What’s left of Sustainable Development?

Joy Paton

Twenty years ago it seemed that sustainability was an idea whose time had come. The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development released its watershed report Our Common Future (WCED 1987) and its promotion of sustainable development was subsequently embraced internationally as a key policy principle. Yet after two decades, and despite some positive achievements, global environmental degradation has accelerated and a new wave of environmental concern has emerged around the specifics of climate change (Kovel 2002:4; UNEP 2007). The UK s Stern Review (2006) was a timely aide memoire to the ongoing and unresolved question of sustainability while the current Garnaut Review (2008) seeks to tackle this problem directly in the Australian context.

With its emphasis on market instruments, Professor Garnaut s report on climate change provokes a sense of deja-vu. His 1989 report on the Northeast Asian Ascendancy (Garnaut 1989) enthusiastically promoted trade liberalisation. Yet it is that process of expanding the scope of the market and of the policies of neoliberalism more generally that has intensified global environmental problems despite two decades of national and international policies for sustainable development. In dusting off and re-fashioning the economic orthodoxies underpinning Ascendancy, Garnaut has ensured that any debate about the use of market instruments for delivering environmental policy is confined to the problem of how best to implement them . The more important question of whether or not such instruments are at all suitable for ecological problems has disappeared from view.

How did we arrive at this point of poverty in the policy imagination? It is appropriate to reflect on the way in which the current state of play has evolved and to reconsider whether or not sustainable development is a useful concept for the achievement of ecological sustainability  In doing so, this article traces the emergence and transformation of the sustainability discourse in the aftermath of the post-war boom and subsequent rise of neoliberalism. It examines the way in which the economy-environment problematic was re-conceptualised during this period, resulting in the conflation of sustainability (the ecological problem) with development (the economic problem). This was a key factor in laying the foundation for neoliberal norms in environmental policy and management which Garnaut’s market-oriented proposals now extend.

To read the full article click here and go to Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE) issue number 62, 2008.

(Images taken from and


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