Social Justice and Sustainability, Place vs. People?


Tuesday’s class focused on unpacking what “just sustainability” might look like in practice. Two graphics were particularly useful in guiding our discussion: first, the sustainability “triangle” proposed by Scott Campbell, in which social justice, economic development, and environmental protection form three axes of a triangle at the center of which planners can (and should) sit; and second, Graham Haughton’s chart comparing his four models of sustainable urban development (self-reliant cities, re-designing cities, externally dependent cities, and fair-share cities) through weighing their success in addressing five distinct equity concerns (inter-generational, social, geographical, procedural, and inter-species).

Campbell’s sustainability triangle illustrates the conflicts surrounding the meaning of sustainability. In several different ways, our discussion linked this conflict strongly to power. The question of “whose justice?”, for example, illustrates the inequities present in the very process of defining the concept of sustainability itself. Whoever is able to dominate the debate “wins”, and their interests become the focus of “sustainability”. It seems, though, that the deck is already stacked heavily for one side. As incredibly influential shapers and disseminators of values, institutions are key in determining the path of “just sustainability” moving forward – yet at the same time, institutional power and socio-economic inequities reproduce one another. Is it possible, then, to produce a truly “just” and equity-oriented understanding of sustainability within the current institutional framework?

Haughton’s four models of sustainable urban development brought up in our discussion the question of scale – an emergent theme in our seminars. Haughton foregrounds the local-global dimensions of the sustainability debate in his analysis; he discusses equity from a global vantage point, but describes possible models of sustainable development at the level of the city (the globally-connected city, that is). In addition to deepening our discussion of the appropriate scale at which to approach sustainability, Haughton’s breakdown of equity into five different forms further complicates and enriches Campbell’s arguments about the useful role of conflict in sharpening sustainability as a concept.

To circle back to the issue of institutional power: what about brick-and-mortar institutions themselves, like the World Bank? The World Bank is a clear reflection of the global order & of capitalism, both of which are responsible for perpetuating climate/environmental/social/economic injustice — and yet the World Bank maintains its commitment to “sustainable development”, which it defines as the following:

“Sustainable development recognizes that growth must be both inclusive and environmentally sound to reduce poverty and build shared prosperity for today’s population and to continue to meet the needs of future generations. It must be efficient with resources and carefully planned to deliver both immediate and long-term benefits for people, planet, and prosperity.”

Can it be and do both? Or, alternatively, is it less important to raise this question than it is to acknowledge and appreciate the boost that attention like this from major institutions gives to the “sustainability” movement?


7 thoughts on “Social Justice and Sustainability, Place vs. People?

  1. I think the question you post: “Is it possible, then, to produce a truly “just” and equity-oriented understanding of sustainability within the current institutional framework?” is something I keep thinking about. Even though the concept of sustainability has re-framed the discourse to integrate social equity and environmental justice, it is still constrained by the capitalist system it is embedded in. The World Bank’s statement speaks to an idea of equity, which adds to the perception of a mainstream acceptance of equity as a goal. However, one thing is what is written, and another is what concrete actions are taken to implement it. Campbell raised the point: “Actions speak louder than words, and though all endorse sustainability, few will actually practice it. Furthermore, any concept fully endorsed by all parties must surely be bypassing the heart of the conflict.” I think this illustrates the weakness of the World Bank in promoting equitable development and sustainability. While there are no specific benchmarks to obtain, no measures to hold governments and corporations accountable to, and no systemic change implemented, the idea of sustainability is left as a great vision that we aspire to achieve, but where the critical steps needed to achieve it have been left on the back-burner.

  2. Great review. On the topic of the World Bank – I’m actually somewhat unfamiliar with its other programs and positive achievements and am much more familiar with the critiques of its structural adjustment programs (SAP’s). From my understanding, neoliberal policies that privatize state enterprises (including infrastructure projects) and promote deregulation seem to have a pretty horrible track record when it comes to addressing the various issues of sustainability in other countries — they devastate countries’ economies, increase poverty, and exacerbate social inequities. Not sure about environmental improvements. I think this goes back to a common question running throughout our class around the merits of implementing market-based solutions to address the interrelated issues of environmental, social, and economic justice. It seems that when the WB talks about sustainable development, it seems to prioritize economic growth over human rights and the environment. Although I could see how, from the WB’s perspective, they think that, for example, privatizing infrastructure is a way to strengthen the quality of such projects and create a way to more equitably distribute resources to a large number of people (although the reality is quite the opposite many times – see Cochabamba’s water and gas wars).

