Understandings of Sustainability

Thoughts of environmental protection and resource management first became globally prominent in the 1960’s, famously after the publication of the first colour image of Earth from space which came to represent the planet’s fragility and uniqueness. Since then, a multitude of attempts have been made to decide on how best to tackle these issues and to find new ways of living without damaging to the world’s environment or exhausting its resources. These are best reflected in the environmental conferences, policies and treaties created in response to the growing need for action, which evolved to advocate what we know as today as ‘sustainable development’. But what caused ideals to shift from what Adams (1995, 414) describes to be “near revolutionary environmentalism” to “the blandest hint of green corporate capitalism”, and how has this effected understandings of sustainability?

Growing awareness of the depletion of the world’s resources, the build-up of waste, rapid population growth and human impacts on the environment are emphasised in the publications of western environmentalists during the 1970’s (Reid, 1995 25), the best-known of which being Meadows’ ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1972. These criticised the high levels of economic growth involved in capitalism, overpopulation (linked to a new neo-Malthusian movement) and advocated a ‘zero-growth’ policy. Its main focal point was environmental protection, and there was a general consensus that humans had a stewardship to protect nature.

Meadows’ predicted that the exploitation of the world’s resources would reach its limit within the next hundred years, and proposed radical societal changes typical to those belonging to discourses of survivalism and ecologism (Petersen, 2007, 217). This proved to be extremely popular with the public, who readily subscribed themselves to the anti-political and revolutionary undertones of the report, despite the lack of actually addressing ways in which the problems could be resolved. Reid examines how the simplicity of the bold conclusive statements is perhaps the reason behind its success (1995, 33).

However, the report’s claims of imminent danger were soon undermined by innovative solutions to food and energy security, and the environmentalist approach was criticised heavily, particularly by the global South. Quite clearly, much environmental discourse up until this point had been deeply rooted in Western thinking. Many countries in the South had only recently gained independence from the former colonial powers in Europe, and were suddenly being told to follow these ideas of zero-growth (Elliott, 1994, 21). The global South saw this as a means to hinder their development, and unfair given the North’s heavily industrial and polluting past. Thus, this was met with strong opposition from the global South, who called for the North, who had undoubtedly been the cause for the majority of the environmental damage, to accept responsibility for their own problems (Reid, 1995, 36), stressing that their priorities rested with alleviating poverty and development, unlike the North, whose new interest lay with environmental protection.
Corresponding to the “North versus South, environment versus development stalemate” (Bernstein, 2000, 494) it was agreed that an international approach would be required, and consequently the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) was arranged to take place in Stockholm in 1972. The preparatory meeting held in Fournex, Switzerland, the preceding year, concluded that development and environmental protection were not necessarily contradictory, and the possibility was put forward that a lack of development may even be a source of environmental damage (Elliott, 1994, 23). Later at the UNCHE, this concept lead to the coining of the term “pollution of poverty” in which aspects associated with non-development cause environmental degradation, such as unclean technologies and poor water quality.

Former ideas of radical change for the good of the planet were rejected, and understandings of sustainability moved onto what is described by Petersen as ideas of ‘Simulation and Self-deception’, in that environmentalism was beginning to be seen as more a lifestyle (2007, 216), one in which development was still possible but only on a sustainable level.

The UNCHE made little progress in determining how development could simultaneously be achieved with environmental protection, and failed to produce a clear set of policies. However, leading up to the release of the WCS (World Conservation Strategy) by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) in 1980 we can see a strong series of ideas emerging which lay the foundations for a shift towards the notorious, albeit hotly debated, idea of sustainable development, was first termed in the WCS. In this, people understood economic growth to be necessary for the development of new, non-polluting technologies, and development was seen as not only compatible with environmental protection but also a prerequisite for successful efforts towards it.

Sustainable development attracted many different groups of people all over the world, not least because of the global scale of the subjects it dealt with, but also due to the “vagueness and ambiguity” of the term itself (Reid, 1995, xv). Perhaps the most drawn upon meaning of sustainable development is that which was published in the Brundtland Report in 1987, lead and named after the Norwegian Prime Minister Mrs. Brundtland, by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED): “Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This has repeatedly been criticised for its vagueness; what does it determine as development? What does it define to be our ‘needs’, and how can it assume what future needs will be?

