Three Conceptions of Environmental Sustainability
SHARACHANDRA LÉLÉ'S observation that 'Sustainable development is a "metafix" that will unite everybody from the profitminded industrialist and risk-minimizing subsistence farmer to the equity-seeking social worker, the pollution-concerned or wildlife- loving First Worlder, the growth-maximizing policy maker, the goal-orientated bureaucrat, and therefore, the vote-counting politician' ( Lélé 1991: 613) neatly summarizes the task facing anyone proposing to give systematic form to the myriad interpretations available to us of environmental sustainability and its cousin, sustainable development.
Attempts to give this debate some shape have been made before, of course, but not in quite the way I shall do here. Most résumés of environmental sustainability and sustainable development have taken one (or sometimes both) of two forms, which I shall call the 'definitional' and 'discursive' forms. The definitional form is self-explanatory: commentators attempt to sum up what either environmental sustainability or sustainable development is by encapsulating its meaning in a definition. The problem with this approach is obvious, and it has led to the general demise of the definitional form: each definition is necessarily contested and contestable, and with something like 300 definitions available (and the number increases inexorably) seekers after enlightenment are often left as confused at the end of their search as at the beginning. Here, then, I explicitly eschew the definitional approach.
The discursive strategy is, on the face of it, more promising. It generally works by describing the evolution of terms such as