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Last Updated: 09/16/2005
The Nuts and Bolts of Sustainable Development
Benjamin Goldstein

“Sustainable development” has become a popular catchphrase in recent years, used by everyone from environmentalists to big-business entrepreneurs. But what, exactly, is it? And where did the term come from? Benjamin Goldstein examines the value of sustainable development and explains danger of corrupting the term's original meaning.

Sustainable Development: Functional Concept or Ineffectual Discourse? 


Sustainable development is a noble and necessary aspiration. Given the critical failings of 20th century development paradigms in both providing for humanity’s basic physical needs and preserving the ecology upon which our continued existence depends, the 21st century calls for a radically reformulated approach to development.


Having emerged as a response to neoliberal market fundamentalism where the environment is perceived as little more than a resource to be exploited when profitable, sustainable development incorporates an ecological sensibility into economic calculations. However, divergent interpretations of its definition and application make sustainable development a highly contested concept. The debate appears mired in the seemingly incompatible dichotomy of economic growth vs. ecological sustainability. The phraseology has been handily appropriated and utilized by many actors to further their own interests, subsequently diluting its effectiveness. Moreover, these processes of interpretation and appropriation are made possible by the general and insufficient theory associated with the concept of sustainable development.


Yet despite these ostensible shortcomings, sustainable development is the most visionary development paradigm available and should not, by any means, be discarded. Instead, environmentalists must reclaim discursive and interpretative control over the concept of sustainable development by vigorously defending its original definition, as crafted by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1] Only by preventing the usurpation or manipulation of this core definition can environmentalists maintain the capacity to harness sustainable development as an emotive force and practical tool to affect international policy.


The task then becomes to address the other obstacles to sustainable development: transcending unnecessary dichotomies, overcoming the structural and institutional barriers; exploring valuations of human needs vs. wants as manifested by our consumption; deconstructing the anthro-, ethno-, and contempo-centrisms that pervade our perceptions of sustainable development; and finally, identifying existing examples of sustainable development and deciding what is necessary to expand them to a global scale. Fortunately, the appeal of sustainable development is that rather than drafting concrete means to an end, it simply posits an end (universal satisfaction of basic human needs and ecological sustainability) and leaves the path towards it open to ingenuity and imagination.


Transcending the Growth vs. Sustainability Dichotomy


Deliberations over the supposed incompatibility of economic growth and sustainable development divert attention from the more important tasks of re-orienting the global economy to better serve the poor and reducing unsustainable consumption in industrialized countries. Yes, humanity will ultimately have to balance its growth needs with the finite, non-growing status of the Earth’s ecosystem upon which all future economy depends, but these actual physical parameters are still not entirely delineated. Meanwhile, the challenges of abject poverty, flagrant environmental degradation and rampant consumerism should frame the heart of policy debates


The WCED promotes economic growth in underdeveloped areas as the first step toward sustainable development. Rightly prioritizing the immediate needs of the world’s poor, the WCED argues that “meeting essential needs depends in part on achieving full growth potential, and sustainable development clearly requires economic growth in places where such needs are not being met.”[2] By stressing this concept of “essential needs” (food, water, shelter, jobs, etc.), the WCED acknowledges that ecological sustainability will never be achieved (nor is it ethical) in the presence of poverty and socioeconomic injustice. This pro-growth approach to poverty alleviation endorsed by the WCED is not inherently incompatible with the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Rather, future sustainability is dependent on rectifying contemporary poverty and inequity, as a world in which these afflictions are endemic “will always be prone to ecological and other crisis.”[3]


Authors such as Herman Daly take the position that it is impossible for the world economy to grow itself out of poverty and environmental degradation. He argues that the evidence suggests we have already overshot the ecological carrying capacity of the earth and that “to delude ourselves into believing that growth is still possible & desirable if only we label it ‘sustainable’…will just delay the inevitable transition and make it more painful.”[4] Daly’s macro-level perspective on growth and ecological sustainability is applicable to the global economy as a whole or to the egregious consumption of industrialized countries. But it is hard to envision his “no growth” argument holding much weight in developing countries, where it could potentially be interpreted as another manifestation of neo-colonial hegemony.


Daly’s more resonant recommendations actually offer some guidance for sustainable development advocates. He calls for the alleviation of poverty through means such as wealth re-distribution, changes in the structure of the international economy, and cultural adaptation (in the global north).[5] These objectives are much more feasible to undertake than something as dogmatic as “no growth.” Furthermore they refocus the debate on the global north, purveyor of the unsustainable economic paradigms and consumptive patterns that are the root causes of our current predicament.



Obstacles to Sustainable Development


The most formidable obstacle to sustainable development is the reigning global economic model of neoliberal capitalism, as articulated by the “Washington Consensus.” This dogmatism is fundamentally at odds with ecological sustainability and has proven quite inept at poverty alleviation.[6] Preaching deregulation, lower taxes, privatization, market openness, and export-oriented growth, the principal architects of the Washington Consensus include the multilateral economic institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization.


Assuming profound ideological reorientations, the multilateral development banks could have a positive role in the realization of sustainable development. They possess an enormous amount of financial capital as well as detailed data on each of their client countries. Moreover, there are many people employed at these institutions that seem genuinely dedicated to poverty reduction. Unfortunately, as explained by William Finnegan, the sociology of donor bureaucracies and the blinding dogmatism of the Washinton Consensus appear to preclude any sweeping transformations in the orientation of the multilateral development banks any time soon.[7]


Recently the aforementioned multilateral development banks have begun to appropriate the sustainable development discourse. As previously articulated, this poses a serious danger to the future utility of sustainable development, as its definition inevitably becomes diluted when commandeered by actors whose interests conflict with the core tenets of sustainability. Although each bank may engage in a few “pet projects” in sustainable development, their overall mission is still the promulgation of the exploitative Washington Consensus and thus a focused effort is necessary to contest their use and abuse of the sustainable development discourse.


