Why Is Sustainable Development Such A Contested Concept?

23 Mar 2015 28 Apr 2017

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As long as sustainable development is viewed as everything and nothing it is weakened as a policy goal, and those wishing to promote environmental sustainability and social justice are hampered if they attempt to do so without a clear understanding of the tensions and potential conflicts between these desirable goals.' (Connolly, S., 2007)

Sustainable development may at first appear to be an all encapsulating concept which in theory should be simple in its application. To be sustainable would suggest effectively reaching a balance and maintaining a level which can endure through time. The term is defined as being, 'development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of further generations to meet their own needs' (Brundtland Report, 1987). As such, the focus for sustainable development is to strike a balance between economic, social and environmental drivers. In establishing the relationships between these three drivers it becomes emergent that the application of sustainable development is more complex in its nature than it appears on the surface. The following essay is going to assess the idea of sustainable development as a contested concept. It will do so by evaluating some of the complexities inherent within the multiple perspectives in which it exists. The essay will then discuss the contention and complexities which arise in sustainable development from the political and feminist perspectives.

When considering the multiple perspectives of sustainable development it is good to look at the dualisms which the term itself creates. Sustainable development is constructed of two core elements: sustainability, which is focussed more on biodiversity and the natural environment, and development, which is concerned with the economic and social. It can be argued that from the term 'sustainable development', a cross-over is immediately apparent. For Blewitt (2007) environmental degradation is inherently linked to the social and economic factors of poverty and unequal distribution of resources. However, it is claimed by Connolly (2007) that the relationship between poverty, distribution inequality and environmental dilapidation is often overlooked. There appears to be an immediate contestation which develops within the term itself. When considering the aspects of sustainable development, four distinct features emerge. Firstly, sustainable development considers the environment as a shared resource. This can generate conflict as when a natural resource begins to decline; it ultimately may become more difficult to share, creating inequality and ownership problems (Thebaud, B., Batterbury, S., 2001). Secondly, sustainable development must consider the difficulty of accounting for scope in time: intergenerational, as the future, or through time: intragenerational, as the present, as in time (Blewitt, 2007). Thirdly, sustainable development considers the context of cross-space, which is two dimensional in its construct and is both multi-sectoral, for example agriculture; and multi-level, from national and regional contexts, to global, and the cooperation and conflict which arises when discourse attempts to include both aspects. (Source). From these multiple perspectives, the complexities become apparent. The multiple perspective of sustainable development allows the individual to better understand the intricacies which weave the three drivers of social, economic and environmental issues, and as such grasp a deeper understanding of why the concept of sustainable development may be a contested one.

When assessing the political perspectives of sustainable development it is useful to define what is meant by 'political'. Political as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is (1) 'of or relating to the government or public concerns of a country' and '(2) …done or acting in the interests of status or power…' (www.oxforddictionaries.com). From one perspective there is politics as the exercise of power, and from another politics from a governmental level which is inclusive of policy making powers. Politics allows for analysis of the diplomacy of differing interests in sustainable development. Policy making can be understood as the manifestation of diplomacy. The politics of sustainable development is concerned with often conflicting interests with differing concerns (Dryzeck, J., 1997). Sustainable development depends on politics to balance these competing interests (Dryzeck, J., 1997). However complications arise when considering a number of factors in which the political perspective is involved. Firstly, sustainable development in the policy making process is described by Weale (2007) to be a policy paradigm: an agreed mass of shared knowledge which is sourced to inform policy. Although this appears on the surface to be straight forward, in fact it is more complex in its nature. Firstly there is the discourse between traditional environmental policy and sustainable development policy making strategies. The two have very different aims. The traditional environmental policy paradigm is of the belief that economic growth is more important than the health of the environment, a view which is very much in the politics of countries which are experiencing industrialisation (Nepstad, D.et al., 2003). However the sustainable development policy paradigm views economic growth and environmental protection to be inextricably connected. The policy paradigm that prevails is dependent on a) the ability to influence, and the varying degrees of influence being based on finance, expertise and public support b) the ability to access relevant policy makers, and recognising that there are differing points of access which are based on the structure of the state itself (Weale, 2007). This is an example of how sustainable development at a policy making level is contested, as what one country considers to be sustainable may not be the view of another, and when thinking of the level of governmental politics, this may be due to developmental factors, economic desirability or social function. For example, a country which is growing rapidly requires having the opportunity to develop economic growth in order to sustain the population. For the West or Global North, industrialisation was a period of economic growth, and developing countries now experiencing the same industrial period will be sceptical of the relatively new concept of attempting development with a sustainable approach.

As discussed earlier when considering multiple perspectives, there is a balance to be established between the national and international contexts of the political perspective. This involves establishing who the political actors are, and what interests the actors wish to promote. For example, institutional actors may include governments, NGO's, and supranational actors which consider the global issues, such as the UN, EU, or WTO. Each of these institutional actors has differing interests. For the UN, the interests are in eliminating poverty, creating a green economy, whilst investing in sustainable approaches to new development (UN, Rio +20 Conference 2012). However, governments may focus on a localised level, by investigating ways in which to increase the economy or to increase food production to help sustain human life (Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, DEFRA, 2012). The idea of what sustainable development means change in form and context depending on how relevant it is deemed by the political actor. Again, this contention is prevalent when considering non-institutional actors such as grass roots movements, and the general public. Approaches taken to achieve sustainable development also vary between institutional actors and non-institutional actors. The institutional actors will strive for policy changes, whereas the non-institutional may look to education and events to promote awareness and change (Source).

A feminist perspective in sustainable development brings with it a set of unique ideals and values which differ from those perspectives grounded in politics. Wendy Harcourt states that 'a feminist perspective on sustainable development…tries to establish the connections between the different actors as subjects of knowledge about women's relationship to the environment and development practice' (Harcourt 1994:22). From this viewpoint, feminist perspectives are very much interested in creating connections with established actors and carving out a gendered approach to sustainable development. Women have long been treated as subordinate to men, and subject to inequalities which cut through race, class, and religion. It is argued by Maria Mies (1986) that there are fundamental differences in the ways in which men and women relate to the environment. Mies (1986: 55-56) argues that women and nature have a relationship which is linked through biology, as well as social conditioning. For Mies (1986), women create life, and sustain it. For example, by giving birth to a family, and then nurturing it through providing water, food and shelter. Mies (1986) suggests that a woman as a productive and creative relationship with the environment which refrains from depletion of resources. Mies (1986: 56-57) argues that men are destructive in nature, due to a relationship with the land which originates from hunting, which is indirect and non-reciprocal. To kill is destructive by nature and does not consider reproduction of the food source as necessary. Now it is probable when considering this example, that sustainable development is contested at the basic level of gender, and possibly sex. A female perspective on sustainable development may include ideas of regeneration, nurture and growth of environment, whereas a male perspective may be economically or politically driven, and entail ownership (territory) rights. A dualism arises when considering that both women and nature are in a contingent relationship as subjects to men, if there is agreement that sustainable development discourse is indeed masculine.

The idea that feminist perspectives should be included in the sustainable development debate is also contested. Essentially, a feminist perspective aims for the values of women to be included at an equal level to men in policy making discourses. Feminist movements appeared to be successful in many ways, with the rise of ecofeminism in the 1980's: and monumental in the 1992 Rio Summit, UNCED which led to the inclusion of gender issues in chapter 24 or Agenda 21. However,

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