Challenges in Sustainability | 2013 | Volume 1 | Issue 1 | Pages 29-40
DOI: 10.12924/cis2013.01010029
Research Article
The Pitfalls of Sustainability Policies: Insights into Plural
François Mancebo
International Research Center on Sustainability, Reims University, 57 bis, rue Pierre Taittinger, 51096 Reims
Cedex, France; E-Mail: fr[email protected]; Tel.: +33 612537446
Submitted: 21 December 2012 | In revised form: 30 March 2013 | Accepted: 24 May 2013 |
Published: 18 June 2013
Abstract: A lot can be learned from the numerous pitfalls of sustainable development
implementation: they outline how collective representation, short term interests and balance of
power can undermine sustainability. For instance, the usefulness of global institutions in dealing
with sustainable development is questionable as most are skewed toward the interests and
perceptions of developed countries. The notion of sustainable development itself induces a
profound cleavage between academic authors and the actors of its implementation, some of
whom confuse it with sustainable growth (which favors spatial equity), whilst the others with
environment management (which favors intergenerational equity). This polarization is a real
problem, since originally, "Our Common Future" report promotes an inclusive approach, able to
cope with both equities simultaneously. Finally, if there are obligations toward future
generations, there are also obligations toward the current generation. The key issue for
effective sustainability policies should be making them acceptable to everyone by including the
expectations of local societies and communities. As a matter of consequence, universal
solutions do not exist. They would not meet the specificities of local circumstances. The
traditional prescriptive sustainable development model should give way to flexible plural
sustainabilities. Singular, top-down, global-to-local approaches to sustainable development
should be substituted for multiple sustainabilities.
Keywords: actors strategies; environmental policies; planning; sustainability
1. Introduction
Throughout the 1990s, starting with the release of the
World Commission on Environment and Development
report [1], and even more so following the Rio
Summit, sustainable development began being widely
discussed among international organizations such as
the OECD, the European Union, and the WTO, as well
as various NGOs. Rio's Agenda 21 has seen national
and even regional and local governments enter into
© 2013 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
discussions on sustainability [2]. But with the ever
increasing debates on sustainable development, the
term took on a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory
meanings [3]. It became an all-purpose grab bag of
notions such as "development that is tolerable to
ecosystems", "development that spares natural re-
sources", "development that is conducive to a good
quality of life", "that permits economic growth", "that
drives employment opportunities", "that encourages
social cohesion", and so forth. The situation is now so
complex that it needs mapping [4]. This is all but
natural as it is impossible to answer the basic ques-
tion of what is sustainable and what is not because
sustainable development is not only about science,
but also about values [5], which means that various
views and interpretations are likely to thrive since
values may differ considerably between cultures and
over time [6].
However, the core idea of sustainable development
is simple enough: recognizing the finite nature of our
biophysical environment. It promotes a type of devel-
opment that meets the current needs of our societies
without compromising those of future generations.
Such a definition, however, points out three difficulties
which are developed in this paper:
The assumption that large and small scales of
action can be treated similarly is all but evident (for
example the nesting of local agenda 21s within
Agenda 21). Some environmental constraints that
can seem absolute at the global level, often
perceived as a matter of survival, appear merely
insignificant at local or regional levels.
Frequently sustainable development is con-
fused with sustainable growth which, moreover,
can be considered an oxymoron. The result is a
contradiction between the imperative of a slow-
down in the use of resources on the one hand and
the willingness to ensure steady economic growth
on the other. All the more so, since this
contradiction creates an ever-larger gap between
rich countries, which favor the environment and
intergenerational equity, and poor countries, which
favor economic growth for the sake of spatial
According to the "Our common future" report,
if there are obligations toward future generations,
there are also obligations toward current
generations. All the more so, since predicting what
kind of resources these future generations will
require is a matter of speculation.
Besides, these three difficulties outline how
collective representations, perceptions, short term
interests and the balance of power between public
actors may undermine the success of sustainable
development policies—I shall call them sustainability
policies—promoted by local societies and communities.
In this article, I will use the term sustainability as a
synonym for sustainable development. Some authors
consider sustainability to refer to objectives to be
achieved, with sustainable development referring to
the processes to achieve them [7]. Others interpret
sustainable development as focusing on ameliorating
economic growth by taking into account the
environment, while sustainability focuses on the ability
of humanity to live within the environmental limits of
the planet [8]. Strictly speaking the distinction
between sustainability and sustainable development is
logical, otherwise the word development would be
entirely useless, but at the same time it "needlessly
complicates the sustainable development debate and
merely shifts the complex and vibrant interpretational
debate to the conceptual level" [9]. I agree with this
idea since the debate on the difference between
sustainable development and sustainability remains
unresolved [10]. Leaving this issue open may create a
"constructive ambiguity" [3].
