brundfland, or as refined by subsequent writers, can be interpreted in many ways. Most official versions of sustainability exploit the failure of the report to set out goals based on real analysis of the mechanisms for their realization in practice. Governments thus interpret the term freely as a rhetorical device, using its cachet to justify further global economic growth (though with some sense of a required environmental brake), while paying lip service to real distributive justice. Their strategies have involved a resource-exploitationist view (where each generation must assure that the next has greater productive potential) as well as various plans to secure environmental stability and allow large-scale commerce to proceed indefinitely.

This cynical deployment of sustainability is related to the early conservation movement in North America, which preached a powerful managerial ethic. …