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date: 19 August 2019

Environmental Sustainability and Sustainable Development

Abstract 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


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. It points out the error in treating human and natural systems as essentially independent of each other (Folke et al., 2002). Human beings as social animals live in groups, in communities. Humans both cooperate and compete in ongoing networks of information, energy, and material exchanges that determine society’s capability to achieve material well-being (Gintis, 2004; Wilk & Cliggett, 2007) and successfully carry out the seven basic challenges of economic life: (1) extracting raw materials from the environment, (2) obtaining sources of energy and applying energy to power production, (3) organizing and matching labor to workload, (4) distributing the goods and services of economic production, (5) storing (or insuring) for periods of scarcity, (6) safely disposing of wastes, and (7) maintaining, expanding, and communicating the knowledge and information needed to carry out the economic functions of community. The many social groupings that have existed on Earth have more or less successfully accomplished these tasks in countless ways. To be sustainable, a society not only must perform these basic functions but also must do so in a continually changing environment. This feedback and adjustment are at the heart of the sustainability challenge. In order to thrive, human communities must be flexible and creative. Information about the environment and human impact on it has to supply feedback in the development process, and adjustments must be made accordingly. Environmental degradation and the inability to adjust to changing conditions played a major role in the collapse of many civilizations in the past (Diamond, 2005; Homer-Dixon, 2006; Tainter, 1998).

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 (Costanza et al., 1997; Daily, 1997; Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, 2003). 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. The challenge of sustainability is how to develop, or improve, the capability of individuals and communities to foster a high quality of life, without undermining the ecological and natural-resource foundations on which all development ultimately depends.

Sustainability and International Studies

Because environmental sustainability is such an integrative, transdisciplinary subject, one could argue that it involves all aspects of international environmental affairs. A thorough treatment of the topic would include a history of international environmental politics, a critical analysis of the role of science and knowledge in environmental protection, the major equity issues of the distribution of environmental costs and benefits, the relationship between globalization and sustainability, how international trade affects the prospects for sustainable development, the relationship between environment and development, and the role of nongovernmental organizations and civil society in envisioning and promoting sustainability. This article focuses on the core issues raised by the concept, the conceptual challenge of reconciling the international responsibilities to foster development and protect the environment, and the implications for international cooperation of committing to sustainable development.

Resources and International Studies

Throughout history, when resources in one place were exhausted or destroyed, people moved on. In doing so, they often encroached on land controlled by others. Resource competition, both violent and peaceful, ensued, as did resource cooperation. Access to resources sometimes resulted from the deliberate encroachment on, and expropriation of, others’ resources, sometimes to the point of imperial conquest. As people learned about distant lands, they became aware of geographical differences in the abundance and availability of resources, which stimulated trade and the recognition of interdependence and increased international cooperation, which all too often broke down and led to wars over wide swathes of the globe. In times both of cooperation and of conflict, the desire for gain often overcame an interest in conservation. As the technologies of transportation improved, trade expanded, and as the technologies of violence improved, it became possible to conquer distant lands and to transport valuable resources, including enslaved and indentured laborers, long distances. This set up centuries of war between competing imperial and commercial powers over the right to exploit the Earth’s wealth-producing natural resources. In the process, it also devastated numerous indigenous societies whose lives and cultures had coevolved with their homeland ecosystems and whose experiences and knowledge might have provided models for sustainability. One such potential model for sustainability is 17th and 18th century Iroquoian polyculture, which yielded higher returns of maize than European wheat yields of the same era (Mt. Pleasant, 2011; Mt. Pleasant & Burt, 2010). Additional scholarship in this area has shown that indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK) can enhance sustainability science through integration (Glasson, Mhango, Phiri, & Lanier, 2010), and that integration is best achieved through indigenous environmental governance (Hill et al., 2012). This is but one example of the relationship between sustainability and international studies, which is broad. Much of the entirety of international studies can be said to be about cooperation, conflict, exploitation, and resistance related to limited and valuable natural resources (Diamond, 1997; Van der Ploeg & Rohner, 2012; Walter, 2011).

Our Common Future and the Future of the Commons

There have been many efforts throughout human history to encourage responsible harvesting of renewable resources, such as timber forests, fish, game, and other natural resources, at rates that do not exceed the rate of renewal—the “sustainable yield”—and it is from this concept that the term sustainable development derives. Despite these efforts, there is also a tendency toward what Garrett Hardin (1968) called the “tragedy of the commons,” the incentive to overexploit shared natural resources, since the economic benefits of taking or using the next unit of a given resource accrue to the individual harvester/user, while the costs of gradual degradation are shared by all users and are spread out over time. Hardin argued that tragedy is inevitable unless systems are in place effectively to govern access to, and use of, common resources. These systems invariably involve rules and rights of access, use, and ownership: property rights, either communal or private. Thus questions of sustainability, management, and environmental protection broadly intersect with issues of the rights to the resources and essential ecosystem services.

Research into common property management regimes throughout the world has revealed that tragic outcomes are not inevitable. Many communities and cultures have adopted a wide variety of rules, customs, norms, and formal laws to regulate the taking and use of valuable common resources, such as fisheries, forests, and pastures, that have been sustained over long periods (Berkes, 1989; Dietz, Ostrom, & Stern, 2003; Ostrom, 1990; Ostrom, Burger, Field, Norgaard, & Policansky, 1999). The study of these successes as well as the failures provides clues for designing institutions for sustainability. In the era of global economic integration and global impacts on climate, oceans, and other commons, questions of the sustainability of resources and ecosystems are being addressed (or not) at the international and global level and have moved toward the center of the international studies agenda. The questions become: why are some resource systems resilient while others are not? What are the key design and practice principles that lead to resilience?

Resilience is a system’s capacity to change and adapt within the continuous flow of development. This concept has been increasingly used as a framework for understanding how to improve and sustain the adaptive capacity of a complex, transforming world (Folke, 2006). If a system is resilient, be it natural or manmade, then it will survive and thrive in the face of political uncertainty and natural disasters (Folke et al., 2002). It will stand in opposition to vulnerable systems that cannot withstand change, especially on a global scale (Patterson, 2013). Strengthening resilience in nature and in society will help efficiently manage the stress of future environmental influences of global climate change. By definition, then, success in making development sustainable means making development resilient. The principles of resilience were the focus of research done by Eleanor Ostrom and her colleagues (Norberg, Wilson, Walker, & Ostrom, 2008) largely through the work of Stockholm Resilience Center. This work has been applied to ecological and business models alike, and the broader principle of resilience has made its way into the United Nation’s post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

Definitions and Logic of Sustainability

A clear, generally agreed definition of sustainability has been elusive, and public understanding of the term is low (Horton & Doron, 2011; Ipsos-MORI, 2012; UK DEFR, 2011). Like many normative concepts in public policy, such as democracy or justice, sustainability is often simpler and potentially more fruitful to characterize by its opposite or its absence: democracy as the opposite of authoritarianism, justice as the opposite of injustice, and sustainability as the opposite of unsustainability, a collection of evidently self-destructive practices. Unsustainable development reflects systematic faults in economic, social, and political dynamics (Martens, 2006).

