Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

De-Politicizing the Environment: An Inquiry into the Nature of the Sustainable Development Discourse

This article belongs to a special series focused on post-development issues which was created in co-operation with the University of Vienna.

The aim of this paper is to establish reasons for the inclusion of certain elements in the sustainable development discourse as well as its exclusionary systems making for the “blind spots”. The question to be answered is: What effects and implications does the order of the sustainable development discourse have on the political sphere? What perspectives open up for tackling environmental issues? Which perspectives fade away or disappear?


“It is a treacherously deceitful Nature that enters politics, one that is packaged, numbered, calculated, coded, modeled, and represented by those who claim to possess, know, understand, and speak for the “real Nature”.” (Swyngedouw 2007: 21)

1. Introduction

Reconciling Enemies

In his Nobel Lecture of the year 2007, Al Gore urges all of us:

“We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency – a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst – though not all – of its consequences […] We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war.” (Gore 2007)

Beginning with the Club of Rome Report of 1972 – The Limits to Growth – the thought has widely spread that the growing, progressing and industrializing society mistreats nature, which will ultimately (and quickly) result in catastrophe. Mankind uses more than Earth has to offer. The sustainable development discourse which emerged in the following decades bears the promise to dissolve this conflict between development and nature: “By adopting the concept of sustainable development, two old enemies, growth and environment, are reconciled” (Escobar 1995: 195).

The aim of this paper is to establish reasons for the inclusion of certain elements in the sustainable development discourse as well as its exclusionary systems making for the “blind spots”. The question to be answered is: What effects and implications does the order of the sustainable development discourse have on the political sphere? What perspectives open up for tackling environmental issues? Which perspectives fade away or disappear? I will base my research on the assumption that the sustainable development discourse relies on the same constitutive processes that Arturo Escobar (1995) has identified for the development discourse: 1) creation or discovery of the problem (problematization), 2) professionalization of knowledge, 3) institutionali­zation and 4) hierarchization of cultures. With “development” remaining its fundamental idea, I assume the sustainable development discourse to also rely on these four processes. In my analysis, due to restricted space, I will focus on these traits of the processes that carry political implications. Linking my results with Slavoj Žižek's concept of post-politics and Erik Swyngedouws definition of environmental populism, then, I hope to show in a more nuanced way how these processes have been shaping a populist representation of the ecological problems which frames the possible solutions in a distinctly depoliticized management perspective.

2. The Sustainable Development Discourse

2.1 A Sketch of the Emergence of the Sustainable Development Discourse

Discontinuities in any discourse arise out of both difficulties within as well as circumstances outside of it (Sarasin 2005: 78). The discourse answers these certain historical conditions.

What were the internal difficulties of the development discourse that made for an inclusion of the environment? For Sachs (1995a), the awareness of ecological constraints has been one of the central reasons for the realization that Western style development cannot be a model for the whole world. The Club of Rome Report The Limits to Growth was the first widely absorbed account on the material impossibility of the Western development paradigm and global survival as a whole. The development paradigm came into a crisis. 15 years later, the influential Brundtland Report Our Common Future still rests on the assumption that global survival is threatened, but it also has the solution: planning and management to direct social change and thus save the planet under the flag of ecological modernization1 and “sustainable development” which would become the leading concept in the years thereafter (cf. Escobar 1995: 192–194; Eblinghaus/Stickler 1998: 35).

These two reports, The Limits to Growth and Our Common Future, basically stand for both the crisis and rescue of development for ecological reasons: “While [the concept of environment] was originally advanced to put development politics under indictment, it is now raised like a banner to announce a new era of development” (Sachs 1995b: 26).2

The outer circumstances that fostered the discontinuities in the discourse relate mainly to problems of the standardized mass production system (Fordism), the most notable manifestation of which was the oil crisis in 1973 that marked the end of a period of post-war economic expansion (Woodhouse/Chimhowu 2005: 187). New leading technologies and more flexible forms of labor fundamentally changed the production system (now called post-Fordism) which would be increasingly dominated by transnational capital and worldwide sourcing, placing states and regions in a race for competitiveness with each other. In many ways, the change from development to sustainable development corresponds with the transformation from Fordism to post-Fordism (Eblinghaus/Stic­kler 1995:35).

Thus, I will regard the sustainable development discourse not as an entirely new discourse, but as the transformed and “updated” development discourse incorporating novel elements while retaining others – and merely abandoning any. Put slightly different, one could also regard the sustainable development discourse as the result of an inclusion of critical environmentalist accounts into the development mainstream (as done by Kothari/Minogue 2002: 11).