2. Linking the Different Spatial and Temporal
Scales: A New Catch-22
One major issue when trying to implement sustain-
ability is the relevant scope to effective policies [11].
This issue becomes a bottleneck when considering, for
example, cross-border pollution [12]. Cross-border
pollution is classically connected with global phenom-
ena such as greenhouse gases, or gases that impact
the stratospheric ozone layer. However, it is a
widespread problem with sources which can be
precisely located. I will mention here three very
different cases. In 2005, the explosion of a chemical
plant in north-east China spilled huge amounts of
benzene—a carcinogenic substance—into the Songhua
River, which provides drinking water to millions of
people in China and Russia [13]. Russian cities
downstream had to cut their water supplies, affecting
millions of people for several weeks. This ended in a
long legal dispute between Russia and China over
responsibilities and compensation [14]. This
contamination can also be chronic: Japan is under
constant threat from acid rain caused by the sulfur
injected in the atmosphere by China's Shanxi province
industrial plants and carried across the Sea of Japan
by the wind [15]. In particularly great danger are the
famous ice trees (juhyo) along with the fragile
ecosystem that supports them on Mount Zao [16].
Sometimes cross-borders pollution ends in everlasting
conflicts without solution. So is the contamination of
the Rhine river by the French mining company Société
des Mines de Potasse d'Alsace (MDPA), which resulted
in a long-running environmental dispute [17]. The
Netherlands accused the French company of dumping
salt effluents (sulfates, ammonia, chlorides) into the
Rhine. This pollution made the Rhine water unfit for
agricultural purposes in addition to corroding water
delivery systems. Despite a 1989 order by the
Strasbourg Administrative Court in favor of the Dutch
government, things continued largely unchanged until
the MDPA site was closed by injunction of the court in
2004 [18].
The three cases show how difficult it is to delimit
relevant areas for sustainability policies—the func-
tional space of an industrial site, including its
employment base, does not usually coincide with the
area affected by the atmospheric or hydrographic
pollution that it generates, and it often does not
coincide with the territorial jurisdiction of the
institution charged with regulating such issues,
notwithstanding all the discussion about linking scales
of action. Indeed, the assumption that large and small
spatial scales can be easily drawn up raises a number
of questions. Can the principles of sustainability
[19,20] really be applied identically from the global
down to the local level, as if each level were
controlling the other in some sort of gigantic planetary
It is true that some global issues like climate
change or ozone depletion need global answers
embodied by top-down policies which should be
translated directly into regional policies [21]. Johan
Rockström identified a set of such critical sustain-
ability issues where perturbations resulting from
human activities present a risk of unacceptable global
environmental change [22]. But even in these cases,
if the top-down initiatives prove unenforceable be-
cause they have not been adjusted to accommodate
local or regional considerations, they will be useless in
addressing these problems, as with the mechanisms
to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and
forest degradation (REDD) [23].
Thus, it would be an error to apply policies locally
that do not fit the concerned areas, as would it be to
dictate a single approach in defining problems and
drafting solutions. In France, the utilization of sewage
sludge on agricultural fields illustrates how not taking
local concerns into account—here, perceptions of
sewage sludge as a nuisance—can lead to major
problems. While working on the periurbanization
dynamic in the Ile-de-France (Paris metropolitan
region), I realized that land application of sewage
sludge often resulted in significant neighborhood
conflicts addressing the quality of life at the local scale
when this practice was considered sustainable at the
regional scale [24]. These conflicts combined with
distrust in industrial agriculture after the BSE (Bovine
Spongiform Encephalopathy) crisis in the 1990s to
provoke a persistent and massive rejection by the
population (either neighbors or customers) of the land
application of sludge (appendix). As mentioned by
Flor Avelino, attempting to change human perceptions
and behavior through imposed technocratic ap-
proaches usually leads to unsustainable power
relations and conflicts [25]. However, it is important to
remember that for more than a century Parisian
sewage sludge was used to grow vegetables for the
capital, and that traditional family gardens have
always put human manure to good use. If sewage
sludge has no health risks, it certainly has others: the
risk to a local representative or official committed to
sewage sludge utilization of being sued; the risk to
food industry actors of being hit by a boycott, more
out of fear than due to an actual event; and, finally,
the risk of scapegoating faced by a farmer who uses
sludge on his fields in an environment where farming
practices are often called into question.
