Dilemmas of Sustainable Development


Tuesday’s discussion spoke clearly to Rittel and Webber’s definition of sustainable development planning as a wicked problem. Sustainable development encompasses such a broad range of definitions, problems, approaches, and possible solutions that it seems daunting to move forward. However, the more we unpack these issues the closer we come to understanding how to achieve sustainable development. Class discussion centered on various dilemmas facing sustainable development summarized below:

Framing sustainability

Sustainability has become such a buzz word that its has lost meaning with no clear definition. It is constantly reinterpreted and reframed for political and marketing purposes. We had an interesting discussion on green consumerism versus consumption use. Someone in class mentioned the difference between driving a hybrid Prius car versus not driving at all. We tend to applaud the former rather than recognize the privilege a person must have to buy green in order to maintain their consumption use.


A major dilemma facing sustainable development is the various government systems, cultural landscapes, and individual behaviors that are simultaneously impacting and responsible for addressing environmental degradation. It’s difficult to see where the role of local, national, and global policy fits in to address these issues, especially as many of these regions may be opposed to approaches in a different region. We are also looking for solutions across time. How do we address needs now and in the future?

Economic vs. Social vs. Environmental sustainability

Our discussion leaders posed a pressing question about whether Daniel’s three pillars of sustainability (economic, social, environmental) could co-exist. Historically economic interests have always been placed ahead of environmental interests or maintaining social equity. Much economic growth is dependent on a pool of low-wage labor and extraction of environmental resources. It seems that these three pillars are all diametrically opposed, but we are coming to a point where there can no longer be economic growth without an environment to support itself. We are also seeing much political unrest, as people worldwide are demanding social equity. If we are to move forward these three pillars need to come together.

Political will

It takes more than just changing individual behavior to achieve sustainable development. Because of all the complications mentioned above, it’s difficult to see if the problem is lack of political will or just the inherent nature of not knowing how to approach a wicked problem. There are interesting cases of cities taking charge in creating innovative policies and programming to address sustainable development like San Francisco and Bogota. The Atlantic published an article about the power mayors in the U.S. have and are taking to lead the way in pushing forward progressive agendas, especially while the federal government remains in a gridlock to actual get anything done.

Flowing throughout our discussion were also questions surrounding access, equity and sufficiency. While we have only begun scratching the surface on these issues, I look forward to digging deeper into these dilemmas throughout the course.



12 thoughts on “Dilemmas of Sustainable Development

  1. Everyone’s posts are interesting and thought provoking. Certainly our ongoing discussion over the definition shows just how wicked the problem truly is. Without a proper definition of sustainability practitioners would not know when to stop experimenting nor would they know how to test the solution.

    As others have suggested, the urban scale is one where perhaps a more refined definition of sustainable could be found. The STAR rating system (www.starcommunities.org/rating-system) is one example of a national effort to directly measure city scale sustainability.

    There are a two elements of this rating system worth highlighting in relationship to our class discussions:
    1. The STAR rating system does not directly force decisions about trade-offs between possibly competing goals; rather the system is designed such that only communities that are able to achieve social, economic and environmental goals can get the highest rating.
    2. The STAR rating system is built on the notion of innovation and change; therefore applicants are encouraged to submit sustainability measures outside of the defined system. These measure can and will be incorporated into future iterations of the rating system.

  2. Thanks for the recap! In terms of the Rittel and Webber article, I appreciated the “wicked problem” framework because it can encapsulate the challenges and complexities of naming and addressing so many social and economic problems that we face today (from planning to poverty reduction to education – all of which are of course interrelated). I also remember Charisma’s comment about the difference between “complex” problems and “wicked problems”. Wicked problems are beyond being multi-layered. Reflecting on our class discussion, if I had to concisely describe the characteristics of a wicked problem, the words that come to mind are: elusive, dynamic, without end.

    (So I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent for a minute) In the article, one of the most interesting points to me was the point about wicked problems being unique problems. As planners, policymakers and/or advocates, we often search for the solutions to various social and economic problems by observing other cities and countries for best practices — models that we can replicate to achieve the same level of success that the original situation produced. I know that most people understand the limitations of trying to employ a strategy from Chicago in, say San Francisco. At the same time, I think that the limitations of overarching policy-making is the desire to achieve standardization, but there is the danger of creating a “one-size-fits-all” type of approach (used because it is easier to enforce and monitor). Both local control and community input – as well as a deep understanding of regional dynamics and unique situations – are necessary to create effective broad policy-making – which often requires different levels of government and civil society working together to design and implement viable solutions.

    (Apologies for the short response, my previous comment got erased.)

