The language of sustainable development was clearly aimed at replacing protest and conflict with consensus by asserting that economic and environmental goals are compatible.
Sustainable development is an attempt to reduce the politics in decision-making by artificially replacing conflict with consensus, by emphasising technocratic decision-making processes such as cost-benefit analysis and economic instruments, and by ensuring environmental conflicts are increasingly decided by the market. Such moves increase business autonomy, free market ideology and the power of those with money to make decisions affecting the environment.
For more conservative environmentalists and for economists, politicians, business people and others, the concept of sustainable development offered the opportunity to overcome previous differences and coflicts, and to work together towards achieving common goals rather than confronting each other over whether economic growth should be encouraged or discouraged. Instead of being the villains, as they were in the 1970s, technology and industry are now expected to provide the solutions to environmental problems.
Sustainable development, as an attempt at conflict resolution, spawned a number of consensus decision-making processes including Round Tables on Environment and Economy in Canada, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in the USA and the Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) Working Groups in Australia. These processes involved bringing together the various interest groups or stakeholders to reach a consensus about how sustainable development should be achieved and how business interests, economic interests and environmental protection could be reconciled.
Political conflict over unavoidable trade-offs was perceived as unproductive, and consensus could be achieved only if a proper process was designed to allow the competing stakeholders an opportunity to communicate with each other.
This consensus approach favoured the status quo because change had to be agreed to by all parties to meet the consensus criterion. Radical change rarely emerges from such a process. The consensus approach also favours the status quo by taking the discussion behind closed doors.
In the case of the ESD process, admission was limited to chosen representatives of recognised interest groups who had faith in the process. Environmentalists were therefore represented by two mainstream environmental groups and more radical environmentalists were marginalised. Public discussion was severely reduced by inadequate public consultation procedures and because disagreements between the parties only appeared publicly as unsupported recommendations in the reports which appeared at the end of the process.
The reduction in public participation in environmental decision-making combined with the renewed emphasis on economic growth and the incorporation of the environment into the economic system ensure that business can go on as usual but the environment continues to deteriorate. The imperative that environmental deterioration might once have had for social and political change has been dissipated by the cleverly constructed notion of sustainable development.
Whilst the public is led to believe that sustainable development can achieve environmental protection, opportunities to discuss possible alternative futures are minimised. Why look for something else if you think the existing system can be adapted to solve the problem? It is the lack of discussion about possible futures that reinforces the idea that the present system is the only feasible option.