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Contesting sustainability in theory-practice: In praise of ambivalence

Citation

Davison, A, Contesting sustainability in theory-practice: In praise of ambivalence, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22, (2) pp. 191-199. ISSN 1030-4312 (2008) [Refereed Article]

Copyright Statement

Copyright 2008 Taylor & Francis

DOI: doi:10.1080/10304310701861598

Abstract

A great deal has been written about the complexity and multiplicity of the essentially contested concept of sustainability (Becker and Jahn 1999; Dobson 1999; Harris et al. 2001; recent contributions include Baker 2006; Connelly 2007; Newman 2007; Redclift 2005). Many have lamented the slippery, shape-shifting nature of this concept and that it has accumulated an absurd number of definitions. As early as 1988, Richard Norgaard (1988, 607) observed that, with the concept meaning ‘something different to everyone, the quest for sustainable development is off to a cacophonous start’. This quest has been not only noisy but impassioned. Sustainability is a preoccupation that simultaneously engages powers of reason, belief and feeling, messing up any neat separation of descriptive and normative claims. An extraordinarily elastic concept, it is not surprising that ‘public discussion concerning the environment has become primarily a discourse of sustainability’ (Torgerson 1995, 10).

As William Connolly (1983) observed of the political function of essentially contested concepts more generally, the value of questions of sustainability stems from the way they hold antagonists in dialogue while resisting any authoritative declaration of winners and losers. This is not to say that such value is easily nor always realized. Indeed, this paper is motivated by my concern about the present lack of value of much talk of sustainability in academic, policy and public discourse. Donald Worster’s (1993, 142) ageing warning that sustainable development resembles ‘a broad, easy path where all kinds of folk can walk along together, and they hurry toward it, unaware that it may be going in the wrong direction’, is as instructive as ever.

I have argued at length elsewhere (Davison 2001), as have others (e.g. Redclift 1987; Sachs 1999), that the encompassing nature of the language of sustainability makes it prey to co-optation by entrenched ideological and economic interests, dominant discourses and empowered institutions. With contests about sustainability resisting authoritative conclusion, the mere presence of governing forces and actors within the sustainability throng is enough to set default bearings, ushering diverse interests down a single path. To permit travel in other directions it is vital that questions of the history and geography of power, questions of hegemony, be placed at the centre of contests about sustainability. The now bloated literature on sustainability is in danger of burying such basic and live questions of power. As one way of recovering these questions, the following discussion focuses on the relation of theory and practice in the quest for sustainability.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Keywords:sustainable development, contested concepts, practical reason, ethics, technology
Research Division:Studies in Human Society
Research Group:Human Geography
Research Field:Social and Cultural Geography
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society
Author:Davison, A (Associate Professor Aidan Davison)
ID Code:53658
Year Published:2008
Web of Science® Times Cited:17
Deposited By:Geography and Environmental Studies
Deposited On:2008-12-19
Last Modified:2015-02-11
Downloads:25 View Download Statistics

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