The logic of sustainable development is one of optimization (as deliberately juxtaposed to maximization) of three interdependent values: a prosperous economy, a clean and healthy natural environment, and a just and peaceful social order, each in the context of the others over the long run (Victor, 2006). Issues of development and issues of environmental protection came together in the context of “international development” in the closing decades of the 20th century with the emphasis on sustainable development (Victor, 2006). As a policy paradigm, sustainable development shifts the terms of debate from traditional environmentalism, with its primary focus on environmental protection, to the notion of sustainability, which requires a more complex reconciliation of economic, social, and environmental priorities (Kates et al., 2001). The dimension of sustainability brings the recognition that development must adhere to the physical constraints imposed by ecosystems, so that environmental considerations have to be embedded in all sectors and policy areas (Carter, 2007, pp. 211–212).

Systems thinking, as developed and popularized by Donella Meadows (2008), among others, has influenced the logic of sustainability and sustainable development by encouraging a focus on the highly complex interactions among social, economic, and ecological systems. The systems paradigm of sustainable development requires consideration of three interwoven factors: social, environmental, and economic. Social development cannot be achieved without economic advancement and, in turn, economic advancement cannot be sustained over time if natural resources are used irresponsibly (Rodrigo, 2015). To move forward, fundamental changes must occur across all three of these areas and result in an overall shift of values, rather than a technical fix (Robinson, 2004). The United Nations’ understanding that environment and development were systematically interdependent eventually led to the convening of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, through which sustainable development became a central concept for understanding and managing international relations.

In the 1987 publication Our Common Future, the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, pointed out that:

We have in the past been concerned about the impacts of economic growth upon the environment. We are now forced to concern ourselves with the impacts of ecological stress—degradation of soils, water regimes, atmosphere, and forests—upon our economic prospects. We have in the more recent past been forced to face up to a sharp increase in economic interdependence among nations. We are now forced to accustom ourselves to an accelerating ecological interdependence among nations. Ecology and economy are becoming ever more interwoven—locally, regionally, nationally and globally—into a seamless net of causes and effects.

(WCED, 1987, p. 5)

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? The sense of urgency derives from scientists’ forecasts suggesting that environmental degradation is already undermining the global development project, and there is far worse to come if trends are not slowed and then reversed.

Critics of the Sustainable Development Paradigm

In international studies, as elsewhere, sustainability skeptics and critics abound. Questions are raised: What is to be sustained, by whom, for whom? The stakes are enormously high. While the value of conserving resources for future availability is largely noncontroversial, the policy options for achieving it are highly disputed. The dominant paradigm of sustainable development lies solidly in the liberal and modernist traditions, which exude a confidence that through more and better information, improved organization, and democratic collaboration, it is possible to address the environmental problems facing humanity while continuing to spread the economic benefits of development (Khalili, 2011b). This dominant paradigm of sustainable development requires consideration of three interwoven factors: social, environmental, and economic. Social development cannot be achieved without economic advancement and, in turn, economic advancement cannot be sustained over time if natural resources are used irresponsibly (Rodrigo, 2015). To move forward, fundamental changes must occur across all three of these areas and result in an overall shift of values, rather than a technical fix (Robinson, 2004). There are a number of reasons to be skeptical about that optimism, cynical about the motives of those who prescribe sustainable development, and wary of the consequences of following those prescriptions. Critics argue that the plethora of definitions of sustainable development has limited the concept’s credibility, called into question its practical applicability, and undermined the real importance of advances achieved so far, and therefore environmental and social progress based on the concept of sustainability has been limited (Johnston, Everard, Dantillo, & Robert, 2007).

While some see the turn toward sustainability rhetoric in international affairs as a welcome recognition of global environmental interdependence, others see in it the further consolidation of power of the few over the many concerning the most important and contentious issues of property, livelihood, and survival (Escobar, 1992, 1995; Guha, 1989). The geographer Michael Redclift (2005), writing in response to the sustainability literature’s tendency to refer to ecological systems in economic parlance as “critical natural capital” (Ekins, 2003; Neumayer, 2012; Pelenc & Ballett, 2015), warns that

We should not lose sight of the fact that natural capital, “critical” or not, is usually owned by individuals, groups or corporate interests. The defence of common property resources in the face of relentless market pressures has been the source of considerable political struggle, much of it intensified since the late 1980s, and the triumph of the neo-liberal agenda in international policy circles.

(Redclift, 2005)

Following the release of Our Common Future (WCED, 1987), the influential report of the World Commission on Environment and Development commissioned by the United Nations General Assembly, and while much of the international development professional community was preparing for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, David Korten (1991), once a leading mainstream development theorist, published a review essay in World Politics on the emerging concept of sustainable development. In it he summarized the mainstream development thought and policy that he considered “almost a modern theology.” According to Korten (1991, p. 159), it had three beliefs:

  • Sustained economic growth is both possible and key to human progress.

  • Integration of the global economy is the key to growth and beneficial to all but a few narrow interests.

  • International assistance and foreign investment are important contributors to alleviating poverty and protecting the environment.

Korten believed this paradigm was coming under increasing challenge based on the environmental and social costs of unbridled growth, primarily because of the undeniable fact that, “Economic growth and progress, as conventionally understood and measured, depended on increasing the flow of physical materials—such as petroleum, minerals, biomass, and water—through the economic system.” He argued, “We have now come to the point at which further advances in human well-being must be achieved without further increasing the economic system’s physical throughput.” The message being broadcast by the environmental trends was that pollution was being loaded into the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, lakes, streams, and soils faster than natural processes could handle them. Truly coming to grips with the possibility that the biosphere’s processing limits had been breached, Korten predicted, would create severe international strain between rich and poor and would fundamentally challenge the development agenda: “The implications of all this for a world in which more than a billion people live in conditions of extreme deprivation are profound.” In a world of limits, the demands of the poor for a piece of the economic pie would inevitably mean that the rich would have to constrain their own growth voluntarily. The way out was clear: “To survive and thrive, greater priority must be given to basic needs, wasteful consumption must be eliminated, and physical resources must be used more efficiently.” Korten could find no evidence that mainstream development thought or practices were up to this task. Since citizens in most wealthy industrialized nations evaluated their government according to its success in promoting economic growth, the only way out seemed to be the prescription offered without irony by the authors of Our Common Future: a call to increase world economic growth to a level five to ten times current (mid-1980s) output. Even more striking, the rich industrial countries were asked to accelerate their own economic growth in order to create increased demand for the raw materials and other exports of poor countries. As Korten pointed out, the Commission had fundamentally contradicted its own analysis that growth and overconsumption are root causes of the problem. Thus, the world’s ruling elites were reassured that the best way to resolve our environmental crisis was for the rich to increase their consumption to prime the growth engine. What the Commission’s own analysis had demonstrated to be the problem suddenly became the solution (Korten, 1991, p. 161).

