Sustainability and Sustainable Development

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The concept of sustainable development (SD) has been a part of the global ecological dialogue among scientists and governmental leaders for more than two decades. One outcome of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or the Earth Summit) was The Earth Charter, a policy statement about the ethics of international SD. The Charter opens, "We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace" (Earth Charter International Secretariat 2000). This statement captures the ethical context in which policy-makers developed the SD concept.

The most commonly used definition of SD comes from the 1987 report prepared for the Earth Summit, Our Common Future (1987). SD is "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED 1987). The 178 heads of state that gathered at the Earth Summit sought to address both the environmental problem and the socioeconomic development problem. The SD concept presented a paradigm in which officials viewed environment and development as partners rather than adversaries. The WCED view of SD presumed that socioeconomic growth and environmental protection could be reconciled in an equitable manner.

The SD idea contrasts with development that focuses on socioeconomic gain often at the expense of the environment. Some natural resource extractive industries, such as mining and fishing, deplete resources in the name of promoting socioeconomic growth. Unsustainable development, however, can be devastating for the environment and society. In 1992, for instance, the northern cod fishery collapsed in Newfoundland due to overfishing. The government, in light of this natural resource drawdown, called for a two-year moratorium on cod fishing so that the stocks could recover. This action affected thousands of workers (Haedrich and Hamilton 2000). The tension between biological/ecological concerns and human socioeconomic concerns, in this case and others like it, highlights the importance of finding a balance between society and the environment.

While the WCED definition has the greatest international recognition, a range of definitions are associated with SD. David Pearce and colleagues, for example, present a thirteen-page annex of definitions of the term. What the WCED brief definition has in common with others is that it identifies three main, but not equal, SD goals: (a) socioeconomic growth; (b) environmental protection; and (c) social equity. Interest groups highlight different aspects of this three-part definition. The economic concerns of national and transnational industrialists are incorporated into the definition, as are the concerns of environmentalists, and the socioeconomic concerns of nongovernmental organizations and governments wishing to alleviate poverty and injustice.

While the WCED popularized the concept, the phrase sustainable development had already been around for at least ten years. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature used the term in World Conservation Strategy (1980). World Conservation Strategy, however, emphasizes ecological sustainability, not the integration of ecological, economic, and social sustainability. SD draws upon limits to growth, appropriate and intermediate technologies, soft energy paths, and ecodevelopment discourses of the 1970s and 1980s (Humphrey, Lewis, and Buttel 2002, Mitcham 1995).

For example, the limits to growth debate centers around the much-publicized The Limits to Growth (1972), a study produced by Donella Meadows and others for the Club of Rome (Humphrey and Buttel 1982, Mitcham 1995). The book presents evidence that severe biophysical constraints would impinge upon the growth and development of societies. The Limits to Growth predicts ecological collapse if current growth trends continued in population, industry, and resource use. The study provoked tremendous international debate, attention, and critique (Sandbach 1978). The limits to growth idea became politically unpopular in the less developed countries (the Global South) "on the grounds that it was unjust and unrealistic to expect countries of the [Global] South to abandon their aspirations for economic growth to stabilize the world environment for the benefit of the industrial world" (Buttel 1998, p. 263).

While the limits to growth debate asks whether environmental protection and continued economic growth are compatible, the mainstream SD discourse assumes that the two are complimentary and instead focuses on how SD can be achieved (Baker, et al. 1997). The SD discourse does not assume there are fixed limits to socioeconomic development; it is pro-technology, pro-growth, and compromise oriented. The WCED report clearly states, "The concept of sustainable development does imply limits—not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth" (Ekins 1993, p. 91).

The discourse on SD presents a shift in thinking about human development. SD is presented as a solution to the problems of economic development and environmental degradation. International aid agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank, adopted the SD framework for the design of their development programs. The emergence of the concept came at the same time that environmental policymakers began framing environmental problems such as biodiversity loss, the greenhouse effect, and the thinning of the ozone layer, as global problems. No longer was it enough to think globally, act locally. In an era of globalization, the new interpretation of environmental problems suggested that people must think globally, act globally. SD ethically frames many of these actions.

The Definitional Problems of SD

While critics of SD come from many policy positions, they all agree on its lack of clarity. What should be sustained in SD: the economy, the environment, human welfare? Whose needs and whose development should be promoted? What should be developed? Is development the same as growth? Does development refer to production growth, as is typically indicated by growth of gross national product; does it refer to environmental growth, such as an improvement of environmental resources; or does development refer to growth in human welfare, including health, working conditions, and income distribution? (Ekins 1993). To deal with some of these problems, analysts and communities have begun constructing indicators for SD, such as those being created by "sustainable cities," such as Seattle (Portney 2003).

Some critics of the concept argue that it is old wine in new bottles in that it only requires slight modifications to existing modes of production, existing political structures, and existing values. New laws, international treaties, and better education, among others, will produce SD. Marxist interpretations, such as that put forward by Sharachandra Lélé, note that the concept "Does not contradict the deep-rooted normative notion of development as economic growth. In other words, SD is an attempt to have one's cake and eat it too" (Lélé 1991, p. 618). Fred Buttel, nonetheless, points out some of the advantages of the concept:

SD still does focus our attention on the two great contradictions of the world today: The long-term compromising of the integrity of ecosystems (local as well as global ones) and the tendency toward reinforcement of the socioeconomic processes of social exclusion of billions of the world's people. Because of its relevance to spotlighting attention on these two great institutional failures of our epoch, SD allows a range of groups to contest structures and policies and to develop alternative visions of the future. (Buttel 1998, p. 265)

The treatment here assumes that there are three realms involved in SD that must be harmonized: ecological, economic, and social. Edward Barbier asserts that the objective of SD is "to maximize the goals across all these systems through an adaptive process of trade-offs (1987, p. 104). In sum, for development to be sustainable, the environment should be protected; people's economic situation should be improved; and social equity should be achieved.

Alternative Theoretical Perspectives on SD

According to some social theorists and science policy analysts, the impending scarcity of oil, the carbon buildup in the atmosphere, and the potential for global climate change are among the leading ecological problems now facing the world. These problems do not speak well for the sustainability of western cultural traditions, such as the national and international expansion of free market capitalism. Yet modern social theorists and science policy analysts are not of one mind as to how science, technology, and society may deal with these ecologically critical, global sustainability issues in the twenty-first century. Three different models to approach a sustainable future are outlined: the conservative, ecological modernization model; the state-oriented, managerial model; and the radical, neo-Marxian model.

THE CONSERVATIVE, ECOLOGICAL MODERNIZATION PERSPECTIVE. Some theorists and science policy analysts foresee the twenty-first century as the period of ecological modernization. As the impending global ecological crisis gathers force, capitalists—the leaders of national and multinational business and industry—will reflect upon their vital predicament and, through the power of the market and innovative technologies, create sustainable societies throughout the world.

In 1997 Amory and Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute together with Ernst von Weizsacher, Director of the Wuppertal Institute (Germany), published Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. Their work, in the spirit of ecological modernization, focuses on waging a worldwide efficiency revolution—increasing energy savings by a factor of four. They note that, historically, production efficiency improved through technological changes in labor practices: industrialization, automation, and robotics. For them, the new focus of the production efficiency revolution will be gains in the use of natural resources, notably energy. To wage this revolution, they propose harnessing the power of markets through price adjustments to create incentives for technological innovation.

The authors of Factor Four cast a wide net, focusing on how the efficiency revolution applies to transportation, design and building methods, natural resource conservation, agriculture, and energy. Common to these ways of using energy and natural resources more efficiently is the argument that "in many cases saving resources could cost less than buying and using them" (von Weizsacher, Lovins, and Lovins 1997, p. 146). Their examples include the Morro Bay, California, homebuilding program. In that program, builders were required to demonstrate that they reduced water consumption by twice what their next new home owners would consume by free installation of water efficient plumbing in already existing homes. Other examples include the use of more costly fluorescent lamps that last ten times longer than incandescent lamps; laptop computers that use one percent of the electricity consumed by desktop units; and more efficient air conditioning, in part through superwindows made to emit light, not heat.

Von Weitzsacher, Lovins, and Lovins identify former President Clinton's Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles as a voice of the efficiency revolution. The hypercar is the centerpiece of this partnership between government and the Big Three U.S. auto makers—DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors. Capable of making a coast-to-coast trip on a single tank of fuel, the hypercar achieves fuel efficiency through the dual strategy of a streamlined, slippery body that is ultra-light and a hybrid-electric/gasoline power unit. The hypercar also circumvents the problem of managing the waste build-up of engine batteries that could leak acid into the ground, water, or both.