2.2 The Concept of “Sustainable Development”

Just like “development”, “sustainability” is a signifier that has taken a wide range of meanings, especially with its connection to the development paradigm. The popularity of the concept is evident: it will be hard to find anybody who is against sustainability (cf. Swyngedouw 2007: 20; Brand 2008: 141).3

The “roof of the concept” of sustainable development, meaning the central topics, consists of destruction of nature, poverty, inequality and overpopulation (Eblinghaus/Stic­kler 1998: 11; for the connection of poverty and environment see Sachs 1995b: 29) – two of which stem from the development discourse. Ultimately, on top of the roof, sustainable development refers to the “long-term socioenvironmental survival of (parts of) humanity” (Swyngedouw 2007). Below the roof there are numerous conflicting assumptions and guidelines for actions (Eblinghaus/Stic­kler 1998: 11). This explains the popularity of the concept: it is very vague and can be used for any interest, so that it is sustainability that can be described as an “umbrella term”, as Forsyth (2004, cited in Kobler 2009: 33) has done. Whichever “way” one accepts the sustainable development discourse, s/he also accepts the development framework that comes with it as well as the dominant economic worldview (cf. Escobar 1995: 196; Eblinghaus/Stickler 1998: 51).

Situating the discourse in the dispositive, meaning that I include power structures in my considerations as well (cf. Sarasin 2005: 103), sheds light on the fact that the discourse originates and continues to have its centers in economically powerful states and institutions of the global North. According to Foucault, in each society there are certain procedures that control, select, organize and canalize the production of the discourse to reduce its materializing consequences (Foucault 1991: 10). Thus, first, the global sustainable development discourse is shaped and constrained by social capitalist relations, and second, elements which pose a threat to these relations and their reproduction will be excluded much likelier than those preserving or strengthening the power relations of the dispositive. This is founded in the very unconscious selectivity of the discourse.

I will now look at the propositions and assertions of the discourse (rather than its linguistic aspects): what/how problems become visible to solve them in a certain way (Sarasin 2005: 100–101).

3. The Constitutive Processes

3.1.1 Problema­tization (I): Overpopulation and Scarcities

One of the most important assumptions underlying the sustainable development discourse is that we live on a planet of scarcities – an idea which became a keystone of neoclassical economics. The economic thought of scarcity since Adam Smith denotes that “man's wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited though improvable” (Esteva 1995: 19). The contradiction of the “nature of man” with expanding needs and the “nature of things” which are limited results in competition on the free market. The sustainable development discourse further relies on Malthus's thought of overpopulation, brought forward in the eighteenth century: Malthus feared that the increase in production of food could not keep abreast of the increase of the rural population (cf. Woodhouse 2002: 142). Overpopulation conveys the determinist idea of humankind growing out of proportion to its supportive environmental system – up to a point when diseases and misery will reduce the number of people on Earth.

These two overlapping concepts, scarcity and overpopulation, have been of vital importance for the sustainable development discourse. Influential publications, first and foremost The Limits to Growth and Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968) draw scenarios that resemble Malthus4. The approach focusing on humankind's com­petition for access to rare resources5 has been termed eco-scarcity. Eco-scarcity constitutes the dominant contemporary narrative of environmental change and, for it is portraying environmental crises as merely demographic problems, it is strictly apolitical – which of course means that it is implicitly political, holding serious implications for questions of distribution and control of resources (Robbins 2004: 7–9).

This becomes obvious in a classic article by Garett Hardin (1974) with the telling title Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor and Robert D. Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, published in 1994. Hardin (1974: 43) concludes his Neo-Malthusian article saying that we “cannot safely divide the wealth equitably among all peoples so long as people reproduce at different rates”, as “to do so would guarantee that our grandchildren and everyone else's grandchil­dren, would have only a ruined world to inhabit.”6 The dilemma “justice vs. nature” is dissolved in favor of the latter, as is typical for the discourse (Eblinghaus/Stic­kler 1998: 116). Hardin's call for a “true world government to control reproduction and the use of available resources” (ibid.) reverberates in the sustainable development discourse.

Kaplan, on the other hand, does not offer an actual solution. 20 years after Hardin's article, he considers wars and conflicts in the Third World to be caused by overpopulation and resource scarcity, masking any historic-structural reasons very much connected to colonialism, capitalism and the development apparatus. Kaplan states that the environment is “the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century” (Kaplan 1994: 58), thereby implicitly justifying present material inequality and intervention for the control of resources. Tellingly, his article has been widely read and was sent to all US embassies.

In any way – world government or national security – the created visibility of scarcity and overpopulation as causes of ecological destruction is an invitation for planning and management7, providing the problematization that allows the development discourse to provide solutions. The visibility of environmental problems in the dominant view of eco-scarcity opens the door for the development business to tackle the problems with its particular operations (cf. Ferguson 2007: 68f.), while other solutions8 are omitted or at least pushed aside as unrealistic – precisely due to the formulation of the problem. The problematization of nature, among others, led to new mechanisms of intervention into the realm of the social, most visible in population control (cf. DuBois 1991).

