- The Sustainability Debate: Déjà Vu All Over Again?
What can we discover about sustainability that we did not already know? Since the term first appeared during the 1970s—in a book edited by Dennis Pirages,1 and later in the IUCN’s 1980 World Conservation Strategy2—it has been used and abused in many different ways and with many different meanings. For many years, the definition offered by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, also known as the Brundtland Commission) in the 1987 book Our Common Future was canonical:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 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.3
Where the WCED complicated matters was in combining the notions of ecological stabilization and economic expansion. The WCED also shifted the focus of the debate from programmatic content to conceptual contradictions and all of the confusion that move entailed.4 As a result, the ensuing 20 years has seen [End Page 136] much written about sustainability, as well as a myriad of projects and programs dedicated to it as a goal, without getting much closer to either definitional closure or achievement.
This lack of conceptual closure is unfortunate, inasmuch as the past several years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in and commitment to “sustainability,” most visibly on university campuses and in urban planning. Whether this new commitment is linked to the rising profile of global climate change—and, perhaps, the George W. Bush Administration’s determination to dismiss it as a problem—is less than clear, but one result has been a surge of new publications, programs and prognostications addressing the problems of and prospects for sustainability. The three books under review here are emblematic of this resurgence, although they differ considerably in terms of their epistemological orientations and arguments. As a result, they also offer more or less food for thought about what sustainability means and how it might be achieved. What these and other writings suggest is that we are not much closer to a consensual definition or set of practices, although it is possible to identify three somewhat distinct approaches to sustainability.
The first is a largely instrumental one—technological, economic or biological—resting on notions of linear causality in terms of reducing human impacts on ecological systems. Thus, both ecological modernization5 and preservation/restoration6 tend to focus on means of reducing harmful losses and flows as a way of conserving stocks, whether of species, pollution or energy. No particular social context is assumed; people either consume too much or too little, and can be induced to change their preferences and behave differently given appropriate politics and prices. A second approach is more cognizant of social factors in organizing production, consumption and reproduction, although the social is often regarded as the tail on a very energetic dog. Research, experience and practice indicate that humans and their societies are constituted through rules and relationships—with each other, with nature, with stuff—and these are strongly determinative in whether or not practices are sustainable. In this second approach, however, changing the social is generally thought to rest on newly-devised norms, regulations and laws aimed at the general social good of long-term human survival, which the targets of normative change will recognize as being in their self-interest. The third approach pays attention to both culture and meanings, although neither is easy to define or explain. Humans consume, produce and relate not only to live biologically, but also to sustain the societies in which they live, whose organization relies on...