Sustainability and sustainable development: the use in policies and the ongoing debate on these terms


This paper is a critical review of openly accessible literature, and of institutional reports, available at Internet sites, on the eve of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event is marked as Rio+10, ten years after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In many ways papers, discussed here, are politically downplayed, or outrightly neglected in the mainstream advocacy of sustainable development (SD) by the United Nation system, its specialized agencies, the GEF, the IMF and the World Bank, and by some international organizations, like the IUCN. Most Governments, in developed and in less developed countries, and the NGOs in these countries, are ardent advocates of SD. The present discussion could be considered one-sided and biased, but the mainstream is represented in so many instances, that it would be useless to add another paper to this flood.

The discussions are centred around the interpretation and implementation of two concepts: of sustainability (SB), and on its derivative, sustainable development (SD). The emphasis in the paper is on the critique of these terms, and on the failure of their implementation.

Information extracted from the literature witness the fact that there is no uniquely accepted interpretation of these terms. Both terms, SB and SD, remain ideals that stand for the introduction of ethically based environmental management into economic development: no one is arguing these ideals. However, vagueness of meaning and fuzzy interpretation make them open for misuse and for special or group interests. Claims are made, and hypotheses advanced, that free markets, and market economies, as interpreted by the World Trade Organization, are not in harmony with the promoted ideals of SD.

The perspectives of the WSSD are still uncertain. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, many believe that a return to multi-lateralism of the main international actor, the United States, will give the development oriented WSSD another chance of success.