Others have promoted a “degrowth” movement, based on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s (1971) arguments that economic development policies should include an understanding and consideration of the second law of thermodynamics. Degrowth theorists have criticized the belief that development in practice always means economic growth, and they see no potential for development and sustainability to coexist (Latouche, 2004). Instead, the degrowth movement argues that social well-being can and should be advanced through such nonconsumptive means as volunteer work, eliminating large infrastructure, decentralizing and deepening democracies, creating local currencies, and increasing economic independence in localities (Cater, Garrod, & Low, 2015; Demaria, Schneider, Sekulova, & Martinez-Alier, 2013; Latouche, 2004).

Still others from a politically conservative/market liberal perspective have argued that sustainable development amounts to a move to expand the power of government, particularly over private property rights, suggesting that environmental harms were being exaggerated in an effort to convince individuals and nations to grant expanded powers to the emerging institutions of environmental governance (DeWeese, 2002; Dorn, 2007). To these critics, only an extension of development to the “underdeveloped” portions of the planet and full exploitation of global natural resources could produce the wealth needed to make the transition to more environmentally benign technologies. These critics argued that the sustainable development movement has increasingly focused on environmental conservation and natural resources management without consideration for poverty and urbanization, which, when left unchecked, result in further devastation to ecological and environmental resources (Cobbinah, Erdiaw-Kwasie, & Amoatenga, 2015). The poverty level in Africa is expected to reach 82% by 2030, while at the same time, unprecedented growth in population and urbanization are predicted, and by 2050, the urban population is expected to rise from 400 million to 1.3 billion (Cobbinah et al., 2015). Critics also argue that sustainable development aims to deliver “quick impact” by treating symptoms of underdevelopment, rather than “addressing complex social systems” (Joshi, Hughes, & Sisk, 2015). For evidence, they often cite the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), the postulated inverse U-curve that displays the relationship between per capita income, or other measures of development, and indicators of environmental quality.

The shape of the curve reveals that in the early stages of economic development some measures of pollution tend to increase in direct proportion to measures of development. However, as nations become wealthier, they are able to allocate resources to environmental protection and cleanup, and beyond a threshold, increasing wealth leads to improved environmental metrics. Other studies, critical of the EKC, argue that the relationship may in fact be N-shaped or even a standard U-shape. The evidence for an N-shape curve is strong and has been shown in developed, and more recently in developing, countries, with almost all regions displaying an uptick in environmental destruction (using the Environmental Degradation Index) after a certain GDP per capita threshold (Babu & Datta, 2013). Possible explanations for the uptick include an exhaustion of readily available abatement opportunities and the possible crossing of planetary boundaries beyond which human-induced perturbations threaten a destabilization of large-scale global systems (Steffen et al., 2015). Other studies, using different metrics, have found a U-shaped relationship between environmental intensity of well-being and GDP per capita. These show that growth at first led to an immediate amelioration in sustainability before once again causing an increase in degradation (Dietz, Rosa, & York, 2012). These studies attack the fundamental premise that economic growth will automatically lead to better environmental stewardship.

One key element in understanding the relationship between development and real progress in improving human welfare is to identify the threshold at which the environmental and social “costs” of development begin to exceed the benefits. As Herman Daly (1977) suggested, beyond this point development becomes uneconomic and inefficient in meeting real human needs. Manfred Max-Neef (1995) proposed a “threshold hypothesis” that stated, “For every society there seems to be a period in which economic growth (as conventionally measured) brings about an improvement in the quality of life, but only up to a point—the threshold point—beyond which if there is more economic growth, quality of life may begin to deteriorate.” Identifying such thresholds, if they exist, at the personal, community, national, and global scale, can help inform policies that reduce levels of consumption for those above the threshold and raise them for those below, leading to a broader middle class not far beyond the hypothesized threshold.

Sustainability and the Social and Environmental Sciences

Environmental science and engineering contribute to sustainability in two ways: by analyzing, modeling, and documenting physical changes in the environment that are linked to human activities, and by improving and inventing environmentally benign technologies to reduce the destructive impacts of those activities. Similarly, the social sciences analyze, model, and document the relationship between environmental and social well-being and explore ways to bring about the conditions needed to foster more sustainable patterns of development. Social scientists ask how development affects, and is affected by, the patterns of energy and material flows, and how changes in environment and development affect political communities, the distribution of wealth and power, conflict and collaboration, cultural survival, personal and collective identity, cooperation and conflict, livelihood strategies, patterns of settlement, environmental justice, and the human experience of interacting with the natural world in systems of mutual causality and interdependence. In international studies these questions are addressed in the context of the relations between nations and peoples in an interdependent world. International studies scholars have also studied sustainable development and sustainability as a global discourse needing to be deconstructed to reveal some of the hidden assumptions about the benefits of a history of “development” and “progress” that have yielded neither for large portions, perhaps a majority, of the world’s people (Bannerjee, 2003; Escobar, 1995).

What links the physical and social science approaches to sustainability are shared intellectual objectives: analyzing the environmental impacts of human activities and illuminating causal relationships between patterns of resource use and environmental degradation.

Furthermore, scholars of international studies have imagined social, political, and economic changes that could make sustainable development possible. Key to this objective is to constitute a relationship of mutualism between society, economy, and environment through which human well-being improves without increasing levels of energy and material consumption per capita. Learning how to promote improvement in technology that can stimulate economic growth without negatively affecting the environment is part of the agenda of ecological modernization scholarship (Mol & Sonnenfeld, 2000). The study of consumption patterns and social and political dynamics that affect personal consumption is also essential to any strategies for reducing the impacts of development (Princen, Maniates, & Conca, 2002).

Sustainability objectives are particularly relevant to economics, the study of the allocation of scarce resources among competing uses, because by its very definition the allocation of scarce resources has environmental and natural resource implications (Costanza & Patten, 1995). The literature of environmental sustainability has been emphatic about the need to reinvent the social sciences by reconceptualizing the human economy as a wholly dependent subsystem drawing energy and materials from the environment and returning to the environment the waste products from economic activities (Cairns, 2010; Costanza et al., 2012; Daly & Farley 2004; Griggs et al., 2013; Rees, 2002). This contrasts sharply with the standard model taught in introductory economics classes that pictures the economy as a continuous circular exchange between households and firms, with no inherent environmental limits to its growth (Costanza & Patten, 1995).

Environmental Sustainability and Sustainable DevelopmentClick to view larger

Figure 1. The growing economic subsystem is wholly contained within the nongrowing biosphere.

Source: Rees (2002, p. 259).

