The evolving ideology of ‘sustainability’

Many of the lectures and discussions I’ve listened to about the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals have begun, tongue-in-cheek, with a comic satirizing the growth of the use of the word “sustainable” in our conversations about global health and international development.


It’s a funny cartoon, but it underlines an important point: what we really mean by ‘sustainability’ will become an increasingly important ideological driver for development efforts over the next 15 years.

Paul Farmer, Sarthak Das, and Norwegian researchers Eivind Engebretsen, Kristin Heggen, Ole Petter Ottersen have an interesting historical perspective on the evolving concept of ‘sustainability’ that was recently published as a Lancet commentary.

changes in sustainability

They observe that the notion of sustainability has gone through three fundamental shifts since the early 1990’s. First, sustainability was referred by Gro Harlem Brundtland as development initiatives that were fundamentally durable and built to last. The mid-1990’s saw the definition of “sustainable” move from a descriptor of the longevity of a program towards an investment criterion for programs that prioritize the ability of local efforts to demonstrate capacities for “good governance” and “democratic practice.”  The latests evolution in the ideological underpinnings of sustainability seems to be associated with “with ‘continuous improvement’ and with “monitoring” and systems which are ‘domestically driven’.”

“An important aspect of the conceptual transformations is that the term sustainability has gradually changed from being a goal (durability) to acquiring connotations that serve as a selection criterion for development aid. Using sustainability as a selection criterion risks privileging recipients who have the capacity to gain control over health and living conditions and exclude others as unworthy needy. It would be a paradox if emphasis on sustainability ended up in preventing global equity and justice instead of promoting it.”

The neoliberal processes tend to push obligations from the collective to the individual. This seems like an important and cautionary observation for the coming “age of sustainable development.”