Neoclassical economics is also implicated as an obstruction to sustainable development. A standard market economy favors present exploitation of resources over conservation for future use. Meanwhile, Speth points out that the price of consumer goods typically doesn’t factor in the environmental costs of production, use, and disposal (environmental externalities).[8] This leads to a drastic undervaluing of the true price of resources, increased consumption, and waste. Sustainable development models attempt to correct these market failures by internalizing the environmental costs of production and disposal.



Sustainable development is a not solely an export commodity; in other words environmentalists in industrialized countries should also address the unsustainable aspects of our own societies. Irresponsible consumption is rampant in the United States and threatens the global resource base just as much as abject poverty and overpopulation in the Global South. The WCED articulates how the perceived needs propagated by consumerism differ from essential needs in that they are socially and culturally determined (rather than physically necessary).[9] Perceived needs tend to expand with affluence, and affluence (for some) expands with consumer-driven economic growth. Thus consumerism and perpetual economic growth are inextricably linked, and the cycle must be severed at an individual and societal level in order to progress with the project of sustainable development.


Arturo Escobar, in his book Encountering Development, argues that neoliberal development policies have clandestinely replaced colonialism as the principal means by which industrialized nations exert power and influence over the Third World.[10] All those involved in the sustainable development project, northern environmentalists especially, must be careful, therefore, that their projects do not follow the same fate and become another means of imposing ethnocentric constructions of nature or poverty upon a Global South still struggling against the neo-colonial intentions of the Washington Consensus.

One way to ensure this is to realize that sustainable development necessitates participation by those it most intends to benefit. Moreover, northern consumers ourselves are culpable for egregious violations of sustainability, and much work remains to be done on our side in terms of mediating our ecological “bootprint” and deconstructing the anthropocentrism and contempocentrism embedded in many of our worldviews.[11]

As articulated by James Speth, “The most fundamental transition is the transition in culture and consciousness.”[12]


Achieving Sustainable Development


Despite these formidable obstacles there are a plethora of examples of successful implementation of sustainable development programs. The popularity of fair trade and organic certified foods, considerable growth in the ecotourism industry, and thriving community-based natural resource management schemes in Africa (like CAMPFIRE) provide functional examples from which to draw insights and inspiration. Furthermore, these examples share common actors in their actuation: civil society.


Given the rigid dogmatism that pervades the multilateral lending institutions, and their disproportionate influence on state development policies, it is evident that sustainable development proponents must find alternative channels through which to work. Transnational environmental activist groups (TEAGs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have demonstrated an ability to circumvent the state and effect change by politicizing global civil society.[13] Paul Wapner demonstrates that besides “disseminating an ecological sensibility” through grassroots efforts and global media campaigns, increased transnational civic activism can affect state policies, pressure multinational corporations, and empower local communities.[14] The value for sustainable development of this alternative political channel lies in its relative independence from the traditional restraints imposed by multilateral or domestic state politics. 


Perhaps the least used yet most useful tool available to environmentalists is the discourse of morality. When explicitly incorporated into the discourse of sustainable development, morality can “fold ethical considerations further into international environmental policy debates.”[15] Evoking moral arguments advances the interconnection between environment, development, and social justice that is at the heart of sustainable development.


Pursuing these promising means for achieving sustainable development requires that the core definition is secure from hijacking and manipulation. As often as necessary, environmentalists should rely on the exact diction of the World Commission on Environment and Development as guidance, while drawing inspiration in otherwise foreboding times from the myriad examples of sustainable development all around us. Above all, we can begin with our own lives.







Daly, Herman. “Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Dryzek and Schlosberg, eds. Debating the Earth. Oxford University Press; New York. 


Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development. Princeton University Press; Princeton, NJ. (1994)


Finnegan, William. “The Economics of Empire.” Harper’s Magazine. New York, May 2003.


Speth, James. Red Sky at Morning. Yale University Press; New Haven (2004).


Wapner, Paul. “Politics Beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics,” in Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko, eds. Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Johannesburg. Westview; Boulder (2004).


Wapner, Paul. “Environmental Ethics and Global Governance: Engaging the International Liberal Tradition.” Global Governance, 3. (1997).


World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press; Oxford (1987).

[1] World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press; Oxford (1987). pp. 43.

[2] World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press; Oxford (1987). pp. 44.

[3] ibid.

[4] Daly, Herman. “Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Dryzek and Schlosberg, eds. Debating the Earth. Oxford University Press; New York.  pp. 286.

[5] ibid.

[6] Finnegan, William. “The Economics of Empire.” Harper’s Magazine. New York: May 2003. pp. 7

[7] ibid.

[8] Speth, James. Red Sky at Morning. Yale University Press; New Haven (2004).

[9] World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press; Oxford (1987), pg

[10] Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development. Princeton University Press; Princeton, NJ. (1994)

[11] Speth, James. Red Sky at Morning. Yale University Press; New Haven (2004).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Wapner, Paul. “Politics Beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics,” in Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko, eds. Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Johannesburg. Westview; Boulder (2004). pp. 123

[14] ibid.

[15] Wapner, Paul. “Environmental Ethics and Global Governance: Engaging the International Liberal Tradition.” Global Governance, 3. (1997). pp. 214

Benjamin Goldstein is a Master's candidate at the University for Peace and American University, studying Natural Resources and Sustainable Development.