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date: 26 January 2020

Environmental Sustainability/Sufficiency

Summary and Keywords

Environmental sustainability is most often discussed in the context of “sustainable development,” a goal-oriented, normative concept that emphasizes the need to reconcile the often conflicting goals of economic development, environmental protection, and social progress. Despite various efforts throughout human history to encourage responsible harvesting of renewable resources such as timber forests, fish, and game, at rates that do not exceed the so-called “sustainable yield,” there is a tendency toward the “tragedy of the commons”—the incentive to overexploit shared natural resources. 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. This essay also outlines two contrasting energy paths that the United States might follow: the hard energy path, which included rapid growth in energy demand and expansion of large-scale, centralized coal, oil and gas, and nuclear electricity production facilities that were inherently wasteful; and the soft energy path, which relied on decentralized and diverse energy projects designed to meet specific local needs, and a technological and social commitment to conservation. It also discusses policies designed to improve welfare without increasing energy and material throughput—such as investing human resources into alternatives to consumption; for example, innovations in simple living, collective action, nonmaterial personal satisfaction, and needs prevention. These approaches draw from case studies that demonstrate how the logic of sufficiency can lead to improved human welfare at lower environmental costs.

Keywords: sustainable development, economic development, environmental protection, social progress, tragedy of the commons, sustainability, hard energy, soft energy, logic of sufficiency, human welfare


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 wellbeing and successfully carry out the seven basic challenges of economic life: 1) extracting raw materials from the environment; 2) obtaining and applying sources of 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 must not only perform these basic functions but must do so in a continually changing environment. It is this feedback and adjustment that 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’s impact on it has to feed back into 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 (Tainter 1998; Diamond 2005; Homer-Dixon 2006).

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. 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.

Relationship to Other Environmental Headings in the ISA Compendium

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 essay 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 and expropriation of others’ resources, sometimes to the point of imperial conquest. As people learnt about distant lands, they became of 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. Both in times 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 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. 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.

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 ecosystem services that determine quality of life and even survival.

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; Ostrom 1990; Ostrom et al. 1999; Dietz et al. 2003). 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.

Definitions and Logic of Sustainability

A clear, generally agreed definition of sustainability has been elusive. Like many normative concepts in public policy like “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 quest to identify and correct these faults leads to lively intellectual debate as scholars from a range of disciplines and traditions propose a variety of causal explanations for unsustainable patterns of development that then imply various sustainable solutions.

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. Issues of development and issues of environmental protection came together in the context of “international development” in the closing decades of the twentieth century with the emphasis on “sustainable” development. 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 reconciling of economic, social, and environmental priorities. 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 2007:211–12).

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

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 1987:5)

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 forecasts of scientists 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. 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.

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 (Guha 1989; Escobar 1992, 1995). 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” (i.e., Ekins 2003), warns,

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 UN 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, 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 1991:159)

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 over-consumption are root causes of the problem. Thus, the world’s ruling elites were reassured that the best way to resolve our environmental crisis is 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 1991:161)

Others from a politically conservative/market liberal perspective 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 (for example 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. 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 clean-up, and beyond a threshold increasing wealth leads to improved environmental metrics. Questions about the Kuznets curve include: At what level of development does the threshold begin? Why does the EKC relationship seem to hold only when both the sources and impacts of pollution are local and breaks down when the effects of pollutants are experienced far from their source or are globally diffuse, as in greenhouse gas emissions for which no threshold has yet been demonstrated? See the special issue on EKC in Ecological Economics 1998, 25 (2), in particular Torras and Boyce (1998).

Another Threshold Hypothesis

One key element in understanding the relationship between development and real progress in improving human welfare is to identify the threshold at which point the environmental and social “costs” of development begin to exceed the benefits. As Herman Daly (1977) has 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 lead to lower levels of consumption for those above the threshold and raise them for those below, leading to a broad middle class not far beyond the hypothesized threshold.

Sustainability and the Social and Environmental Sciences

Environmental science and engineering contribute toward sustainability in two ways: by analyzing, modeling, and documenting physical changes to the environment that are linked to human activities; and by inventing more environmentally benign technologies to reduce the destructive environmental impacts of those activities. Similarly, the social sciences analyze, model, and document the relationship between environmental and social wellbeing 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 (Escobar 1995; Bannerjee 2003).