With this insight in place, economic development is necessarily eventually confronted with two sets of limits: sources and sinks, limited supplies of nonrenewable resources and limited environmental capacity to receive wastes. Limits to growth in turn greatly exacerbate the issues of fairness in the distribution and use of limited resources and have the potential to greatly increase tension between the rich and the poor worldwide (Munda, 1997). One of the first attempts to model unsustainable trends suggested by the increasing global demand for a limited supply of resources was the Club of Rome report in 1972 (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972). As Michael Redclift (2005, p. 3) wrote, “Far from taking us away from issues of distributive politics, and political economy, a concern with sustainable development inevitably raises such issues more forcefully than ever.” The stated objective of international development—the gradual improvement of global living standards—requires either redistribution of wealth and its associated access to resources or continuing economic growth. Facing this interrelated biophysical and political reality, the challenge of a nongrowing finite ecosphere within which the economic subsystem is embedded necessarily becomes an intellectual challenge for international studies.

Sustainability and Indigenous Peoples

Since the 1970s, indigenous peoples have had a significant and growing influence on sustainability discourse and practices (Jentoft, Minde, & Nilsen, 2003; Simmons, 2013; Subramanian & Pisupati, 2010). Indigenous peoples who have persevered and preserved their cultural values, worldviews, stories, and ceremonies against centuries of efforts to eliminate, remove, or marginalize them are natural models of sustainability. In many ways, the movements for sustainability and sustainable development are about learning how to live well while living lightly on the Earth and redefining what a good life entails. Many indigenous speakers and writers have noted a common cultural pattern marked by the importance of giving thanks for the gifts of creation, and a recognition that human well-being is dependent on the well-being of nature (Kimmerer, 2013; Nelson, 2008).

The knowledge gained from long and active dependence on local plants, soil, animals, weather patterns, and other resources is often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The value of TEK is recognized by both natural and social scientists as a significant contribution to understanding and managing such diverse issues as biodiversity protection and conservation (Drew & Henne, 2006; Posey & Balick, 2006), fisheries and wildlife management (Berkes, 2015; Berkes, Colding, & Folk, 2000; Jackson et al., 2014), climate change studies (Nakashima, 2012), water resources management (Capistrano & Charles, 2012; Jackson, 2005), and agriculture and agroforestry (Schroth, 2004). Worldwide indigenous political and cultural activism has had growing influence on international development (Sillitoe, 2007), human rights (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007), and environmental policy frameworks and institutions (Beier, 2009; Ryser, 2012), including the United Nations (Subramanian & Pisupati, 2010) and World Bank. Ecuador and Bolivia, following the indigenous traditions of a large portion of their populations, have written provisions for the rights of nature (Mother Earth) into their constitutions (Manno & Martin, 2015). Trends indicate that the influence of indigenous peoples and other land-based cultures on sustainability discourse and practice will continue to grow.

Soft and Hard Energy Paths

One important link between the physical and social sciences is the study of the social and political implications of the growing use of, and dependence on, fossil fuel—coal, oil, and gas—for power development. The first publication to win the Sprout Award, given by the Environmental Section of the International Studies Association to the best book in the study of international environmental problems, was not a book but an influential 1976 article in Foreign Affairs by a young physicist, Amory Lovins. The piece─titled “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?”─outlined two contrasting “hard” and “soft” energy paths that the United States might follow. The hard energy path included rapid growth in energy demand and expansion of large-scale, centralized, coal, oil, gas, and nuclear electricity production facilities that were, he illustrated, inherently wasteful. The soft path relied on decentralized and diverse energy projects designed to meet specific local needs, and a technological and social commitment to conservation. Lovins argued that the hard path inevitably “pits central authority against local autonomy” (Lovins, 1976, p. 92). He described a decentralized, alternative energy path that he argued would mean less economic growth but more personal liberty and community independence. The soft energy path was a libertarian vision based on lifestyles of “elegant frugality.” The values required to sustain such a life were “thrift, simplicity, diversity, neighborliness, humility, and craftsmanship.” “Energy choices,” he wrote, “are real but tacit choices of values” (Lovins, 1976, p. 94). Lovins described how much energy is wasted on things that are reported as the benefits of affluence but turn out to be “remedial costs, incurred in the pursuit of benefits that might be obtainable in other ways without those costs. Thus much of our prized personal mobility is really involuntary traffic made necessary by the settlement patterns, which cars create.” “Is that traffic a cost or a benefit?” he asked.

There were clear international implications of the world’s most powerful nation’s planning a future of vastly increased consumption of what would eventually become scarce energy resources, made scarce either by actual energy shortages, by decline in energy quality, by decreases on energy returns on energy invested in finding and developing new energy sources, or by consumption limits required to avert climate change. The hard, unsustainable path would inevitably lead to the diffusion of nuclear technology and nuclear proliferation, with its inevitable expansion of the global security apparatus, with its high-energy costs and threats to liberty. Lovins (1976, p. XI) insisted that choosing between the two paths was necessary now. “Delay in energy conservation,” he wrote, “lets wasteful use run on so far that the logistical problems of catching up become insuperable. Delay in widely deploying diverse soft technologies pushes them so far into the future that there is no longer any credible fossil-fuel bridge to them; they must be well underway before the worst of the oil-and-gas decline,” the coming of so-called “peak oil.” A choice needed to be made. Each path effectively precluded the other.

Lovins laid out the essentials of what would be the intellectual challenge of sustainability/sufficiency for the next three decades: how to imagine a plausible set of social and economic circumstances that could yield a decent life on significantly less energy and material consumption and environmental disruption. But after the worst of the energy crises of the 1970s passed, advances in labor productivity, energy efficiency, and waste management made it possible to assume that economic growth accompanied by ever-expanding energy and material throughput could continue long into the future. Lovins’ vision of a decentralized, community-centered, soft energy path received serious attention during the energy crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s, passed into history, then re-emerged in the 1990s in the challenge of sustainable development and, even more urgently, in the need to confront the greenhouse effect and global climate change, which seemed to require a fundamental redesign of the patterns of energy and material resource consumption.

This call for redesign continued throughout the first two decades of the 21st century as the negative implications of hard path, highly commoditized energy systems emerged around the globe in the form of massive migrations in South Asia from hydroelectric projects (Jackson & Sleigh, 2000), nuclear destabilization in Japan from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster (Thomas, 2012), war in Iraq (Stiglitz, 2008; Tamminen, 2012), and security implications of cross-boundary reliance on imported fossil fuels (Victor & Yueh, 2010).

In the aftermath of these events and others, social movements have emerged to promote and accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels and forms of “extreme extraction,” such as large-scale mining of bitumen from tar sands (Fix, 2014), deep sea and Arctic drilling, and hydraulic fracturing of shale rock to access tightly bound reserves of natural gas (Princen, Manno, & Martin, 2013). At the same time, others are supporting alternative energy, such as distributed solar, wind, and geothermal, in order to deliberately hasten the ending of fossil fuel (Princen, Manno, & Martin, 2015).

