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Over the last two decades, sustainable development has been of utmost importance among the many debates on mapping out an efficient and just environmental strategy without compromising global economic growth, in the domestic and international arenas. Despite its increased significance, the idea of sustainable development has different meanings and interpretations; Professor John Robinson defined this characteristic of it as “striking”, noting that it means different things to different people and organizations. In an attempt to theorize or define the term sustainable development and link the issues of environmental stability and economic growth, the Brundtland Commission published a report in 1987 entitled ‘Our Common Future’which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. However ambiguous, the concept aims primarily to ensure both economic progress and environmental stability; it provides a framework to integrate developmental policies and environmental strategies into each other. 

The ambiguous nature of the definition leaves room for different interpretations and does not address the implications of neoliberal economic ideology on the coexistence of economic development and environmental sustainability. The concept is interpreted around three pillars: economic development, social impartiality and environmental stability. The combination of this help constitutes the idea of sustainable development. Although it is somewhat ambiguous and not defined, some see it positively as competitive discourses and constructive ambiguity. Furthermore, in September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that offered 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The agenda focused on many important factors among climate change, poverty, inclusive development and natural resources. Keeping this in view, this article explores different trends of thought and interpretations on sustainable development, their orientation and preferences and their policy and political frameworks. Sustainable development indeed has the potential to provide a pathway for a balanced and better lifestyle for humanity, today and in future. 

Sustainable Development: A Contested Idea

The support for sustainable development and the shift in relationships between nature, the environment and humanity have attracted widespread interest in the world. It is in opposition to the dominant group, the North, that has focused on the separation of socio-economic issues from the environment as realists do. For most of the last two centuries, the environment was ignored by humanity, mostly to be exploited, such as was done with natural resources in the South by the North. The environmental issues were primarily seen as local, and the relationship between the environment and humans was seen as “humanity’s triumph over nature.” This view is called the Promethean view, according to which humans can overcome all issues, whether environmental or socioeconomic, through human knowledge and technology. This view caught prominence with the emergence of capitalism, the industrial revolution and the development of modern science. As Bacon penned it, ‘The world is made for man, not man for the world,’ meaning that man does not owe anything to the world and the latter is meant to serve the former. Concerns over the environment among business elites and political leadership centered on the management of natural resources; their main focus was to manage the natural resources, rather than their exploitation so that they could be used for the longest duration possible. 

The dominating issue of human development and economic growth prioritized economics. This notion was seen as a solution to all of the problems faced by humanity: with economic progress, poverty would be erased as everyone would progress financially and the poor would automatically be lifted out of poverty. 

The idea of sustainable development emerged with the increased awareness of global linkages between environmental issues, the effects of socioeconomic issues on poverty and concerns about a better future for humanity. Sustainable development links environmental issues with socioeconomic ones and this was apparent in the famous Brundtland Commission’s report. The report emphasized the importance of the environment and human dependency on it to meet the needs of humanity and their social wellbeing: ecology and economics are seen to be intertwined at every level, whether domestic, regional or international. Our lives, society and our activities are directly linked with the stability of the environment rather than our dominance of it. The report stressed that humanity and its basic existence depends on the environment, whether in a rural region or an industrialized one; both the economy and our social well-being need the environment to survive. It also emphasized the global nature of the issue: since the issues are not local but global, their solutions and policies and our actions must also be global. 

Sustainable development questions the claim that human wellbeing and prosperity can be achieved through increased trade and rising industry. It stresses that the models used in the past have failed humanity when it comes to eradicating poverty and providing humans with a prosperous and decent lifestyle with a minimal number of threats to their basic existence; ‘no trends, . . . no programmes or policies offer any real hope of narrowing the growing gap between rich and poor nations’. The existing pattern of growth has injured the environment on which humanity’s existence depends. The Brundtland Commission recognized this and called for growth that would ensure economic growth, meet human needs, preserve environmental stability and encourage social equity. The major goals of sustainable development include eradicating poverty and ensuring environmental stability without compromising economic growth, and vice versa. This form of growth is different from what we have today and it is becoming an important component when seeking a bright future for humanity. 

To further provide clarity to the contested concept of sustainable development and to theorize goals to transform our world, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The main principle of this agenda is to ‘not leave anyone behind.’ The main focus of the17 SDGs is on addressing the issue of climate change, ensuring economic growth, avoiding exploitation of natural resources, eradicating poverty, encouraging social equity and providing a framework for an inclusive environment for all humanity with a primary focus on differently-abled people. 