What links the physical and social science approaches to sustainability are shared intellectual objectives, to:

  • analyze the environmental impacts of human activities, and

  • illuminate 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 wellbeing 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 and 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 et al. 2002).

Environmental Sustainability/Sufficiency

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

Source: Rees 2002:259.

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. The literature of environmental sustainability/sufficiency 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 (Rees 2002; Daly and Farley 2004).

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.

With this insight in place, economic development necessarily is confronted eventually 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 greatly to increase tension between the rich and the poor worldwide. 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 et al. 1972). As Michael Redclift (2005:3) 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.

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 – to 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 US might follow. The hard energy path included rapid growth in energy demand and expansion of large-scale, centralized coal, oil and 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: 92); the decentralized, alternative energy path he described 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 1976:94). He 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 planning a future of vastly increased consumption of what would eventually become scarce energy resources, made scarce either by actual energy shortages, decline in energy quality, decreases on energy returns on energy invested in finding and developing new energy sources, or 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) 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 crisis 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 reemerged 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.

The Stockholm Conference 1972

By the early 1970s there were professional networks of environment and development experts that first came together at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm in 1972. It is often said that UNCHE was the first concerted effort of the international community to focus on the environment as a major topic of international concern and attention. UNCHE established a number of principles, institutions, and programs that helped to provide a framework promoting the further development of international responses to transnational environmental problems. For example, it led to the creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which was tasked with coordinating the environment-related activities of other UN agencies and promoting the integration of environmental considerations into their work (Greene 2001:391–2).

In the 1980 publication of its 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). It introduced a strategy it called “Towards Sustainable Development.” From this milieu of global environment and development professionals, the concept of “sustainable development” coalesced.

The Concept Expands

The concept eventually became a codeword and a rhetorical tool for introducing environmental considerations into international politics. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, “sustainable development” became a normative goal, widely accepted if not necessarily implemented (Hick et al. 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 trends in natural resource depletion and the planetary accumulation of emissions, most notably carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, were reaching proportions that could eventually, perhaps soon, fundamentally undermine the international development project by leading to less habitable environments in many places on earth.

Brundtland Commission

In response to these concerns, the United Nations General Assembly established the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, named after Gro Harlem Brundtland, its Chair. In its influential 1983 report Our Common Future (WCED 1987), sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is one of the most often quoted definitions.

Our Common Future not only supplied a definition of sustainable development, it 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’s diagnosis of the environment and development crisis was presented as flaws of the global political economy. Poverty and overconsumption of energy and raw materials by the rich were presented as both a cause and an effect of global environmental problems. The prescription: a new development path based on meeting the basic needs of the poor through economic growth and reducing the impact of the rich countries through adoption of lifestyle restraints on consumption and increased technological efficiency. Global progress on economic and social development was already or would soon be compromised by the effects of several interrelated environmental crises, including global climate change, loss of biodiversity, degradation of natural resources, and widespread toxic chemical pollution.

Yet Our Common Future also revealed many of the glaring contradictions that continue to plague efforts to reconcile the perceived imperative of economic growth with the finite nature of the earth’s ecosystem. Though it was billed as a major challenge to conventional development perspectives and purported to integrate environment and development concerns, many of its conclusions reaffirmed the fundamental premises of conventional development thought, in particular the stress on economic growth above all else. The Brundtland Commission report’s key recommendations – a call for the world’s total economic output to grow at a rate five to ten times the current output and for accelerated growth in the industrial countries to stimulate demand for the products of poor countries – fundamentally contradicted its own analysis that growth and overconsumption are root causes of the problem (Korten 1991).

The Earth Summit

Following the release of the Our Common Future, the United Nations began plans for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 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 that 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 twenty-first century. It also produced a statement of principles, the Rio Declaration, and the architecture of “framework agreements” on biodiversity and climate; the latter would produced the Kyoto Protocol, the first agreement to establish binding commitments for the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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

At the global level, cooperation would not be easy. The wealthy minority of the earth’s people, often referred to simply as the North, and the poor majority, the South, had what the other needed for sustainable development: the poor of the South often developed ingenious systems of mutual aid, recycling, and thrift from which the North could learn much, while the North had created new energy- and materials-conserving technologies as well as the knowhow to transfer the technology of environmental protection to the crowded cities of the South, which desperately need them (Manno 2000:7). But 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 inequalities. If the North had achieved its developed status via industrialization, with pollution, why should something different be expected of the South?