  3. ehannah27

    Sustainability is suffering from an identity crisis. In many ways we are asking it to take on too much, to encompass any and all efforts that in some way better our society. Sustainability is not grounded in a set of concepts but rather has been blanketed across a whole host of actions, policies, and systems that in reality work towards a diverse set of outcomes — from increasing efficiency to preserving natural habitat to creating new energy systems. Lauren highlights how our class discussed that sustainability has become too much of a ‘buzz word’ and while this statement has much truth to it, it is also the case that we lack an expanded vocabulary around the concept of sustainability. I personally am increasingly frustrated with my limited explanations for the ‘how’ or ‘what’ of sustainability as well as my reliance on throwing ‘sustainable’ in the mix and expecting people to understand the concepts I am trying to convey.

    With The Atlantic Cities piece we see how Mayors are leaning towards basing their definition around the triple-bottom-line (or 3Es). Such frameworks, while imperfect, provide a mechanism for conveying the main points of a program, project or policy that is being deemed ‘sustainable’ and suggesting a set of criteria that work towards an ultimate vision. Additionally, the move towards cities to ground their sustainability policy in a set of metrics or indicators (such as the San Francisco Sustainable Communities Index http://www.sustainablecommunitiesindex.org/cities/view/1) provides a fairly clear picture of certain inputs to create a healthier, more resilient, and ultimately ‘sustainable’ community.

  4. Thanks for the summary, thoughts, and Atlantic article, Lauren!
    The Atlantic article provided quite a bit of food for thought about why municipalities might be the most feasible scale at which to try to tie together Daniel’s three pillars of sustainability. Trying to tackle something as broadly defined (and as “wicked” a problem) as sustainability doesn’t seem promising at the national level, given the extreme cultural, geographical, environmental, etc. variation across somewhere as vast as, for example, the United States. Though I’m certainly all for the development of a national framework on sustainability, I do agree with the author of the Atlantic article that the human-scale of municipalities seems more likely to generate democratic, concrete, and implementable approaches to sustainability. Face-to-face interaction between people who may have different interpretations of sustainability but who have something very important and tangible in common – the place they call home – is more likely to help untangle sustainability’s wickedness than is the inevitable political posturing of the federal level.

  5. ewolfson2014

    Whenever I think about a sustainable movement or outcome, I’m drawn back to the ideas of conspicuous consumption, or the business model that plans to make new products regardless of the functionality of the existing product. Singer sowing machines almost went out of business because their machines lasted a life time and no one was buying additional machines–and this was deemed as an unsuccessful business model. Sustainability has to account for economic motives and currently the consumeristic society we live does not address the issue of conspicuous consumption. So what can we do?

    I really enjoyed the ted video about less stuff more happiness. Here are his main points:
    1) edit ruthlessly–think before you buy
    2) small is sexy
    3) make your stuff multifunctional

    We don’t need more goods to make us happy. In fact I firmly believe less is more. Instead of measuring a country’s GDP should we be measuring their GNH-(gross national happiness)? http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com

  6. edermartinez

    First of all thank you so much for the summary and your comments in this interesting discussion. Here are some thoughts I would like to add to the discussion

    Personal appreciation of the readings:
    Personally, the two readings assigned to this class made me contrast different sustainability approaches. From my point of view, “our common future” definition of sustainable development, by including exploitation of resources and investments as main interests, is oriented to consumerism and keeping economic growth. On the other hand, Wheeler put more emphasis in human welfare, ecological concern and the interaction between both. According to this, I feel more identified with wheeler’s definition because I believe at this urgency point; the emphasis should be on the environment rather than economic growth.

    Political will and human behavior:
    Several years ago, the science told us that keeping this level of growth and resource consumption will drive the planet to collapse. However, at this point the political will has not been strong enough to implement policies that lead us to avoid this apocalyptical end. For this reason, I believe in the power of people. However, we need more than individual efforts to achieve sustainability. Human’s behavior and empowered communities are the cornerstone to reduce environment degradation. A community engaged with environmental issues can lead authorities to implement the adequate policies to achieve sustainable society.

    This video is a simple example about how simple changes in human behavior can contribute to save the environment.

    Developed and developing countries:
    Usually, developing countries blame the developed countries and big economies for the environmental problems affecting our world. Developing countries argue that most of the resources are being used by these huge economies contributing with a high percentage of CO2 emissions. However, developing countries are following the same path ignoring lessons learned from developing countries. Why is this happening?

  7. Unpacking what sustainable development is and its contradictions has been very enlightening, allowing us to critically analyze how it is defined and implemented. The idea of scale is very interesting as it forces us to rethink sustainability not just in terms of a local city, but rather, its ramifications at a regional and global level. One challenge seems to be that sustainability measures need to constantly be evaluated at multiple scales in order to understand its current strengths and limitations. In essence, sustainable development is a process, constantly shifting and readjusting its direction and practices to better balance the goals among equity, environment, and economic development.