The preceding cases highlight the difficulties
involved in drawing up different scales of action;
neither general, normative measures nor strictly local
ones that undermine the scope of action can
contribute to a solution. Such cases point to the
explosion in Northern societies of a climate where
opinion dictates its choices on a purely emotional or
self-interested basis, a sort of generalized NIMBY or
Not In My Backyard atmosphere, in which local
residents are opposed to the roll out or extension of
public goods such as industrial sites, waste disposal
facilities, communication lines, refugee processing
centers, etc. Firstly, NIMBY opposition gives
concerned inhabitants a unified and coherent political
grouping, clustered around so-called common
interests—they form de facto actor coalitions [26]. But
this type of action usually evolves quickly to take on
different forms, which differ according to what their
activists consider to be the key issue worth defending;
the result is different pressure groups finally emerging
and opposing each other. They have contradictory
interests, which is all but normal when considering
sustainability transition, which requires synergetic but
also antagonistic power dynamics between moderate
and radical groups of actors [25]. But instead of
developing an inclusive approach by focusing effort on
dialog between, and within, all these different groups,
public authorities—be they local, regional or national
—and project promoters more than often fuel the
conflict between the different pressure groups by
choosing only a few interlocutors among them whilst
ignoring the others. Naturally, when this type of
situation occurs, tension grows between the different
pressure groups and the situation rapidly becomes
chaotic, such that everything is finally disrupted—not
just the project itself, but also daily life in the local
communities where the project is intended to be put
in place. Living conditions worsen rapidly for
inhabitants, until a threshold of acceptability is
crossed, whereupon public authorities and project
promoters can impose just about any project, no
matter how dubious, justifying it through exceptional
circumstances (sometimes even claiming a state of
emergency). Can such an attitude be considered a
deliberate strategy on the part of the project
stakeholders? To quote Maarten Hajer, "policies are
not only designed to solve problems, problems also
have to be designed to be able to create policies"
[27]. Pressure groups usually oppose each other
because the narratives that they develop about their
environment, and specifically about "quality of life"
and "good environment", are different. They oppose
each other on the basis of "essentially fragmented
and contradictory statements", to quote Hajer again
[27]. Thus, environmental conflict occurs primarily
over the interpretation of so-called environmental
problems. As the different pressure groups realize that
they need one another to craft effective political
agreements, these conflicts should normally give way
to the formulation of a common narrative and
objectives [28]. But social power relations have a
delicate balance and need time to grow their sources
of trust and legitimacy. This evolution never happens
when the stakeholders (mainly local authorities and
project promoters) act in such a way as to block the
process at its conflictual phase.
At this point, the difficulties in drawing up the
scales of action as well as the resulting problems, for
instance NIMBY movements, highlight the importance
of taking imported sustainability into account as an
essential component for sustainability policies. David
Pearce speaks of imported sustainability when an area
guarantees its sustainability by transferring its cost
onto other areas; for example by exporting pollution
or waste, exporting activities that pollute, or by
purchasing natural resources at artificially low prices
[29]. This area meets the needs of its population
while appearing, on the face of it, to meet the general
criteria of sustainability. Internal sustainability is thus
achieved through the export of undesired products or
impacts, to the detriment of the area's external
sustainability [30]. Thus, policies aiming at the
realization of sustainable development must be
conceived on areas large enough to minimize
imported sustainability from outside areas [2,22].
Though less apparent, difficulties also concern
temporal scales. Just as inequalities and injustices
may arise from one area to another, from one
community to another within the same area and from
one person to another within the same community,
they can be handed down to from one generation to
the next. For instance, it seems easy to differentiate
between renewable and non-renewable resources,
based on man's and society's interactions, destructive
or not, with the environmental resources that are
accessible to him. However, there is a certain gray
area, in that, generally speaking, a renewable re-
source is a resource that is utilized less rapidly than its
natural capacity for regeneration or regrowth. But
how are we to estimate this capacity? In many cases,
the rate of renewability of a resource is difficult to
determine. Forest resources are a good example, with
renewability estimates varying greatly depending on
whether one is concerned primarily with biodiversity,
lumber production, landscape dynamics or soil quality
[30]. Furthermore, the notion of "non-renewability"
falsely suggests an irreversible process. Irreversibility
thus applies only to the scale of human history or that
of future generations. It should also be noted that
man can produce "non-renewable" resources, for
example soils that can take thousands of years to
form when left to nature [32].
