Only one Earth

Usually I pay some extra attention to four concepts, which I consider as fundamental for the development in the coming decades: citizenship, xenophobia, sustainability and cooperativeness. This short essay is a summary of the debate about sustainable development

The concept sustainable development was defined in the Brundtland commission in 1987, and today it’s hard to find someone questioning the importance of the balance between social and economic development and respect for nature.

But for a long time, an anthropocentric world view was dominating. We could use nature without limits to create economic growth. After the industrialization and the rise of the filthy, big cities, the awareness of the environmental problems arose. During the 60’s and 70’s the debate became lively; some of the classical books from that time are Silent Spring (Carson, 1965) and Limits of Growth (Meadows et al, 1972). Sustainability became an international issue, and the first global conference was held in Stockholm in 1972. One of the outcomes was the motto “Only One Earth”, another was the establishment of United Nation’s Environmental Programme. During the international conferences the differences between the rich and poor countries became obvious – who is responsible? What is fair? Who should act? In 1992 the next summit was held, the conference in Rio de Janeiro established the Agenda 21.

During the last years the concept of sustainability has been criticized from many directions. What does it mean, in reality? How should it be implemented? While some claim the power of the concept should be found in its openness and flexibility, others state it has become too vague and therefore could be misused.

The most wide-spread and quoted definition of sustainable development is found in the Brundtland commission: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The concept has been elaborated during the last 30 years, and today you’ll find at least the following four models:  

THE EQUAL. A common model is the venn diagram. The three dimensions of sustainability are illustrated in three circles overlapping in the middle. The dimensions are on the same level and not competing.

The Equal

THE STRATIFIED. Another model is hierarchic. The ecological dimension is the base, on which the social and economic dimensions rely. This model rates the dimensions – it’s impossible to establish social sustainability without ecological sustainability, and economic sustainability needs social sustainability.

THE RUSSIAN DOLL. Sustainability has also been described as a Russian doll, containing three layers. The economy is in the center. Economy is the driving force, but it’s interfered by the social and ecological layers on the outside.

THE STRUGGLE. The last model is a bit related to the equal-model above, but it’s basically competitive. It’s illustrated by a triangle, in which every angle represents contrarious goals. The development is a kind of fight, the only balanced spot is in the middle. The city planners have to deal with three different interests, and the priorities depends on the orientation of the individual city planner (or department.)

The Struggle

My own starting point is the equal model. But it could definitely be challenged. If we use the concepts of social capital and natural capital, some kind of clearance in the model occurs: Natural capital is connected to consuming, while social capital is connected to investing; trust and understanding (social capital) could be increased when individuals meet, while the quarry is nothing but a hole in the ground.

The next problem is obvious: How do you implement a concept that is so unclear? Is it even possible? A common outcome is actually to prioritize one dimension on the expense of the others, and the selected dimension is usually the ecological. We put the social and economic dimension away.  

Another debate deals with the tension between the rural and urban. For a long time the urbanization and growing cities were considered as threatful sources to the increasing environmental problems. From that perspective, urban development and sustainability was understood as dichotomies. However, during the last decades, the discourse has made a twist. Urban development is now thought of as a solution: The dense population decreases the energy consumption and makes the condition for public transport better, which support the adaption to a sustainable society. And what happens to the countryside then?

Sustainability is today used as a tool for marketing. The world is a huge global market, which means that every country, every region and every city has to compete to attract investments and resources. A strong brand with positive connotations is needed, and one of the options to produce the brand is to use the concept of sustainability. The danger is obvious: The ad, which always in one way or another is fictive, is perhaps more attractive than reality…

The concept of sustainability has even been accused for contributing to a hegemonic society. According to Erik Swyngedouw, professor of geography at the University of Manchester, there is no room left for contradictory opinions or debate; the discussion is occupied with questions about technology and organization.

Erik Swyngedouw

The vision of sustainability has developed to a belief that we can continue in the same direction, if we just find the right technical solutions or models of organization. If we use these ‘fixes’, there is no need to question the neoliberal ideology of today – a lack of ideological discussion. The capitalism is the framework for the development: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”.

Well. Sustainable development is one of the most important issues of the contemporary world. It’s obviously a necessary concept, full of beauty and tensions.


Fredrik Sandblad || 2016-08-03