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?