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.