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Sustainable Development and Its Discontents

  • John C. Dernbach (a1) and Federico Cheever (a2)

Sustainable development (or sustainability) is a decision-making framework for maintaining and achieving human well-being, both in the present and into the future. The framework requires both consideration and the achievement of environmental protection, social justice and economic development. In that framework, environmental protection must be integrated into decisions about social and economic development, and social justice and economic viability must be integrated into decisions about environmental quality.

As sustainable development has grown in prominence, its critics have become more numerous and more vocal. Three major lines of criticism are that the term is ‘too boring’ to command public attention, ‘too vague’ to provide guidance, and ‘too late’ to address the world’s problems. Critics suggest goals such as abundance, environmental integrity, and resilience. Beginning with the international agreements that have shaped the concept of sustainable development, this article provides a functional and historical analysis of the meaning of sustainable development. It then analyzes and responds to each of the above criticisms. It argues that the critics, understood constructively, suggest ways of strengthening this framework, but do not provide a compelling alternative. The challenge for lawyers, lawmakers, and others is to use and improve the sustainability framework to make better decisions.

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Thanks to Ben Barros, Ira Feldman, Diane Henkels, and Dan Tarlock for their comments on an earlier draft. Thanks also to the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the participants in an ELI webinar, as well as the Environmental Law Collaborative and participants in a collaborative workshop, for their help in developing many of the ideas in this article.

Thanks to Chris Stevens, Denver Sturm College of Law Class of 2013, and Taylor Scherer, Denver Sturm College of Law Class of 2014, for research assistance. Special thanks to Robin Kundis Craig and Melinda Harm Benson for their critique of earlier drafts and the inspiration their work provides.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

B. Brown et al., ‘Global Sustainability: Toward Definition’ (1987) 11(6) Environmental Management, pp. 713719

P. Sands & J. Peel , Principles of International Environmental Law, 3rd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 187236

Y. Le Bouthillier et al. (eds), Poverty Alleviation and Environmental Law (IUCN Academy of Environmental Law, 2012)

J. Dernbach , ‘Achieving Sustainable Development: The Centrality and Multiple Facets of Integrated Decisionmaking’ (2003) 10 Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, pp. 247285

J. Tillman Lyle , Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development (Wiley, 1994)

R. Engelman , ‘Beyond Sustainababble’, in E. Assadourian (ed.), State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? (Island Press, 2013), pp. 316

R. Gibson , ‘Sustainability Assessment: Basic Components of a Practical Approach’ (2006) 24(3) Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, pp. 170182

C.S. Holling , ‘Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems’ (1973) 4 Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, pp. 123

C. Redman , ‘Should Sustainability and Resilience Be Combined or Remain Distinct Pursuits?’ (2014) 19(2) Ecology & Society, pp. 3744

H. Jun & M. Conroy , ‘Linking Resilience and Sustainability in Ohio Township Planning’ (2014) 57 Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, pp. 904919

J. Anderies et al., ‘Aligning Key Concepts for Global Change Policy: Robustness, Resilience, and Sustainability’ (2013) 18(2) Ecology & Society, pp. 821

D. Orr , ‘Governance in the Long Emergency’, in E. Assadourian (ed.), State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? (Island Press, 2013), pp. 279290

J. Dernbach & J. May , ‘Can Shale Gas Help Accelerate the Transition to Sustainability?’ (2015) 57(1) Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, pp. 415

J. Dernbach & J. May (eds), Shale Gas and the Future of Energy: Law and Policy for Sustainability (Edward Elgar, forthcoming 2016)

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Transnational Environmental Law
  • ISSN: 2047-1025
  • EISSN: 2047-1033
  • URL: /core/journals/transnational-environmental-law
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