3.1.2 Problema­tization (II): Saving the One World

The next particularity of the sustainable development discourse is its problematization of global survival, meaning the planet as a whole (cf. Escobar 1995: 194). Just like the concepts of (one) nature, scarcity, overpopulation or measuring, the “one world perspective” is deeply cultural, resulting from history and embedded in a certain system of social, economic and political relations. This is not to claim that there are no environmental problems that (potentially) affect the whole world. Rather, it is important to recognize that the one world perspective is a particular and rather novel way to regard these problems.

Along (predicted or real) natural disasters during the last decades, the environment has become part and parcel of national and international policy formulation. The proposed solutions are kept within narrow frames, the frames owing much to the cultural perspective. The survival of the whole planet (read: mankind) is at stake – the discourse speaks to each and every person on Earth, delivering a message of urgency9 to transform our behavior by adapting the whole system we live in to sustainability. “Oneworldism”, in this context, is a universalized account of problem and solution. “What is problematized, however, is not the sustainability of local cultures and realities but rather that of the global ecosystem. But again, the global is defined according to a perception of the world shared by those who rule it.” (Escobar 1995: 195) Escobar thus criticizes the one world perspective as having universalistic aspirations despite its cultural particularity, ignoring and even violating other realities or images of nature. Dietz and Brunnengräber (2008) similarly criticize the one world perspective, mainly for its absurdity in local contexts (ecological problems are always particular) as well as the masking of political and historicized explanations of environmental crises.

The survival of the whole planet is an excellent “wholesale justification for a new wave of state interventions in people's lives all over the world” (Sachs 1995b: 33)10. Andrea Kobler, who has analyzed environmental discourses in development studies, finds that “a managerial aspect is nothing new in development (studies) but with the emergence of SD [sustainable development, E.P.] it reached global scale. The consensus that (global) management is necessary to overcome the crisis resulted in a multitude of environmental policies/ regulations/ assessments and other management strategies” (Kobler 2009: 78). With the need to intervene comes the need for institutionali­zation and professionalization of state action – processes development agencies are excellently set up for11.

A global problem calls for global cooperation – such as the Climate Conference 2009 in Copenhagen. The UN Climate Change Conference 2009, as it is correctly called, does not only reflect the call for global cooperation, its failure has also reflected two important contradictions of the sustainable development discourse. These are, firstly, the difficulty of creating an alliance between “saving economic growth” and “saving nature” (cf. Swyngedouw, cited in Schlembach 2010) and secondly, the cooperation-competition paradox (Görg 2004: 98). What is paradox between cooperation and competition? Put shortly, the international pressure to counteract environmental problems stands in deep contradiction to the imperatives of the capitalist economy.

States, regions and sectors of the economy are placed into competition with each other via the global market and have to look for opportunities to become attractive for global capital. A decisive factor to increase profits, next to low wages and insufficient worker's rights, is the disregard of environmental hazards caused by industrial production. Transnational capital from certain industries will thus flow where environmental standards are low or law is not strictly enforced.12 The state's capability to intervene in this dimension is dramatically diminished because of the imperatives of international competition (Eblinghaus/Stic­kler 1998: 156). The next chapter will shed more light on the question of how the sustainable development apparatus and the state are intertwined in a more direct way; and how the state becomes a pseudo-apolitical manager of the environment.

3.2 Instituti­onalization and Professionali­zation: The State and the “Green” World Bank

Concerning the environment, professionalization and institutionali­zation on an international and national level are heavily driven by the World Bank. Transformations on the level of ideas translate into the practical sphere of state action: “When a whole range of actors, from World Bank lawyers to international conservation scientists, are commissioned to rewrite national property rights law, redesign state agencies, and redefine localized production practices based on new global norms, they transform conventional forms of state power, agency, and sovereignty.” (Goldman 2004: 167) As the self-proclaimed “knowledge bank”, the World Bank has been very active in “constructing global truth and rights regimes on the environment and natural resource use” (Goldman 2004: 166) – a genuine machine for knowledge production. Adapting to the crisis of development mentioned earlier, the World Bank which has been heavily criticized for fostering ecological destruction has reinvented itself as the major proponent of sustainability with its new modus operandi of “environmentally sustainable development”, or green neoliberalism, as the critics like to call it. The new orientation has allowed the Bank to employ a range of new ideas and tools that are arranged around topics of conservation, preservation and sustainability (Goldman 2004: 166–167).

