Since its initial conceptualisation in the 1980s, sustainable development has been a dominant discourse in global environmental governance. For industrialised countries it suggested a discursive merger of continued economic growth and environmental conservation. For the so-called ‘developing’ countries, it meant environmentally less detrimental economic activities coupled with increased development aid. At all levels, sustainable development discourse turned into institutions: not only in the UN system but also as NGOs, business councils, and ministries.
This paper analyses sustainable development discourse from a global and historical perspective, by coupling text and narration analysis with discourse theory. UN texts, historical narrations (political, literary and scientific), political movements and institutions are examined. The hegemonic struggles to fix the meanings of 'development', 'progress', and 'sustainability' are revealed such that new strategies can be produced for global environmental governance. Among the themes of this Conference, it addresses 'how the sustainable development discourse effects environmental governance'.
The paper examines the main ideological roots of sustainable development, developmentalism and environmentalism , placing them to their historical contexts. Firstly, the historical continuity between colonialism and developmentalism reveals how the semantic constellation around development changed, while the ideas about the concept remained intact. Secondly, the origins of sustainability generated increasingly more radical versions of environmentalism throughout 1970s. In the light of these findings, the hybrid concept of sustainable development is studied, linking these historical narrations with the Brundtland Report. This text analysis shows how the report successfully ended the hegemonic struggle by merging sustainability with development. The final section focuses on the influence of sustainable development discourse in environmental policies and institutions today: A comparison of the texts resulting from three environmental summits (Stockholm 1972, Rio 1992, and Johannesburg 2002) and the more recent changes in governance ( carbonification , securitisation and the Green New Deal ) are juxtaposed to this background.
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