The ecological modernization approach may contribute to economic growth and environmental protection, however, it is not clear whether it promotes or enlarges social equity. The model has been especially prevalent in Europe (Mol and Spaargaren 2002).

THE STATE-ORIENTED, MANAGERIAL PERSPECTIVE. A managerial approach seeks to reform, but not revolutionize, the existing political and legal structure of societies to achieve SD. Some recent programs undertaken by national governments and government-funded international development agencies exemplify managerial approaches. One such managerial effort is biodiversity conservation. Biodiversity protection addresses the goals of SD by preserving biological diversity and providing the potential for long-term social and economic benefits through sustained resource use and tourism. This effort at SD is exemplified by work on Ecuador done by environmental sociologist Thomas Rudel in 2003.

Esmeraldas, located in northwestern Ecuador, consists of tropical rain forests that contain an array of rarely seen biodiversity. It also has one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America (between 2–4% annually). The rapid deforestation of this ecologically significant environment drives international efforts to make forestry sustainable in Ecuador. At least three social forces impel the rapid deforestation of Esmeraldas's lush tropical forests: It contains commercially valued hardwood; it is accessible to urban markets; and there is economic and population pressure to attain work logging the rain forest.

Over the last half of the twentieth century, the Ecuadorian government established an extensive set of national parks and forest reserves. Two reserves are located in Esmeraldas, the Cayapas-Mataje Reserve and the Cotacachi-Cayapas Reserve. A state-appointed forest service manages all of Ecuador's forest reserves. The forest service issues logging permits to the urban-based lumber companies and receives a stumpage tax for harvested trees in the reserves. The Ecuadorian government uses the tax receipts to pay forest service officers and to pay off government debt to international economic development agencies. Thus a fourth cause to deforestation in this area is that this state managerial arrangement encourages the exploitation of Ecuador's rain forests.

In spite of this state-induced system of tropical deforestation, increasingly influential national and international environmental groups and development organizations working in Ecuador have managed to promote sustainable forestry practices in the reserves. One such arrangement involves an economic development contract between the Ecuadorian government and USAID. The goal of this program is to form and develop Sustainable Use of Biological Reserves (SUBIR) in Ecuador. Using USAID funds, Ecuadorian officials fund ecologists to set the annual volume of rain forest harvesting equal to the annual rate of rain forest growth in the reserves and buffer zones adjacent to the reserves. In the rural community of Playa de Oro outside of the Cotacachi-Cayapas Reserve, village leaders are trying to take advantage of SUBIR by developing ecotourism. Thus the USAID program is leading to both sustainable forestry and economic growth for a rural village.

In another example, Deutche Gesellschaf fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), the German equivalent of USAID, has organized a council of more than fifty Afro-Ecuadorian village leaders to practice sustainable forestry, to bargain collectively with the lumber companies, and to replant whatever trees are harvested. By practicing sustainable forestry, and by gaining a fairer return on the trees harvested in the reserves, Esmeraldas villages are an important, new experiment in sustainability in a highly diverse ecosystem.

These Ecuadorian SD efforts represent two of thirty-two working contracts involving international economic development agencies, national and provincial officials, village leaders, lumber companies, and environmental organizations. These efforts simultaneously attempt to alleviate problems of poverty, inequality, and biodiversity loss through land conservation. They are not without problems; however, they are a concrete attempt at reconciling the tensions between ecological, economic, and social systems.

THE RADICAL, NEO-MARXIAN PERSPECTIVE. Marxists or, in this designation, radicals, conceptualize environmental problems as inherent irrationalities in the capitalist mode of production (Humphrey, Lewis, and Buttel 2002). Radicals insist that economic expansion is the basic causal force by which capitalism resolves economic and social crises. The capitalist class and their allies, such as state officials, deflect discontent with social inequality by perpetuating economic growth necessary for the increased wages and rising material standards of living for the working class. Through this material, wage-based enfranchisement of workers, the capital class avoids the overt repression of workers, protects their own privileged relationship to private property, and garners monetary profit, at a substantial cost to the environment.