3. Resources, Growth and Development:
Delicate Balances and Complex Trade-Offs
Our actions take place within a vast system of bio-
physical networks. These actions generate a specific
discourse, produced by social practices and productive
of social practices. This can be considered a "specific
ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorizations that
are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a
particular set of practices and through which meaning
is given to physical and social realities" [27]. In this
sense, this discourse structures the environment, or
the "nature", of a society. These are both social
constructs and, as such, are often exploited by
different policy-makers in an attempt to create their
own definition of the real world to cover incomplete
arguments and biases [33]. So, the environment is
embedded in societies. The human being builds a
representation of the ecosystems he lives in, and calls
it "the environment", he makes of its resources taking
(air, water, minerals), inputting (pollution) and altering
(housing, transport) [17]. The environment more-or-
less represents a noisy neighborhood to which we
must adapt. Depending on the moment in a societies'
history, not all the "items" present in ecosystems are
necessarily considered resources. The knowledge we
have of our environment changes continually: nature
in medieval times was not the same as it is today, if
only because the dynamics of the atmosphere and
genetics were not well understood. This, of course,
raises the crucial issue for sustainable development:
what is a resource?
A resource cannot be considered as such by its
mere presence. Societies must also possess the
knowledge required to make use of it. Coal for
example only acquired value as a resource once its
combustible properties were discovered and
techniques for its use were developed. Prior to this,
coal had only negligible value. In addition, inventories
of resources change over time. New practices or new
relationships to the environment give rise to new
resources while others disappear or move toward
obsolescence. Besides, expressions such as "repairing
nature", "restoring nature", "remediating nature" or even
"recreating nature", are very ambiguous. Thus, when
some of Spain's political ecologists—for example the
Ecologistas en Acción de Tierras de Granadilla [34]—
speak of "restoring" Mediterranean nature, to which
Mediterranean nature are they referring? The climacic
deciduous forest that covered Spain ten thousand
years ago? The sparse open forest of green oaks,
cork-oaks and carob trees of antiquity? Or the
garrigas (scrublands) of recent centuries, which in fact
represent an advanced stage of forest degradation
from an ecosystemic point of view? In fact, it is
usually the garrigas [35,36]. This is not illogical, if we
consider that nature is essentially a social construct
and there is nothing like a unique ideal biophysical
type. But precisely because it is a social construct, the
garrigas that the Ecologistas en Acción value so much
tell us a lot about their cultural and historical
references as well as their vision of Spain today.
Garrigas are the recent past of the country so there is
nostalgia in such a choice, besides, garrigas are
associated in the Spanish collective memory with the
civil war—Bunuel's movies and media coverage of the
war show scrublands— and the bull silhouette of the
Spanish brandy Osborne dominating arid landscapes
[37,38]. The point is this: were the promoters or the
garrigas option conscious of the history they valued
indirectly? Probably not.
Besides, what sense does it make to conserve
resources for future generations, when we cannot
know which resources they will require? Firstly, when
asking this question, which generations are we
considering? One could argue that everybody thinks
spontaneously of his "own" future generations—i.e.
those closest to him, both socially and culturally—and
not about humanity in its entirety, which remains a
rather vague reference. Similarly, at what time horizon
does one cease to be interested in the future? On this
issue, there is likely a wide divergence of opinion
amongst people in different regions of the world; the
future is not perceived in the same way when life
expectancy is thirty-five as when it is eighty-five,
when basic food and health needs are met and when
they are not. In addition to the bizarre idea of putting
ourselves in the place of future generations to decide
on their best interest, sustainable development
glosses over the fact that human history, rather than
being a continuous process, alternates between
relatively stable periods and sudden ruptures that are
favorable to development and that cannot be
foreseen. Considering that resources vary over time, is
our concern for future generations a good enough
guide for adapting our productive activities so as to
make them less harmful to the environment?
More importantly, the aporia created by trying to
determine which resources will be required by absent
third parties in an uncertain future results in a
theoretical bottleneck when designing sustainability
policies. It leads to two definitely divergent views on
sustainability—one "weak", and one "strong" [39].
Proponents of "weak" sustainability consider
manufactured capital capable of being completely
replacing natural capital, with technology answering
the environmental challenges arising from the
production of goods and services: "the world can, in
effect, get along without natural resources, so
exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe" [40].