This reluctance of the South should 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 must not come at the expense of its own development. In exchange for southern participation, northern donor governments should 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 (Weiss et al. 1997:203–41).

A few European states and numerous northern NGOs have supported the South’s view on “environmental space” – the use of the earth’s limited natural resources and environmental services – and its demands for resource transfers. Most industrialized countries accepted the South’s argument in the UNCED negotiations that northern consumption patterns were responsible for much global environmental degradation. The willingness of northern countries to permit developing countries to have a relatively long grace period before having to comply with ozone and climate conventions reflects the general acceptance that poor countries had relatively little responsibility for those problems. But the North generally emphasizes the responsibility of all countries to contribute to solving global environmental problems, which implies a need for developing countries to avoid duplicating the unsustainable historical development patterns of the industrialized world. And most wealthy countries have been extremely reluctant to give up their control over institutions that involve financial resources or their freedom to determine how much money they will commit to a given global environmental convention (Porter and Brown 1996:112–14).

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 in 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 et al. 2005).

By the beginning of the twenty-first 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 include targets, such as reducing by half the proportion of the population living on less than $1 per day, eliminating gender disparities in education at all levels, and reducing by half the proportion of people lacking access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation. It was as if the lofty goals for a global shift of awareness about environment and development had been replaced by a return to the stated objective of international development, assisting people to meet their very basic needs.

Johannesburg – Rio + 10

A decade after the Earth Summit, a follow-up conference was held in Johannesburg that came to be known as Rio + 10. The International Institute for Sustainable Development, a policy research institute based in Canada, prepared a list of ten successes and ten failures of global efforts toward sustainability in the decade between the two conferences.

Table 1 Sustainability successes


  1. 1 Reducing emissions of ozone-depleting gases. The Montreal Protocol adopted in 1987 is largely seen as a successful international agreement to reduce and eventually eliminate harmful emissions. Emissions of the main ozone depleting gases have all fallen and levels in the upper atmosphere have begun to decline.

  2. 2 Thousands of local sustainability initiatives. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives reports more than 6000 initiatives in 100 countries that were started as a result of a local Agenda 21 program following the Earth Summit.

  3. 3 Expanding global civil society. In 2002 the Yearbook of International Organizations estimated there were 26,000 international nongovernmental organizations as compared with 6000 in 1990.

  4. 4 Number of corporate sustainability initiatives growing. Generally under the heading of corporate social responsibility, many more companies are paying attention to what is called the “triple bottom line,” the need to achieve not only economic performance goals but also goals related to a company’s social and environmental impacts.

  5. 5 Improvements in the availability of information and opportunities for public participation in decisions that affect the environment. The amount of information and its availability have greatly increased via the growth of electronic communication. Governments are increasingly monitoring the release and transfer of pollutants and making that information publicly available.

  6. 6 Technology for sustainability. Major advances have been made in fuel cell research, cleaner production, and eco-efficiency.

  7. 7 Sustainability indicators are being developed and measured. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development has indicators for selected chapters of Agenda 21. Several governments are requiring regular reporting on sustainability indicators.

  8. 8 Climate change consensus. With the work of the International Panel on Climate Change, international opinion is coalescing around a consensus that climate change is real and largely induced by human factors.

  9. 9 Environmental awareness enters the corridors of power. A few countries, New Zealand the first, have appointed independent Commissioners for the Environment whose office must scrutinize all government policies in terms of their potential environmental impacts, a step toward putting sustainable development at the center of government.

  10. 10 Agreements reached on chemical and biological risks. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent that gives waste importing countries the right to refuse to accept chemicals based on health and safety information that must be provided by the exporter, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety have all come into force.

