The contested notion of sustainability


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The following paper tries to explain the various reasons that made sustainability so contested by discussing the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the term and its evolution. It also tries to shed some light on the future of sustainability through employing a study technique borrowed from a well established field of human knowledge.

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The contested notion of sustainability

  1. 1. The contested notion of sustainability: Lessons from thepast and reflections on the futureYousef TaibehIt is said ‘study the past if you would define the future’; this inspiring observation byConfucius (cited in(Moncur 2012), para. 12) has a clear validity in many aspects of humandevelopment and is a basic concept that can guide us through in exploring the futureprospects of the elusive notion of sustainability. With hundreds of acknowledged definitions(Dobson 1996) and an ever-increasing new compound words comprising sustainability orone of its derivatives (Miller 2011), this all-encompassing term cannot be more confusing.The following text will try to explain the various reasons that made sustainability socontested by discussing the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the term and itsevolution, and then it will try to shed some light on the envisaged future of sustainabilitythrough employing a study technique borrowed from a well established field of humanknowledge.Humans realised the negative impacts of their actions on the environment a long time ago;a notion that can be easily traced back to the eighteenth century, specifically to the writingsof Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) on population limits (Marcuse 1998). However, theinterchangeable terms of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ as they are knowntoday are very recent. The formulation of these terms began in the 1970s, when theenvironmental concerns started being discussed on international scale under the custody ofthe United Nations. This lead to the official coining of the term ‘Sustainable Development’ in1987 by the Brundtland Report (Ricketts 2010).It is argued that the involvement of the United Nations dictated the need for a broad andgeneral term, to ensure the inclusion of the widest possible spectrum in the cause andhaving an international consensus (Lélé 1991). The unspecified ‘needs’ in Brundtlandsdefinition opened the door for many interpretations (Bonevac 2010), and the introductionof the ‘triple bottom line’ of sustainability expanded its scope to include economy andsociety in addition to the environment (Marcuse 1998). What may have also added to the Page 1 of 5
  2. 2. existing confusion was that the term’s literal meaning is intrinsically contradicting, assustainability can never be forever in a finite world and any development will always requireexploiting limited environmental resources (Bonevac 2010).As soon as sustainability started to influence public polices and gain popularity, businessesbegan abusing the term as a marketing slogan or a pre-emptive action towardsgovernmental constraints in the form of ‘greenwashing’ to cover the negative outcomes ofmany projects (TheِGreenِLife n.d.). This continuous use of the term in different contexts,mostly contradictory similar to the oxymora of Sustainable Mining or even Sustainable War(Miller 2011), largely contributed in draining it of any specific meaning (Marcuse 1998).In response to this generalised and uncontrolled use, concerned researchers called forreclaiming the term and limiting its scope to the original intents of the environmentaldomain (Marcuse 1998). Other researchers had a different approach. Steve Connelly (2007),for example, celebrated the inevitable contestation in sustainability, and drew a frameworkfor understanding the positions of thought groups and their interrelations based on the‘triple bottom line’ and the various degrees of sustainability. While Hopwood et al (2005)categorised the different approaches and theories of sustainability based on the announcedpolitical and policy frameworks and the sought after changes for each group.By accepting the variety and complexity of the domain, the previous two attempts ofcategorising sustainability reveal a hidden structure that links between the differentinterpretations of sustainability. Depending on this understanding, and as an endeavour toenvisage possible future trends, it is argued that additional revelations will be attainable if atime vector is considered in the examination. Sustainability then will be seen as a term inthe making instead of being described as contested (Hillegas 2010). Each definition ofsustainability revel a certain aspect of the subject. The various interpretations arereflections of the circumstances surrounding their emergence, where changing priorities aregiven to the ‘three pillars’ based on the intentions and the domains of the researchers, orbased on the contemporary trends and the ‘spirit of the age’. If this hypothesis is to beextended further, it can be even argued that our current understanding of sustainability isconfined with the present, and the subject has high evolutionary potentials into newmeanings based on our future understanding and consciousness. Page 2 of 5