Proponents of "strong" sustainability denounce this
point of view. They consider manufactured capital
incapable of perfectly replacing natural capital,
especially some global processes vital to human
existence such as the climate or the ozone layer
[41,42]. In this perspective, it is crucial to limit the
qualitative and quantitative degradation of natural
capital by diminishing the quantities of material and
energy that are extracted from the biosphere and
altered [43]. All the more, since there are critical
thresholds at which tiny perturbations may irreversibly
transform the state of the Earth system once what
Lenton calls "tipping elements" cross them. As far as
climate change is concerned, monsoon systems, jet
streams, coral mega-reefs, tropical rainforests maybe
considered "tipping elements" [44].
The Brundtland report is no help in determining the
relation between these two sustainabilities. Of course,
it points out that the satisfaction of human aspirations
should "not endanger the natural systems that
support life on Earth: the atmosphere, the waters, the
soils, and the living beingsIt is part of our moral
obligation to other living beings and future
generations" [1]. But, simultaneously it promotes a
more rapid economic growth in order to overcome
poverty, in reference to the "trickle-down theory"
which affirms that economic growth is eventually of
benefit to everybody and as such reduces poverty
[45]. Such a position is ambiguous. It creates
confusion on what the substance of sustainable
development is, giving room to the divergence
between "weak" and "strong" sustainability. Indeed
according to Herman Daly, current sustainable
development policies seek to correct a mode of
development often confused with a mode of growth.
As such, the term is oxymoronic as traditional
economic growth is clearly unsustainable since it
needs more and more resources and produces more
and more waste and pollution [46]. Of course, these
last years, there have been strenuous attempts to
decouple economic growth from material consumption
and, for example, to foster recycling channels for
material resources [47]. But still, such an approach
can be considered based on "weak" sustainability
which, according to Rees, turns out to be a "morally
bankrupt solution" to poverty [48]. This is not
surprising, given that growth has been the mantra of
western societies since WWII, stemming from the
simplistic vision that increased production by means
of industrialization automatically increases mankind's
wellbeing. This was true for post-war Europe's
devastated economies, at a time when 20th century
industrialization was at its peak. It is no longer true in
the 21st century, nor for the rest of the world. Yet this
belief persists and has taken on a parasitic role in all
reflections on sustainability. The Maastricht Treaty
goes so far as to use the term "sustainable growth" as
a synonym for "sustainable development" [49], so
does a recent report from the OECD which drew
together green growth and sustainable development
policies [50].
Sustainable development can also be considered an
oxymoron in that the term "sustainable development"
itself conceals a fundamental contradiction. Etymo-
logically, the word development implies structural
change, be it in embryo development, the process of
converting land to a new purpose, the qualitative
changes of economic development, or more generally
the transition to a new stage in a new situation. But
sustainable means the exact opposite—among the
many synonyms of the verb "to sustain", we find "to
bear", "to continue", "to maintain", "to preserve", "to
perpetuate". As such, sustainable development could
be understood as "sustained change"—a change that
can last forever—which would make it meaningless
[51]. Of course, this oxymoron is purely semantic. But
it introduces an apparent and original flaw in
sustainable development. It induces a recurring
question that features prominently in large sectors of
academic works on sustainable development, namely,
since the words "development" and "sustainable" are
so opposed, what is the respective weight of each in
the complex notion of sustainable development?
Historically, according to Waas, "in addition to its
environmental roots the concept draws on the
experience of several decades of development efforts"
[9]. Indeed, some authors consider sustainable devel-
opment to be the successor of traditional develop-
ment, to which an important environmental dimension
was added in 1987, with the WCED report [52]. Thus,
human needs, quality of life and increases in
everyone's capabilities and wellbeing are the principal
issues of sustainable development [53]: As mentioned
in Our Common Future: "Poverty…is an evil in itself"
[1]. Finally, since sustainable development is a social
construct, what it means depends entirely on how the
people who define it—whoever they are—see the
world they want to live in [6,54]. They make choices
based on the values they decide to maintain or, more
precisely, to sustain. Recently, Bill Hopwood drew up a
system of classification and mapping of different
trends of people's thought on sustainable
development (status quo, reform, transformation)
linked to their political and policy frameworks and to
their attitudes toward change [4]. But all these trends
have a point in common: when under-development
threatens the environment and human needs, more
development is required; but when development
becomes an equal threat, more of the same kind of
development is not desired [3].