However, there have always been and will always be debates about the goals and theorization of sustainable development. For example, while many claim that it is in contrast to the capitalist economic setting of the world, others argue that it incentivizes business elites to be in favor of sustainable development. And while many claim that sustainable development works better if we focus on poverty eradication instead of the free trade concept of capitalism that exploits the poor, others argue that if the economy grows, the poor will also grow. Another such debate is between weak sustainability and strong sustainability. Weak sustainability argues that technology can replace or substitute natural capital. On the other hand, strong sustainability criticizes this as no technology or manmade capital can replace many processes of nature, such as photosynthesis. 

It is apparent that there are multiple interpretations of sustainable development; it can mean anything to anyone from the low to extreme levels. Whatever interpretation is taken, it is clearly of grave importance. Three trends of thought have prevailed in the debate over sustainable development: Status Quo, Reformists and Transformationists.

Status Quo

Supporters of the status quo understand the need for change, but do not believe that there are insurmountable challenges to the environment or society. Adjustments might be made without fundamentally changing society, making decisions or the dynamics of power. Governments and companies share this view, and status quo promoters are more likely to cooperate with government and business decision-makers in corridors of power. Economic development is tied to and is a factor in the solution of economic growth.

The UK Department of Environment, Transport and Regions has stated, "To progress towards more sustainable development we need more growth, not less growth." During the previous decades, status quo proponents have encouraged decreases in the progressive character of taxes, social wage cuts, privatization, and regulatory cuts. They say that business is the motor behind the development of sustainability. In order to achieve long-term development, the effective approach is to expand knowledge, shift values, enhance management skills and develop new technologies which can operate across the market. In the future, markets and technology will, according to Simon and Kahn, lead to a society that is "less polluted, more stable in the environment... and the global population wealthier." The World Business Council for Sustainable Development states: "We can have an open, robust and healthy trade system and achieve sustainable development." There are no contradictions between global market expansion and environmental stability. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) advises that tax and subsidy fiscal adjustments, strengthening of private resource ownership and globalization to keep the market operational for sustainable development, would not undermine social and environmental protection.

In the spirit of Pangloss, the President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center Bjørn Lomborg criticizes the great majority of environmental, poverty and hunger concerns' assertions. He adds that assuring growth to raise these people out of poverty and hunger is very important in order to enhance the "environmental qualities of the developing world," since we are able to cope with environmental concerns only if we are growing.

Garret Hardin promotes widespread private ownership of environmental resources in his article 'Tragedy of the Commons (1968),' placing him in a status quo economic position. His defense of 'coercion' in 1968 and of 'lifeboat ethics' in 1974, which advocates the loss of hunger, elevated his societal ideal to eco-fascism. The majority of those who favor the status quo are uncertain about environmental sustainability, while some, like Professor Robert Solow, argue that it is not important since technology might be a substitute for nature.

Reform is necessary

Those who encourage reforms recognize that the problems and criticalities of the existing techniques and social tendencies of most companies and governments are growing, but believe that no major changes or ecological or social systems are needed. They consider that the roots of the problem are differences and lack of knowledge and information rather than the current structure of society, and that things can and will change in order to resolve them. They often recognize that at some point, substantial policy and lifestyle changes are needed, many of which are quite widespread.

However, they are expected to be realized over time, given the current social and economic structures. The objective is to convince governments and international organizations, usually via logical reason, to undertake the necessary fundamental changes. Special attention is paid to technological breakthroughs, sound science and information, market changes, and policy changes. There are a broad variety of persons in this category, including government officials; however, they are dominated by scientists and experts from large NGOs. Surprisingly, several government entities such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), and local authorities such as the Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), have taken a more extreme stance than the United Kingdom Government.

Reformers believe that government has a crucial role in driving sustainable growth because companies must be promoted and, in certain circumstances, controlled by taxes and subsidies that impact research priority and information. The majority of reformers believe that in the future, democracy and inclusiveness will be strengthened in this political system. The urban sustainability leader Herbert Girardet highlights that best practices, competent civic leaders, active participation with local businesses, and public engagement might be the only way to achieve success. The Real-World Coalition, consisting of 25 UK-based NGOs, forms a connection between socio-economic and environmental challenges. The business elites, as usual, argue that 'because of rising inequality and poverty, environmental degeneration and global instability is a source of our greatest concerns.' They believe that "radical transformation" is required to "democratic regeneration," in order for governments and society to develop "sustainable, responsible and equitable forms of capitalism".


In today's core components of society, as well as in how people interact with and connect to the environment as it changes, there are increasing environmental and/or societal challenges. Transformationists claim that society and/or humans have to be reconstructed with the environment to prevent future crises and maybe a collapse. Although many of the problems are not mainly about human well-being or environmental sustainability, they are seen to be inherent in the underlying economic and power mechanisms of society. Reform alone is not going to be enough.

Transformations are described as those mainly focused on the environment, socio-economic conditions, or integration between them.

Without long-term development, change cannot be maintained

From a human-centered perspective of the interaction between environmental and socio-economic issues, sustainable development is indifferent to certain developments. Deep-seated environmental ecologists emphasize the inherent necessity of nature and the ecosystem, and put human needs in second place. There is just one brief reference to human needs and no mention of equality in the 8 points of the deep ecological platform. Mark Bradford, a Professor at Yale University, views the predisposition to racism, imperialism, and anti-human worldview as the result of profound ecology resulting from their "nature first" attitude. The Earth First founder, David Foreman remarked famously of the Ethiopian hunger, "the ideal way would be to let the environment seek its own equilibrium and allow humanity to be hurt." There is a link between fascism and some green philosophies, according to Bramwell, the author of Ecology in the 20th Century.

In contrast to deep-seated ecologists’ socialist transformation is highlighted as a means to tackle social and economic disparities by socialist cornucopias. Some people reject environmental problems, claiming that liberating mankind from the constraints of capitalism can resolve any problem. Others feel that, while recognizing environmental difficulties, they might be placed firmly on the shoulders of capitalism and that community control of manufacturing methods would address the problem.

Transformation and Sustainability

Those who adopt a transformational approach to social and environmental challenges agree that increasing environmental and social problems are interlinked and that social and ecological systems are on the edge of collapse without any fundamental reform. As for sustainable development, some movements, such as local environmental justice and indigenous environmental movements, may not use the same terminology as official and academic circles, but deal with the same questions of ways of living in harmony with the environment while preventing extreme inequities and poverty. When it comes to sustainable development, our contemporary civilization is fundamentally concerned with exploiting a large number of people and destroying the environment for a tiny percentage of people.

Social justice and the interconnecting of livelihood, health, resources, and economic and political decision-making are promoted as transforming approaches for sustainable development. If you have no control over your own life and resources, inequality and environmental destruction are unavoidable. By its statistical and undemocratic style of public ownership, the Soviet Union harmed the environment and fostered inequalities since the population lacked true control.

Environmental deterioration and slavery of women are interlinked, according to ecologists. A wide variety of point of views is accessible, ranging from the cultural/biological relationship between women and nature. Mies and Shiva, authors of an important book ‘Ecofeminism’, combine these theories and argue that women have a specific relationship with nature, eroding capitalism and various social institutions over a long period and worsening poverty. Mary Mellor, a Professor at Northumbria University and former founding Chair of the University's Sustainable Cities Research Institute, created an ecofeminism strongly associated with eco-socialist analysis.

The writings of Marx and Engels on the reality of human society and its relationship to the environment are based on many eco-socialistic ideas: ‘We by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but. . . we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst.’ This links capitalism's exploitation of society with the culture of inequality and environmental deterioration. Society's material conditions and political hierarchy have to be addressed in order to address ecological problems and injustice.

In addition to these transformational ideas, there are several campaigns and projects aiming at reforming society. In many of the movements in the global south surrounding sustainable development, environmental, social, economic, and anti-growth problems are interwoven. These are some of the most vigorous counter-proposals against the status quo and long-term reform methods.


Whatever interpretation different groups or organizations have of sustainable development, they all agree that society needs to change. However, there are differences and ambiguities within the idea of sustainable development; there is no sustainable developmental ‘ism’ or a unified definition or theory of sustainable development. In this article, we have attempted to answer two questions: how are we going to deal with the problem of inequality and increasing environmental issues? And, can we continue as we are? 

The status quo group dominates global policy but the solution they offer is inadequate on so many levels because even with a concept as noble as sustainable development, they continue to address business as usual. It is, therefore, not a viable option. So, we are left with two schools of thought: reforms and transformation. The challenge for the reform approach is that why would business tycoons and ruling elites want to reform the system that favors their vested interests? The last option is transformation but it would be unfair to even assume that a radical idea such as transformation can take roots overnight. It is necessary but difficult. The challenge for them is to engage all parties that may help in promoting the cause of sustainable development, whether it is the government, media or researchers.