Sustainable Development Research Paper

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Following the UNCED conference in Rio 1992, the concept of sustainable development has developed into a new model of societal development institutionalized in a large number of international programs and agreements. While the concept itself is widely accepted as a normative guiding principle, fundamental differences appear at the implementation level. The debate on sustainable development thus can be analyzed as a controversially structured, politically contested field of discourse. This research paper reconstructs both the hegemonic version of sustainable development as ‘sustainable growth’ and the various counter discourses, which – in the North as in the South – refer back to either a stronger ecocentric understanding of nature or put the model of global industrial growth and development as such into question.


Even though the concept of sustainability has been long anchored in the context of forestry, the much more comprehensive idea of sustainable development first entered the international policy debate via the Brundtland Commission report ‘Our Common Future’ (WCED, 1987) and the subsequent United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The concept of sustainable development has been significantly shaped by the institutional context of the United Nations and refers to previous UN debates, reports, commissions, conferences, and declarations. Within this context, the focus is firstly on global problems, and secondly on the goals and action strategies which take the welfare of humanity as a whole into consideration. Facing threatened ecological conditions of human development, this aim had already been served some years before by the creation of the United Nations Environment Program at the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm 1972 and the elaboration of the ‘World Conservation Strategy’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the early 1980s, two UN commissions had also addressed the growing poverty gap between North and South, dealing with the lack of social and economic development in most developing countries (Brandt, 1980).

Both lines of discussion initially remained largely unconnected, however, because environmental issues constituted a high priority for the industrialized countries while for the southern countries, the development issue stood in the foreground. In addition, environmental issues were negotiated at that time in terms of ‘Limits to Growth’ (Meadows et al., 1972), which created fundamental conflicts between environmental and development interests. Against this background, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), headed by Gro Harlem Brundtland, was expected to merge the controversial lines of discussion. With the concept ‘sustainable development,’ the commission appeared to have found the magic formula needed to integrate environmental and social issues into a productive vision of development.

The Hegemonic Sustainability Discourse

What is the core of this concept? The fundamental idea on which the WCED report and the documents of the subsequent UNCED Conference in Rio is based (Rio Declaration, Agenda 21) is the vision of a global development of mankind that allows the needs of all people, present as well as future, to be met. This anthropocentric vision refers to the normative principles of both intra and intergenerational fairness. It aims to integrate environmental, social, and economic dimensions of development and to translate them into verifiable objectives and measures with the aid of a broad participation of society. It calls for “harmony among human beings and between humanity and nature” (WCED, 1987: 65) and it is supported by an optimistic belief in the feasibility of this vision.

Although the WCED report discusses key problems, their interconnections, and possible solutions (population and human resources, food security, species and ecosystems, energy and development, sustainable industrial development, the urban challenge), it is not a scientific but rather a political document. It attempts to bridge the existing controversies between the commission members, their divergent interests, and interpretation of problems. It therefore remains vague in many respects. But it is precisely this vagueness that allows for a broad consensus.

The question is how, by which kind of framing, the WCED report and the Rio documents succeed to bridge the contradiction between global environmental and developmental interests. This ‘reconciliation’ is accomplished in two argumentative steps (Dingler, 2003: 222f.). The first is the transformation of ‘sustainability’ from a concept focused on resource conservation to a concept focused on the satisfaction of basic human needs, including the needs of future generations. The second transformation step is to no longer view economic growth as a ‘limit’ but as a prerequisite for sustainable development. Because the negative environmental consequences of industrialization and economic growth are understood as a result “of the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources” and not as a result of growth per se (WCED, 1987: 8), and, at the same time, the solution to poverty is seen in economic development, it is technology and social organizations that have to be improved. The solution to global environmental and developmental problems, therefore, would not be in the absence of growth, but in a new era of reinforced, ecologically sound ‘sustainable growth.’ As a means to promote this goal (1) an increase in efficiency, (2) dematerialization, and (3) a rational, global management of resources are recommended (Dingler, 2003: 227).

