Constructing Sustainable Development

by Neil Harrison

Published by State University of New York Press

175 pages, 2000

Buy it online






Constructing the Future

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


In 1993, economist Robert Solow published "Sustainability: An Economist's Perspective." In that influential paper he opined that "sustainability is an essentially vague concept, and it would be wrong to think of it as being precise, or even capable of being precise." The argument that followed, imbued with unsubstantiated faith that technology and human ingenuity will conquer any resource problems (ignoring that the Earth is a finite, albeit vast, system) and unwarranted trust, tempered with fuzzy concessions to the need for policy intervention, in the market system that has helped precipitate many of our environmental problems, was just as vague as the subject he was accusing. He then concluded that sustainability "is, at best, a general guide to policies that have to do with investment, conservation and resource use. And we shouldn't pretend that it is anything other than that." Implicit in the paper was Solow's priority: what needs to be safeguarded is not the planet which nurtures life, but the economic system (global market capitalism) he holds dear.

I'm always wary of economists when they talk about the environment. Economics is, contrary to what its name seems to imply, not the study of economic thought and systems but the study of how capitalism works. By the very nature of its analytical perspective, economics cannot distance itself from the values of capitalism when addressing issues such as equity, sustainability and the environment. Even so-called ecological economics, for all its lofty goals, is simply a method of valuing nature in the capitalist market economy. Nevertheless, Solow was right about this: there is no single generally accepted definition of sustainability. It is that difficult problem of definition which political scientist Neil Harrison tackles in his book, Constructing Sustainable Development.

Between the diametrically opposed views of, on the one hand, mainstream economists, exemplified by Solow, for whom sustainable development means leaving to our human descendants the ability to be at least as well off as we are (a narrative which ignores current inequities), and, on the other, of deep ecologists like Neil Evernden (author of The Natural Alien) who reject any economic valuation of nature and who believe we must radically transform the way we conceive our relationship to our planet, there lies a vast range of attitudes towards sustainability. Sustainable development is a catchphrase in the media and in international policy these days. Not everyone who uses it means the same thing. As Harrison points out throughout his book, that confusion leads to policy gridlock, since no two parties can even agree about what exactly they're talking about. For example, a politician from a developing country that faces food shortages is likely to embrace a different vision of sustainable development than a vegetarian eco-activist from a wealthy industrialized nation.

Harrison identifies three main sustainable development narratives (each with its own numerous subnarratives): efficiency, equity and ethics. In other words, for some, sustainable development is the efficient exploitation of resources for continued use; for others, it is a question of distributing welfare equitably in human populations. Still others believe it requires rethinking humanity as an active part of the Earth system, replacing the current paradigms of domination and conquest. He also identifies three main approaches to attaining these disparate visions of sustainable development: the technological fix, which has faith that science can solve anything if only the right technology is discovered or applied; the economic fix, which believes that the market, left to itself, will solve every possible problem; and the policy fix, which contends that government intervention and regulation are necessary to attain sustainable development.

Constructing Sustainable Development offers a comprehensive look at its subject, yet it is concise and to the point, never losing sight of its objectives. Sustainable development narratives and the strategies that seek to attain it are examined and dissected with surgical precision and intellectual clarity.

As Harrison treks through the various approaches to and definitions of sustainable development, he mercilessly tears them all down, showing the conceptual weaknesses that contribute to the failure of human communities to adopt sustainable policies and lifestyles. Nevertheless, Harrison's book is an inspiring one. He carefully and thoughtfully ends each evisceration with a discussion about how the various sustainable development narratives and goals could be made to work in the real world of global politics. He emphasizes the necessity of a heteroglossic conceptualization of sustainable development that embraces the disparate ideas and needs of the various players who campaign for more equitable, ethical and ecological global policies.

Harrison is not a blind optimist, nor is he a defeatist or nihilist. His vigorous criticisms of the various sustainable development narratives seek not to destroy them but to strengthen them. He shows how each of these narratives has something to offer for the good of our planet and its various residents, but he warns that by ignoring their weaknesses their proponents are jeopardizing their own goals and our collective future. Only by addressing their shortcomings -- and by acknowledging and incorporating other visions -- will any of these narratives be able to lead our global culture towards a viable, efficient, equitable and ethical process of sustainable development. By the very enterprise of writing this book, Neil Harrison has expressed his faith in that improbable possibility. | February 2001


Claude Lalumière, a January Magazine contributing editor, was a bookseller from 1986 to 1998. He is currently studying urban systems, environment, and anthropology at McGill University. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.