    The idea of political will and power dynamics stood out the most in the discussion for me. Influencing and leveraging the three Es are the political dynamics that intersect these and strongly drive which will be more dominant. A number of cities have been in the forefront of developing and implementing innovative policies towards sustainable development and this has harnessed momentum throughout our country. However, what were the political implications, changes in power dynamics, changes in political discourse, etc. that ultimately allowed for sustainable development to foster? Was there an organized political movement among residents that led to the election of more progressive elected officials? Was there greater collaboration among different constituencies to push forward sustainable development policies? What was the role and level of leadership of marginalized communities? Are these cities now better equipped to address the underlying systemic factors that produce socio-economic inequity and environmental injustice?

  8. skonala254

    Great overview, Lauren! Regarding the three pillars of sustainability, I felt that one conflict that wasn’t discussed as much in class was the conflict between economic growth and social equity. I kept thinking about my first introductory Microeconomics class and learning about the economic pie. A larger economic pie would inherently result in a more inequitable distribution. A more equitable system would result in a smaller pie, due to possible disincentives to produce wealth. Clearly, this conflict between the economic growth and equity is more nuanced then I’ve laid out but the basic economic principles are still valid.

    I think a great way to resolve this conflict was brought up in class. We need to measure growth using some other metric that is not wealth production and consumption. This will help to reduce the conflict between the two. We also as a society need to decide the importance of economic growth relative to equity and the environment.

  9. lrudis

    I really liked the Atlantic article- thank you for posting! I believe that article gets at this problem of scale that has been so hotly debated in class. If we begin our discussion at the global scale, we can all agree that current patterns of consumption are not even sustainable on the scales of years and decades, let alone the indefinite future. However, there are enough moving parts that we can only ever conclude that 1) the problem exists and 2) the problem is mighty wicked. There is such a diversity of motivations at work with a mass of moving parts that it would be impossible for us to keep up exactly why current practice is so bad and exactly what we can do about it. We risk being lost in theoretical discussion and paralyzed in terms of action.

    As we begin to look at more specific places, as this article suggests, perhaps the problem will become more manageable. There is a level of uncertainty when scaling down in this way- we don’t know whether making one city more sustainable necessarily makes human civilization more sustainable. However, down-scaling allows for both action and discussion.

  10. Great Input and thanks for the article about the city mayors. Here is my input to this discussion and the class.

    I think you have done a great summary to the sustainability Dilemma, and I agree that there are un answered questions about it.
    To me, it will be an endless debate and it will continue to be a wicked problem, because of the already mentioned opposite arguments:
    1-a) Suitability should have faith in technology (conservation within industrialized countries)
    1-b) Sustainable development is fundamentally in compatible with with current capitalist economist
    2-a) Sustainability is important and encouraged by deep ecologists and main stream environmentalists as it represent a solution to the ecological crisis
    2-b) Sustainability shall continue to be lead by scoai ecologists and grassroots activists because it is all about justice and equality, otherwise a community is not Sustainable
    3-a) Using the wisdom of local culture is a great plus if we want to dig deeper and find it and learn from it, (which is a bit rare in my experience, the city experts makes decisions about remote areas with very little information about it and almost no knowledge).
    3-b) Local people use of resources was not sustainable (some professionals and theorists argie that local people have ruined the environment already, and what we are trying to protect now is the leftover from their abuse), I personally disagree with this thought as it is always evaluated out of the context in that time.
    4-a) We are moving away from the notion that ecosystem naturally reach a point of balance or harmony on its own and that we shall reduce our damage4but not manipulate the system to be in a shape that we think is better.
    4-b) Search for a steady state condition of human development and work towards it through making necessary adjustment in the system.

    I believe (scale) is also an issue as I do not see it as consistent as it should be in addressing sustainability. This take me to a great example when I worled with all my energy on a project and did work that got implemented, built on the ground till today. I was happy with the results as it achieved all stakeholders’ needs. When later I worked on the assessment for a similar project, I realized that we could have done 10 times what we did if we addressed things on the right level. This takes me to the: POLITICAL WILL, because the window I was working on is (technical) while very little changes on the (policy) level could have opened the door for much more sustianable projects in the Red Sea.
    Is suitability (by design) as a process that require engagement and participation of several stakeholder a wicked problem, or this is its nature and it can not be otherwise? Can sustainable development, as we know it now, work better in different world with different rules based on equality, ethics, justice?

    In the questions posted by the seminar moderators, there is an interesting question about our preferences to best writers. In the readings, my favorite three contributors are:
    a) (Leopold) believe that there is ethical responsibility from human towards nature
    b) (Muir) believed that nature is terrestrial manifestation of God (spiritual value)
    c) (Helena Norberg-Hodge / Peter Georing) learning from the nomads because local people are the only true model of sustainability
    Do you think if we apply the exercise all over the world, we can come with the top rated trend and just unify it? Or this multiple arguments and trends is appropriate for suitability in different places.

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