Rapid changes in the photovoltaic industry since 2005 have dramatically transformed the competitive landscape of the energy industry, leading to exponential growth in installed capacity (Bradford, 2014). In response to the new widespread availability of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, governments are looking to implement regulations that support these new systems (Poudineh & Jamasb, 2014). This allows technological leapfrogging of energy providers in development across the world from new urban areas in China (Schroeder & Chapman, 2014) to sub-Saharan Africa (Amankwah-Amoah, 2015).

Amory Lovins (2012) again appeared in Foreign Affairs with a paper titled “A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge,” in which he highlights the decreasing amount of energy the U.S. economy requires to produce $1 of GDP, an indicator of increasing energy efficiency. In his 1976 piece for Foreign Affairs, Lovins had predicted that the “energy intensity” of the economy could fall by two thirds by 2025. Giving credit to market forces, Lovins noted that by 2010 the measure of energy intensity of the U.S. economy had declined by half.

Modern Origins of the International Movement for Sustainable Development

In 1967, the government of Sweden proposed that the United Nations General Assembly convene a conference on the environment, and this eventually became the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE). The conference facilitated the creation of international professional networks of environmental experts and interest groups. It was the first major global environmental meeting arranged by the United Nations (Egelston, 2013; Seyfang, 2003). For the first time, at the highest global political level, the relationship between human civilization and the surrounding biosphere was addressed. UNCHE led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, 1972) to coordinate environmental activities of other UN agencies and to promote the integration of environmental considerations into their work (DeSombre, 2010; Greene, 2001). UNCHE recognized the human right to live in an environment consistent with dignity and well-being (Egelston, 2013; Lallas, 2001). Much national legislation on the environment followed, and the environment began to rise on regional and national agendas (Clarke & Timberlake, 1982).

In World Conservation Strategy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted, “Development and conservation operate in the same global context, and the underlying problems that must be overcome if either is to be successful are identical” (IUCN, 1980). IUCN introduced a strategy it called “Toward Sustainable Development.” From this milieu of global environment and development professionals, the concept of “sustainable development” coalesced. The Stockholm conference was a milestone for international environmentalism and sustainable development diplomacy that increased international awareness and eventually led to a shift to the paradigm of sustainability and sustainable development. It framed two of the core debates that came to dominate international environmental politics: disagreements over the relationship between environment and development, and governmental resistance to pressures over natural resources and ecosystems (Conca, 1995).

The Concept Expands

The sustainable development concept eventually became a code word and a rhetorical tool for introducing environmental considerations into international politics. In the closing decades of the 20th century, sustainable development became a normative goal, widely accepted, if not necessarily implemented (Hick, Parks, Roberts, & Tierney, 2008), by a broad range of practitioners in the field and institutions of “international development.” The idea was to infuse “development” with an ethic of responsibility toward the environment and future generations. The ethical claims were mostly made on the basis of scientific evidence suggesting that natural resource depletion and the planetary accumulation of emissions in the atmosphere, most notably carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, were reaching proportions that could eventually, perhaps soon, fundamentally undermine the international development project by leading to less habitable environments in many places globally.

Sustainable development’s focus on humanity as a whole implies changing the perspective from an individual to a collective driver in decision-making (Bolis, Morioka, & Sznelwar, 2014). It requires perceiving the world as an integrated and interconnected system and necessitates consideration of future generations (Rudawska, 2013). Because the challenges of sustainable development have to be solved by participating countries’ agreeing to particular objectives on the global scale (Auzins & Vanags, 2012), it is paramount that sustainable development be observable and measurable. To that end, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) approved its Work Program on Indicators of Sustainable Development in 1995 (UN, 2007). The CSD indicator themes developed in 2007 are shown in Table 1. They include 50 core indicators under 14 main themes that cover a broad range of issues intrinsic to all pillars of sustainable development—economic development, social development, and environmental protection (UN, 2007).

Table 1. CSD Indicator Themes of Sustainable Development




Income poverty, income inequality, sanitation, drinking water, access to energy, living conditions


Corruption, crime


Mortality, healthcare delivery, nutritional status, health status and risks


Education level, literacy


Population, tourism

Natural hazards

Vulnerability to natural hazards, disaster preparedness and response


Climate change, ozone layer depletion, air quality


Land use and status, desertification, agriculture, forests

Oceans, seas, and coasts

Coastal zone, fisheries, marine environment

Fresh water

Water quantity, water quality


Ecosystem, species

Economic development

Macroeconomic performance, sustainable public finance, employment, information and communication technologies, research and development Tourism

Global economic partnership

Trade, external financing

Consumption and production patterns

Material consumption, energy use, waste generation and management, transportation

Source: United Nations (2007), pp. 10–14.

The joint United Nations Economic Commission for Europe/Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/Statistical Office of the European Communities (UNECE/OECD/Eurostat) Working Group on Statistics for Sustainable Development (2009) also proposed a set of sustainable development indicators with the concept of capital at its center (Table 2). Besides these two sets of UN-developed indicators, there are also non-UN-developed indicators, such as the Environmental Sustainability Index, the Environmental Performance Index, and the Ecological Footprint (Dahl, 2012).

Table 2. A Proposed Small Set of Sustainable Development Indicators

Indicator Domain

Stock Indicators

Flow Indicators

Foundational well-being

Health-adjusted life expectancy

Index of changes in age-specific mortality and morbidity

Percentage of population with postsecondary education

Enrollment in postsecondary education

Temperature deviations from normal

Greenhouse gas emissions

Ground-level ozone and fine-particulate concentration

Smog-forming pollutant emissions

Quality-adjusted water availability

Nutrient loadings to water bodies

Fragmentation of natural habitats

Conversion of natural habitats to other uses

Economic well-being

Real per capita net foreign financial asset holdings

Real per capita investment in foreign financial assets

Real per capita produced capital

Real per capita net investment in produced capital

Real per capita human capital

Real per capita net investment in human capital

Real per capita natural capital

Real per capita net depletion of natural capital

Reserves of energy resources

Depletion of energy resources

Reserves of mineral resources

Depletion of mineral resources

Timber resource stocks

Depletion of timber resources

Marine resource stocks

Depletion of marine resources

Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (2009, pp. 10–11).

The Ecological Footprint was introduced by Mathias Wackernagel and William Rees (1996). This tool relates urban resource consumption and waste production with ecosystem productivity (Rees, 1992), and it has been accessed online by millions of unique users (Global Footprint Network, 2014).

The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) attempted to measure global progress toward sustainability (Esty, Levy, Srebotnjak, & De Sherbinin, 2005). The Environmental Performance Index (EPI), the successor to the ESI, ranks countries’ performance on environmental issues (Hsu et al., 2016). The EPI uses indicators like carbon emissions, water quality, pesticide regulation, and habitat loss to measure a country’s proximity to international goals (Hsu et al., 2016).