    While there may be some points missing from the diagram, I liked the triangle model mostly because it pointed out the conflicts between the three issues of social justice, economic development, and environmental protection. The most interesting points to me revolved around the dilemmas related to capitalism and neoliberal ideology, and how played out in these conflicts. First, there’s that contradiction between corporations believing that the government should not interfere with the market, but at the same time wanting government regulation to guarantee their ability to freely make profits. Secondly – companies want to make money by extracting resources, but if they exploit too much of those resources they can no longer sustain their own profit-making. I wonder how well they debate and plan for the question of, “how far can we exploit this resource so that it can still be sustainable” (the sustainable yield issue)?

  3. skonala254

    I’m glad that you brought up the World Bank. The institution is a great example of an organization that has emerged from a capitalistic society which now promotes sustainable development. To understand its role, it’s important to look at the function of the World Bank today. The World Bank’s main role is a financial one as it can act as a loan lender, a donor of aid, and/or an investor. The main goal of the institution is to eradicate poverty. At times the goals of reducing poverty can conflict with environmental sustainability and social sustainability.

    A good example is the construction of the Narmada River Dam in India. The World Bank was an early financer for the dam. An overview of the controversy can be found here ( Essentially, the Dam was projected to have a net benefit on the region. “The World Bank claim[ed] that the projects [would] irrigate about two million hectares, help feed as many as 20 million people, provide drinking water for at least 30 million people, supply electric power for agriculture and industry, generate employment for about one million people and control floods.” However, villagers and farmers would lose their land and the river basin would be degraded. I think that the way the World Bank operates leads to a mismatch of what the institution sees as improving sustainability and equity and what the local people see. To answer your question, the World Bank certainly attempts to promote sustainability through financial means but it often fails in the endeavor.

    That being said, I still think that any organization that brings more awareness to sustainable development is good in the short term.

    • ewolfson2014

      Thank you for bringing this real world project to the forefront. I think the question of success of a project goes back to our scale discussion in class. The world bank created a solution essentially that was from a birds eye view and not on the ground. Without understanding the dynamics of the daily needs and struggles of the people it is hard to create a successful sustainable project. Ideally the world bank should act more like ethnographers with eyes on the ground instead of in the sky.

      • lrudis

        I don’t think there’s any denying that the World Bank has done some work to improve the sustainability of some specific development projects and has done some work to expand social justice in areas that are lacking. However, taken as a whole, the institution of the World Bank does not seem fulfilling the role of sustainable economic developer, as we have defined sustainable development in class. I’m not sure it’s mere existence does much to bring more awareness to sustainable development. It might lead smaller-scale organizations to believe more is being done for sustainable development than actually is. And, if it turns out that most of those wielding power within the World Bank are also protecting some economic interests that are separate from the environmentally sustainable and socially equitable, does it help a that the Bank is parading under the term “sustainable developer”?

  4. I think the questions you pose here come back to that idea of needing expanded vocabulary around sustainability. Everyone can take the idea of sustainability and morph it to represent their values from sustaining economic growth to achieving social equity. The problem is that the language we use tends to lean on diametrically opposed values. I think part of the problem is the polarity in our current US government system and media channels where the rhetoric tells us that if you are a conservative you are religious but don’t believe in social welfare or women’s rights and if you are liberal then you don’t support our troops and believe in higher taxes. In reality people’s values, beliefs and actions cross so many pieces of the triangle. I can hate capitalism but love shopping. It becomes a disorienting dilemma. I think part of moving forward is recognizing where are values come from and looking at what motivates our actions. I.e. Do I shop because it makes me happy or is it because I’m surrounded by messages that tell me it does? Can I be happy without it? I guess I’m drawing on the spiritual perspective right now. I think these internal critical questions can help us start thinking about rethinking these dominant systems.

  5. The triangle is a very good representation to the problem, (and might be seen as integrated approach) if the three sides are not competing (and they should not).

    With regard to the question here: The right balance between economic progress and environmental protection might not be represented with a specific midpoint. It rather rely on many factors that can be added to the triangle:

    —The system of values that this balance is being achieved and if it is in full consideration of all aspects

    —The balance is very much related to the context, which determines the relative weight of each factor considered, either ecological factors or economic progress factors

    —The challenge to achieve this balance is also relevant to the implementing agencies and their efficiencies. weather in local government or interrelation development agencies.

    —The scale in which this balance is desired is subject to more than two levels of governance (federal + local). In fact there is a middle level of authorities that can influence the execution of the central government plans. This makes the implementation level on the local government lacks the balance between economic activities and environmental protection.

    —With the exception of few independent initiatives and grassroots projects, sustainability looses its core objectives while being implemented through the inappropriate level of government. Central government lacks lots of parameters and contextual information about the localities. In a country like Egypt, economic progress overwrite the environmental and cultural preservation, and this is evident in the development projects that are implemented far from the capital.

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