The Emergence of Sustainable Development


The discussion in class on Thursday (January 30th) focused on the emergence of the idea of sustainable development. We also discussed the importance of sustainable development in the future. The Wheeler reading looked at the historical roots of sustainability, laid out several debates in sustainability, and discussed the evolution of worldviews in the field. The report titled “Our Common Future” looked at the concept of sustainable development in terms of development strategies that will move countries from their current path towards a more sustainable future. In this blog post, I will discuss the various histories of sustainability that we have been presented and will then wrestle with the idea of common interests in sustainable development.

History of Sustainable Development

In our readings so far, we have seen two different attempts to trace the history of environmentalism and sustainability (Daniels and Wheeler). Daniels presents a diagram that shows the five eras of environmental planning starting from the 19th century to present day. He discusses the worldviews in each of the eras that slowly built off each other to reach today’s era of planning for sustainability and the global environment. Wheeler provides a history of works that helped to define and progress ideas of sustainability. As pointed out in class, this history of sustainability is missing several things. We determined that some concepts missing were the long term social implications of the actions taken and environmental justice issues.

Another thing that I felt was missing in this history of environmentalism and sustainability was a discussion of the key events the propelled change. I felt that the diagram presented by Daniels inadvertently gave the impression that the evolution of environmental planning was a gradual change. In reality, certain events such as the OPEC oil crisis, International debt crises, and Exxon-Valdez oil spill helped to motivate government, corporate, and grassroots actions. The International Institute for Sustainable Development keeps a sustainable development timeline  that lists key events in the journey toward sustainability. It is important to keep in mind how each of these events propelled change and learn how to advance sustainable development without waiting for the next big disaster.

Promoting the Common Interest in Sustainable Development

A question posed in class on Thursday was:

In “Our Common Future”, the authors state “our inability to promote the common interest in sustainable development is often a product of the relative neglect of economic and social justice within and amongst nations.”  Do you agree with this statement? If not, where do you see fault with the argument?

In general, I agree with this statement. In most every decision made, there are usually a few winners and few losers, at least in the short-term. Oftentimes, the winner is benefiting economically while negatively impacting those around them. This can be seen in the relationship between developed and developing countries and in the relationship between urban, suburban, and rural developments. However, in the long term, the distinction between winners and losers can blur. A developed county that extracts resources from a developing county, benefits in the short term because of the economic implications.  The developing country may also benefit monetarily but at the expense of the environment and public health. In the long-term, it is in no one’s interest to see a degraded environment, resource depletion, and poor public health because this means that the economic growth cannot continue. All parties share a long-term common interest. However, our inability to promote this long-term common interest results in short-term decisions that are not in the common interest.

This leads to a question of what actions can be taken to ensure that people are aware of the common interests they share. Some actions include:

  • Promoting Transparency – people should be able to see the consequences of their actions
  • Providing Education
  • Developing Local Institutions
  • Allowing for Public Participation in Decision Making
  • Promoting International Cooperation
  • Enforcing Laws

Do you agree with this list? And what actions are missing?

The common theme running though this discussion was tracing the history of sustainability and using that knowledge to create a vision for the future. Hopefully, we will be able to promote this common interest in our future work.


11 thoughts on “The Emergence of Sustainable Development

  1. Thank you for the timeline of major events related to the evolution of sustainability. I think it’s incredibly useful and valuable to connect the high-level theoretical discussions we’ve been having to real-world events & practices, and this timeline does that nicely. Building a solid theoretical base is key to creating thoughtful “sustainable” practice (or should be, anyway), and I think it’s critical for theory to keep pushing the boundaries of reality — but also to keep in mind that reality pushes back, too. Analyzing the continuities and disconnect between theory and practice, even “best practice”, is the most interesting part of studying sustainability to me, and I’m looking forward to our future discussions about this. So, thanks for all the links you’ve been sharing, everyone, they’re appreciated!

  2. The question posed by “Our Common Future” holds one of the major keys as to why more global collaboration and commitment for sustainable development has not taken deeper root. If governments have no urgency or sense of accountability to respond to the socioeconomic disparities within its population, much less will they have a sense of responsibility for the environmental degradation that their economic activities have on our planet. The concept of global collaboration makes me draw a comparison to the idea of regional collaboration in the United States. It is a positive vision and the most strategic in terms of generating a greater impact to the interconnected cities within a region. However, cities are tied to the capitalist system we live in which generates competition rather than collaboration in order to sustain themselves and increase revenue. This is the same reality that plagues any global collaboration for sustainable development and environmental justice. The same underlying systemic root that produces social equity also produces environmental injustice. Addressing the systemic barriers within and among nations will enable a greater sense of collaboration and a true sense of a common future.

  3. I believe all points are mentioned here.

    I very much agree with your list and I think it is important make a distinction between elements in the list that is directly related to the sustainable development process (which is project base related) and other factors that are beyond specific actions.

    Among your list: I would put (transparency, local institutions, public participation, cooperation, awareness,…etc) in the internal circle of the project. In the wider circle, education, behavior change, enhance the democratic process, …etc.

  4. Thanks for the review. One of the above-mentioned issues that moved me the most from this class discussion was the question of “what key events prompt (transformative) change? I know that this has been a on-going issue, not only for those working in the public sector but also those working at the community level as well. I remember the biggest questions revolved around this issue of how we create cultural shifts – in other words, a chance in values and ethics, or priorities.