Taking Laos as a case study, Goldman shows that these practices have led to the emergence of a hegemonic form of rationality, new truth regimes on nature, new rights regimes on nature, and last, but not least new state authorities dealing with the environment. The legitimating technology for the interventions is scientific assessment work along the lines of economic rationality (Goldman 2004: 173, 183, 185; see also subsequent section on measuring in this paper).13

Merging the language of environmental concern and urgency with market-based solutions, experts proclaim that Laos has a future only if ecological destruction and human poverty are intervened upon quickest possible, at best with a large-capital project such as a hydro-dam – there is no alternative (TINA). (Goldman 2004: 173) The rewriting of laws, the restructuring of state agencies as well as the funding of large-scale infrastructure projects are all part of the World Bank's strategy of becoming environmentally and socially pro-active. One main result of this commitment in environmental and social areas is that “the World Bank's interven­tions have also become much more inclusive, authoritative, and disciplinary” (Goldman 2004: 174), thereby fueling the process of normalization in the relationship of human and nature (cf. Escobar 1995: 203)14.

Proponents of environmental politics usually mention biodiversity as an argument for the conservation of nature. With the discourse of biodiversity, which is intricately linked to sustainable development, nature becomes a source of value in itself; “not so much as resources but as reservoirs of value that research and knowledge, along with biotechnology, can release for capital and communities” (Escobar 1995: 203). Thus, nature remains subordinated to the capitalistic rationale. It continually stands in the context of appropriation and competition. (Görg 2004: 105; cf. Escobar 1998)

Following from the above, the strain of sustainable development discourse which can be subsumed under the term of green neoliberalism that has promoted scientization, governmentalization and capitalization of eco-zones – which means indeed a thorough reworking of the relationship between human and its surroundings. With the grading of Laos' eco-zones into controlled use zones, protection zones etc., dwelling rights and access to land have been fundamentally transformed. The rights that used to be with the forest dwelling population15 are now largely with the energy, conservation and tourism industries. Nature has been capitalized, valuated and partly privatized. One central effect of capitalization has been exclusion, as evident in the shift of rights. (Goldman 2004: 183; Escobar 1995: 204; cf. Heynen/Robbin­s 2005)

A decisive mediator in the reworking of production conditions and the re-signification of nature and resources is the state. The state constitutes an “interface between capital and nature” (Escobar 1995: 200), as should have already become clear. Enclosure, meaning “the capture of common resources and exclusion of the communities to which they are linked” (Heynes/Robbins 2005: 5), as well as the valuation of ecosystems, making them prone for privatization, all have (increasing) state functions and bureaucratization as a significant precondition. The discourse delivers the rationality for these processes that are presented as technical, neutral and efficiency-oriented; however, as we have seen in the example of Laos, the emergence of new institutions and changes in legislations carry momentous sociopolitical implications.

3.3 Professio­nalization: Measuring Sustainability

Bureaucrats and environment experts need “hard facts” to legitimize their actions. Within the sustainable development discourse, to work professionally means to have certain tools to assess sustainability – tools that fit comfortably well the dominant neoclassical economic paradigm. As such, measuring as one of these tools is essential to make qualitatively different aspects comparable. It means describing the environment with economic tools, since “ecological values can be estimated with economic valuation methods which rely on the same theoretical background as microeconomics”, as the introduction to Environmental economics and policy making in developing countries states (da Motta 2001, cited in: Alexander 2005: 457).

The sustainable development discourse contains a range of refined tools of economic rationality to measure the impact of processes and interventions on the social and natural. The world's leading environmental experts, many of them working for the World Bank, make use of environmental impact assessments (EIAs), green cost-benefit analyses (CBAs), life-cycle studies (LCI) or triple bottom line (3BL) assessments (Goldman 2004: 183; Alexander 2005: 460–467). I will not embark on a critique of the single methods here (which is carried through in Alexander 2005), but rather show and problematize their common traits and assumptions that have much in common with neoclassical economics and its central postulate that the economy can be seen as an entity detached from society and the environment.

The general critique levied against measuring is that it reduces sustainability to economistic, seemingly quantifiable elements and in that way drastically narrows the perspective, thereby excluding worldviews other than the capitalocentric. The methods mentioned above “implicitly and explicitly assign values to groups of people and parcels of environment”; whereby “these values get expressed in narrow economic terms, due to the urgent need to make them “commensurable” (Goldman 2004: 183), “bringing the environment and society into a balance sheet” (Alexander 2005: 456) and assuming that everything can be commoditized. The experts within the sustainable development discourse address environmental concerns with an “explicitly utilitarian approach that identifies the ‚services‘ delivered by nature” (Woodhouse 2002: 143), such as resources needed for production, waste disposal or the aesthetic pleasures of landscape.