Anthropologist Ramachandra Guha's The Unquiet Woods (2000) illustrates the radical framework in the context of Badyargah. Located in the foothills of northern India's Himalayas, Badyargah is a cluster of homogeneous, egalitarian rural villages in the state of Tehri Garhwal. For centuries, the villagers of Badyargah, practiced a form of sustainable subsistence agriculture. Badyargah villagers lived well on fresh fish, rice, wheat, millet, and the meat of their lambs and sheep. The sustainability of Badyargah's agriculture began to decline following the first state-subsidized road building in the mid-1960s. At the time India's national government began boosting private capital expansion by awarding private logging contracts to outside lumber companies. Once a national forest surrounding a Badyargah village was harvested, Indian state foresters strictly excluded villagers from reentry to protect the regeneration of commercially valued trees.

Anticipating a particularly large commercial logging contract in 1979, Badyargah village leaders began planning rural, grassroots resistance. They contacted Sunderlal Bahuguna, a leading environmental activist in the Indian hill region. Bahuguna and his followers persuaded residents of forest-dependent villages to practice Chipko. To resist logging, the villagers hug trees. The Chipko movement forces loggers to choose between sparing the trees or taking human lives. As part of this episode, Bahuguna went on a well-publicized hunger strike, and, day and night, 3,000 villagers guarded the site of the anticipated commercial logging. The government and contractor abandoned the logging plans.

This radical, grassroots resistance movement to protect local forests for use by the villagers was by no means an isolated episode in this part of rural India. Local, radical resistance to commercial logging in Tehri Garhwal became so prevalent that the government forestry department declared a fifteen-year, statewide moratorium on commercial logging beginning in 1982. Yet scholarly observers such as Guha do not anticipate the end of the Chipko movement in northern India. The modernization process, driven by capitalism, is bringing large dams, increased mining, and mountaineer tourism into the region. "The intensification of resource exploitation," Guha writes, "has been matched almost step by step with a sustained opposition, in which Chipko has played a crucial role, in catalyzing and broadening the social consciousness of the Himalyan peasantry" (Guha 2000, p. 179). Whether this radical environmentalism will bring back the sustainable rural economy of rural northern India remains to be seen.


Beginning with the international debates over the implications of The Limits to Growth in the 1970s, scientists, environmentalists, and state officials have extensively engaged in global efforts to seek international consensus about the meaning and practice of SD. SD policies, ultimately, involve ethical decision-making about how science and technology can be applied in economic development efforts worldwide. The examples used to illustrate contemporary SD efforts highlight an important point. There is no one-size-fits-all model of SD.

Ecological modernization appears to be central to SD efforts in the Global North (the more developed, industrialized nations) in the early twenty-first century. Led by profit-oriented entrepreneurs trained in science and technology, ecological modernization aims to ecologize the economies of advanced industrial countries. Ecological modernization as an SD effort, exemplified by the hypercar, has a strong appeal to capitalists and mainline environmental groups. This form of modernization emphasizes ecological rationality in the use of natural resources for profit. Using the ethical criteria for SD, however, indicates that ecological modernization trades off social equity concerns for the sake of environmental and economic gains.

The grassroots, rural resistance movements against modernization in parts of the Global South—exemplified by the Chipko movement in northern India—is an oppositional struggle for SD. Reflecting the Gandhian tradition of nonviolent resistance that brought India to national independence in the mid-twentieth century, the Chipko movement brings sustainable rural subsistence traditions to SD efforts in India. The Chipko movement trades off economic growth for the sake of social equity and environmental integrity.

Rural development in the province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, underscores the not-one-size-fits-all nature of SD. According to Rudel, forest-dependent organizations in Esmeraldas have initiated lobbying efforts to lift the national ban on timber exports. Because of the sustainable harvesting practiced by these Ecuadorian organizations, and because of the relatively high wages earned by the new logging cooperatives, Esmeraldas's export lumber could be ecologically approved by an international, third party certification agency. This potential certification could mean a higher demand for Ecuadorian tropical woods in the international lumber market. That potential development, in turn, could bring more wealth, sustainable forestry, and, possibly, more income equality among Esmeraldas workers—the three criteria needed for fully meeting the ethical standards for SD. Esmeraldas, thus, could become an exemplary SD model in the early-twenty-first century.


SEE ALSO Change and Development;Development Ethics;Ecological Footprint;Ecology;Georgia Basin Futures Project;Mining;Modernization;Progress;Sierra Club;Waste.


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