4. Combining Spatial and Intergenerational
Equity: From Sustainability to Place-Based
In a general sense and in the first place, sustainable
development is concerned with quality of life, which is
about the place of every person in a complex society,
about lifestyles and social ties, and not just with
material consumption. As such, it seeks to promote a
conscious co-evolution between human societies and
the ecosystems within which they are embedded. For
this reason, sustainable development should be
considered a process and not an end state [55]; a
process which considers the question of "how
decisions are made": It is "not about mobilising
resources to realise a pre-determined societal order.
Rather, it is about adjusting the structures that
regulate societal interactions so that they can
encourage positive developmental adaptation" [56].
Therefore, the issue of determining what form of
governance is the most effective for actions of
sustainable development, is at the heart of sustai-
nability policies. Despite extensive literature on
governance for sustainability, "many of its funda-
mental elements remain unclear in both theory and
practice" [57]. Indeed, the term governance, in itself,
has very different meanings [58,59]. As far as
sustainable development is concerned, and in a very
general sense, governance is not only about the
design and implementation of government policies,
but also about the collective process of debate and
decision through democratic interactions to ensure
that these policies proceed along a sustainable path.
It means that the effectiveness of sustainability
policies is largely dependent on their acceptability and
collective suitability [60]. Thus, the existing social
and cultural fabric should not be forgotten [31]. It is,
therefore, important to define, on the global scale,
what a good environment is for the communities
involved, i.e. one in which the improvement of
environmental conditions stricto sensu (water quality,
air, biodiversity, prudent use of resources, land and
energy, etc.) leads to improved living conditions. To
do so, it seems logical to put non-market institutions,
local communities and individuals able to form self-
determined user associations together as governance
actors—alongside traditional public actors and
organizations— to design sustainability policies. This is
what Elinor Ostrom demonstrated earlier, when she
proved, twenty years ago, that user communities can
manage the commons more efficiently than the
market or institutional structures, provided that these
communities are legally empowered to exclude "free
riders" [61,62].
Unfortunately, more than often, the organizations
and traditional public actors of sustainable develop-
ment are inclined to push aside this type of gover-
nance—complex and difficult to implement—to replace
it with pseudo-governance practices proposing ready-
made grids and rigid ready-made policies, in contempt
of local realities. Such a bias is not confined to local
authorities fostering their interests, nor to nations
with rigid administrations. In fact there is a strong
temptation on the part of international organizations
to use normative control measures when dealing with
global issues. These organizations produce a profu-
sion of "good practices" furthering the interests of one
actor or another. For instance, the World Bank directly
supported sustainable development projects in poor
countries by allocating funds that require the
borrowing country to follow directives unilaterally
issued by the World Bank [63]. But the priorities of
the World Bank were very different from those of the
populations. Of the six requirements imposed by the
World Bank, two are quite revealing: "encouraging
private business development" and "promoting
reforms to create a stable macroeconomic environ-
ment, to facilitate investment and long-term planning"
[64]. On the surface, the intention seems
praiseworthy enough, considering that many
requesting countries are plagued with widespread
patronage. In the recent past, this approach has had
many side effects: such requirements were not being
suitably adapted to the local conditions and often
resulted in disastrous, economic, social and
environmental consequences [65]. One participant at
a sustainable development conference summed it up
thus: "A debate on standards is unavoidable. What
sense do standards imposed by the North make, when
they care more about micrograms of nitrates in water
than about millions of salmonella germs" [66]. This
pernicious effect fuels criticism that sustainable
development reflects the unilateral insistence of elite
Northern countries on concerns like global warming,
population growth, species extinction and free market
[67]. At the same time, it leads emerging and poor
countries to give a veneer of sustainability to their
actions, even when unrelated to their real objectives.
Sustainability, thus, loses all credibility in the eyes of
the local authorities, who write them off as mere
whims of the rich nations. Once initiated into the
game, they soon get busy maneuvering the imposed
sustainable development objectives. Many countries
who are unable to manage their resources sustainably
will, for example, give much lip service to the themes
of poverty and inequalities. They will try so as to
legitimize policies which continue to destroy resources
or ecosystems. Poverty may even become a resource
when it allows access to funds aimed at restoring
spatial equity. Obviously, there is need for a sound
debate on the normative and practical tensions
resulting from the juxtaposition of sustainable
development and governance.