Each of these indicators could benefit the countries that need conceptual guidance on the measurement of sustainable development, and they could provide references for the policymaking process. Still, there have been critics: Gordon and Richardson (1998) noted that the Ecological Footprint does not account for differing rates of technological change, and that the footprint of small countries with large populations is often larger than that of larger countries, even if per capita consumption is equivalent. Mori and Christodoulou (2012) suggested that the ESI and EPI disproportionately favor developed countries because of their increased capacity to control environmental health risks.

Brundtland Commission and the Earth Summit

The term sustainable development became a way of talking about the need to consider the environmental consequences of economic development and to find alternative, environmentally benign, economic development paths. It became a normative goal, widely accepted in concept if not yet in practice (Hick et al., 2008). There appeared to be an ethical requirement bolstered by growing scientific evidence of widespread depletion of key natural resources, of air and water pollution, and of dangerous levels of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that threatened to undermine development efforts worldwide, by increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters.

Facing the need for a roadmap to sustainability, the United Nations General Assembly established the World Commission on Environment and Development, which also came to be known as the Brundtland Commission, after its Chairwoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former President of Norway. In its influential report, Our Common Future (WCED, 1987), the Commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This remains one of the most often quoted definitions (United Nations, 2013).

Our Common Future not only supplied a definition of sustainable development, but also suggested that environmental peril creates an urgent imperative for international cooperation just when the world’s people had acquired an important visual metaphor of our global interdependence. “In the middle of the 20th century,” the commissioners wrote, “we saw our planet from space for the first time.” The message of that image was, according to the Commission, that the Earth is one, but the world is not. “We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives,” they wrote, “yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others.”

The Brundtland Commission report focused on two interrelated but contradictory features of unsustainable patterns of development. At its worldwide fact-finding public meetings, the Commission learned how both poverty and wealth result in wasteful, inefficient utilization of resources. On the one hand, poverty was associated with a lack of convenient and reliable sources of electricity for refrigeration and sanitation, with poor educational opportunities, with lack of modern efficient public transportation, and so on. On the other hand, economic progress was resulting in steady increases in traffic, travel, electricity, and all forms of personal consumption. The Commission promoted sustainable development that would increase the incomes of the poor via economic growth while simultaneously reducing the impacts of consumption by rich countries through adoption of sustainable lifestyle changes and greater efficiency. Our Common Future concluded that 20th-century progress in reducing poverty worldwide was threatened by several interrelated environmental crises, including global climate change, loss of biodiversity, degradation of natural resources, and widespread toxic chemical pollution (UNEP, 2011).

Our Common Future revealed many of the internal contradictions that would haunt advocates of sustainable development. Although the report was billed as a major challenge to conventional development practice and purported to integrate environment and development concerns, many of its conclusions reaffirmed the fundamental premises of conventional development thought, in particular the primary emphasis on economic development as the solution while neglecting issues of distributive justice or limits to economic growth. The Brundtland Commission’s key recommendations—a call for the world’s total economic output to grow at a rate five to ten times the then-current output and for accelerated growth in the wealthy countries to stimulate their economies in order to increase demand for goods imported from poor countries—fundamentally contradicted its own analysis that growth and overconsumption are root causes of the unsustainability problem (Korten, 1991).

Following the release of the Our Common Future, the United Nations undertook plans for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the Earth Summit), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The UNCED conference was the largest gathering of heads of states in one place up until that time. It also sprouted an official nongovernmental gathering known as the Global Forum, which nearly 20,000 people attended and in which 1600 organizations actively participated. One outcome from UNCED was Agenda 21, a comprehensive global plan for achieving sustainable development in the 21st century. It also produced a statement of principles, the Rio Declaration, and the architecture of “framework agreements” on biodiversity and climate; the latter produced the Kyoto Protocol, the first agreement to establish binding commitments for the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These documents incorporate numerous references to indigenous ways of knowing, or TEK, including in Chapter 26 of Agenda 21, Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration, and the Preamble and Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (Inglis, 1993). These nonbinding statements, or soft laws, urge states to recognize the “vital role” of indigenous peoples, and to “duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development” (Mauro & Hardison, 2000).

The North/South Divide and Prospects for International Cooperation on Sustainability

While the threat of environmental and climate catastrophe creates motivation for global cooperation on issues of sustainability and sustainable development, the so-called North/South divide makes international effective cooperation difficult to achieve. The threatened imposition of environmental standards by international agencies to lower pollution in countries in their early stages of industrial development was greeted as a badly disguised means of preserving huge global economic inequality. If the North had achieved its developed status via industrialization, and its concomitant pollution, why should something different be expected of the South? Issues arose concerning who’s responsible for most of the global environmental problems and who should take the costly steps to address them. Thus far, issues of attribution of responsibility and disproportionate capability to invest in sustainable technologies have generally hampered global collaboration. A 2008 study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University concluded that “roughly 30 percent” of the world’s wealth is found in the North American, European, and the rich Asian-Pacific countries, which accounts for 90 percent of the world’s wealth. Half of the world’s population holds 1 percent of global wealth (Davies, Sandström, Shorrocks, & Wolff, 2008).

The reluctance of the South does not imply that the dynamic relationships between poverty and other aspects of underdevelopment and environmental degradation were not perceived or taken seriously in the South. A great many environmental concerns, including depletion of fresh water and other resources, deforestation, and atmospheric pollution, were seen as serious threats to improving the overall quality of life. Yet other issues stressed in the North, such as ozone depletion, hazardous waste pollution, and global warming, were seen by many southern participants as historical products of industrialization as well as overconsumption in the North. If northern governments now wanted the active partnership of the South in redressing these problems, the South insisted that its participation could not come at the expense of its own development. In exchange for southern participation, northern donor governments would have to make available additional financial and technical resources. There was ample incentive for such sacrifice, the South argued, because as deforestation, industrial pollution, desertification, and other environmentally degrading conditions continued to intensify within southern societies, they loomed as ominous threats to overall global security (Hurrell & Sengupta, 2012).

Our Common Future had pointed out that the rich industrialized countries had benefitted most from the industrial and energy practices that had caused the global crises and it was the poor countries that were least capable of adapting to negative changes. The willingness of northern countries to permit developing countries to have a relatively long grace period before being required to comply with ozone and climate conventions reflected the general acceptance that poor countries had relatively little responsibility for those problems. But this was rarely accompanied by commitments from the rich countries of the North to rapidly increase and fund significant reductions in their own environmental footprints (Rees, 1992) in order to reserve space for growth of the environmental footprints of the poor countries of the South (Porter & Brown, 1996, pp. 112–114; Rice, 2007).

Rio+10, Rio+20, and the Sustainable Development Goals

A decade after the Earth Summit, a follow-up conference was held in Johannesburg that came to be known as Rio+10, and another decade later came Rio+20. While these conferences highlighted many successes in reducing poverty and improving local environmental conditions (Ivanova, 2012), the successes have not been accompanied by progress in reversing or even slowing the major trends of the global environmental crises (Ivanova, 2012). Because of this, the challenge for international studies scholars interested in sustainability is to theorize these failings, identify reasons for the successes that have occurred, and improve understanding of prospects for the emergence of significant reforms internationally in the direction of sustainability and sustainable development.

