Occasionally an academic term becomes a meme in broader media and popular discourse. Among such terms are "stagflation", "globalization", and the concept that this chapter and volume addresses: "sustainable development". Like many other such terms, this concept implies an important subject and broad outlines of research programs and policy initiatives. Yet while provoking consideration of important and often uneasy issues, such a term can also mystify or deflects attention from other related issues. Given the clear evidence of global warming trends and the costs of environmental degradation, the eventuality of peak oil and increasing demand for increasingly scarce fossil fuels (temporarily delayed through the recent recession and discovery of Marcellus Shale deposits of natural gas), and the increasing appeal of more radical ideologies to the losers of globalization (which is starting to include the American and European middle classes), then making sense of environmentally and socially sustainable development is one of the most important issues of our day and years to come. The alternative is the risk of authoritarian politics and military adventure to guarantee control over scarce resources and to control popular outrage over inequality and unmet expectations.
Because space limitations make impossible a thorough overview of scholarship and popular discourse related to this totem, this essay has more modest goals: to provide a suggestive (and likely contentious) overview of the nature of this concept and its scholarship, and to provide some critical (and likely contentious) comments regarding how this concept has developed and how scholars (especially economists) have treated it. I focus on social science discourse and the social and political dimensions of sustainable development policies (or lack there of), First, scholarship in the natural sciences is sufficiently technical and often bordering or beyond the boundaries of my own competence. As well, the technical side to debates in the natural sciences about sustainable development is more objective, relative to discourse in the social science and the public sphere and to political decision-making1. Second, the politics of sustainable development policies has dynamics that I could disentangle only in a book-length manuscript, although I will briefly refer to the more general tendencies in the policies of various countries and global institutions. Further, social science discourse is linked to political interests and ideologies, even if indirectly; for example, scholars in the tradition of mainstream economics have vested personal, professional, and likely ideological interests in demonstrating that (relatively) free markets are an optimal way to organize economic activity, and that parsimony of mathematically oriented economic theory, with its reliance on utility maximization and instrumental rationality, remains uncluttered with such complicating variables as environmental costs (externalities), political pluralism and deliberation over "social justice,' and the like.
Copyright © 2013 St. Petersburg State University. This article first appeared in Aktual'nye problemy mirovoi politiki v XXI veke, Ezhegodnyi al'manakh 6 (2013), 11-24.
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Hass, Jeffrey K. "Sustainable What? An Overview and Assessment of 'Sustainable Development'." Aktual'nye Problemy Mirovoi Politiki v XXI Veke. Ezhegodnyi Al'Manakh 6 (2013): 11-24.