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The sustainable development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 2687 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Sustainable Development has become the ‘buzz’ word in the present times. It is being used in every field right from environment to economy and politics. It is seen as the right kind of development, a solution, that is going to free the world from the dangers of environmental catastrophes triggered by the economic activities of man.

On the one hand, sustainable development is perceived as the means to achieve a balanced civilization that exists in sync with its environment while at the same time progressing economically, and on the other hand, it is subject to endless debates on what exactly are its goals and how they can be achieved.

This essay is a review of the chapter by Michael Jacobs, “Sustainable Development as a Contested Concept” which is a part of the book, Fairness & Futurity: Essays on Environmental Sustainability & Social Justice (Dobson, A., 1999).

In this chapter, Jacobs expounds the radical theory of sustainable development and argues against the section that proclaims the principles of Sustainable Development (SD) to be redundant. He puts forward several interesting arguments stating the usefulness and absolute necessity of Sustainable Development in the present society. The aim here is therefore to underline some of the key issues and arguments put forward by Jacobs and to critically analyze the article.

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The author starts out with emphasizing the popularity of SD in the present times and its importance in context of the problems faced by the world. He highlights the two main definitions that have been generally used for sustainable development. One by the Bruntland Commission, states “Sustainable development means development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs”. The second definition by caring for the earth states that, “ Sustainable Development means improving the quality of life while living within the capacity of the supporting ecosystems”.

The author has in a systematic manner, explored the key issues pertaining to sustainable development. These can be summarized as follows:


The first issue pointed out by the author is that the concept of SD has not yet been universally accepted. There are various forces of opposition that resist the concept. He highlights three important resistances. The first is that SD is an insufficiently defined term and hence some doubt its incorporation into policy-making, as the objectives are not quite clear. Secondly, the section of populace known as the ultra-greens absolutely rejects the notion of SD. According to them, SD provides an excuse to the business and development interests to carry on their economic activities without considering the environment as much as it should be. According to them, SD runs the risk of getting sucked into the capitalist milieu. And thirdly, opposition comes from the academia who state that the concept of SD stems from the same set of ideals i.e. ‘modernism, scientific positivism and realism’, which were the foundation of modern economic growth and society.

The second issue lies in the lack of a precise definition of SD. The author points out that the meaning of SD lies at two levels. At the first level, the definition is universal and consists of a set of ‘core ideas’ that are accepted as an integral part of the concept. At the second level comes the debate on how it should be interpreted in practice leading to alternative conceptions of the meaning. Certain sections call for a more precise meaning for the concept to become operational. ‘The technocrats’ for example, state that SD can be functional only when one single meaning is agreed upon. There is a ‘gallery’ of definitions and it is not exactly clear as to what it means by the terms ‘development’ or ‘needs’ or what must be exactly sustained and how ‘quality of life’ can be measured. Then the environmentalists concerned about the concept getting politicized claim that unclear definition can lead to misuse of the term Sustainable Development (SD). It is in danger of becoming a cliché used by businesses in order to show their support to the environmental concerns whilst actually carrying out unsustainable activities.

The Third issue highlighted by the author is the rift between the ‘radical sustainable development’ model and the ‘conservative sustainable development’ model. The author starts out with putting out the six core ideas of sustainable development that are integral part of it no matter which model one advocates. These six core ideas include:

  • Environment-economy integration
  • Intergenerational equity
  • Intragenerational equity
  • Environmental protection
  • Quality of life
  • Participation.

The key argument of the author is that despite of the fact that SD contains some drawbacks in terms of ambiguity at the second level, the core ideas of SD make it unequivocal at the first level of meaning itself. He explains that the core ideas are neither meaningless nor redundant because each of them makes up a very important objective requiring firm changes in every field of policy making. Secondly, he reasons that these core ideas were never a part of the ‘developmental goals’ of the countries in the past 50 years. Hence incorporation of these core ideas into governmental objectives has put development on a different flight altogether. And thirdly, the scope of SD is very broad consisting of not only environmental protection but also other issues that are social and economical. These issues spring out from the environmental roots and branch out into various sectors. Hence, SD helps in building a society whose, social, economic and political agendas are underpinned by the environmental agenda.

The author brings out the rift between radical and conservative models of SD by exploring the opposing interpretations of SD along four faultlines drawn from its core ideas.

The first faultline pertains to environmental protection where SD is divided between weak SD and strong SD. The weak SD lies on the principle that economic activities cannot be carried out under the limits of environment. Environment has to be protected ‘where possible’ only after assessing the economic benefits availed from protecting it. It does not consider the intrinsic or existence value of the environment. The strong SD, is totally opposite, as in, it lies on the principle that economic activities should not exceed the carrying capacity of the environment whatsoever and takes the help of tools such as ‘maximum sustainable yield’ to govern extraction of resources.

The second faultline is in terms of equity, which is again divided between the North and South interpretation. The southern view calls for a redistribution of global resources and the release of northern domination upon the resources of the world. However, the north is still uncomfortable about this viewpoint and stresses very little on issues of global distribution of resources or intra-country equality.

The third faulline pertains to participation. Here the implementation of SD can be divided into ‘top-down’ approach or the ‘bottom-up’ approach. In the ‘top-down’ approach the governments make the decision and public participation is only limited to implementation levels and personal changes such as recycling, energy saving etc. in the ‘bottom-up’ approach, participation occurs at the objective setting and the implementation stages. It seeks the participation of public in shaping the objectives of SD and how it can be achieved.

