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Why is Sustainable Development Such a Contested Concept?

Updated on May 31, 2011

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Because the topic of sustainable development is so relevant to us today, as we use our fossil fuels without thought to the future, it is a number of peoples’ favourite topic. Namely anti-globalisers, anti-capitalists, left-wingers and environmentalists. Sustainable development discourages capitalistic gain and promotes socialist values, so has been widely contested.

Realist Argument

The realists of the world would argue that sustainable development is of no interest to states because it’s not really of any benefit to themselves.  States would only see it as beneficial to them if they were allowed to establish rules relating to it, and therefore control the practice of sustainable development. Unfortunately for them this would not be the case, so they have little interest, realists argue. Historically, the depletion of resources has lead to war; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq (as part of the Gulf War) was due to accusations of Iraqi ‘slant drilling’, whereby they attempted to steal oil that was under Kuwaiti soil from behind their own border. Oil alone has always been the causes of conflict, because it is diminishing, proving the realists’ point. Multinational Companies and other large organisations which have a lot of influence will also block significant action, say the realists. It has been said that Multinational Companies (companies which rely on capitalistic gain) are completely against sustainable development, and they contest it. If sustainable development was initiated across the globe (properly) then they would stand to lose a lot, as would other business that rely on them, etc. It would cause a domino effect, where the world economy would fall. This is a large reason why sustainable development is contested.

Idealist Argument

Oppositely to realists we have the idealists’ view on sustainable development. They believe that is it inevitable that states will work more closely together to guarantee that we all benefit. They also believe that we will all work together because it would be the best way to deal with diminishing resources and pollution problems. The Kyoto protocol, created to deal with global warming, best shows how the world’s states can pull together to make a better tomorrow. Kyoto sets targets on greenhouse emissions, and compiles figures on emissions and other such details. They have sanctions in place in order to motivate states to keep up with their targets. However, this has been contested because it isn’t compulsory to sign. In 2001 George W. Bush famously withdrew the USA from the accord, describing it as "an unrealistic and ever-tightening straitjacket”. Kyoto, as a contributor to sustainable development has been much contested because of this. With the largest and most economically powerful country not signing up to it, what is the point? Especially considering the fact that some US States and local governments have signed up to Kyoto targets, including the world’s 12th largest greenhouse-gas emitter, the state of California (under the leadership of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2010, current US President Barak Obama is yet to act with regards to Kyoto. Finally, idealists state that Multinational Companies can be reigned in. I personally cannot see Bill Gates sacrificing much of his fortune to be part of sustainable development (which is why the idealists’ view is contested), but you never know.


Everything in the world needs oil, as an example 90% of the world’s transport depends on it; people don’t even take in to account furniture, pharmaceuticals and communications which all need oil. The world now produces around 75 million barrels of oil per day, and it is expected that the world’s oil production will peak at 90 million barrels per day at around 2015. Matthew Simmons, former US government adviser has said, “Peaking is at hand, not years away... If I’m right, the unforeseen consequences are devastating.” If this is correct then we need sustainable development, and soon. Some say that we will be fine, which is true to an extent (with 2030 the intended year that we will be almost bone dry), but we cannot deny that oil is not a renewable energy source and will eventually run out. Sustainable development is supported when it comes to the dwindling volume of oil left in the world, but there are always right wing capitalists ready to deny the positives of sustainable development and enhance the negatives. We should see the depletion of oil as an opportunity to better plan for a future  world united sustainable development. We all know that we are going to run out, so why not plan together and solve the problem? However, we all know that because of the contestation of sustainable development we are going to end up with a world broken by war between oil guzzling powers. Sustainable development regarding oil is contested because no-one wants to make the first move; because of multipolarity there is minimal trust in the world, and there is a lot of tension, so you never know whether you can move towards sustainable development because as soon as you try to, as a state, you run the risk of losing all of your resources.

Needs over Wants

Another large reason why sustainable development is contested so much is because it focuses on ‘needs’ such as reducing poverty rather than satisfying economic ‘wants’. We are all aware that our world is full of corruption and greed, and this is further proved by states as a whole not wanting to move towards sustainable development and solve massive issues such as poverty because they don’t want to reduce their economic power. In the alpha male world of global politics, the more economically powerful you are, the better, who cares about poverty and such? Ignorant populace refuse to look to the future, so currently don’t care about the need for sustainable development. The emu culture that we have created has spread from west to east, and affected the whole planet. No-one wants to take their head out of the sand, take a look around, evaluate, and think, “Hold on, things aren’t looking so good for the future.” People know that as far as future development goes, resources are on the decline, but they refuse to really acknowledge it. So as long as they don’t think about it, it isn’t happening. This is why sustainable development is contested; people say “we don’t really need it” because they are often too ignorant to recognise that we actually do.  Another contestation is that sustainable development restrains economic growth and human development, and as the human race we are famous for not wanting to sacrifice anything for anyone else. Selfishness is another reason why sustainable development is not being planned.

Scientific Support

Having said the multiplicity of  reasons why sustainable development is contested, it also has a lot of support. Scientists who can see the future coming are especially supportive of sustainable development (obviously), as they can see what is really going to happen if we keep devouring oil, burning coal and ignoring poverty.  Environmentalists are concerned by pollution, climate change (despite Kyoto), threats to habitats and biodiversity, which is why they support sustainable development, as it could help us sustain or even improve our current world. People who fear that our patterns of economic and population growth are unstable because we are growing in numbers faster than we are growing economically, which adds more pressure on individuals to make money, find jobs, etc., so we cannot afford to think about sustainable development as we are merely thinking about development also support sustainable development. It has been said that the Earth is close to its “carrying capacity”, showing an even bigger need for sustainable development.

An Expensive Luxury?

In conclusion, sustainable development is regarded as a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. It could cost rich firms a lot of money, and currently they see no reason to increase their expenditure and help us move towards sustainable development, when they could stick their heads in the sand instead. Which is why sustainable development has been contested. Having said this, it is necessary if we are to avoid war between powerful states regarding things such as oil and other fossil fuels. If we did take on sustainable development then it would stabilise the world, but this isn’t what the economic powers want. They like being on top, and sustainable development would reduce capital gain, so they would be the hardest to fall. All in all, sustainable development is unlikely to be even thought about for the next 10 years, and will continue to be contested until Multinational Companies and influential states finally give in.


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