Reductionism and standardization in these tools have severe political consequences: they typically treat society and/or the environment as a whole, not taking into account diverging interests. The room for human judgement is greatly diminished by resorting to a justification of policy resting on CBAs, which means a weakening of democracy through “professional” judgements (Alexander 2005: 461). The assessments form an important part of opening up new zones for investigation and intervention (Goldman 2004: 183). The form of nature that enters politics after these forms of measurements is “packaged, numbered, calculated, coded, modeled, and represented by those who claim to possess, know, understand, and speak for the “real Nature”.” (Swyngedouw 2007: 21) Hence, the process of professionalization is not technically neutral but carries deep political implications, as it is producing, reproducing, consolidating or strengthening power imbalances. Among the axes in which the imbalances can be made visible and described is the hierarchization of cultures.

3.4 Hierarchi­zation: “The Ecologically Noble Savage” and “Eco-Outlaws”

The sustainable development discourse clearly continues with the colonial tradition of hierarchizing cultures. The technique of measuring mentioned above is but one example for the hierarchizations of “developed” and “underdeveloped”, of “modern” and “traditional” kinds of socio-natural relations. In the closely related biodiversity discourse, communities become recognized as the owners of their territory – as long as they take care of the environment in a way that is in accordance with the guidelines of sustainable and rational use; or, in other words, a normalized and disciplined use. Rural communities are thus either seen as “stewards of nature” or as “eco-outlaws”, depending if they are living according to Western sustainability standards (whatever these may be) or use practices deemed backward such as slash-and-burn cultivation. (Escobar 1995: 203; Goldman 2004: 184)

This dichotomous construct obviously has its roots in colonial narratives circling around the noble and the primitive savage, becoming updated in forms of the ecologically noble or primitive savage.16 It is precisely these portrays that perpetuate the hierarchization of cultures, as Escobar has called it, or the neocolonial dichotomy between those doing the development and those being developed. Certain behavior towards the environment is judged as irrational, the actors blamed as guilty or innocent of ecological destruction (Goldman 2004: 180, 185).

Poverty was initially regarded unrelated to the destruction of the environment. Only with the rise of the sustainable development discourse, the poor/rural people have been identified as “agents of destruction” (Sachs 1995b: 29) responsible for deforestation and desertification on the globe. What ecosystem analysts (un)willingly overlooked was the embeddedness of these processes into socioeconomic and political circumstances, conditions that have in many instances been closely related to development interventions, forced migration as in the Indonesian transmigrasi programme being only the most easily visible tip of the iceberg (Sachs 1995b: 29; Escobar 1995: 195; on Indonesia's tran­smigration see Hancock 1997).

Pointing the finger at the poor also had the effect of “shifting visibility away from the large industrial polluters in the North and South and from the predatory way of life fostered by capitalism” (Escobar 1995: 195). Nevertheless, the accounts of poor people engaging in irrational behavior degrading the environment resulted in education campaigns promoting environmental consciousness and led development experts to the conclusion that with more economic growth, environmental problems should disappear. (Sachs 1995b: 29)

This means, merging the problematization of the poor with the problematization of the environment opened up novel channels for interventions. The new gaze discredited local forms of knowledge and included a vast number of individuals into the realm of, using Foucault's term, bio-power. Bio-power normalizes individuals and makes them subject to a certain instructabili­ty.17 One central outcome has been population control, with which the development state became able to treats its citizens as resources. (DuBois 1991)

We have thus come full circle, reaching the starting point of problematization. The processes of (1) problematizing the human-nature relationship, (2) emergence of institutions specializing in environmental issues, (3) professionalizing techniques with neoclassic rationality and (4) hierarchizing cultures are intertwined. They are constitutive of the sustainable development discourse and carry implications for the realm of the political. In the subsequent section of this paper, I will turn directly to the question of political dealings with ecological issues thereby and draw on the earlier findings.

4. De-politicizing the Environment

4.1 Possible Solutions: Saving the Planet with Technology & Market Mechanisms

What, then, are the central axioms of the dominant approach for problem solving in the sustainable development discourse – “ecological modernization”? Firstly, there is certainty that the ecological crisis can be resolved by introducing better control, gaining new scientific insights, applying measurement methods that are sensitive to environmental and social and concerns, and of course developing progressive technology; in a nutshell, learning from industrializa­tion's mistakes. This process includes a partial internalization of ecological costs (Eblinghaus/Stic­kler 1998: 116, 156–159).

