Show Summary Details

Sections updated and revised substantially to include recent developments and research; updated citations, references, summary, keywords, and title.

Updated on 29 July 2019. The previous version of this content can be found here.
Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, INTERNATIONAL STUDIES (oxfordre.com/internationalstudies). (c) International Studies Association and Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 16 February 2020

Summary and Keywords

Environmental sustainability as a topic in international studies is most often considered in the context of sustainable development, a goal-oriented, normative concept that suggests the need to reconcile the often conflicting goals of economic development, environmental protection, and social progress. The concept of sustainable development begs the question of how to promote human welfare and prosperity (development) without undermining the ecological life-support systems on which all prosperity ultimately must depend (sustainability). More colloquially: How can we live well while living lightly on the Earth? Unfortunately, economic and social “development” to date has too often meant a steady increase of activities that have led to air and water pollution, cleared forests, drained wetlands, obstructed rivers, and other ecosystem disruptions. These material transformations alter the structure and function of ecosystems, often destroying the services that ecosystems provide and routinely renew: clean fresh water, healthy air, fertile soils, and the other basics of habitability. When pollution crosses borders, when natural resource depletion and environmental degradation cause people to migrate for survival, when global climate and the world’s oceans are threatened, then sustainability becomes an international concern and necessarily a focus of international studies. Ultimately, the challenge for international studies scholars studying sustainability is to understand how to create an international system imbued with consideration of ecological interdependence and coevolution, a sense of responsibility to future generations, and a capacity to make informed decisions based on ecological rationality. In order to find our way out of the sustainability conundrum, policies must be designed to improve welfare without increasing energy and material throughput. This means investing human resources into alternatives to consumption, such as innovations in simple living, collective action, nonmaterial personal satisfaction, and needs prevention.

Keywords: sustainability, sustainable development, Sustainable Development Goals, Millennium Development Goals, sufficiency, commons, ecological economics, environmentalism

Access to the complete content on Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. If you are a student or academic complete our librarian recommendation form to recommend the Oxford Research Encyclopedias to your librarians for an institutional free trial.

Please subscribe or login to access full text content.

If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.

For questions on access or troubleshooting, please check our FAQs, and if you can't find the answer there, please contact us.