Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

A Missing Pillar? Challenges in Theorizing and Practicing Social Sustainability: Introduction to the Special Issue

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

A Missing Pillar? Challenges in Theorizing and Practicing Social Sustainability: Introduction to the Special Issue

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Hope

Since publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, the notion of sustainable developmenthas come to guide the pursuit of environmental reform by both public and private organizations and to facilitate communication among actors from different societal spheres. While there is no universal consensus on how to define the concept, its inherent vagueness and interpretative flexibility contribute to its broad appeal. It is nonetheless customary to characterize sustainable development in a familiar typology comprising three pillars: environmental, economic, and social (or sociocultural). These are also known as the three "Ps" (People, Planet, and Profit) or the three "Es" (Environment, Economy, and Equity).For both substantive and normative reasons, the relationships among these dimensions are generally assumed to be compatible and mutually supportive (Littig & Grießler, 2005). For instance, the Johannesburg Conference in 2002 further stressed the need to integrate the three dimensions, as well as to build a humane, equitable, and caring global society for present and future generations.

This broad call for a comprehensive and integrative understanding and practice of sustainability appears promising and compelling. However, a considerable amount of sustainable development research indicates that huge are involved in the realization of this hope. The obstacles are of two related kinds. The first is theoretical and concerns how we should define and understand this fluid concept of social sustainability. The other involves the practice: how are the social sustainability aspects to be operationalized and incorporated into various sustainability projects and planning? Partly due to its contested character, a number of scholars argue that the social dimension garners less attention or is dismissed altogether (Dobson, 1999; Agyeman et al. 2003; Agyeman & Evans, 2004; Lehtonen, 2004; Agyeman, 2008; Cuthill, 2009; Dillard et al. 2009). Rather, it is mainly the merging of environmental and economic dimensions that has been seen to create synergies and potentials for environmental policies and reforms (Littig & Grießler, 2005; Bluhdorn & Welsh, 2007). Furthermore, at least thus far, very little actual attention has been paid to the linkages between and integration of the social and environmental dimensions (Lehtonen, 2004; Fitzpatrick, 2011a). While social policies in terms of welfare institutions have a long history in developed countries, they have been deeply embedded and reliant upon a society marked by productivism, overconsumption, and economic growth, as well as national and short-term timescales. These are all objectives that most variants of green thinking oppose (Fitzpatrick, 2011c). Rethinking and reorganizing for green social policies and welfare--social sustainability--is thus both a crucial task and a very big challenge.

It must be acknowledged, however, that recent years have seen notable efforts to address and integrate social aspects of sustainability on the part of standard setters, planners, and practitioners. This has occurred within such diverse areas as urban and regional planning (Schlossberg & Zimmerman, 2003; Cuthill, 2009; Davidson, 2009; Dempsey et al. 2011), fair trade certification (e.g., Taylor, 2004), forest certification (e.g., Klooster, 2010; Boström, 2011), organic agriculture (e.g., Shreck et al. 2006), conventional agriculture (Nordström Källström & Ljung, 2005; Mancini et al. 2008), as well as corporate social and environmental management, reporting, and responsibility (e.g., Sharma & Ruud, 2003; Bebbington & Dillard, 2009; Brown et al. 2009). This special issue contributes to this trajectory first presenting a typology for organizing research on social sustainability (Murphy, 2012) and then featuring studies on alternative agrofood networks and practices (Psarikidou & Szerszynski, 2012), conflicts surrounding human-animal relations (Hiedanpää et al. …

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