Sustainable Development (1987-2005) - An Oxymoron Comes of Age

Problems of Sustainable Development, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 33-50, 2009

18 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2009

Date Written: January 1, 2009


In the wake of the Brundtland report (1987) it was argued that ‘development’ ought to be able to accommodate ‘sustainability.’ The discussion of ‘development’ needed to be enlarged and a ‘long view’ taken of society/nature relations. During the last two decades this formulation has increasingly been called into question: critics of ‘sustainable development’ have argued that it is an oxymoron, and that development cannot accommodate sustainability, and there has been criticism from the skeptical Right and the Deep Green Left. Others have argued that both the scientific evidence of global environmental change and increasing globalization (both economic and cultural) suggest that it is possible to 'retune' development along lines that are less energy and material intensive. However, the political and social implications of employing the idea of ‘sustainability’ have rarely been thought through. There has little attention to the implications of re-thinking sustainability for governance, security or ideas of justice. During the 1970s and 1980s environmental policy and regulation identified external risks (wildlife, effluents etc) which could be contained and repaired. The risks were seen as controllable. There was strong modernist impulse at work in delineating human responsibilities for nature. Since 1992, however, this confident, regulatory modernist impulse has been undermined. Floods, storms, habitat loss and droughts can be seen as immanent to the system (especially the climate system). They are internal risks. These doubts about control extend to new areas, notably the new genetics. This paper examines the direction of current thinking on sustainable development in the light of the intellectual inheritance prior to 1992, the date of the first Earth Summit, when ‘sustainability’ entered mainstream thinking about development.

Keywords: sustainable development, modernity, global environmental change

JEL Classification: O13, Q20, Q32, Q41, R11, M14

Suggested Citation

Redclift, Michael R., Sustainable Development (1987-2005) - An Oxymoron Comes of Age (January 1, 2009). Problems of Sustainable Development, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 33-50, 2009 , Available at SSRN:

Michael R. Redclift (Contact Author)

King’s College London ( email )

London, England WC2R 2LS
United Kingdom

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