Source: International Institute for Sustainable Development (

While the successes are real, they appear minor compared to the failure to reverse or even slow the major trends of the global environmental crisis. By 2009, none of these trends seems be poised to change. Because of this, the major challenge for international studies scholars interested in sustainability is to theorize these failings, identify reasons for success, and improve understanding of prospects for the emergence of significant reforms internationally in the direction of sustainability sufficiency.

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 (1991:161) put it at the time, “What the commission’s own analysis had demonstrated to be the problem suddenly became the solution.”

Table 2 Sustainability failures


  1. 1 Breakdown of the “Rio Bargain.” At Rio industrialized nations agreed to help developing countries build environmental capacity through international assistance, technology transfer, removal of trade barriers, and debt relief. Little or none of this happened.

  2. 2 Widening gap between rich and poor. Both as measured within countries and between rich and poor countries, the gap is widening and the Millennium Development Goal to cut hunger and poverty in half by 2015 seems out of reach. The Earth Summit consensus was clear that poverty was a main obstacle to sustainable development.

  3. 3 No progress in reining in unsustainable levels of consumption. Energy and raw materials consumption continues to rise everywhere. Consumption patterns for the growing middle and upper classes in developing countries are poised to replicate those of the developed world. Measures of ecological footprint show increasing pressure on planetary ecological systems.

  4. 4 International financial policies undermining progress. Debt rescheduling has been accompanied by structural adjustment programs based on the Washington Consensus that development requires the elimination of tariffs and subsidies to protect domestic business and industry. Such policies have led to economic decline and growing dependency.

  5. 5 Failure to internalize environmental costs. Principle 16 of the Rio Principles states that governments should promote internalization of the costs of environmental degradation by adopting polluter-pays policies. Most governments have not only failed to capture and reinvest the costs of pollution, they have continued to subsidize environmentally destructive activities.

  6. 6 Military conflict continues to undermine sustainable development.

  7. 7 Oceans join atmosphere as environments most in peril. Since Rio the outlook for the world’s oceans and fisheries has steadily declined.

  8. 8 Scarcity of clean, fresh water. More than a billion people have no clean drinking water and the United Nations warns that two-thirds of humanity will live in areas with moderate to severe water stress by 2025.

  9. 9 AIDS continues to overwhelm.

  10. 10 Extinction rates continue to accelerate.

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 argues,

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 2002:253)

A Way Out

This argument suggests a way out of the sustainability conundrum through policies designed to improve welfare without increasing energy and material throughput. They 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 reduced by clustering housing and workplaces, and fertilizer costs 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/Sufficiency

Figure 2 The sustainability/sufficiency policy wedge

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, PCBs or DDT for example, from accumulating to a scale where health is endangered. Current 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) assuring that environmental resources are not squandered by the present generation to the detriment of our grandchildren; 2) that resources are not used frivolously by the well off and become no longer available to meet the needs of the poor; and 3) that the poor are no longer driven to deplete local resources just to meet basic survival needs. 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.

Finally, efficiency itself needs to be redefined. Daly and Farley (2004) propose a comprehensive efficiency based on the ratio of gains from economic activity to the associated environmental losses. The ratio is determined by efficiency of design that requires less energy and material input per unit of service output; durability, so as to increase the service life of any given product; harvest efficiency, to increase the time over which stocks are able to provide services; and, finally, investing in ecosystem protection and restoration to produce new sources of services.

The Logic of Sufficiency

The formula of pro-poor economic growth and reduced consumption by the rich begs the notion of what Princen (2005) has dubbed “sufficiency.” In his influential book The Logic of Sufficiency, Princen proposes that the now-dominant economic logic of efficiency be subordinated to the value of sufficiency. The notion of sufficiency implies sufficient resources to meet basic human needs, yet sufficient restraint on consumption to prevent overtaxing the earth’s life support systems.

The concept of “sufficiency” has been around for a long time. The Old Testament Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 30:7–9, NIV) attributes to the wise man, Agur, the following: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” Agur prays for sufficiency in God that he may be kept away from the perils of stealing in extreme poverty and of forgetting God in excessive abundance.