By preferring technological and market-based solutions (e.g., cap-and-trade), the industrialized countries of the capitalist centre and especially the more powerful multi-national corporations can effectively affirm their leading role in the dichotomy of developed and underdeveloped countries/eco­nomies18 and keep on doing business as usual without tackling issues such as the reworking of socio-natural relations and the capitalist system or individual lifestyle and consumption19. The last aspect is a central assumption of the sustainable development discourse: consumption becomes completely ecological without any reduction of material prosperity.

The new, green path of technological development includes two promises. Environmentally sustainable growth, it is hoped, can delink the positive (qualitative) aspects of industrial production from the negative (quantitative) aspects through the more efficient use of resources and nearly infinite recycling (Paech 2009). “Over the longer term,” Wolfgang Sachs (1997: 297) writes, “saving effects are invariably swallowed up by the quantity effects involved, if the overall dynamics of growth are not slowed down.” This phenomenon is known as the rebound effect. Ultimately, efficiency alone is not enough, it has to be accompanied by sufficiency (ibid.).

Furthermore, Paech warns that new technologies and innovations within the context of (ecological) modernization always cause unanticipated and momentous side effects, as evident for instance in biofuels (which were seen as a major cause for food shortages) or contamination of fields with genetically modified organisms. This warning is opposed to the paradigm of growth and development, for which the fate of humankind can be saved only by massive investment into technological progress – a technology that lies still in the future. This trust in the things to come is typical of the development discourse as a whole: consistently avoiding “the messy and problematic present” (Kothari/Minogue 2002: 12), there remains a “pathos of modernity” and the “everlasting hope that the future will redeem the present” (Vattimo, cited in ibid.). This is further illustrated in the continued use of finite resources: the trust in future technologies is solid enough to perpetuate the dependency on fossil fuels (Eblingshaus/Stic­kler 1998: 44), with renewable energies not replacing but complementing oil, gas etc. Innovation initially always works as an addition, not as a replacement (Paech 2010: 13). As such, the hope for new and better technologies and the trust in scientific progress that characterize the mainstream discourse avoid the political present because they point to an apolitical future with a better world for all, simply skipping today's social issues.

4.2 The Order of the Discourse: Marginalization of the Political

Critical accounts such as the one by Niko Paech mentioned in the previous section do, however, have some presence in the sustainable development discourse. Since discourses are not homogeneous but include contradictory positions, it is important to look at how the elements are classified, grouped and put into relation with each other. Eblinghaus and Stickler (1998: 100–114) have done this in a detailed way and drawn conclusion that might be similarly deduced from the aspects I have shown so far.

An instrumentalistic understanding of nature and technocratic solutions dominate the discourse. Techniques of measurement and quantification create inevitable, global objectivities under economistic premises and fabricate the possibility to liken elements with each other that are fundamentally different, though connected, speaking for instance of nature/culture or ecology/economy. These spheres appear separated from each other, due to the logocentrism and capitalocentric rationale underlying the discourse (cf. Eblinghaus/Stickler 1998: 116)

A massive marginalization of critical issues has taken place while the discourse was still in its initial state; the end of which I would see with the consolidation of the concept of sustainability owned to the Brundtland Report 1987. Especially during the 1970s – the time of the first crisis of post-WW II capitalism and the heyday of the non-aligned movement – there was a wide questioning of prosperity, growth and technology, including calls for a new world order and self-reliance.20 There was a range of environmentalist visions that were utterly political because they challenged the economic system, they challenged consumption and demanded political reorientations.

Not so the influential Brundtland Report from 1987. This report, according to Adams (1990, cited in Kobler: 80), “is based on an economic and not on an environmentalist vision. It uses some of the language of 1970s environmentalism, but not the questioning of growth or technology.” The sustainable development discourse has become increasingly ahistoric, even though ahistoric elements have been constitutive of the discourse before. Problematic experiences with development interventions in the Third World – especially the World Bank's large-capital projects – find almost no explicit expressions in the discourse. The same is true for a critical account of science, or structural and historic causes of inequality and ecological problems. Political issues are clearly marginalized; the discourse has built up an inherent immunity against the political. With Kothari and Minogue (2002: 11), we can contain that the critical discourse of environmentalism has been watered down in its challenges and political implications as it became included into the development mainstream and policy formulations.

4.3 Environmental Post-Politics

Following from the above, it can be established that the sustainable development discourse serves as an excellent example for the condition that has been termed post-politics by Slavoj Žižek, among others. In post-politics, the political is not only marginalized and contained, it is being effectively excluded. Within post-politics, conflict is solved through cooperation instead of confrontation between the ideological positions; as well as collaboration with enlightened technocrats. So-called stakeholders promote their interests in negotiations at the end of which stands a compromise, something like a general consensus. A precondition for an acceptable political intervention is that the idea might actually work under existing conditions and in the given capitalist framework.