On the local scale, these rigid policies also tend to
reduce sustainability to its technical dimensions,
considering only biophysical, energetic, or ecosystem
constraints, without considering any more the social
side-effects [68]. For example, with the rising concern
on climate change, "exemplary" buildings and devices
all technical solutions—are often favored to the
detriment of more holistic approaches, such as active
land management and transformation of the urban
fabric (differential densification, restructuring urban
cores, etc.). To promote "green" buildings, elected
officials accept paying extra charges of up to 20% of
the original costs to obtain a Low-Energy label. They
are less interested in the urban design, which is more
important to creating a real sustainable city but, of
course, harder to implement and less profitable as an
electoral issue, as in the Clichy-Batignolles urban
project, in Paris [69]. Working within the IRCS
(International Research Center on Sustainability) at
Rheims University on an update of planning practice
and theory with regard to sustainability and social
justice, I realized that technical issues (such as
resource conservation or reduction of greenhouse
gases emissions) siphoned money away from other
priorities and public and private actors' attention, in
accordance with the earlier observations of Elizabeth
Burton in similar situations [70]. Since the end of the
1990s, the European Union has financed climate and
energy initiatives mainly when sustainability is
addressed [71]. Prioritizing this climate topic in local
and regional public policies—as in Climate Change
Actions Plans—induces very localized eco-technical
solutions: energetic autonomy of agglomerations with
the development of local renewable energy sources,
insulation of buildings, passive houses and so on
[72,73]. But a zero energy housing development does
not necessarily help in creating a sustainable
neighborhood. A crucial issue is forgotten here: the
fact that sustainable development is also about
managing social change.
A larger and larger gap is growing between
intergenerational equity (preservation of the resources
and protection of the planet for the generations to
come, which often goes with more technical
approaches) and spatial equity (environmental justice,
living conditions). These were not the original
intentions of Our Common Future report, which
features sustainable development in its ability to cope
simultaneously with both spatial equity and
intergenerational equity. When the United Nations
assigned the writing of a report to the World
Commission on Environment and Development
(WCED), its mission statement mentioned explicitly
that its objectives were how to reduce inequality and
poverty without damaging the environment granted to
the future generations [1]. Indeed, there is a general
equity principle, which we could also call justice or
fairness, at the heart of sustainable development [74].
In fact, there are many equities. It is possible to tailor
the general principle by addressing different questions
[75]. Academic authors usually differentiate between
intergenerational equity, spatial equity—which
includes intragenerational equity and geographical
equity, procedural equity and, finally, interspecific
equity [76]. But in fact, the dyad of intergenerational
equity and spatial equity is the element that most
strongly influences sustainability policies, especially by
urging for a clearer distinction between short-term
(spatial equity) and long-term (intergenerational
equity). Spatial equity refers mainly to the short term
and the right for present generations to meet their
needs and aspirations, and to have a decent quality of
life. It finally has a lot to do with the term
"development" in "sustainable development" and with
social justice. Intergenerational equity, on its side,
refers mainly to the long term, to the right for future
generations to live on a healthy planet which means
to keep our economic activities within the
environmental limits of the Earth. Fundamentally, it
relates to the term "sustainable" in "sustainable
development". Officially, of course, sustainable
development is an integrative notion that should
harmoniously unify development objectives with
environmental objectives [77]. But, it is evident that
these two equities are antagonistic notions, which cut
across the antagonism between weak and strong
sustainability seen above in this article: trade-offs are
often necessary, which, currently, usually favor
intergenerational equity, suggesting sacrifices among
the general sustainability objectives. Besides, the
environment is only one of the 3 "pillars" of
sustainable development together with social and
economic aspects. The idea of three separate and
connecting pillars, leads to the erroneous impression
that each one is, in part, independent of the others.
But humanity is completely dependent on its
environment, and the environment is completely
transformed by the economy and the societies
existing within it, and the resources used by the
economy all come from the environment or the
societies themselves, and so on [77]. Therefore the
perception of the three "pillars" is certainly the least
appropriate in depicting sustainable development;
curiously it is the most popular [78].
5. Conclusions
There are numerous ongoing debates about sustain-
able development. Though the theoretical corpus on
sustainable development is already considerable, it is
constantly evolving and presents many internal
contradictions. This is due, in large part, to its wide
dissemination through various domains and sectors:
political, administrative, activist, corporate, etc. As a
consequence, different authors use the same words to
describe sometimes very conflicting perspectives,
goals and methods about how to foster transition to
sustainability. They introduce their own cultural,
scientific, political and ideological backgrounds into
the debates. The success of sustainability policies is
often compromised by poor coordination between
different decision levels (states, regions, cities, local
governments), each one with its own priorities and its
own strategic position. In this paper, it has been
shown that the well-known adage that sustainability
should be "thought globally and acted locally" is very
difficult to implement. Every person and community
living has various relationships based on various
territorial scales. Implementing sustainable
development leads to permanent dilemmas, which
generate radically different policies depending on the
balance between equities.
