What Is (Un)Sustainable Development?

With environmental disaster and degradation on the rise, the end of the 20th century proposed a new framework to advance global development: sustainable development.

Throughout the past 25-30 years, sustainable development has become a political phenomenon within development discourse as an alternative theory to industrialization but has also been subject to rightful critique on its empirical roots and continual practical implementation.

While sustainable development can, in particular contexts, be seen as rooted within good intentions, as an alternative praxis within development discourse it remains contradictory to its original claims.

This is done through its perpetuation of knowledge and power rooted within Western biases, the lack of clarity on its meaning and implementation framework, and its lack of addressing structural inequities within our capitalist frame, which allow for mass exploitation and consumption by the West at the expense of the rest.

Throughout this piece, I will introduce the key international policies and agreements that have emerged from theories of sustainable development, and then move onto discussing the practical critiques of this approach, specifically the policies that have been implemented by Western orientated agencies, such as the United Nations.

Finally, culminating with a discussion on the empirical and theoretical contradictions and flaws operating within the paradigm of sustainable development, and the subsequent theories emerging from it.

I hope by the end of this piece you are able to critically discuss what sustainable development means and how it can operate as a modern day colonial perpetrator.

Historical Roots of Sustainable Development

With the rise of sustainable development as a universal doctrine, there have been four major periods of its discourse and implementation: the start of sustainable discourse (1970s); the “stagnation” period from the early 1980s-1986; the implementation period of policies and conferences (1987-1995); and finally, the current period we are in, (1996-onwards) consisting of stagnation, and eventual decline.

The following policies have emerged within these periods.

The United Nations Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE: 1972) was held in Stockholm, and concluded with the development of the Stockholm Declaration, consisting of 26 principles regarding our physical human environment and how it can be protected, as well as the eventual creation of the United Nations Environmental Protection Sector (UNEP).

Moving forward, the World Conservation Strategy (WCS: 1980) allowed for accessible discourse on the challenges surrounding the reconciliation of development and the environment, with a primary focus on natural resource protection.

Furthermore, our Common Future (1987) was published by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), to create an agenda for global change and awareness.

This agenda allowed for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED: 1992) to be held in Rio de Janeiro, culminating with a global, political phenomena of sustainable development being the praxis through which development should be centered, and ending with 27 key principles on what it means to be globally sustainable.

Following these conferences and summits, at the start of the 21st century, several charters and agencies emerged to bridge the gap between sustainability in discourse and in development implementation and activities.

Some of these charters and conferences include the United Nations Millennium Summit (2000), Earth Charter (2000), United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD: 2002), and the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD: 2012).

These preceding conferences interlink with the goals of one another.

In particular, the Millennium Summit of 2000 and Rio Conference of 2012, were able to produce and further the Millennium Development Goals; a list of 8 goals with 21 targets to be achieved by 2015 – the most crucial one being the reduction of global absolute poverty.

Practical Critiques of Western Oriented Hegemonic Agencies

Through analyzing the timeline of sustainable development within political and structural discourse, we can analyze how this development strategy has become a modern-day phenomenon. However, it is crucial to note that sustainable development, while widely accepted, does not mean that as a practice it incorporates widely within its discourse.

For this reason, there are many critiques of the practicality of sustainable development, specifically that of the United Nations for a) its perpetuation of knowledge and power rooted within Western and Eurocentric biases, and b) the lack of clarity on its meaning and implementation framework, creating a paradigm that is contradictory to its original claims.

Many theorists argue that sustainable development interventions, specifically that of the Millennium Development Goals spearheaded by the United Nations, actually further the ethnocentric views of its development predecessors, and serves to further an anti-political, technical focused stance, rooted in Western homogenous thought.

They further that sustainable discourse is built upon the same Eurocentric and colonial discourses of the past, in which Western countries, nations, and communities propose solutions that the rest of the world must then follow.

Similar to this perspective, other theorists have recognized the relationship between sustainable development, and the furthering of Western interests.

By being the sole proprietors determining what this paradigm looks like, Westerners have the praxis to engage in discourse to their benefit, ensuring they do not have to take responsibility for their geopolitical exploitive histories and colonial legacies.

For instance, in Escobar’s account of Western gaze, he claims that, “the Western scientist continues to speak for the Earth. God forbid that the Peruvian peasant, an African nomad, or a rubber tapper of the Amazon would have something to say in this regard” (Escobar, 1995, p. 194).

In doing so, Escobar makes a wonderful critique of sustainable development and the United Nations’ policies, specifically those of climate and environmental aid, in its inability to illustrate a progressive path outside of Western narratives.

Highlighting the discontinuities of this discourse, it is clear that being built upon Western knowledge predicates sustainable development as inherently unethical, for it situates the rest of the world as incapable of deciding its own development path, and situates the West as the power that has the power and right to dictate what the world should, and will look like in the near future.

