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Contesting sustainability in theory-practice: In praise of ambivalence

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-16, 22:23 authored by Aidan DavisonAidan Davison

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.


Publication title

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies








School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences



Place of publication

United Kingdom

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Copyright 2008 Taylor & Francis

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Expanding knowledge in human society

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