Sustainable Development and its Discontents

Transnational Environmental Law, 4(2), 247-287

43 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2015 Last revised: 29 Jul 2019

See all articles by Federico Cheever

Federico Cheever

University of Denver Sturm College of Law (deceased)

John C. Dernbach

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School

Date Written: July 22, 2015


Sustainable development (or sustainability) is a decision-making framework for maintaining and achieving human well-being, both in the present and into the future. The framework requires both consideration and achievement of environmental protection, social justice and economic development. In that framework, environmental protection must be integrated into decisions about social and economic development, and social justice and economic viability must be integrated into decisions about environmental quality.

First endorsed by the world’s nations in 1992, this framework is intended to provide an effective response to the twin global challenges of growing environmental degradation and widespread extreme poverty. Sustainability provides a framework for humans to live in harmony with nature, rather than at nature’s expense. It may therefore be one of the most important ideas to come out of the 20th century. In the last two decades, the framework has become a touchstone in nearly every economic sector and at every level of government, unleashing an extraordinary range of creativity in all of those realms. Sustainable development is having a significant effect on the practice of law and on the way in which laws are written and implemented. Understanding the framework is increasingly important for law makers and lawyers.

As sustainable development (or sustainability) has grown in prominence, its critics have become more numerous and more vocal. Three major lines of criticism are that the term is “too boring” to command public attention, “too vague” to provide guidance, and “too late” to address the world’s problems. Critics suggest goals such as abundance, environmental integrity, and resilience. Beginning with the international agreements that shaped the concept of sustainable development, this Article provides a functional and historical analysis of the meaning of sustainable development. It then analyzes and responds to each of these criticisms in turn. While the critics, understood constructively, suggest ways of strengthening this framework, they do not provide a compelling alternative. The challenge for lawyers, law makers, and others is to use and improve this framework to make better decisions.

Keywords: sustainable development, sustainability, sustainable

JEL Classification: K00, K3, K19, K32, N5, O13, Q2

Suggested Citation

Cheever, Federico and Dernbach, John C., Sustainable Development and its Discontents (July 22, 2015). Transnational Environmental Law, 4(2), 247-287, Available at SSRN:

Federico Cheever

University of Denver Sturm College of Law (deceased) ( email )

John C. Dernbach (Contact Author)

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School ( email )

3800 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9380
United States

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