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In this article I speak about sustainable development through the analysis of three different visions of three authors. At the end I explain what I think about the "politicisation" of the concept of sustainable development and where it is driving our society.

The new century started with a challenge, shared by the whole humanity on earth. Our environment is facing an unprecedented pressure as a result of anthropogenic activities that run beyond the safe planetary boundaries (four our and some other species). The international political leaders focused their attention toward the project of the sustainable development, that it has become a mantra present in innumerable political debates, agendas and organisation’s statements. Sustainable development now touches a great variety of topics that are partly related to but also far away from the old characteristic of environmentalism in which the first approach to the concept finds its roots.

The scope of this essay is to present different perspectives of a slippery and ambiguous concept (of Sustainable Development) after the Brundtland definition was presented during the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987. Three authors flesh out the concept of sustainable development, looking at its origin, its political meaning and different types of narratives that sustain and are sustained by it.

The three authors come together to recognise the WCED 1987 as the moment in which the concept has been brought to international attention, where it has been filled with content and legitimacy (Meadowcroft: 370) and it started to transform towards a new narrative more aligned with the contemporary universalism sustained by a hegemonic neoliberism (Carruthers: 1).

The emphasis on the “needs”.

The dominant definition of the Brundtland Commission posed high emphasis on the notion of “needs”: sustainable development is a kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future generations to meet their own needs. In the report it is further specified that particular attention must be given to the essential needs of the world’s poorest people.

Carruthers does not analyse in the specific the notion of needs and the consequences of the use of this term. Through a comprehensive understanding of the social and cultural ground where the term was born and how the WCED started its transformation, he concludes that the new definition of sustainable development is a legitimation of the hegemonic discourse of the neoliberism project (Carruthers: 1). In fact this definition promises to solve the clash between environmental protection and economic growth and “nearly everyone favours it, including individuals, firms, national and local governments, militaries, and the gamut of non-state actors” (Carruthers: 1). A project of redemption for the developmental model in which “poverty alleviation, free trade, and technological innovation are all presented as mutually enhancing”(Carruthers: 5). Part of the accountability for environmental degradation is burdened upon the poor; it is the responsibility of the wealthy countries to help them achieve economic growth, which in turn will act as a solution, not a threat. For the author this will lead to a disruption of traditional values and lifestyle, a reduction insofar as cultural diversity is the only resistance to a phagocyte system (Carruthers: 3). The words of the authors, as he clearly admits, are an open critic to the neoliberal project and to the idea of a growth without limits to which he contrasts with the concept of carrying capacity as something defined, solvable with ideas such as the steady-state economy of Herman Daly. The win of the qualitative growth over the quantitative growth, the win of the progress over the expansion.

Nevertheless he seems to be kin to a consideration of needs in the sustainable development definition. The satisfaction of the basic is seen as social justice, that in a world of limits can be achieved through redistribution of the wealth and the resources. These are the basis of the sustainable grassroots development supported by Carruthers, that turn back close to the sustainable development part of a discourse of scarcity, limits and failure of development (Carruthers: 4).

Meadowcroft presents an analysis that embrace a more institutional perspective. He sees in the Brundtland definition of sustainable development as “carefully crafted to accomodate various constituencies”, in which it is supported the idea that “human societies will continue their quest for a better life”(Meadowcroft: 371), but with priority to meet the basic needs of present and future generations. The formulation is appealing for both developed and developing countries. The definition re-opens the door to an era of growth, a “way out of the growth versus environment”. The solutions are provided by a conscious selection of partners of economic and social development with environmental stewardship. He recognises in this formulation a strength of the

concept to be able to reach a great audience and great consensus and to be useful for the international leaders that can embrace a new sort of “global project” (Meadowcroft: 370).

The contribution of Langhelle to the topic seems to be the more favourable to the Brundtland Commission and their work formalised in the Report “Our Common Future”. The emphasis on the needs and their satisfaction are a main goal of development. The development must be sustainable in order to ensure the capacity of the future generations to provide their needs. The limits of the development are consequent to the present state of technologies and social organisations. Langhelle shows how Our Common Future, to preserve the capacity to satisfy the needs, identifies potential political, social, economic, technological and cultural constraints on future development (Langhelle: 133). The author stresses the presence of moral content in the report in particular the fact that social justice is presented as need satisfaction (Langhelle: 140), which is in turn the goal of sustainable development. Furthermore he takes into account the feasible line between needs and desires. He claims that the connection between social justice and equal rights involves an attempt to give needs an antecedence over desires.

Meadowcroft and Langhelle agree on the fact that what is supposed to be sustained, according to the Report, is the “process of development” in itself, and that the development should be sustainable. This articulation leaves open the door to multiple interpretations and activities that are not sustainable if they are part of a “sustainable process”.

All the authors and, I believe, almost everybody understands that is easy to define the basic needs that go beyond morality, ethics, culture and personal perspective. Nevertheless in a liberal context such as the one that nowadays lead the world, the line between needs and desires, as Langhelle underlined, is very thin. First of all, what is a need? It is clear for basic needs, but there are few human beings that live all the life aspiring to fulfil the mere biological needs. Everybody aspires to reach something, small or big that is the desired achievement. Therefore the definition seems to be equal and fair, but countries, corporations, firms, organisation and individuals with more means will seek to satisfy different needs.

Second, the Brundtland Commission stresses the priority of the needs of the poor, but that is an important word. Poor, who decides who is poor? In my opinion there is a process of governmentality involved in this definition. Claiming a reality is never innocent, is an attempt to attain a new reality. Claiming that some people are poor makes them poor. The same system that creates presences, creates automatically absences. This is the process that made reality the Third World, creating a “conduct of conducts”, with the hegemonic role of development versus the abnormalities of the other systems.