There is considerable reason to believe that failures of the global sustainable development initiatives of the early 1990s and 2000s are directly related to the contradictions that were inherent in the sustainability debate from the beginning. Poverty alleviation and environmental protection were both considered necessary for sustainable development. The obvious remedies for poverty are either redistribution, which was not on the table, or economic growth. “If large parts of the developing world are to avert economic, social and environmental catastrophes, it is essential that global economic growth be revitalized,” the Brundtland Commission opined. Yet many believed that the existing level of energy and material throughput associated with economic activity exceeded what the global ecosystem could sustain. The negotiators of the international agreements that came out of the many large environmental summits broadly failed to face this conundrum. The Brundtland Commission’s key recommendation, which called for a five- to tenfold increase in output in industrialized countries to stimulate demand for the exports of developing countries, starkly contradicted the report’s argument that growth and overconsumption were already unsustainable. As Korten (1991, p. 161) put it at the time, “What the commission’s own analysis had demonstrated to be the problem suddenly became the solution.”

To Rees (2002), the logical inconsistency derives from the fact that even though the Brundtland Commission was able to document the relationship between economic growth and environmental decline, it was unable to conceive of the economy in any other way than through the familiar lens that treats it conceptually as an “independent, self-regulating, and self-sustaining system whose productivity and growth are not seriously constrained by the environment.” To Rees, this is a myth used to justify neoliberal economic ideology. Rees argued,

extreme “free-market” thinking as applied by international agencies and many governments actually perverts sound economics. Sound economic theory would, indeed, have us maximize welfare but recognizes that production/consumption is only one factor in the equation. A healthy environment, natural beauty, stable communities, safe neighborhoods, economic security, social justice, a sense of belonging, and countless other life qualities contribute to human well-being. Thus, to the extent that people value any of these public goods more than they might value their next unit of material consumption, forgoing additional production/income growth to obtain these goods (e.g., through taxation and other means of income redistribution) would actually be sound economics—it would increase net social welfare.

(Rees, 2002, p. 253)

By the beginning of the 21st century, the international development community had largely turned its attention to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), officially adopted by the United Nations in 2000. The MDG included eight major goals, each with targets to be achieved by 2020. By 2015, the United Nations had celebrated success in meeting several targets ahead of schedule. The world had dramatically reduced the percentage of people living in extreme poverty by half. Malaria and tuberculosis cases had been reduced and were on target to meet goals by 2020. Goals focused on the availability of education for girls showed dramatic improvements. Goal Seven was “Ensure environmental sustainability.” Despite successes in many of the MDGs, there was little progress and much decline. While the extent of protected ecosystems increased, pressure on other forested areas from the expansion of urban areas and industrial-scale agriculture intensified. In coastal marine areas, the same pattern occurred: a major increase in protected areas and intensification of exploitation elsewhere. The results were increases across the board in the number of plant and animal species in decline and those moving rapidly toward extinction. Similarly, despite improvements in energy efficiency and significant increases in the availability of wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources, global emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere rose by nearly 50%, mostly attributed to the increasing energy consumption and rapid industrialization in the global South. As the United Nations celebrated the many successes of the MDG, it was apparent that, while many development goals were met, sustainability was not among them. In response, the United Nations follow-up to the MDG, and the 20th anniversary meeting of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development known as Rio+20 began a process to establish post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Member states agreed that these goals must be based on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan, must focus on areas for achievement of sustainable development, and must be consistent with the objectives set forth by the MDGs ( An open working group was established by the United Nations General Assembly and was assigned the responsibility of preparing the SDGs for the 68th General Assembly. The SDGs are comprised of 17 goals that embody six essential principles: dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet, and people (Figure 2). The goals cite poverty eradication, promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting and managing the social and economic natural resource base as the overarching goals of sustainable development (United Nations, 2014). The SDGs are socially oriented and emphasize that the means through which nations choose to attain the standards should always take into account equity and social welfare. Therefore, economic growth, social development, and environmental protection should be inclusive and benefit all groups of people. The driving force for implementing the goals will be the national governments, along with relevant stakeholder groups (Griggs et al., 2013).

Environmental Sustainability and Sustainable DevelopmentClick to view larger

Figure 2. Six essential principles of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Source: The United Nations (2014).

Table 3. Sustainable Development Goals

  1. 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

  2. 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

  3. 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, at all ages

  4. 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

  5. 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

  6. 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

  7. 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all

  8. 8. Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

  9. 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation

  10. 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

  11. 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable

  12. 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

  13. 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

  14. 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development

  15. 15. Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss

  16. 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels

  17. 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Source: United Nations (2014).

The political prospects for effective international collaboration in the implementation of the SDGs hinge on the political nature of the United Nations generally, as conflicts between states tend to be driven primarily by their own immediate interests, rather than long-term and abstract principles like justice (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2010). The United Nations is, in this sense, a “political organization caught in the struggle to make public policy through the exercise of power” (Weiss et al., 2010, p. xi). This reflects a larger existential challenge faced by the United Nations, which affects sustainable development. One example of this is manifest in the United Nation’s level of international supervision of sustainable development, which has not matched that of other initiatives, such as human rights (Weiss et al., 2010, p. 361).

Yet one of the successes of sustainable development has been its ability to serve as a grand compromise between those who are principally concerned with nature and environment, those who value economic development, and those who are dedicated to improving the human condition. At the core of this compromise is the inseparability of environment and development described by the World Commission on Environment and Development. Thus, much of what is described as sustainable development in practice consists of negotiations in which workable compromises are found that address the environmental, economic, and human development objectives of competing interest groups. Indeed, this is why so many definitions of sustainable development include statements about open and democratic decision-making (Kates, Parris, & Leiserowitz, 2005).

A Way Out

A way out of the sustainability conundrum is through policies designed to improve welfare without increasing energy and material throughput (Figure 3). The policies include investing human resources into alternatives to consumption, such as innovations in simple living, collective action, nonmaterial personal satisfaction, and needs prevention, just as healthcare costs are reduced by healthier diets and exercise, transportation costs are reduced by clustering housing and workplaces, and fertilizer costs are reduced by recycling soil nutrients. These approaches harken to Princen’s (2005) case studies that demonstrate how the logic of sufficiency can lead to improved human welfare at lower environmental costs.

Environmental Sustainability and Sustainable DevelopmentClick to view larger

Figure 3. The sustainability/sufficiency policy wedge (Princen, 2005).

Daly and Farley (2004) have argued that the sustainable development debate begins when, as a result of population and economic growth, humanity finds itself adjusting to no longer living in an “empty world” where most environmental goods and services cannot be considered scarce and therefore are not subjected to allocation policies. In a “full world,” however, environmental policies are needed to achieve three goals: sustainable scale, just distribution, and efficient allocation.

