Author: Georgios Kostakos

One hears a lot about sustainable development or sustainability, to such an extent that these terms increasingly feel inflated or devoid of meaning. The concepts behind them, though, do matter and should not be abandoned because of abuse or over-use. Sustainable development has a glorious past, dating back to the Brundtland Report of 1987 and the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as Earth Summit, of1992. It was most recently reaffirmed at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.

Motivated by the need to instill environmental protection into economic development, so as to avoid a depletion or degradation of natural assets to an extent that would endanger the development prospects and well-being of future generations, sustainable development came to be seen as a system with three interconnected dimensions: the environment, economy and society. None of these can exist without the other and the whole malfunctions when one or the other dimension is not in line. Unfortunately, this inclusive concept has been in practice promoted primarily by environmental experts and foreign ministry officials who work on relevant negotiated texts at the UN. Thus one witnesses attempts to dictate policies for the economy and society without engaging the corresponding constituencies and experts, who reside in national ministries other than the Environment ministry (Economy, Development, Agriculture, Labour, Health, etc.) and international organizations other than the central UN or the UN Environment Programme (like the IFIs, FAO, ILO, WHO, etc.).

The Green Economy, at least in its early incarnations, is an example of such a perverse attempt to dictate economic policy from an environmental stand point, ignoring both the economic facts and imperatives, and the social repercussions. Subsequent modifications introduced to cover social inequalities did not prevent the now Inclusive Green Economy from becoming a rather marginal element in the big economic picture, with the potential exception of renewable energy sources. This approach also undermined efforts to drastically rethink the prevailing economic paradigm, with its obvious shortcoming that lead to cycles of bubbles and busts, increase inequalities and destroy lives along with the environment. Hybrid notions of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and related reporting need to go much further and touch the actual operations of financial brokers and companies to have any impact beyond public relations window dressing.

The term resilience, found also in engineering and psychology, is being increasingly used to describe the capacity of human communities, groups and individuals to withstand severe shocks caused by natural disasters or other crises and bounce back. Although it is a rather defensive concept that does not cover the full range of sustainability considerations, resilience is becoming increasingly important in a world that faces severe challenges, from climate change to food insecurity, persistent poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Globalization, of the financial and trade kind that we are experiencing today, does not necessarily contribute to greater sustainability or resilience, quite the opposite. An emphasis on efficiency above everything else and the alignment of labour, supply chain, taxation and other factors for greater profit by huge multinational corporations leave local communities and individuals unprotected from the whims of fluctuating markets and other failures of the economic system. Companies may ensure their resilience and sustainability by shifting operations around the world and even pulling back into their protective home markets if need be, but those who are left without jobs and resources to face the harsh reality of poverty and deprivation have a different story to tell.

The overemphasis on efficiency, rather than on sustainable consumption and production, or on “sufficiency”, is unfortunately encouraged by a slew of public – private partnerships that bring big business into the work of global organizations like the United Nations. Well-intended initiatives like the UN Global Compact and Sustainable Energy for All end up having the perverse effect of legitimizing elite capitalism and mega civil society, while neglecting small and medium size enterprises, small municipalities and local NGOs. Thus these recent innovations in global governance, which are meant to bring into the policy/decision-making and implementation process various stakeholders in addition to national governments, undermine the very goals they purport to serve. In this light one can understand, partly at least, reactions that challenge the legitimacy of global or regional governance arrangements and call for a return to a glorified nationalism or even localism, which augurs badly for globalization and global peace and security too.

There needs to be a different kind of mobilization and partnership, both top down and bottom up, which will attempt to tackle sustainability and resilience issues in their entirety, with the well-being of individuals and communities at the centre. This would mean reviewing and adjusting basic elements of the economic system we have today, including the main parameters of globalization. It would also mean engaging the private and non-profit sectors, local governments, trade unions, scientists and other “Major Groups” in more transparent, democratic and representative ways in policy/decision-making and implementation regarding the major challenges to our world today. This could be achieved, for example, by making creative use of institutions like the recently established High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which succeeded the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development after Rio+20.

i  Initially published on the website of the Centre for Government and Leadership at Queen Mary, University of London (see  Based on a lecture on the same topic delivered by Georgios Kostakos at Queen Mary on 12 March 2014.