Sustainable Development, why is it such a commonly used term?

Sustianable Development is a phrase that gets thrown around like it’s room spray. And there are some who would say that it’s just as emphemeral and does the same job. So why is it so popular? Well, there are three factors that contribute to its use: that it doesn’t have a legal definition, that it involves lots of groups who otherwise might not get a say and that you can use it in almost any context since it has multiple definitions. Sustainable Development’s greatest strength, and weakness, is that no-one can seriously make a case for unsustainable development (Kirkby et al, 1995).

Sustainable Development has multiple definitions. Holmberg and Sandbrook counted 70 definitions in 1992 (cited in Kirkby et al, 1995, p.1.) and there are now many more. The meaning of Sustainable Development tends to vary depending on the situation and the groups involved (Palmer et al, 1997, p.91.). Part of this variation in meaning is related to the lack of definitional clarity. Sustainable Development can be used as both a philosophical idea with no specific temporal or physical limits (as Palmer et al describe) and also a practical, physical situation such as Conroy and Litvinoff (1988) attempt to address with regard to Sustainable Development as overseas aid. These two positions cause definitions to necessarily differ because one has set physical and temporal criteria and the other is a philosophical standpoint which can be purely theoretical. The definition of Sustainable Development is further complicated by the fact that “even frequently used words are still poorly defined” (Palmer et al, 1997, p.87.). Because words are short cuts to a meaning they often encompass more than can be easily described and agreed upon. In this respect, the phrase Sustainable Development can be compared to happiness (Palmer et al, 1997, p.88.) or the Dutch word gezellig, which has multiple and complicated meanings depending upon its context and the subjective opinion of the user (Dutch Ansterdam.nl, 2008). There is some common grund for these sorts of words; “a brown cafĂ© is gezellig” (Ibid.) and so are friends. However the point of gezellig is its unifing role as “the heart of Dutch culture” (ibid.). Similarly with Sustainable Development, its exact definition is disputed and some claim that it is now devalued because of its wide and varied use (Kirkby et al, 1995, p.1.). However, like gezellig, it is effective as a unifying term, it provides “a common language for interdisciplinary communication” (Kelly, 1998, p.452.). Sustainable Development also does have to an extent a core definition. It is generally recognised that Bruntlands definition of Sustainable Development is the most important and that other definitions are a variant on Bruntland’s (Kirkby et al, 1995, p.1. and Palmer et al, 1997).

The second issue is that within the Uk there is no legal definition of Sustainable Development. It is defined in EU law as “A sustainable and non-inflationary growth respecting the environment.”. (Article 2, European Treaty) but extensively used within UK policy documents without a specific definition. Without a set legal definition each organisation is free to create a definition of Sustainable Development that suits their own goals and potentially to use Sustainable Development as a ‘green wash’. As an example of people’s general understanding of Sustainable Development, Wikipedia’s definition is: “Sustainable development is a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but in the indefinite future.” (October 2008). Because there is no legal definition, there is no impetus upon organisations to forfill the above criteria. Further, there are no set standards or limitations on what criteria for Sustainable Development might be or might look like. In the UK, virtually anything can be labled as Sustainable Development because there is no legal definition (ibid.). However many people will assume that Sustainable Development has a legal definition and includes the principles mentioned above. Therefore the phrase Sustainable Development can be used as a ‘cheat’ or a ‘greenwash’ to make things appear as if they preserve the environment and the future when in fact there is no behavioural change, only a labling as ‘Sustainable Development’. This could account for some of the phrase’s popularity and ubiquity. Sustainable Development can be used in any context and gives an impression of action on environmental issues without any cost to the organisation involved. There is therefore every advantage and no disadvantage to using the phrase and therefore organisations use it as a positive association.

The third issue is that Sustainable Development brings together concepts and disciplines that are traditionally seperate. For instance, Wikipedia identifies economic, environmental and social elements in Sustainable Development. These three disciplines have often considered themselves mutually exclusive. Social issues have traditionally excluded Environment as “sociologists share a fundamental image of human societies as exempt from the ecological principals and contraints” (Catton and Dunlap, cited in Hannigan, 1995, p.8.). Environmental issues have usually excluded Economic considerations as being the antithisis of Environment (Palmer et al, 1997, p.87.). Economic considerations have usually excluded Social considerations because “there is no conflict between growth and ‘quality of life'” (Beckerman, 1995, p.35.). Sustainable Development, in bringing these issues together creates a conflict of interests. In the absence of a legal definition, these different disciplines attempt to define or practice Sustainable Development in the way that suits their discipline best. The definition given reflects the priorities of the that institution (Palmer et al, 1997, p.91.). This creates multiple and sometimes conflicting definitions of Sustainable Development and therefore potentially a greater number of issues that it applies to than if it were narrowly or singly defined. Many groups have a part to play if an issue includes Sustainable Development and therefore have an interest in making sure that it is included and thus it is commonly and widely used. This is especailly true for interests such as community groups or environmental concerns which have sometimes played a minor or non-existant role in development discussions.

The phrase Sustainable Development is widely used because of its definitional issues. It has different meanings for every situation and organisation that uses it. However the popularity and ubiquity of Sustainable Development has deeper reasons. It is popular with some organisations because of it’s use as a ‘greenwash’ which does not have to have a legal meaning. It is used in numerous contexts because it is multidisciplinary, applies to many situations and includes groups in descision making that might otherwise be excluded. The popularity of Sustainable Development has grown because it gives a means of interdisciplinary communication and consensus. That end is probably helped by Sustainable Development’s lack of legal definition and lack of disagreeability.

References:
Auty, R.M and Brown, K. (eds.) (1997) Approaches to Sustainable Development. London. Pinter.
Beckerman, W. (1995) Small is Stupid: Blowing the whistle on the Greens. 1st ed. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co.
Catton and Dunlap, R. cited in Hannington, J.A., Environmental Sociology. 1st ed. London: Routeledge.
Dutch Ansterdam.nl, http://www.dutchamsterdam.nl/155-gezellig
Kelly, K., (1998) A systems approach to identifying decisive information for sustainable development. European Journal of Operational Research 109 452-464
Palmer, J., Cooper, I. and van der Vorst, R. (1997) Mapping out Fuzzy buzzwords – wh sites where on sustainability and sustainable development. Sustainable Development. [Online] (5) p.87-93 {Available from www.wiley.com
Redclift, M. (1987) Sustainable Development, Exploring the Contradictions. 1st ed. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd.
Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_development [Accessed 26.10.08]