The Rio Conference takes up this conceptual reframing of sustainability. In the ‘Agenda 21,’ a comprehensive action plan for the twenty-first century, the emphasis is on making the production and consumption patterns of the North more sustainable. In addition to increasing efficiency and the demand for new, environmentally sound technologies, the importance of science for rational resource management is particularly emphasized, thus significantly enhancing the scientific nature of the discourse on sustainable development. In addition, Agenda 21 is concentrating on environmental economic instruments of trade liberalization and the opening of markets, which promotes the economic reformulation of the concept of sustainability into categories of economic, environmental, and human ‘capital.’ Through this, the discourse on development policy with its focus on poverty and basic needs, which still dominated the Brundtland report, was tacitly transformed into a discourse of ecological modernization of economic growth. Sustainable development in the South then means the transfer of ‘green’ growth patterns from the industrialized countries to developing countries.

This hegemonic conceptual framing of sustainability is accompanied, however, by another, procedural element: the emphasis on the participatory nature of searching for and trying out new paths of sustainable development. In particular, the action plan put forth by Agenda 21 has provided socially and ecologically engaged groups and organizations all over the world a new legitimation for participation in planning processes and the collaborative search for sustainable solutions to local problems.

Meanwhile, this hegemonic variant of the sustainability discourse has been included in many policy areas of Western countries. Local Agenda 21 processes have initiated a multitude of sustainability projects. New approaches to sustainable production and consumption were tested by businesses and committed consumers, and have evolved in some cases, e.g., in the field of organic food consumption, to absolute trendsetters. At the international level, following the Rio conference, a veritable marathon of negotiations and conferences emerged to bring about mandatory international regimes into the areas of climate, biodiversity, forests, fisheries, water conservation, toxic waste transports, etc. (cf Winter, 2006).

Counterdiscourses On Sustainable Development

The hegemonic understanding of sustainable development, however, encountered considerable criticism in southern as well as in northern countries. This criticism can be assigned to two lines of discourses (cf Banerjee, 2003; Dingler, 2003; Dryzek, 1997; Escobar, 1995; Milton, 1996; Sachs, 1999): a first counterdiscourse that follows a different understanding of nature (1) and a second counterdiscourse that follows a different understanding of development and growth (2).

All three positions, the hegemonic discourse and its criticisms, as well as the various subthreads of the debate, can be graphically located in a field of discourses on sustainable development that can be spanned along two axes (see Figure 1)

  • along a horizontal axis of divergent images of nature and technology with the opposing poles ‘techno-centrism’ (technical-industrial model of progress) versus ‘ecocentrism’ (embedding society in the web of nature), and
  • along a vertical axis of divergent models of economy and societal organization with the opposing poles ‘worldmarket model of industrial growth’ versus ‘models of local self-sufficiency and self-determination.’

Sustainable Development Research Paper

Nature-Related Counterdiscourses

As part of the hegemonic discourse of sustainability, the preservation of ecosystems and natural resources is of instrumental character; it serves the sustainable satisfaction of human needs. According to this view, the development of human needs is not subject to any absolute natural barriers, but only to (rectifiable) social and technical limitations. This typical modern discourse on industrial progress is put into question from two positions: (1) from radical ecologists who reject the anthropocentric premise of the sustainability discourse and postulate that nature has its own, intrinsic values that must be respected; (2) from a neo-Malthusian understanding of ‘limits to growth’ which postulates that the limited carrying capacity of the Earth may be exceeded only at the cost of collapse.

Radical Ecology

‘Radical ecologists’ (Eckersley, 1992; Merchant, 1992) conceive human society not as the center, but only as one element of a larger living community whose natural elements, animals, plants, ecosystems, landscapes, the planet as a whole, have the same rights for development as humans (see Dryzek, 1997: 155 ff.). Throughout the past century this concept of man and nature was one of the basic motives of conservation and environmental movements. It formed its romantic and spiritual pole whose other pole was represented by a rational, utilitarian concept of sustainable resource management (cf Hays, 1959; Nash, 1967). In the US context, ecocentric positions are closely linked to ‘deep ecology,’ ‘ecofeminism,’ and ‘bioregionalist’ models of social life.

Deep ecology (cf Devall and Session, 1985; Naess, 1973) disengages itself from environmental policy approaches that would only like to reform industrial society in some technical or economic aspects. Deep ecology is concerned with more fundamental changes. “Its two basic principles are selfrealization and biocentric equality. Self-realization means identification with a larger organic ‘self,’ beyond the individual person. [.] The idea is to cultivate a deep consciousness of organic unity, of the holistic nature of the ecological webs in which every individual is enmeshed. [.]. Biocentric equality means that no species, including the human species, is regarded as more valuable or in any sense higher than other species” (Dryzek, 1997: 156).