So, there is no such thing as a single unified
conception of sustainable development, and a key
factor is explaining why it is so difficult to implement
effective sustainability policies: around the world,
existing political, cultural and economic contexts, as
well as existing environmental policies, interfere with
sustainability initiatives to create very complex
situations [79]. Finally, since the multiple antagonistic
views on sustainability cannot be reconciled, no single
approach should be seen as correct. As a matter of
consequence, there is no such thing as sustainability,
there are only sustainabilities. Universal solutions do
not exist and cannot meet the specificities of local
contexts, anyway. Thus, traditional singular, top-down,
global-to-local approaches to the sustainable devel-
opment model should be substituted by multiple
The hotchpotch of undifferentiated sustainability
suddenly makes sense when you consider each
initiative from a local perspective. Thus, local
sustainability policies, rather than blindly observing
global injunctions and rigid rules, should adapt
themselves to local interests, local cultures and
preceding codes or policies. Eventually, these local
issues will often antagonize, as mentioned in this
paper with cross-border pollution or imported
sustainability conflicts. In reality, instead of focusing
on objectives to be achieved, sustainability policies do
make much more sense if considered as a process
where different and even divergent views can be
expressed and confronted. This position—an open one
acknowledges sustainable development as a political
issue and gives insight into how to successfully foster
transition to sustainability, it calls for a comprehensive
approach that considers all human factors, such as
collective representations, perceptions and power
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Appendix: Land Application of Sewage Sludge
in France: Conflicts and Mistrust
In the 1970s, sewage sludge utilization in agriculture
was a confidential and mutually beneficial arrange-
ment between sewage treatment plants and farmers.
Many authors stress the double advantage of
transforming urban waste into an agricultural resource
for nearby rural communities [80]. This practice
gradually came to be organized under the auspices of
the French Agency for Environment and Energy
Management (ADEME) and the Permanent Assembly
of the Chamber of Agriculture (APCA) as a
sustainability policy initiative [81]. In 1986, the
Council of Europe issued a directive to clarify the
status of sewage sludge—one difficulty stemmed from
its dual status as both waste and fertilizer—and the
requirements for its utilization, as well as to provide
health and environmental guidelines [82]. The French
Ministry of the Environment transposed it into a
national decree in 1988.
In the 1990s, sewage sludge production increased
steadily as a result of both the incentive of the decree
and stricter regulations on the treatment of waste
water, sewage sludge use on agricultural lands
increased sharply, giving rise to a high incidence of
odor nuisances [83]. In the Paris regions, non-
farmering neighbors began to protest: opposition
movements appeared that antagonized local periurban
communities [24]. Some land owners threatened to
stop renting their properties for farming purposes,
claiming that sewage sludge utilization would
negatively impact their property value [84].
At the same time, certain sectors of the food
industry, in particular food distributors, began taking
positions to limit, or even forbid sewage sludge
utilization. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1990s, the
BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) crisis, in
Europe also named the "mad cow" crisis, surged [86].
Linked to the incorporation of meat and bone meal in
cattle feed, it lent itself to the idea that incorporating
any non-traditional components into the food chain
presents a health risk [87]. Confusion was such that
there were even rumors that sewage sludge was
utilized in animal feed, instead of animal meal from
meat rendering facilities. Finally, the financial benefits
of sewage sludge utilization, instead of constituting a
positive argument, further increased distrust among
the public, who perceive health matters and economic
matters as systematically opposed [88].
Placed under considerable pressure, some farmers
then began to refuse sewage sludge. In the Paris
region, many authors addressed these conflicts
between different local actors (farmers, non-farmers
inhabitants, companies, local authorities, etc.)
concerning the utilization of sewage sludge on fields,
but no practical negociation tool to cope with this
problem emerged [89].
Though, alternative disposal means for sewage
sludge were rarely discussed by the opponents of
agricultural utilization, who tended to frame the
debate in simplistic "city vs. country" terms. These
opponents, principally urban dwellers, tended not to
see themselves as immediately concerned by the
waste elimination problem. Sooner or later though
they will have to come to terms with the fact that they
generate the bulk of the waste and that if nothing is
done they might one day "find themselves submerged
in it" as expressed by an inhabitant of the village of
Champlan, near Paris, during a study addressing the
acceptability of this "nuisance" [89].