In response to this, many academics have taken to defining sustainability in terms of being the alternative to unsustainability, which Redclift states “should imply a break with the linear model of growth and accumulation” which damages the world’s environment on which we rely (1987, 4). Whitehead adds that understandings of sustainability have often been shaped by fears of unsustainable dystopias such as those shown in film and media (2006, 10).

Adams (1995, 415-426) recognises understandings of sustainability moving away from their radical origins towards a watered down, more conservative ‘mainstream’ way of thinking, based on the idea that the market is the best way for mediating between people and the environment. Vague meanings allow different people with different objectives to make agreements and political negotiations to be made, and we see radical environmentalists as well as development policy-makers supporting the same policies (Ibid, 414). Indeed, many academics today look at ‘needs’ to be a socially constructed concept, meaning different things to different people (Whitehead, 2006, 26). Meanings are clouded in what is actually going to be achieved, causing misunderstandings and misinterpretations for the sake of avoiding “shaking the status quo”.

The previous preoccupations with over-population begin to shift towards a concern on levels of consumption (Elliot, 1994, 39), and despite earlier political claims of a sustainable development that it will solve poverty and environmental problems without making people less well off (Adams, 1995, 414), the Brundtland report suggests a decline in the material standard of living to a level which “all can reasonably aspire to” (Reid, 1995, 60), therefore requiring serious decreases in consumption in many parts of the Western world. This is more obvious when we look at recent statistics, which claim that supporting the worlds’ population at US consumption rates would require 5 planets and for the UK 3 planets, while other parts of the world countries are using a fraction of the world’s resources which they are entitled to.

The WCED’s top priority was economic growth and redistribution of wealth, but it also advocated new measurements of wealth and recognised the limits of economical approaches in actually addressing global problems, (Redclift, 1987,56) showing a new political dimension in sustainability. The report also advocated a decentralisation of decision making, and a need for reforms (Reid, 1995, 64), and it is because of this radicalism that Redclift concludes that it will not work, as governments are unwilling to involve such radical structural reform (1987, 14). Bernstein also points out the difficulty ideas with find in becoming institutionalised in sustainable thinking if they challenge deep norms of social structure (Bernstein, 2000, 494).

On top of this, the South wanted protected sovereignty over their resources and development (not environmental protection), and the North’s desire for protected open trade and investment (again, not environmental protection) lead to a new liberal environmentalism (Bernstein, 2000, 477). It is because of these underlying interests, along with the West’s refusal to drop consumption levels, that the focus in the following conferences in Rio and Johannesburg turned to maintaining lifestyles and there was a general acceptance of intra-generational inequalities, unsustainable practices and environmental damage (Petersen, 2007, 213).

The UNCED (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) was the largest ever international conference. It focused largely on the difference in priorities of the North and South, and emphasised not only the mutual dependence of development and environmental protection but also the compatibility of market-based economies in this (Bernstein 2000, 471).

The negotiations at Stockholm focused heavily on creating a sense of a ‘common future’, much in consistence with the CHP ‘Common Heritage of Mankind’ principle of 1967. Rio, in response to increasing disagreements between the North and South as to who should take responsibility of funding and developing solutions to pollution, institutionalised the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) (Bernstein, 2000, 472). This can be seen as part of the mainstream shift into a more lucrative, capitalised attempt, whereby corporations etc are financially persuaded (rather than morally) to reduce their pollution. This can also be reflected in the interests of the new decision making arena, which had moved from previous state powers to a new international scale involving institutions and corporations (Petersen, 2007, 206).
The UNCED managed to produce some popular outcomes, including the Rio Declaration, the Forest Principles, the Biodiversity Convention and Agenda 21. However, due to their mediation through the concept of mainstream, these results were again plagued by unclear policies due to the need to attract the interest and support of everyone, and thus outcomes were criticised for being “long winded and self-contradictory” (Adams, 1995, 417). Furthermore, policies rarely involved attempts to merge environmental and developmental interests, and environmental protection was frequently seen as an extra cost to which no-one was really interested in stretching to (Petersen, 2007, 226). In a way, the two concepts here can be understood to have split to a certain degree, as technocentric improvements seems to be used as a synonym for environmental protection. Due to the fact that the policies of Agenda 21 are not legally binding, it has also been considered by some as “toothless” (Reid, 1995, 187).