And finally, the last faultline pertains to the scope of the subject area. Government and businesses restrict the scope of SD to only environmental concerns. They claim that the efficiency of SD decreases as its breadth increases, as it only becomes a generalized approach to ‘progress’. However, advocates of the broader conception state that SD is about the total quality of life and is valid for the entire societal concerns.

The radical SD model is based on the egalitarian, strong, bottom-up and broad interpretation of SD while the other set of ideas characterize the conservative model of SD.

Here it would suffice to say that the author clearly advocates the radical model of sustainable development and refutes the criticism that SD is vague and unsuitable for application. He argues that implementing SD no matter what its weaknesses are, would lead to the slow diffusion of radical SD without making the political and economic organizations jittery and uncomfortable. He argues, that even though SD is blamed to provide an excuse to the governments and businesses to carry on their economic activities, it has at the least, put up environment on the map of the business agenda. SD has created considerable debate on what should be done to protect the environment and how it should be done. It has raised awareness and increased pressure on the government to deliver.

After highlighting these key issues and arguments, the following part of the essay shall consider the strengths and weaknesses of the article. It would delve into how the author has convincingly advocated the implementation of radical SD model and what are the issues he has missed out on.


The author has applied a very structured methodology to put forward his argument in support of sustainable development convincingly. His approach is to first define the concept of sustainable development. He uses the two most common ones that are widely accepted. These include the brundtland definition and the caring for the earth definition. These have been given at the beginning of this essay. Then he gives out the six core ideas of SD, which make up its essence. He uses these core ideas to explain the rift between the radical and conservative sustainability and finishes off with the conclusion that radical sustainability forms the core of the definition of sustainable development. As the author clearly states “There is nothing underhand about this: though contested at the second level of meaning, the radical model is drawn directly from the uncontested first level concept of sustainable development”.

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The major strength of the article lies in the fact that it clearly stresses the importance of sustainable development in spite of its various drawbacks. It is of a common opinion that sustainable development is the most appropriate existing approach to bringing policy changes in every phase of the society. The author puts forward alternative interpretations of the concept of SD and expounds that the kind of interpretation defines the perception of usefulness or uselessness of SD.

SD has suffered from severe criticism in terms of its definition and objectives as have been clearly stated by the author in the form of the three kinds of resistances. The article is refreshing in the sense that, the author puts a positive view in support of SD and reestablishes its critical role. Many critics state that SD is incapable of changing the path of development. That economic growth will continue no matter what. The author is quick to point out the political significance of SD in this context. He states that SD has allowed adoption of international documents such as Agenda 21 by various countries putting SD and environmental protection on their objective list. ‘There are much greater levels of activity and debate in the environmental policy field’.

The author highlights the various ways in which SD has been able to bring a change in the approach to things. Firstly, governments are faced with an obligation to fulfill their commitment by signing documents such as agenda 21. As participation forms an integral part of SD, it has revived the participation of the public who are demanding for greater initiatives by the government. Secondly, it has increased the pressure of the media and pressure groups on the government and has become a valuable tool to make the government and businesses accountable. And thirdly, it has led to redefining the policy framework of institutions and put environmental protection on the table. Many critics are of the view that SD runs the danger of commercializing environmental protection. The author refutes the argument saying that if it were not for SD the governments would not even have been ‘pretending’. SD binds the governments to new commitments and makes them more responsible even if it is at a beginner’s level.

The author very nicely puts forward that the strength of SD lies in the fact that every community has endorsed it. It is supported not only by the radicals but also by the conservatives. In the words of the author, “SD appears to have the remarkable capacity to articulate, nourish and propagate quite radical political ideas while appearing respectably non-political”.

The author uses the four faultlines very effectively in order to bring out the ambiguity created by differing conceptions. While one interpretation, i.e. the conservative interpretation, limits the effectiveness of SD, the other interpretation calls for an overhaul of the existing policy making infrastructure. Hence before being critical of how sustainable is sustainable development, it is important to judge the interpretation taken into account for that particular scenario.

Although all the ideas suggested by the radical model as put down by Jacobs, are relevant and address the core problems directly, one very important issues highlighted by Jacobs has been the North-South issue. This issue deserves more thought as it plays an important role in garnering international cooperation for SD. However, the issue does not solely lie in the global redistribution of the resources but also on the blame-game played by each other. While the North blames the poor of the south for environmental degradation, it doesn’t take into account issues such as subsistence lifestyles of the very poor in the south and local scale of the degradation caused by them as compared to the global scale of degradation caused by the activities in the north (Timothy Boyle, 1998). Unless the North recognizes the consequences of its own activities and the need to change them, SD will mainly remain ideal in nature.

Another important point that has been missed out is that economic growth forms the basic premise of SD. SD does not stop economic growth but only changes the way in which this growth is achieved. It has been implied that economic growth is needed to remove poverty, which is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems (WCED). However, the fact that has gone unrecognized is that economic growth per se has not been able to remove poverty till now. In the words of Sharachchandra, “if economic growth itself leads to neither environmental sustainability nor removal of poverty, it is clearly a non-objective for SD”.

And finally, the notion of equity differs from place to place. What is equitable in the north may not be equitable in the south. There has been literature in the developing countries especially by authors like Jodha, who have pointed out evidence that inequity has actually ensured sustainable usage of resources. The standards governing equitability differ and hence cannot be made universal.

Hence to conclude, Jacobs has done a good job at propounding the usefulness of sustainability and dismissing its critics. However, there are many minute points of digression in the concept that need to be looked at. SD as a concept cannot be run across the breadth of the globe but has to adapt itself to the microscopic differences between region to region. This is not to undermine the fact that SD has and will continue to play an important role in modifying global economic and political scenarios.


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