In contrast to this form of post-politics, the actual political act, according to Žižek, consists of ideas and interventions that do change the scope of what is deemed possible. As such, true politics is not consensus but dissension. True politics is “the art of the impossible” (Žižek 2010: 274). If the dimension of the impossible is excluded, politics excludes segments of society – and those members excluded cannot “politicise” (Žižek 2010: 274) their exclusion, as the democratic-political confrontation has become reduced to a post-political procedure of negotiations. (Žižek 2010: 272–282). Sustainability has been precisely identified as such a “powerful tool for consensus”21, cutting “across most previous intellectual and political boundaries” (Lélé 1991, cited in Eblinghaus/Stickler 1998: 39) and creating a kind of environmental populism. With Erik Swyngedouw environmental populism can be described as follows.

First, “populism invokes The Environment and The people (if not humanity as a whole) in a material and philosophical manner” (Swyngedouw 2007: 32), thus leveling the differences between human and non-human natures. This is (second) possible by alluding to a common threat to both nature and humanity which is (third) supported by seemingly neutral scientific technocracy and (fourth) formulated in such a way that it invokes apocalyptic futures if immediate action is not taken. Fifth, the problem is caused by an externalized outsider, a vague and standardized enemy that is ultimately empty, such as CO2. Sixth, the action against the enemy is not carried through by a certain privileged subject of change, instead there is the need for humanity-wide action which (seventh) is not about the changing of elites. Eighth, the concrete demands of populism “remain particular and foreclose universalization as a positive socioenvironmental project” (Swyngedouw 2007: 34) – f.ex. “reduce CO2 emissions”. Altogether, populism aims for a situation in which “the target of concern can be managed through a consensual dialogical politics, and, consequently, demands become depoliticized.” (The reader may want to have a glance at the nobel lecture of Al Gore to see what this theorization might look like in practice.) (Swyngedouw 2007: 32–35)

5. Conclusion: The Third World and Post-Politics

Old Acquaintances, New Perspectives?

The concept of post-politics was initially thought to describe the situation of neoliberal multiculturalism in Europe and the United States and not the Third World. I would argue that actually, the post-political situation is not new to the global South at all. Indeed, it has an even longer tradition there, owing much to the workings of the development apparatus. James Ferguson has convincingly shown how in Lesotho the “state itself, meanwhile, tends to appear as a machine for implementing “development programs”, an apolitical tool for delivering social services and agricultural inputs and engineering economic growth” (Ferguson 2007: 65).

The developmentalist state of the Third World as well as the development agencies have had the agenda of “development first, democracy next” – an agenda that has only recently been challenged through the good governance discourse. The sustainable development discourse lifts all these notions of “development” and good governance from the national level to the even more abstract one world perspective, for environmental issues escape national sovereignty (cf. Sachs 1995b: 27). New ways of intervention, management and the dealing with nature have found their way into the development apparatus. But, as I hope to have made clear, the way environmental issues are dealt with – their political framing – is inherently postpolitical and postdemocratic (Swyngedouw 2007: 13–14). The sustainable development discourse de-politicizes the issue of socio-natural relations through the mechanisms of problematization, institutionali­zation, professionalization and hierarchization. The development discourse selects for representations that allow development agencies to intervene, and the same remains valid for the sustainable development discourse. The state, using the de-politicized space that has been created through development intervention, has widened its range of action to include the environment and human interaction with it (cf. Ferguson 2007: 65).

Despite their supposed neutrality, the effects of environmental policies are deeply political and have momentous consequences for both the global North and South. As policies on the environment become more visible, they start forming an essential part of political struggles. Especially in the global South, the normalization of the relationship between human and nature is resisted and very often, this has meant resisting the authoritarian (and seemingly apolitical) developmentalist state (cf. Shiva 2000: 117–123; Escobar 1998; critical overviews: Robbins 2004: 187–201; McMichael 2008).

This paper has benefitted from helpful comments by Tomáš Profant, as well as my colleagues Magdalena Haglmüller, Katrin Köhler, Abigail Sattlberger and Falko Wolfsgruber.


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The author is a political science student at the University of Vienna.