As individuals, we are used to making decisions based on what we know to be “enough” from our experience of life (too much chocolate makes you ill) or from what we have been told by others (it is unacceptable to wear expensive designer clothes to school; such-and-such a kitchen appliance takes up too much space and is difficult to clean, so it’s not worth buying). Sufficiency can be broadly defined in two ways. One is qualitative, implying plenty: sufficiency means that a purpose is achieved, a need is satisfied, and some sort of optimal state has been reached. By implication, “enough” is something to be celebrated and relished. It is subjective in nature and so is normally used in relation to an individual. Sufficiency may be a relative or an absolute concept when this type of definition is used.

Table 3 Three policy goals



Policy Tools

Sustainable scale

Mechanisms needed to find a sufficient and safe level for a wide range of the byproducts of economic activity

  • Direct regulation and limitations on use

  • Taxes and subsidies for conservation

  • Cap and trade systems with tradable permits

  • Direct public investment in pollution abatement

Just distribution

Assuring that environmental resources are not squandered by the present generation and/or the well off to the detriment of our grandchildren and/or the poor, and that the poor are no longer driven to deplete local resources just to meet basic survival needs

  • Setting minimum income levels

  • Progressive taxation

  • Broadening stock ownership

  • Ending perverse subsidies

  • Charges and payments for ecosystem services with revenues distributed toward the poor

  • International tax on currency exchange and speculation

  • Land taxation

Efficient allocation

Comprehensive efficiency based on the ratio of gains from economic activity to the environmental losses

  • Design that requires less energy and material input per unit of service output

  • Durability to increase service life of any given product

  • Harvest efficiency to increase the time over which stocks are able to provide services

  • Investing in ecosystem protection and restoration to produce new sources of services

Source: Daly and Farley 2004.

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 the consumption of 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 wellbeing 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) argues 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 calls ecological rationality. Understanding how to create an international system imbued with an understanding of ecological interdependence and coevolution, a sense of responsibility for 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/sufficiency.


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A quick Internet search using the keywords “sustainable development” and “sustainability” will yield over 32 million websites each. The following are recommended as sources of additional and updated information on sustainability and sustainable development.

Encyclopedia of Earth, This 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 US National Council for Science and the Environment. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Sustainability at the National Academies, http:/ The US National Academies of Science and Engineering’s Science and Technology for Sustainability Program provides this website that 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. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Forum on Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development, http:/ This site sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the international Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability is a great source for key documents and other, mostly science-based articles on sustainability. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy, http:/ A peer-reviewed, open-access e-journal on the field of sustainability. Accessed July 25, 2009.

European Sustainable Development Network, A network of practitioner and experts in sustainable development strategies in Europe. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Third World Network, 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. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Millenium Development Goals: Goal 7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability, This website promotes and supports Goal 7 of the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 through the United Nations Millennium Declaration. Accessed July 25, 2009.

United Nations Development Programme: Human Development Reports, http:/ These annual reports are 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 2007/2008: Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Environmental Performance Index, http:/ 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, this provides an index of environmental stresses and ecosystem conditions for 149 countries. Accessed July 25, 2009.

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 UN conferences on environment and development and the work of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Accessed July 25, 2009.

International Institute for Sustainable Development, ISD is a Canada-based sustainable development thinktank established in 1990. It monitors the many sustainability-related international negotiations and assists NGOs to influence their outcomes. Accessed July 25, 2009.

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, http:/ Focuses on sustainability in the context of international trade. Accessed July 25, 2009.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Membership association of 200 global companies to promote sustainable business practices. It formed in the lead-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Global Footprint Network, Focuses on measuring human impact on the earth and disseminating information about these measures, particularly the Ecological Footprint. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Redefining Progress, A US-based thinktank that promotes an alternative, ecological model of economics that takes into account the costs as well as benefits of economic growth and offers policy proposal for sustainable development. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Sustainability Institute, A research and education institute founded by Dana 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. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Sustainability Program of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development, Access 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. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Local Governments for Sustainability, An international association of 1082 local governments to share information about local sustainable development efforts. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Simplicity Forum, A thinktank of academics and authors, activist and artists, educators and entrepreneurs who promote simple living as a means to improve wellbeing while reducing one’s personal impact on the environment. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, An association of colleges and universities in the US and Canada that promotes sustainability in higher education. Accessed July 25, 2009.

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. Accessed July 25, 2009.