The later UNWSSD (United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development) in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002 applied itself to reaffirm the commitments made earlier at Rio (Von Frantzius, 2004, 472). This conference increased participation even further, which can be interpreted as progress in that decision-making was being spread out. However, failure to commit to financial or temporal aspects of the agreement (Ibid.) on top of the sheer size of the forum in which policies were being made, (Petersen 2007, 223) made it impossible to come to any concrete conclusions.
By the end of the UNWSSD, we can see that policies are doing everything they can to affect the market as little as possible, as they promote current economic growth rates, rely on positive feedback for environmental protection and have maintained inequalities in living standards globally in order to avoid decreasing those of the richer populations, claiming that wealth will be redistributed by “trickle down” processes. This is all part of a new “liberal environmentalism” which had surfaced, making it possible for decision-makers to appear as though their actions were responding to environmental needs when they are really serving underlying interests (Bernstein, 2000, 478).

Inevitably, understandings of sustainability have become much less clarified from their starting point in the 1960’s, perhaps caused by the recent changes in global environments. Elliot calls for flexible solutions in order to account for intergenerational equity, able to tend to issues such as climate change, technological advances and unpredictable future needs which are ever-changing and therefore becoming a less reliable basis on which to base our policies and future plans (Elliott, 1994 184).

But the shift of understandings of sustainability cannot solely be pinned down to changes in our environment. It is also due in part to the changes in political will. As the implications of environmental protection suggested more and more obviously a need for structural reforms, policies became increasingly ‘watered down’. As Redclift notes, “when environmental concerns clash with strategic, political or national interests, they are unceremoniously forgotten” (1987, 200).

It is important to note however that the changing understandings of sustainability represented by the internationally agreed upon interpretations described here only reflect the norms of thinking at the times, and we must stay aware of the different minority understandings, “struggles and values” which underpin it (Whitehead, 2006, 5), many of which are visible in today’s interpretations of sustainability.
Questioning the productivity of these conferences, people are more understanding sustainable development to be damaging to the environment, regardless of its intentions.

By linking decision makers to decisions in order to expose their rationale (Redclift, 1987, 202), we can clearly see that understandings of sustainability have increasingly been influenced by economic ideas. The secretary for the UNCHE and UNCED meetings himself was Maurice Strong, a gas and petroleum entrepreneur from Canada. Bernstein also looks at the positionality of those making decisions, exposing the nonexistent role of the scientific community in proving environmental and developmental solutions (2000, 487).

So we can see that the number of international conferences is growing in terms of decision makers setting policies in an ever-changing global environment, coupled with the changing political will and public values, resulting in increasingly weak understandings of sustainability. Ultimately, it is difficult to do anything globally. This is perhaps why there needs to be a change in approach, and more attention paid to when, where and how policies will impact, as it will be locally specific (Whitehead, 2006, 8).


Adams, W. (1995) ‘Sustainable Development?’, in Johnston, R. et.al The Geographies of Global Change, Oxford: Blackwell.
Adams, W. (2005) ‘Sustainability’, in Cloke, P. et.al Introducing Humans Geographies, London: Hodder Arnold
Bernstein, S. (2000) Ideas, Social Structure and the Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism, European Journal of International Relations 2000 6: 464
Elliott, A. J. (1994) An Introduction to Sustainable Development, New York: Routledge
Petersen, Lars Kjerulf (2007)’Changing public discourse on the environment: Danish media coverage of the Rio and Johannesburg UN summits’, Environmental Politics, 16:2,206 — 23
Redclift, M (1987) Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions, London: Routledge.
Reid, D. (1995) Sustainable Development: An Introductory Guide, Oxford: Earthscan Publications Limited
Von Frantzius, Ina (2004)’World Summit on Sustainable Development Johannesburg 2002: A Critical Analysis and Assessment of the Outcomes’, Environmental Politics, 13:2,467 — 47
Whitehead, M (2006) Spaces of Sustainability: Geographical perspectives on the Sustainable Society (Routledge, London) Ch. 1.


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