Many policies try to prevent the level of some substance, such as PCBs or DDT, from accumulating to a scale where health is endangered. Attempts to regulate greenhouse emissions follow the same logic. For sustainable development, mechanisms are needed to find a sufficient and safe level, a sustainable scale, for a wide range of the byproducts of economic activity. Policies include direct regulation and limitations on use similar to catch limits, taxes and subsidies that create incentives for conservation, cap and trade systems with tradable permits, and direct public investment in pollution abatement.

To achieve sustainable development, three issues related to distribution and fairness are important: (1) ensuring that environmental resources are not squandered by the present generation to the detriment of our descendants (Caro, Darwin, Forrester, Ledoux Bloom, & Wells, 2012); (2) ensuring that resources are not used irresponsibly by the well-off and do not become unavailable to meet the needs of the poor (Stocking, 2014); and (3) ensuring that the poor are no longer driven to deplete local resources just to meet basic survival needs (Huang & Rust, 2011). Policy tools can include setting minimum income levels, progressive taxation, broadening stock ownership, ending perverse subsidies, charges and payments for ecosystem services with revenues broadly distributed or directed toward the poor, international tax on currency exchange and speculation, and land taxation.

The second type of definition is quantitative, implying a clear threshold of acceptability: Do we have enough food for the day? Is the rainfall this Spring sufficient to allow the crops to grow to harvest? Is the supply from x power stations sufficient to meet national demand, without needing to import electricity? Is 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere sufficiently low to prevent runaway global warming from occurring? Quantitative sufficiency thus implies “floors” (enough for a necessary purpose) and “ceilings” (too much for safety or welfare, in the short or long term). It is more objective in nature, using absolute points of reference (Darby, 2007).

Neither pro-poor development nor restraint on consumption by the affluent, both required by the logic of sufficiency, can be based on the logic of economic efficiency alone. A case can be made for a type of efficiency called consumption efficiency, measured by the amount of well-being or welfare produced per unit of energy and material resources consumed (Manno, 2002), based on the same logic that reveals a unit of food calories has much more utility for a hungry person than a full one and, in fact, beyond a reasonable threshold, the utility of more food for a hungry person turns negative.

Princen (2005) argued that we need to create channels of communication through which ecological signals can reach economic decision makers in a fashion that allows adaptation to a changing environment. Such channels are a prerequisite for creating systems of economic cooperation based on what Princen called ecological rationality. Understanding how to create an international system imbued with an understanding of ecological interdependence and coevolution, a sense of responsibility to future generations, and a capacity to make informed decisions based on ecological rationality has become a major intellectual challenge for international studies scholars studying sustainability and sustainable development.

A quick Internet search using the keywords sustainable development and sustainability yielded over 46 million and 117 million websites, respectively. The following are recommended as sources of additional and updated information on sustainability and sustainable development.

Encyclopedia of Earth is a free, searchable electronic reference on all things related to the Earth, its natural environments, and their interaction with society. It has multiple articles under headings related to sustainable development and sustainability, with excellent links to the biophysical background needed to grapple with sustainability concepts. The e-encyclopedia is a project of the U.S. National Council for Science and the Environment.

Sustainability at the National Academies is provided by the U.S. National Academies of Science and Engineering’s Science and Technology for Sustainability Program. The website reports mostly on their ongoing programs, including Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability, Network for Emerging Leaders in Sustainability (NELS), and Partnerships for Sustainability: Examining the Evidence.

Forum on Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the international Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability. It is a great source for key documents and other, mostly science-based, articles on sustainability.

Journal of Sustainable Development (JSD) is an international, double-blind peer-reviewed, open-access journal published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education. JSD carries original and full-length articles that reflect the latest research and developments in both theoretical and practical aspects of environment, economics, and society with sustainability. It provides an academic platform for professionals and researchers to contribute innovative work in the field.

Sustainability is an international, cross-disciplinary, scholarly, and open-access journal of environmental, cultural, economic, and social sustainability of human beings. Sustainability provides an advanced forum for studies related to sustainability and sustainable development, and it is published monthly online by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI).

European Sustainable Development Network is a network of practitioners and experts in sustainable development strategies in Europe.

Third World Network is a Malaysia-based network of organizations and individuals formed in 1984 to promote the rights of peoples in the global South, a fair distribution of world resources, and forms of development that are ecologically sustainable and fulfill human needs. The Network publishes the monthly journal Resurgence.

Millennium Development Goals: Goal 7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability is a website that promotes and supports Goal 7 of the MDG, which was set in 2000 through the United Nations Millennium Declaration.

The United Nations Secretary-General provided an advance, unedited version of the synthesis report on the post-2015 development agenda to the United Nations member states. The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet outlines a vision for member states to consider carrying forward in negotiations leading up to the UN Special Summit on Sustainable Development.

United Nations Development Programme: Human Development Reports are annual reports on the Human Development Index, an important measure of development. Each year’s report focuses on a theme. The most recent report is Human Development Report 2015: Work for Human Development.

Environmental Performance Index is an initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) of Columbia University, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. The Index provides indicators of environmental stresses and ecosystem conditions for 149 countries.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division of Sustainable Development. The Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) provides information on the follow-up projects from the United Nations conferences on environment and development and the work of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).

International Institute for Sustainable Development is a Canada-based sustainable development think tank established in 1990. It monitors the many sustainability-related international negotiations and assists NGOs in influencing their outcomes.

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development focuses on sustainability in the context of international trade.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a membership association of 200 global companies to promote sustainable business practices. It formed in advance of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

Global Footprint Network focuses on measuring human impact on the Earth and disseminating information about these measures, particularly the Ecological Footprint.

Sustainability Institute is a research and education institute founded by Donella Meadows, lead author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits. It focuses on identifying the root causes of unsustainability to help shift society toward sustainability.

Sustainability Program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development provides access to research and activities related to urban sustainability and the built environment; water and ecosystem services; energy, biofuels, and climate change; and materials management and human health.

Local Governments for Sustainability is an international association of 1,082 local governments that was formed to share information about local sustainable development efforts.

Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is an association of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada that promotes sustainability in higher education.

Second Nature: Education for Sustainability serves and supports college and university leaders to promote sustainability as the foundation of learning and practice in higher education.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is a site that reviews the 17 goals of the Sustainable Development Agenda, including related statistics, current events, and avenues for action related to each goal.

C40 networks cities across the globe in addressing climate change. It provides support for collaboration, sharing knowledge, and pushing for sustainable climate-change action.

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks nations on their success in two major environmental areas: protecting human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems. EPI’s annual reports include national and global trends in meeting the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and can alert policymakers to areas in need of improvement.

The World Resources Institute is a global research institute that works to support leaders in providing avenues for addressing issues of environmental sustainability. The institute operates internationally and focuses on promoting change in the governmental, financial, and business sectors.


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