Along with furthering Western biases and Eurocentric perceptions of the world, sustainable development is also an ill-defined term that remains subject to different interpretation – this results in a disconnect between discourse and implementation.

Since there remains gaps and discontinuities within its definition and paradigm, sustainable development policies and practical initiatives are often contradictory to one another, and their original claims.

For instance, looking at the United Nations Environmental Protection Sector (UNEP), in June 2010, UNEP proposed a report that showcased that in order to fight the effects of climate change, and eradicate poverty within the periphery, across the globe we must experience a shift towards a vegan diet (UNDP, 2010).

However, this report did not, nor does it today, address why certain communities cannot engage in a primary vegan diet, such as them not having the environmental, physical, and economic resources to engage in this lifestyle, or if they even want to.

Instead of the United Nations addressing the institutions who remain the top contenders of global environment degradation, it blames individual actions as the predicators of global climate change.

Ultimately, rather than working towards a common goal within sustainable development, which is made impossible by the lack of clarity in its discourse, many theorists have questioned the ability of United Nations’ policies to create lasting change beyond good intentions, that are beneficial to the environment, human, and natural resources within specific local communities outside of the Global North.

Theoretical & Empirical Critiques of Sustainability Discourse

Under the model of sustainable development, good intentions have become the norm, but it is clear through an analysis of practical interventions and their repercussions that good intentions are just not enough.

Moving forward towards the empirical and theoretical pitfalls of sustainable development, we can examine the ways in which this paradigm fails to address structural inequities and forces that govern environmental degradation and poverty within the South, and how this is done through a) a capitalist framework undermining the claims and objectives of sustainable development and b) the lack of responsibility for the West’s own economic actions within its locales and abroad, that breed mass environment dilapidation.

Through the converging fields of economic and sustainable development, a major pitfall remains in the fact that sustainability as a paradigm is operating within a capitalist mode of production. Since sustainability works in contrast to the priori claims of capitalism, the fact that it is operating within this world system makes sustainable development, theoretically impotent and contradictory.

Escobar eloquently illustrates that, “by adopting the concept of sustainable development, two old enemies, growth and the environment, are reconciled…hiding the fact that the economic framework itself cannot hope to accommodate environmental considerations” (Escobar, 1995, p. 197).

Here, Escobar dynamically showcases the contradictions in this paradigm for in light of capitalism, there is no way to sustainably develop.

To create sustainable development, we must then re-imagine the modes of production outside of just development, but towards economic hierarchies, environmental racism, profit maximization over environmental and human protection, and a plethora of other frameworks that capitalism not only supports but demands.

By existing under this framework, sustainable development also operates through the rejection of responsibility by the West of its economic and neocolonial actions that have created substandard environment, living, and resource conditions in the South.

A current global example is of the garment industry and its impact on environmental and human life degradation within the South.

Under the architype of sustainable development, operating within capitalism, workers’ labour is exploited in the South to further Western profit and benefit, with disregard to the lived realities and repercussions of these actions. In doing so, sustainability digs its own grave in an attempt to blame Southern countries for its environmental conditions, rather than the Western forces that have led and continue to lead to mass exploitation and degradation.

Many theorists argue that it is the condition in which power and wealth coincide within the West, that sustainability and development must separate in order to enact actual change that addresses the geopolitical histories of different spatial areas, rather than trying to destroy them.

By examining these relationships between nations, between labour and profits, between subordinates and superordinates, and between workers and the bourgeoise, only then can we rectify the contradictions that sustainable development has built its paradigm upon.

How Does Discourse Relate to Practice?

Ultimately, through introducing the key international policies and agreements that have emerged from theories of sustainable development, as well as analyzing the practical critiques of policies implemented within this paradigm, and finally critically working through the empirical pitfalls of development discourse from the lens of sustainability, we can examine the ways in which sustainable development remains contradictory and a fallacy upon its original claims.

Therefore, while sustainable development can, in particular contexts, be seen as rooted in good intentions, as an alternative praxis within development discourse it remains based on knowledge and power rooted within Western biases, producing ambiguity and a lack of clarity on its meaning and implementation framework, and harvesting immense ignorance upon the structural inequities and capitalist system it works under, and in many cases, for.


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Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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4 thoughts on “What Is (Un)Sustainable Development?”

  1. Do you also think, or per your education, analyze capitalism is an overarching frame for everything? Really curious on your input!

    1. Hello! Yes, I do, depending on the relational concepts we are discussing. In general, capitalism as a mode of production extends into the backdrop that demands exploitation, power relations, racial hierarchies, white supremacy, etc. It is then crucial to recognize that liberation cannot happen within a capitalist system. Hope that helps!

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