“What exactly do we mean by sustainable development?”

Politicians are remarkably unanimous that society must develop in a sustainable manner. But what exactly does this mean? If we are to achieve sustainable development and survive the climate crisis, we must discuss the concept itself. Historian Anna Friberg believes that inspiration can be gained from climate movements.

Charlotte Perhammar

In 1987, sustainable development became a key concept in a growing international debate centred on the environment and global development. A report from the UN, Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), brought international focus to what it called sustainable development. The report suggested that global problems associated with resource scarcity and environmental challenges could be simultaneously solved in an integrated manner; by sustainable development.

The concept was rapidly adopted, and soon featured in debates in the Swedish parliament. But after only a few years, something happened. While the political parties agreed that sustainable development was desirable, discussions about what it involved died out.

Sustainable development became a buzzword, without a clear definition,” says Anna Friberg.

Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar “It crops up everywhere in society today, and everyone agrees that – Yes, sustainable development is what we need – but no one discusses what it means.”

Anna Friberg studies conceptual history, and has examined the concept of sustainable development. She is working on a project financed by Riksbankens jubileumsfond (the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation), looking at how the political parties have used the term in the Swedish debate around the environment and climate since the 1970s. She is identifying which other concepts it has been linked to and the time perspectives that have characterised the term. This has influenced how the parties have drawn up their policies relating to the environment and climate.

Different dimensions

Her results show that the political debate was initially characterised by clear differences of opinion. The debate included such aspects as the different dimensions – social, economic and ecological – of the concept.

“People discussed what sustainable development meant, and the criticism was often raised that it was becoming too vague. In this case, the parties could emphasise these different dimensions.”

Another discussion concerned how the term itself contained an innate tension – “sustainable” emphasises preservation, while “development” brings change.

Most of the Swedish parties were quick to focus on and emphasise the idea of development, and coupled this with ideas related to progress and improvement. As time passed, ideas of economic growth started to take over the debate.

Initially, the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), the Green Party (Miljöpartiet) and – to a lesser extent – the Centre Party (Centerpartiet) saw this as a problem.

“They tried to point out that ‘development’ was not a simple idea. That it was not the same as ‘growth’. But this discussion didn’t really take off, and from the middle of the 1990s all parties have more or less accepted this formulation and the goal of economic growth.”

Debate about the concepts involved died away.

“There are no longer any clear ideological differences associated with sustainable development. Everyone agrees that sustainable development is what we want, and this gives the impression that there is nothing here to discuss. We saw this is the election campaign in the autumn of 2022,” says Anna Friberg.

A political focus on the here and now

The election campaign of 2022 has been criticised by several actors, who claim that it ignored one of the most acute questions of our time: the climate. The focus was on immediate concerns related to energy, inflation and security.

Politics tends to focus on the here and now, and this short-term perspective has direct consequences for the debate around sustainable development. Because time is a central dimension of the concept.

“If we are to achieve sustainable development, we must use a perspective that extends across several generations. But today’s politics is a very short-term activity. The climate is still discussed disturbingly often as a question for the future.”

However, the climate movements of young people, such as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future, take on a completely different time perspective. While it is true that their rhetoric focuses on future generations, it also demands that change must occur now. “Later” just won’t work. Anna Friberg also points out that these movements emphasise intergenerational justice, which political parties seldom bring into discussions of sustainable development.A bright green flag with an illustration of earth as well as the text The climate movement Fridays For Future was initiated by Greta Thunberg and has spread across the world.

“The young work under a different framework than the one used by established political parties: they don’t use a discourse based on market capitalism and neoliberalism. Justice is a central concept, and they emphasise that the climate crisis is already affecting people in many different ways.”

Inspiration from the climate movement

Anna Friberg believes that current policy can be inspired by the intergenerational perspective of the climate movement, and its focus on action and justice. But the discussion about sustainable development must be renewed.

“Political discussions focus on technology and how it can solve the climate crisis. And of course it’s important. But even though we have all these technological innovations, progress is disturbingly slow. Why is this? We must understand why, and this means we must discuss what sustainable development really means. We must define our goals, and decide how to reach them.”

 

Translated by George Farrants.

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