  3. 3. To understand this evolutionary nature of sustainability, the Business Management domaincan provide us with a powerful tool, the DMAIC principle. DMAIC stands for the differentphases of the problem solving process, namely: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve andcontrol (Insyt Consulting n.d.). If such a framework is to be applied to the evolutionary lineof sustainability, and in spite of the plethora of definitions, it can be safely concluded thatwe are currently living the ‘Measure Phase’, where there is a growing interest amongprofessionals to develop techniques and tools for measuring sustainability in tangible terms(Singh et al. 2012, Moore et al. 2012, Lei & Zhou 2012, Intergovernmental Panel on ClimateChange 2007, Balmford et al. 2002), see Figure 1.Fig 1: Our current positionin the envisaged evolutionof sustainability based onthe DAMIC principleThe ‘Definition Phase’ is believed to be concluding as there is a growing internationalawareness of the annihilatory nature of our current way of living, a concern that is wellestablished, and is being constantly growing with each new human-made disaster (Ricketts2010). In this regard, and although there is a limited agreement on what sustainability is,there is a consensus on what sustainability is not (Jamieson 1998).It is expected that the current ‘Measure’ trend will prevail in the coming years, signified bydevising rigorous and scientific techniques able to record and anticipate the impacts of Page 3 of 5
  4. 4. human’s actions on the environment in widely accepted vocabulary. As soon as the neededmonitoring techniques and tools are in place, the focus in the future will probably shifttowards analysing, improving and controlling the processes and policies to reach the bestoutcomes.In the context of the previous analogy, describing sustainability in managerial terms mayhave additional layers of validity. Both of the notions of ‘sustainability’ and ‘management’are broad and multi-disciplinary. Management, for example, can range from organizingstudent’s time to operating a mega business; yet, it is a well differentiated and establisheddomain of human knowledge. Correspondingly, having various definitions for sustainabilitymay not be a problem in itself, it actually may be a necessity to serve the differentcircumstances and levels; however, and similar to management, sustainability needs to bealways seen as a guiding principle not a goal in itself (Marcuse 1998)Finally, it is important to note that the issue of sustainability is much too complex andsophisticated to be addressed in few pages. The purpose of this paper is to draw attentionto the possibilities of sustainability as a differentiated new field of human knowledge; theidentified phases of sustainability presented in the previous analysis are in reality muchmore intertwined and overlapping, the previous findings are mainly based on the broad andgeneral trends in the movement as can be derived from the reviewed materials. Furtherresearch is definitely required, but the basic argument remains that for the newbornsustainability to secure its niche in the future, it needs to learn a lot from the previous time-honoured fields of human innovations. Page 4 of 5
  5. 5. References:Balmford, A., Bruner, A., Cooper, P., Costanza, R., Farber, S., Green, R. E., Jenkins, M., Jefferiss, P., Jessamy, V., Madden, J., Munro, K., Myers, N., Naeem, S., Paavola, J., Rayment, M., Rosendo, S., Roughgarden, J., Trumper, K. & Turner, K. 2002. Economic reasons for conserving wild nature. Science, 297: 950-953.Bonevac, D. 2010. Is Sustainability Sustainable? Academic Quest, 23 (1): 84–101.Connelly, S. 2007. Mapping Sustainable Development as a Contested Concept. Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, 12 (3): 259-278.Dobson, A. 1996. Environment Sustainabilities: An Analysis and a Typology. Environmental Politics, 5 (3): 401-428.Hillegas, J. V. 2010. Defining Sustainability [Online]. Available: [Accessed 25 March, 2012].Hopwood, B., Mellor, M. & O’brien, G. 2005. Sustainable Development: Mapping Different Approaches. Sustainable Development, 13: 38–52.Insyt Consulting. n.d. Understanding the Phases of Six Sigma [Online]. Available: http://www.insyte- [Accessed 25 March, 2012].Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Fourth Assessment Report: Summary for Policy Makers [Online]. Available: report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_spm.pdf [Accessed 25 March, 2012].Jamieson, D. 1998. Sustainability and beyond. Ecological Economics, 24: 183-192.Lei, K. & Zhou, S. 2012. Per capita resource consumption and resource carrying capacity: A comparison of the sustainability of 17 mainstream countries. Energy Policy, 42: 603–612.Lélé, S. M. 1991. Sustainable Development: A Critical Review. World Development, 19 (6): 607-621.Marcuse, P. 1998. Sustainability is not enough. Environment and Urbanization, 10 (2): 103-111.Miller, K. 2011. Interdisciplinary explorations in sustainability [Online]. Available: [Accessed 25 March, 2012].Moncur, M. 2012. The Quotations Page [Online]. Available: [Accessed 25 March, 2012].Moore, D., Cranston, G., Reed, A. & Galli, A. 2012. Projecting future human demand on the Earth’s regenerative capacity. Ecological Indicators, 16: 3-10.Ricketts, G. M. 2010. The Roots of Sustainability. Academic Questions, 23 (1): 20–53.Singh, R. K., Murty, H. R., Gupta, S. K. & Dikshit, A. K. 2012. An overview of sustainability assessment methodologies. Ecological Indicators, 15: 281-299.The Green Life. n.d. Greenwash 101 [Online]. Available: [Accessed 25 March, 2012]. Page 5 of 5