Liberating Sustainable Development From Its Non-Historical Shackles

33 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2023

See all articles by John C. Dernbach

John C. Dernbach

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School

Scott Schang

Wake Forest University - School of Law; Landesa

Date Written: March 1, 2023


In this Article, we argue that sustainable development is historically a much broader and more societally beneficial concept than it is often understood to be, and that it is often limited, particularly in the United States, by the supposition that it is just about the environment, or about environmental and energy law. If we really want to understand sustainable development, in other words, we need to liberate it from its non-historical shackles.

Sustainable development is a broad-spectrum conceptual framework for fostering human wellbeing by integrating environmental protection and social wellbeing with economic development and peace and security. It does so in a way that seeks to optimize all of them concurrently, instead of treating them as inherently opposing or unrelated concepts. At its core, sustainable development would transform how Americans conceive of and pursue environmental protection—and over time the law that supports and drives development. Sustainable development has the substantive capacity to be one of the most important and potentially transformational ideas to come out of the last century. Some scholars have described it as an idea or principle of the same level of fundamental importance as freedom, equality, and justice.

This Article provides an overview of the history of sustainable development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015, showing that sustainable development has consistently been about changing development patterns, and not simply about the environment. It then shows the quite different and more environmentally-oriented and environmental-law-oriented way that sustainable development has been framed in the Unites States—sustainable development’s non-historical shackles. The Article explains two key benefits of unshackling sustainable development from this limiting perspective. Sustainable development and particularly the SDGs can enrich and strengthen nearly all U.S. policymaking by helping to spot issues and develop law reform agendas. In addition, sustainable development can activate all stakeholders, and is already doing so—something that is vitally necessary if we are to effectively address the many challenges we now face.

Keywords: sustainable development, development, sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals, stakeholders, environmental law, private environmental governance, ESG, UN Conference on Environment and Development, Earth Summit

JEL Classification: K00, K19, K32, Q01, Q20, Q25, Q28, Q30, Q38, Q48, Q54

Suggested Citation

Dernbach, John C. and Schang, Scott, Liberating Sustainable Development From Its Non-Historical Shackles (March 1, 2023). Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 54, No. 3, 2022, Widener Law Commonwealth Research Paper No. 23-04, Available at SSRN:

John C. Dernbach (Contact Author)

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School ( email )

3800 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9380
United States

Scott Schang

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States

Landesa ( email )

1424 Fourth Avenue
Suite 300
Seattle, WA 98101
United States

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