The years 1992 and 2015 are historic for the environment movement, wherein each of the years witnessed important treaties and conferences, redefining plethora of academic and policy initiatives of past, present and future. Be it the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Climate Treaty, Agenda 21 or Rio Declaration on Environment and Development among others. These signal to a major shift in international commitments to both sustainability and development. Conversely, pinning down the technical, normative or political definitions of sustainability is a difficult prospect. Over the years, especially due to rising incidence of natural catastrophe, it has come to resonate more with limitations, setting boundaries with respect to man-environment relationship. Thereby, allowing the politics of sustainability and development gain precedence.
As such, the world’s first environment charter— Charter of the Forest, sealed on November 6, 1217, was drafted in order to balance the needs of humans and the nature itself. It was instrumental in reversing the 150 year old land enclosure norm, making it a common property and making it a source of social income. Later, in 18th century the term sustainability was first used in relation to forest management in Europe. However, it was only in 1980s that sustainability was connected to development with the Brundtland Commission defining sustainable development in the paper Our Common Future as Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
There is now a growing literature on sustainability which draws on political geography, political ecology, environmental economics, social anthropology and some strands of sociology, history, political science and economics. Given the push towards a low-carbon economy, there is new type of politics which has emerged which monitors and measures carbon footprints, life-cycle assessment, certification etc. in other words we have Resource Politics within the discourse of sustainability now.
As per this new paradigm, sustainability itself is a transformation process. It entails within it the end points of sustainability— that is terms like green economy, circular, low-carbon— all representing the economic, social and environmental goals. As per Ian Scoones in the paper The Politics of Sustainability and Development accompanying this transformation are forces of Technology, Market, State and Citizen, each in their own way theorizing the politics of sustainability.
- Technology led transformation leverages use of alternative technologies which can help even the developing economies to leap-frog to the present age innovations and norms. For instance, electric vehicle technology can help countries like India meet its Climate treaty goals, by controlling the country’s carbon footprint.
- Market forces are instrumental in ensuring, protecting and conserving sustainable solutions, thereby rendering a greener economy. Carbon trading systems are the microcosm of this approach as they connect trees fixing carbon in one part of the world with offsets of carbon emissions in another. In such a scenario then new rules of trading, offsetting and resource management need to be formulated.
- State plays an important role in pushing forward sustainable transformations. Depending upon their history, geography, infrastructure, capacity and politics in relation to environment, States can push forward a radical transformation building resilience and climate mitigation methods. State’s role especially in present renewables age becomes all the more relevant. Such as China provides substantial state support for renewable technology and innovation and has now also become a global leader in the same.
- Citizen and civil society approach is more of community based where issues like resource management, urban waste management etc. where for instance localized cleanliness drives, tress plantations etc. play a huge role in pushing forward other approaches of technology, market and especially state. Citizen led environmental movement often can generate collective action on sustainability issues. Thus, with or without organizational framework, citizen movements have the ability to influence day-to-day lifestyle and livelihood practices.
Another notable theme of sustainability politics is the North and South divide. Though green parties have emerged on both sides yet the two find it hard to connect with each other’s point of view. This has resulted in failure to ratification or intense debates on topics such as Climate Justice. More importantly, what works in one place may not necessarily work in the other in context of their distinct history, geography and political economy.
Sustainability then is a normative struggle rooted in political choices, moral understanding and knowledge. Clearly, then the best way to tackle the issues of politics of sustainability is through comprehension of diverse local knowledge and practices which indirectly influence other actors, political alliances, and collective organization.