An Historian’s Critique of Sustainability


  • Kathleen R. Smythe Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA



Sustainable development, Brundtland Commission, poverty, energy


The most common word-based image of sustainability is a balanced three-way relationship between the environment, society and the economy, sometimes portrayed as a triangle, sometimes as a Venn diagram. The idea is that if you consider all three equally you will have a sustainable outcome. After twenty years of use, however, it has yet to yield a radically different approach to policy, planning or business. The combination of abundant and cheap energy and an emphasis on production has resulted in the separation of economics from both social and biophysical worlds. The long-established practice of isolating the three elements makes re-associating them difficult. Even if it were possible, a more holistic approach to human welfare, both in relation to the natural and social worlds, is likely to bring societies closer to sustainability. The suggestion is that a framework that starts from the premise of providing meaningful work and meaningful lives will support the flourishing of other species as well as the human species.


Aho, C. Michael & Marc Levinson (1988): “The Economy After Reagan”, Foreign Affairs, 67:2, 10-25. DOI: 10.2307/20043770

American Experience: 25 Years PBS: (accessed 20 October 2013).

Bertaux, Nancy E., Kathleen R. Smythe & Elaine Crable (2012): “Transformative Community Service Learning: Beyond the ‘Poor,’ the ‘Rich,’ and the Helping Dynamic”, Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 12:2, 34-45.

Black, Brian C. (2012): Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Blaustein, Richard (2008): “The Green Revolution Arrives in Africa”, Bioscience, 58:1, 8-14. DOI: 10.1641/B580103

Borgmann, Albert (1984): Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Botkin, Daniel (2001): No Man’s Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature, Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Clark, Nigel (2011): Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet, Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Daly, Herman E. (2008): ‘Growth and Development: Critique of a Credo’ Population and Development Review, 34:3, 511-518. DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2008.00234.x

Daly, Herman E. & Joshua Farley (2011): Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nd ed., Washington DC: Island Press.

Davidson, Mark (2009): “Social Sustainability: A Potential for Politics”, Local Environment, 14:7, 607-19. DOI: 10.1080/13549830903089291

Elkington, John (1994): “Towards the Sustainable Corporation: Win-win-win Business Strategies for Sustainable Development”, California Management Review, 36:2, 90–100. DOI: 10.2307/41165746

Elkington, John (1997): Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of the 21st Century Business, Oxford: Capstone Publishing, 1997.

Gilbert, Erik & Jonathon Reynolds (2012): Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.

Ferguson, James (2009): “The Uses of Neoliberalism”, Antipode, 41:S1, 166-184.

Foster, John Bellamy (2011): “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe”, Monthly Review December, 1-18.

Hall, Charles & Kent A. Klitgaard (2012): Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy, New York: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4419-9398-4

Jacob, Merle (1994): “Toward a Methodological Critique of Sustainable Development”, The Journal of Developing Areas, 28:2, 237-252.

Kavanagh, Dennis (1997): The Reordering of British Politics: Politics after Thatcher, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keenan, Jeremy (2013): The Dying Sahara: US Imperialism and Terror in Africa, London: Pluto Press.

Kerr, Rachel Benzner (2012): “Lessons From the old Green Revolution for the New: Social, Environmental and Nutritional Issues for Agricultural Change in Africa”, Progress in Development Studies, 12:2 & 3, 213-229. DOI: 10.1177/146499341101200308

Keys, Erick (1998): “Historical Parellels to Sustainable Development Discourse. A Review Essay”, Revista Geografica, 124, 79-85.

Kuttner, Robert (July 17, 1989): “Plane Truth”, The New Republic, 201, 21-23.

Littig, Beate & Erich Griesler (2005): “Social Sustainability: A Catchword between Political Pragmatism and Social Theory’, International Journal of Sustainable Development, 8:1 & 2, 65-79. DOI: 10.1504/IJSD.2005.007375

Lyson, Thomas A. (2004): Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food and Community, Medford MA: Tufts University Press.

Lewis, Michael & Pat Conaty (2012): The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Mathabane, Mark (1987): Kaffir Boy, New York: McMillan.

Mazoyer, Marcel & Laurence Roudart (2006): A History of World Agriculture: From the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis, trans. James H. Membrez, New York: Monthly Review Press.

McGoldrick, Dominic (1996): “Sustainable Development and Human Rights: An Integrated Conception”, The International Comparative Law Quarterly, 45:4, 796-818. DOI: 10.1017/S0020589300059704

McKibben, Bill (2010): Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

McMichael, Phillip (2009): Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective, Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press.

M’Mbugu-Schelling, Flora (1987): Kumekucha (From Sunup), Maryknoll NY: Maryknoll World Films.

Our Common Future (1987): (accessed 1 October 2013).

Penn, Michael L. & Aditi Malik (2010): “The Protection and Development of the Human Spirit: An Expanded Focus for Human Rights Discourse”, Human Rights Quarterly, 32:3, 665-688. DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2010.0001

Ricketts, Glenn M. (2010): “The Roots of Sustainability”, Academic Questions, 23:1, 20-53. DOI: 10.1007/s12129-009-9151-5

Rist, Gilbert (2008): The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, 3rd ed., Trans. by Patrick Camiller, London: Zed Books.

Robinson, John G. (1993): “The Limits to Caring: Sustainable Living and the Loss of Biodiversity”, Conservation Biology, 7:1, 20-28. DOI: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1993.07010020.x

Rostow, Walt Whitman (1980): The Stages of Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, Amartya (1999): Development as Freedom, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.






Theme: Sustainabilities