Poznámky pod čarou

  1. Ecological modernization means to “ecologize” the economy through “clean technology and ecologically sound ways of production” (Kobler 2009: 39) – a prevailing paradigm.
  2. “Whereas it was initially development (seen as economic growth) itself that used to be the main point of criticism the Brundtland Report succeeded in presenting it (economic development) as the new solution for successfully managing the Earth.” (Kobler 2009: 80)
  3. Meanwhile, the concept of sustainability has transcended its boundaries around the context of nature/environment so that today basically anything can take the adjunct of being “sustainable”. For example, that projects should be sustainable (not environmentally sustainable) does today rather have the meaning that it “lives on” in a self-reliant way, even after the termination of funding and the retreat of expatriate development experts. This is connected to the participatory development discourse, or its more recent form, the partnership discourse (cf. Eriksson Baaz 2005: 6–8). I will, however, deal with a more narrow meaning of the sustainability concept.
  4. See also Williams 1995 on the modernization of Malthus' thoughts.
  5. It is important to note that resources as well are socially constructed rather than given (cf. Robbins 2004: 8).
  6. Ostrom (quoted in Woodhouse/Chimhowu 2005), contradicting the thesis of the tragedy of the commons, summarizes his empirical work with the conclusion that long-term productivity of commons is sustainable as long as access is restricted to a defined social group.
  7. According to the dominant paradigm, it is the population/resource control that have to be managed, not the market.
  8. Fundamentally different solutions to environmental problems usually have to start from a fundamentally different construction of the economy or wealth (cf. Gibson-Graham 2006) and often incorporate elements opposed to the concept of scarcity. These may be self-limitation, reciprocity, sufficiency and frugality as well as the notion of an abundant resource-base opposed to finite human needs (cf. Esteva 1995: 20–22; Paech 2009: 221–223; ; Sachs 1997: 298–299; Ndione et al. 1997: 369–372; Rahnema 1997: 393–395). See also Sahlins 1997.
  9. The urgency that is part of the sustainable development discourse is best visible in newspapers which are frequently evoking apocalyptic images (cf. Swyngedouw 2007: 16). Generally, the media and newspapers in particular have played a substantial role in fostering the discourse with headlines expressing utmost urgency, in the 1960s even well before the rise of scientific and political environmentalism (Kobler 2009: 37).
  10. Sachs' quote is a bit problematic because it might imply a consciously directed process or conspiracy.
  11. Sachs (1995b: 33) quotes David Hopper, in 1988 Senior Vice-President of the World Bank: “I anticipate […] that over the course of the next year [1989], the bank will be addressing the full range of environmental needs of its partner nations, needs that will run from the technical to the institutional, from the micro-detail of project design to the macro-requirements of formulating, implementing and enforcing environmental policies.” Cf. Ferguson 2007.
  12. For example, a report of the World Bank on the recent investment run on farmland (also known as “New Land Grab”) observes “a failure to articulate, implement, and enforce environmental regulations” (World Bank 2010: 88). The failure to do so is blamed on the weakness of the institutions.
  13. Anthropological research, f.ex., often took a stand against planned interventions (Goldman 2004). At this point, it is useful to remember that all discourses have selective processes, fostering their own reproduction. Certain results will be included, others will not or only marginally be represented. Ferguson's im­portant finding was that the development discourse “unconsciously selects for representations in which it appears possible for “development” agencies to deliver the goods they are set up to promise” (Ferguson 2007: 72).
  14. This tendency can be contrasted with principles of partnership and ownership, especially in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPSs) that form a requirement for countries to take part in the World Bank's HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) Initiative. However, Abrahamsen (2004) has also shown that mechanisms of inclusion and the production of self-disciplined citizens and states are part and parcel of development partnerships.
  15. Noritada Morita, director of the Asian Development Bank, has said of the people in mountainous areas that they have not been part of the national economy and thus should be brought to “normal life” (quoted in Goldman 2004: 172).
  16. Indeed there has been a veritable debate on the ecologically noble savage going on for some time now (cf. Hames 2007). Concerning the tentative outcome of this debate, Hames (2007: 186) states that if “[f]ollowing a strict definition of conservation, as advocated by behavioral ecologists and conservation biologists, one can conclude that conservation by native peoples is uncommon.”
  17. Instruction and transmission of knowledge are processes inevitably entailing submission. (Belsey 2002: 54)
  18. Chances are that the new tendency towards privatization of resources under the name of “intellectual property rights” will result in the control of genetic material increasingly in the hands of powerful corporations. This issue touches the question of re-inventing and “owning life itself”. (Escobar 1995: 198, see also Shiva 2000: 95–116 and Marie-Monique Robin's documentary film The World According to Monsanto, 2008).
  19. The economic crisis that evolved in 2008 was accompanied by a substantial revitalization of the concept of sustainability: plans and promises were made to restructure the economy along ecological criteria with a “Green New Deal”. The realization of the plans and promises has to be considered non-existent or, if existent, subjected to economic rather than ecological criteria (cf. Der Standard, 18th of September 2010, p. 25).
  20. For instance in the 1975 report of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, What now.
  21. Sachs (1997: 293) pins the moment of consensus exactly down to the Brundtland Report.
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Eric Pfeifer
9. 7. 2011