Ecofeminism (cf Diamond and Orenstein, 1990; Plumwood, 1993) “covers a broad set of ideas, analyses, and action forms that have evolved since the 1970s in the context of women’s activism in the environmental and peace movements in the North and South. These approaches are interconnected by looking for common causes of natural exploitation and discrimination of women and the goal of linking environmental policy to the empowerment of women” (Vinz, 2005: 7). Vinz distinguishes between two schools of thought within ecofeminism, ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ ecofeminism. While the latter examines the social recoding of nature and gender with the development of modern science, giving way to a new exploitation of nature and oppression of women, the former plays a more central role in radical ecology. This cultural variant suggests a “special closeness of females to nature due to bodily (menstruation, childbirth) and spiritual reasons”; female-specific values (feelings, empathy, corporeality) – in contrast to an instrumental, male approach to nature – are seen as the “guarantor for a respectful relationship with nature and for a life in peace” (Vinz, 2005: 7).

Bioregionalists (cf Sale, 1985) share, together with cultural ecofeminism, the practical, anti-industrial utopia of agricultural self-sufficiency and reruralization. They also propagate small, decentralized settlements, adapted to their natural environments, which should enable people to live in ‘ecological balance’ with the surrounding nature.

In densely industrialized and urbanized countries these are scarcely feasible options for action, however. Ecocentric positions, therefore, are frequently expressed as direct action protest in diverse fields of conflict like transportation, agriculture, or energy policy. Not only the foundation of new radical ecological organizations like Greenpeace (1971), the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (1979), or Earth First! (1979), but also the direct actions of animal rights activists or opponents of green genetic engineering are all fed by the unconditional moral impetus of the ‘defense’ of the maltreated nature, whether animals, landscapes, or people.

Limits To Growth

Biologists, environmental scientists, and environmental activists usually share the idea that human society is only one subsystem of nature. Human use of natural resources is part of the overall dynamics of planetary ecosystems. This is analyzed in categories of material and energy flows as well as in categories of the Earth’s human carrying capacity. According to the ‘limits to growth’ approach, both the resource availability and the sink function of planetary ecosystems then have clear natural boundaries that limit economic growth (Daly, 1996). Whereas this discourse is compatible with various reformist top-down and bottom-up strategies, the prominent neo-Malthusian discourse of ‘Survivalism,’ advocated by Hardin, Ehrlich, and Meadows et al., relies on radical, hierarchical control strategies that are to limit both population and economic growth (Dryzek, 1997: 23ff.). The need for such a strict control strategy is justified by the argument that humankind has already overshot the Earth’s carrying capacity by far. This argument is impressively underlined by exponential growth curves, global computer models, and dire predictions about the consequences of the impending ecological collapse.

Criticism Of The Conventional Concepts Of Development And Growth

This counterdiscourse includes a broad range of critical positions. The most prominent of them are (1) the anti-imperialist discourse of small farmers and indigenous people in the South, (2) a complementary Northern critique of consumerism, and (3) the Marxist critique of social and ecological exploitation by the dynamics of capitalist accumulation.

Sustainable Development As A Neocolonial Strategy

From this perspective, the hegemonic strategy of sustainable development is marginalizing subsistence-based ways of life of small farmers and indigenous peoples in the South. The central criticism is that the industrial model of ‘sustainable growth’ follows a neocolonial pattern of ‘development’ that accelerates the destruction of smallholder agriculture close to nature only under new, ecological auspices (Escobar, 1995; Mies and Shiva, 1993; Sachs, 1999). Linked to this is the criticism of the hegemonic model of Western rationality that devalues local knowledge and uses it only instrumentally as a patentable resource for pharmaceutical purposes. The winners of this model of sustainable development seem to be multinational companies, national governments, and the urban consumer class who all profit from ‘green’ innovative technologies and from ‘sustainable growth.’ The losers are the approximately 2 billion people who depend on land, forests, and water as their traditional means of livelihood.