    It reminds me of a book that a lot of grassroots organizers read called “Don’t Think of an Elephant” ( It presents really insightful arguments and techniques on how to craft compelling framing and messaging that move people to action – not only those less invested, but those in the middle whose allegiances we’re trying to “win over”. Incredibly useful when crafting smart campaign framing. And by campaigns, I don’t just mean electoral campaigns; it’s also very useful for grassroots direct action organizing campaigns and movement building.

    I think that transformative social change is about disrupting power relationships, challenging institutions, and providing alternative values to prevailing structures of power and oppression. That also means altering the relations of power dynamics (who is involved in making decisions that affect people’s lives) as well as moving public opinion. That’s where effective messaging and framing based on values shifts come into play.

    One last thing about change and language: while I know we want to stick to our activist or lefty language, it’s not always the most effective in moving people to action. We get stubborn when we need to be more effective with ideas.
    The general public will understand what the Tea Party stands for, while many non-profits have the longest acronyms ever that no one can remember. When the 99% movement went down, one of the most powerful things about it was how accessible the ideas and the language were to explain the systemic injustices that are happening. it was inclusive, heartfelt, and agitational. When such disruptions in the system happen, it’s important to take advantage of that momentum by inserting crucial dialogues to move people to action – not just for the immediate term but also for the long term…

  5. Thanks for sharing the Sustainable Development Timeline. I liked you idea of thinking about those key historical moments that produced shift in environmental thinking. It makes me wonder about what current events, debates, etc are happening now that can continue developing a global consciousness about sustainable development.

    Adding to the question about economic and social justice, I do believe that environmental problems stem from a lack attention to social and economic justice. Most environmental problems come from a legacy of inequality. We have started wars over natural resources, and exploited people and the planet for continued growth in profit margins without actual growth in wages. Last night I watch Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality for All and it was very eye-opening to see how far the inequality gap in the U.S. has come, while economic output has vastly increased. You can check out the movie trailer her and watch on itunes.

  6. Thanks for moving the conversation to the list of possible actions that can be taken. In that context I think it helps to recognize the range of actors and the types of actions that could be taken at different levels.

    On one level there are the individual actors such as each of us in the class. As Emilie pointed out these actors have regular choices to make and we all should take into account the broader impact of our actions. However, I would argue that not all individual actors have a choice to make. In many places there is only one way to get heat & electricity into the house. Even when there is a choice not everyone can afford to switch to green or alternative energy. That said, there are energy providers who now offer Renewable Energy Credits that allow individuals greater choice in their energy sources.

    On another level we have government (local, state, national, etc.) as actors that can help to move toward a sustainable development solution. Yet another grouping of actors are businesses. Although not all businesses can help promote sustainable development, some businesses have tried to be better stewards.

    Several specific categories of action that are missing are:
    1. Facility and infrastructure improvements. By creating more energy efficient buildings, or better designed waste water treatment plans we can get greater sustainability outcomes.
    2. Plan development – when creating through public participation, this could be a great tool for getting collective buy in and support of sustainability initiatives.
    3. Providing incentives – building on the idea of a carbon tax, financial incentives or even social incentives can encourage behavior changes.

  7. ewolfson2014

    “Do you agree with the list, and what actions need to be taken.”

    I do agree with the list of actions to ensure that people are aware of common interests and I believe that transparency is the most important action we can take. I believe this is important because often times we ignore negative externalities that exist. If there is transparency between economies, it might be harder to justify buying a product that has negative impacts on the people, and environment in the region of production. Will transparency change the way we consume? In order for this to happen education is key. Furthermore, as consumers we must demand sustainable products. I’m realizing now that I make a lot of fashion industry references, but greenpeace released an expose of photos from around the world detailing the effects of these products. Hopefully it will make us all think twice, or will it?

  8. edermartinez

    Thank you for the class summary

    First, I would like to complement the comment you made about the winners and losers in this wicked problem. It is incredible how this happens in all levels. At the bottom level, a small local community could be affected by the installation of a rubbish dump close to its neighborhood that will serve the entire city. At an upper level, the mayor of a city can organize the community to protest against the installation of a Waste Water Treatment Plant [WWTP] that will serve all the state. Or as you mentioned before, developing countries blame big economies for the climate change. So, what is the common factor in all these situations? As you mentioned, it is the sense of justice. Why should our community deal with a WWTP? Why us? Why this is not installed in other city? I completely agree with those neighbors protesting on the street but what is the solution to this problem?

    One initiative aimed to solve these types of problems (called negative externalities) is Carbon Tax. According to the article ( “Negative externalities are costs that are not paid for. When utilities, businesses or homeowners consume fossil fuels, they create pollution that has a societal cost; everyone suffers from the effects of pollution”. By implementing this Carbon tax, it is supposed that the people who use fossil fuels will pay for its effects in the environment. However, some argue this initiative will affect mainly the poor [Wicked problem]

    Second, I completely agree with the actions you listed! However, I would like to point out a common characteristic among them; most of them are actions that must be driven for the top organizational level, for instance the Government of U.S or ONU. Why this change cannot be driven from the bottom? Why we cannot be the force that motivates this change? What do you think?

    • lrudis

      From EDERMARTINEZ: “Why this change cannot be driven from the bottom? Why we cannot be the force that motivates this change?”

      I think that’s a great point and really gets at the heart of this debate about the role of the planner. We must simultaneously be thinking about the top-down actions listed in Saranya’s post, because planners have been granted some degree of power to execute those actions, and also how to ensure that power is granted to those who would otherwise have had little or no say in how/where/when actions are undertaken. As was discussed in the Campbell reading, a major component of the justice side of sustainable development is the cession of power. What does that cession look like in our day-to-day lives?

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