Why it’s so difficult to agree on matters of sustainability

September 18, 2021

If you’ve been involved in the subject of sustainability for a while you may be wondering, like me, why we seem to be making little headway in solving the question of a sustainable future for all lifeforms on our planet.

As with many things, the challenge starts with the meanings of words.

The following is a short essay I wrote earlier this year as part of my M.Sc. studies at Kiel University. It provides a brief introduction to the challenges around (the lack of) a universal meaning of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ and a quick overview of different schools of thought (narratives) around those terms.

I hope you find this useful ‘food for thought’ when thinking about the world of grant funding, impact ventures, and how to best define sustainability criteria.

Normative and political aspects of Sustainability and Sustainable Development

One of the key challenges with the concept of sustainability is that despite many decades of debate in academic, political and societal spheres, there is no single established and universally accepted definition of the term. Attempts have been made to achieve this, and some interpretations have become more dominant than others, such as the wording used in the Brundtland report (UN 1987), the idea of the three pillars of economy, society and environment, the concepts of weak and strong sustainability in economics, or the notion of ecological limits in ecological sciences (e.g. Planetary Boundaries). However, ultimately any conceptual framework attempting to create a catch-all definition for all human society must fail due to the heterogenous ideological, cultural, and historical settings that influence human thought and action (i.e. constructivism). Sustainability, then, is a normative concept that means different things to different people around the world, and this meaning changes over time depending on the then perceived state of affairs and, in turn, what a more sustainable state might look like.

Considering the significant variety of situations (problems) around the globe and multitude of perspectives to analyse these and suggest viable solutions, sustainability is a continually contested and debated term which in turn causes ongoing discussion and challenges in how we should approach any pathway to transforming current societal (including economic) systems, processes and institutions to a create more sustainable world. In other words, there is a normative question of what sustainable development should achieve. What is considered an improvement? How is this defined? What is the best way to achieve this? Who gets a voice in the process? Who gets to decide? Who or what stands to benefit? All these and many more questions arise and need to be negotiated for any given situation (considering space, place and scale). Sustainable development is thus closely linked to notions of social justice and governance. In Andrea Nightingale’s words: “All interpretations and solutions regarding sustainability are political because they are underpinned by particular commitments to ordering the world” (Nightingale 2013, p.6). Regarding decision-making processes, for example, there is tension between government, natural sciences and social movements advocating different priorities and approaches.

Such a variety of perspectives has over the past decades led to a number of different narratives around the globe that seek to define sustainable development from their point of view and shape opinion on what is desirable and what is achievable. Andrea Nightingale (idem) identifies eight such narratives, to be understood as idealtypes of certain viewpoints that in reality often overlap and/or conflict in different constellations:

  1. development as growth: economic growth as main driver to human welfare and improved environment;
  2. development as ecological modernisation: technological innovation as main driver for economic growth, human welfare and solving environmental problems;
  3. development as de-growth: demands radical shifts in economic practices;
  4. development as freedom: focus on human rights, equity and economic opportunity;
  5. deep ecology: ecocentric (nonhuman sphere as main priority) rejection of growth narrative and capitalist market economy;
  6. ecological economists: argue for social and environmental externalities to be included in market prices and for more cooperative economic practices;
  7. political ecologists: focus on social justice and how environmental degradation is caused by societal structures; and
  8. development as living well (buen vivir): philosophically different approach seeing humans as part of the natural system (reject mechanical worldview) and arguing for environmental justice through governance systems that include nonhuman needs.

As becomes apparent in this brief overview of sustainable development narratives, there are many differing visions for a sustainable future. However, all of them are based on some form of relationship between human society and the natural environment we live in. This is ultimately based on philosophical theories and epistemological and ontological differences in how we define this relationship.

Human-nature relationship and Socionatures

Philosophical debates around humanity’s relationship to nature date back to Ancient Greece (e.g. Plato). In modern times, the dominant ideological approach, certainly in western society, is based on a ‘mechanical worldview’ which consists of a shared belief system that regards the human place in nature as a) superior and b) outside of the natural system, which itself is governed by laws and can be manipulated by humanity to its own end. This inherently anthropocentric view emerged during the Enlightenment era in the 18th century and gained momentum over the centuries with the increasing importance of natural sciences as the underpinning approach to much of modern humanity’s efforts in analysing and ‘managing’ the natural environment and developing concepts for a more socially and environmentally just future. Most of the sustainable development narratives mentioned above are based on this mechanical worldview. Less widespread are ‘metaphysical’ ideologies that see humans as an integral and non-superior part of the natural world, as seen for example in the Buen Vivir movement.

The clear separation of human and nonhuman spheres is increasingly questioned. More integrated concepts are being developed to reflect that human activities can be part of an ecosystem and that the relationships between human and nonhuman processes evolve together. Epistemologically, most concepts still use the categories of natural environment and society, however mainly as analytical tools to understand their interdependencies and changes. Terms applied here include ‘dialectical relations’ and ‘mutual constitution’. Socio-ecological Systems (SES) is a popular framework, for example, that seeks to understand feedback loops between changes in society and in the natural environment and how they continually affect each other.

A more fundamental shift in thinking seeks to reimagine the world in a way that integrates the natural environment and human actions on an ontological level. Terms applied here include ‘vibrant ecologies’, ‘hybrid natures’ and ‘socionatures’. The term ‘socionatures’ aims to verbalise the notion that we cannot separate human society from the natural environment but should understand everything as socionatural entities that are created and changed by both human and natural processes. This is a rather challenging concept, certainly when much of modern thinking has been based on and shaped by the separation of nature and humans. For a European such as myself, who has largely been influenced by academic, political and economic concepts and processes based on a mechanical worldview, this requires a mental leap away from established learned concepts and frameworks towards a very different, unfamiliar worldview. It appears that, without romanticising metaphysical worldviews, we stand to gain from a better understanding of models and ideologies that have some experience with a more integrated approach, such as First Nations or indigenous belief systems, to develop new methods of thinking and conducting research into socionatures and a more sustainable future.


Mareike is a founder and entrepreneur with success stories to share in multiple sectors including Education (edtech funding, educational programmes & €multi-million development projects), Clean Energy (cleantech funding, software development and renewable energy development) and Consultancy (funding, management and strategy). Her network across the EU opens doors for ventures looking to access partners, funding & new markets.

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References / Further reading

Nightingale, A. (ed.) (2019). Environment and Sustainability in a Globalizing World. Routledge: London and New York. 

United Nations (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations. [online] URL: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf