University of Oxford

Defining Sustainability

Mebratu (1998) writes that the definition of sustainable development given by the Brundtland Commission (that sustainable development “meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (WCED 1987 pp.23)) based on need satisfaction provides the basis for the establishment’s thinking on sustainability. The Brundtland Report adopted the stance that continuing economic growth and environmental protection are compatible and the only viable possibility (Leist and Holland, 2000).  The UK government adopts this sustainable development focused, anthropocentric approach to urban regeneration.  They believe that sustainable development must “ensure a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come” (DETR, 1999). They have set four objectives aiming to ensure sustainable development.  However, the three environmental objectives are vague whilst the fourth is more directive in committing to the maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth.  This suggests that the UK government has adopted a ‘weak’ or ‘light-green’ interpretation of sustainability allowing the long-term viability of economic growth to be balanced against the environmental objectives.

However, there are perspectives in the conservation strand of thought that would not be characterised as seeing sustainability as compatible with long term viability of current economically focused interpretations of urban regeneration.  Eco-socialism argues that the economic crisis we are facing is the result of a crisis in capitalism.  O’Connor’s (1998) second contradiction of capitalism suggests that sustainable development under capitalism is an oxymoron as development success measured in GDP terms leads to negative environmental effects such as pollution, congestion, and stress on water reserves, Shiva observes that “Nature shrinks as capital grows” (1992 pp.189).  While eco-socialism is anthropocentric and humanist and rejects the preservationist’s mystification of nature they could not be characterised as advocating the long term viability of the status-quo.  They argue that humans are not a pollutant, they are not destructive by nature but the prevailing economic system causes them to behave that way.  The answer is to reconnect with nature by re-appropriating collective control over our relationship with nature through common ownership of the means of production (Pepper 1993).

The lack of direction at national level over what is meant by sustainability and which policies could be considered sustainable mean that definitions and the strategies for implementing ‘sustainable’ urban regeneration have tended to reflect the political and philosophical position of those posing the definition and enacting the regeneration.  Robinson, however, writes that this may be a strength, that a constructive ambiguity can lead definitions to emerge from attempts to implement sustainable policies rather than defining it from the beginning.  For example, Mendes (2005) studied how food policy is used to promote social sustainability in Vancouver, Canada.  Vancouver adopted a food policy for the poor in December 2003.  However, there were concerns about the appropriateness of such a policy in a city committed to competitiveness and perhaps unable to assign resources to an activity not seen as part of mainstream urban governance.  The city had suffered a downgrade in its credit rating, and there were concerns about what kind of message was being sent out to investors.  The reason that food policy was ultimately accepted as a municipal function in Vancouver was because it was aligned with pre-existing policy directions and organizational expertise in sustainable development rather than as a tool to address social justice concerns like hunger and food insecurity.  In this sense the vagueness may mean that sustainability can come to be a bland metaphor for long term viability but can also lead to the implementation of more radical policies.

Krueger and Agyeman (2005) look beyond the “platitudes” relating to sustainability in American national politics during the George W. Bush era to show that while “at the national scale hope for sustainability seems bleak… at the local level the sustainability agenda, at least cleavages of it, may be more vigorous” (pp.410-411).  They use the term ‘actually existing sustainabilities’ (AESs) echoing Altvater’s (1993) concept of ‘actually existing socialisms’ which recognised socialisms that actually existed in the post war period rather than the myths created by readings of Marx or from Western propaganda.  Krueger and Agyeman take this idea and apply it to the concept of AESs to force us to frame sustainability in relation to actual practices rather than broad initiatives or agendas with  the intention of identifying actual practices and policy arenas that define sustainability.  Krueger and Agyeman seek to look beyond constructions of sustainability, such as the search for self reliant cities or externally dependent cities, building on the insights that various approaches provide so that they can “see” sustainability in practice, the policies enacted on the ground that contribute to sustainability.  They argue that sustainability will not be the result of a paradigm shift, but a continuation and extension of existing policy that when combined with social and environmental policies may produce sustainable outcomes.

References and Suggested Reading

Altvater, E. (1993) The Future of the Market: An Essay on the Regulation of Money and Nature. Verso, London.

DETR (1999) A Better Quality of Life- Strategy for Sustainable Development for the UK, London, HMSO.

Krueger, R. and Agyeman, J. (2005) Sustainability schizophrenia or “actually existing sustainabilities?” toward a broader understanding of the politics and promise of local sustainability in the US, Geoforum, 36, pp.410-417

Leist, A. and Holland, A. (2000) Conceptualising Sustainability, Policy Research Brief Number 5

Mebratu, D. (1998) Sustainability and sustainable development: historical and conceptual review. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 18, pp.493-520

O’Connor, J. (1998) Natural Causes: Essays in ecological Marxism. New York, Guilford Press.

Robinson, J. (2004) Squaring the circle? Some thoughts on the idea of sustainable development, Ecological Economics, 48, pp.369-384

Shiva, V. (1992) Recovering the real meaning of sustainability in Cooper, D. and Palmer, J. (eds.) The Environment in Question, London, Routledge

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

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