What I see is a neoliberal approach that provides instruments and calculative tools to evaluate the shortcomings, to define the poors and their needs. Excluding the basic human needs, everything seems to be organised to collocate all the diversities present in the world under the “big game”. In this approach traditional lifestyle is not considered and the cultural diversity, our treasure of resistance to all the forms of hegemony and source of solutions, is in the highest danger that it ever faced.

Vagueness of the concept: weakness or strength ?

Great criticism has been made about the vagueness of the concept and the three authors considered in this essay expressed different perspectives.

The clear and remarked criticism of Carruthers actually starts there. The character of the definition undressed the concept from its original roots, as explained before. Extirpated from the environmental resistance of the past, now the concept is open enough to reach the demands of a great spectrum of actors, from the liberal, economic, financial figures to the more disparate organisations to the political leader always in search of an appealing and engaging story that can be shared by the many, and I add, around which is easy to construct rhetoric.

Meadowcroft responds to the criticism about the vagueness of the topic with the consideration that vagueness is an intrinsic characteristic of political concepts, especially if they must reach a global audience. Therefore the formulation of the concept is a point of strength that allow it to be operationalised in a context of multiple scenarios.

On the other side, Langhelle distinguishes between the vagueness of the concept and its characteristic to be open to different interpretations. The Report Our Common Future addresses the challenges with a “broad strategic framework” and it is constructed over a “basic concept” (Langhelle: 146). The author believes that Sustainable Development serves the purpose to give “basically integrated concepts and values pointing in different directions” and not a “blueprint for similar developmental paths for all countries” (Langhelle: 147).

I agree with Meadowcroft who understands Sustainable Development as a political concept with the intrinsic characteristic of vagueness and his explanation about the strength of this kind of formulation. On the other hand, my position is near Carruthers’ vision. Sustainable Development is open enough to fit with different discourses and various political, economical , social, cultural contexts. I can not deny that it is a strength, but it makes easy to run far away from the initial purposes for which all the debate started. We want to protect the environment from degradation and exaggerated exploitation, while promoting social justice. My opinion of social justice is the protection of cultural diversity and the rights of self-determination of the different cultures around the world. For example, the exploitation of forestal resources around indigenous populations leads to the incapacity of those population to maintain their traditional life-style. The same system that caused the disruption of their life proclaims them poor in need of help. I see a lot of hypocrisy and a masquerade. Sustainable Development can be a slogan used in a market-based conservation. It could be a pragmatic solution, but also a lost battle against the business as usual pattern. I will go more in depth in this reflections in the next session.

International environmental policy and sustainable development.

Since the WCED 1987 Sustainable Development has become a fashion and, as Meadow wrote in its article, organisations, national governments and local authorities have welcomed the “project” as a fundamental objective of their activity. There is no doubt that the concept conquered the attention of the international environmental policy and it has been operationalised in several policies, agendas and guidelines. The sustainable development Goals of the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations is a great example of the success of the term. The Climate Change Regime included sustainable development as mandatory requirement to solve the climate crisis and the possible consequent humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless there are other examples, as the international forest policy debate, that show other aspects. It seems that the propositions that involve sustainable development work when there are other conditions, in particular the presence of alternative paths that permit a painless change and economical interests that recall the attention of the business. The Ozone Depletion Regime is a successful story, but the harmful substances has been substituted because there were alternatives that could provide a large economic return. On the other hand, the forests have not a substitute, and contrary to the Ozone Regime where there was a gain in the shift, many countries depend economically on the exploitation of forestal resources. When propositions in favour of the environment and sustainable development are against economic interests of considerable dimensions, they will fail to be implemented in any politics.

In order to explain my vision, I will introduce a metaphor. There is a car, the driver is speeding up excessively, consuming a lot of gasoline, it is likely to go off road, it has already broken some parts, such as directions lights. Moreover it never stops for the maintenance, too busy to stop. The car is getting in very bad conditions. We think, well just stop, slow down and we can fix everything, and avoid dangerous driving. Then it is possible to restart the journey. The driver does not want to accept this solution, so he invents a system to have mechanics on board , that fix the pieces and do maintenance. They start to fix the car, while the driver runs and continuously damage again the car and consume a lot of gasoline. The mechanics fix and the driver says : we are doing a lot. Indeed. But the car is getting in worse condition.

We are doing a lot with the sustainable development. Probably, we students, teachers, scholars, organisations are able to dedicate our life to this cause because the international attention to the environmental issues. The operationalisation and popularity of sustainable development can help. There is a an honest interest in environmental policies but the framework in which they are developed is still too controlled by economic and financial interests. It is not possible to solve a problem with the same system that caused the problem. The operationalisation of the concept of sustainable development is indeed very useful, but we need to avoid to let our guard down. There is the need of several small alternatives and we need to be conscious that the transition will not be without costs. If we look at history, since the Palaeolithic era, all the big settlements in crisis, where splitting in small groups more easy to manage and it has always been a successful way. Nowadays, there is something totally new. Small groups equivalent to small alternatives can be connected all over the world in a net of myriad of solutions that could really change the wider game.


Carruthers, D. (2001). From opposition to orthodoxy: The remaking of sustainable development. Journal of Third World Studies, 18(2), 93.

Langhelle, O. (1999). Sustainable development: exploring the ethics of Our Common Future. International Political Science Review, 20(2), 129-149.

Meadowcroft, J. (2000). Sustainable development: a new (ish) idea for a new century?. Political Studies, 48(2), 370-387.


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