The conventional notion of progress and development, therefore, should be fundamentally questioned. Local rural protest movements are thus seen as supporters of emancipatory visions, fighting not only for a decentralized control over natural resources and habitats, but also for the recognition of cultural diversity. The myth of the ‘primitive ecological wisdom’ of indigenous and traditional peoples who lived across many generations in ‘harmony with nature’ and as responsible guardians of environmental resources links this local community discourse with the discourse of radical ecologists (Milton, 1996).

Sufficiency And Degrowth Discourse

In the industrialized countries of the North, a complementary criticism of the hegemonic sustainability discourse is found. It is based on the normative principle of ecological justice as well as on a new concept of ‘good life.’ Given the social inequalities and the ecologically disastrous consequences of global economic growth, the proponents of this position plead for both the dismantling of global industrial dependencies and the restraint of consumption in the North. New models of prosperity have to be developed which follow a ‘cosmopolitan localism’ and are guided by principles like “living well instead of possessing much” (Sachs, 1999; Sachs et al., 1998). Among economists, this vision has been discussed for some years now under the label ‘degrowth’ (Jackson, 2009; Latouche, 2009). The central argument is first that the possibility of dematerializing economic growth and decoupling it from energy consumption (not only in relative but also in absolute terms) is an illusion, and second that an increase in material goods above a certain level by no means increases the subjective wellbeing, but only leads to additional burdens and dependencies.

The aim is, therefore, to strengthen regional economies and to achieve a new balance between self-sufficiency and market economy. Instead of consumerism, life has to be refocused on the idea of ‘modest wealth’ (Latouche, 2009).

Green Marxism/Critical Political Ecology

This position generally assumes that local and global environmental problems are an inherent part of a capitalist economy that is pushed forward by a limitless need for capital valorization and accumulation. This implies both social exploitation and the exploitation of nature. Thus, capitalism is not only responsible for repeated social and economic crises, but it also increasingly undermines the natural conditions of human life. Nevertheless, the possibilities of regulating the ecological crisis are considered controversial in the eco-Marxist debate. For some, the exacerbation of global environmental problems are regarded as a new frontier of capitalism (Altvater, 2005; Clark and York, 2005; O’Connor, 1988), while others see in the Rio model of ‘sustainable growth,’ at least a possibility for regulating the ecological crisis (Brand and Wissen, 2012; Peet et al., 2011). This, however, does not solve the inherent exploitative character of capitalism. Rather, the sustainability concept is seen as an ideological, depoliticizing concept that interprets global environmental problems as a common and ‘external’ threat to all mankind, while it conceals the existing power relationships and inequalities in the reconstruction of a ‘green capitalism’ (Swyngedouw, 1997).

The program of ‘sustainable growth’ thus has been strongly questioned from different positions. The resulting conflicts, however, were significantly mitigated by the participatory character of the sustainability process inspired by Rio. On the one hand, this increased the importance of Non-Governmental Organizations in the various fields of global environmental governance. On the other, this also led, on the local and national level, to the flourishing of new forms of citizen participation, dialogical forms of politics, and cooperative networks to promote sustainable development. This vivid field of activities, in nationally varying forms, also included representatives of critical positions (for the German case see Brand, 2011).

Perspectives Of Sustainable Development

The first wave of sustainability initiatives that were carried by the ‘spirit of Rio’ waned at the beginning of the new century. New topics began to dominate the international agenda. Although the dramatic warnings about the catastrophic consequences of climate change remained a key issue in the media, ‘9/11,’ the ‘war on terrorism,’ and the deep financial and economic crisis that swept the Western world since 2008 have changed political priorities. In this context the concept of ‘green economy,’ a new political focus on ‘low-carbon technologies,’ and renewable energies, seemed to be an adequate answer both to global economic and environmental problems. It provides a new magic formula “that embodies the promise of a new development paradigm, whose application has the potential to ensure the preservation of the earth’s ecosystem along new economic growth pathways while contributing at the same time to poverty reduction” (UN DESA, 2011: v). Considering the dependence of profound changes in the human relationship to nature to equally fundamental changes in the structural organization of societies, it is unlikely, however, that an economic conversion to green technologies per se will achieve the desired general solution to global environmental and poverty problems (Brand, 2012: 30f.). As ecological transformation and issues of global justice are inseparably linked with each other a wider, integrative concept of sustainable development will remain on the agenda in the foreseeable future.


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