Background to the conference


The idea lying behind this conference was bring together research papers and comments on the many facets of ecology and sustainability from experts and other actors in many countries and continents as well as from a plurality of perspectives. The aim was to identify missing points in the sustainability discourse by bringing a variety of voices to the debate and to work out a constructive way of dealing with the inherent multiplicity of perspectives.


All over the world sustainable development is a hot issue. Serious problems are reported from many parts of society and sectors of the economy, be they local, national, regional or global. In the social sphere population is increasing, poverty and unequal living conditions are continuing, human rights may be threatened and democracy is not always functioning well. Climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, loss of agricultural land and forests, depleted fish stocks, and nuclear accidents are among the concerns that we have to deal with, and the list can be extended. There are also financial crises in some parts of the world and the listed problems are interrelated. However, sustainability problems are often presented as relatively isolated sets of issues in ecological, social or economic realms. The broader context of both increasing crises and a transition toward a more sustainable world is not always apparent.

Individuals as actors are concerned in their roles as citizens, politicians or professionals. Representatives of civil society organizations, business organizations, labor organizations, political parties, etc., participate in a dialogue about what a future sustainable society may look like. We can all benefit from listening to many voices, both professionals and ordinary people, including “visionaries” who are able and willing to step out from mainstream perspectives.

There have been successes as well as failures in attempts to deal with environmental, social and financial sustainability issues. A great deal of initial advice was contributed by mainstream economists. This conference does not exclude ideas and policy measures that stem from mainstream economists, but seeks also to broaden the dialogue through the articulation of alternative or complementary perspectives and policy advice.

“Sustainable Development” became a catch-phrase through the so-called Brundtland report. As preparation for the UN Rio de Janeiro conference 2012, often referred to as Rio+20, a new UN panel has prepared a report entitled Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing (UN Secretary-Generals’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (2012). Tarja Halonen from Finland and Jacob Zuma from South Africa were the co-chairs of the panel with 20 members preparing this report.

In this new UN report the seriousness of the problems faced is underlined and a list of proposals for action is presented. An attempt is even made to estimate how far we are from sustainable development in relation to different environmental and other issues. Even the seriousness of different problems is commented on by reference to potential “tipping points”, i.e. situations where the “resilience” of various ecosystems are threatened. But since we are dealing with a consensus report, the departures from mainstream thinking are limited. The purpose of the report is, however, not only to present proposals for action but also to encourage much needed continued debate in relation to the very complex set of challenges. A main idea with this WEA-conference is therefore to open the door for alternative perspectives and alternative policy proposals. Rather than emphasizing the previously mentioned tipping points, we were looking for “missing points” in the report (and in the sustainability dialogue more generally), as a way of suggesting a background for the conference.

Some major missing points, as background for the discussion, include:

  1. Values and ideology are found everywhere. Any particular one is always based on (often not explicit) procedures that include canons of thinking, what counts as legitimate focus of concern and rational, valid argument, and what is being excluded from the discourse. Focusing just on one perspective among others runs the danger of excluding important and valid input and perspectives that lie outside of the mainstream.
  2. Economics plays an important role in the development dialogue and in the mental maps of influential actors. However, the dominant paradigm is defined by neoclassical economics. The members of the UN panel and their assistants seem to be oblivious to the alternatives to mainstream neoclassical thinking. Something can certainly be achieved within the scope of neoclassical economics, but today alternatives to this paradigm, such as ecological economics (understood as economics for sustainable development), has also something to offer.
  3. Markets are essential in our societies, but formulating all problems and policy instruments in market and monetary terms is hardly a good and sufficient idea. The conference aims to explore the extent to which analyses of sustainability in terms of ‘markets’ is appropriate to the problems raised by the sustainable development debate.
  4. Connected with 1. and 2. above is the fact that radical change in our political economic systems is not discussed. Establishment actors seem to think in very primitive terms with the Soviet system as the only radical alternative. As an example, the present kind of globalization and the power of transnational corporations is not discussed and hardly part of the report. A little reflection suggests that sustainable development is about performance in non-monetary dimensions while joint-stock companies are defined in monetary and financial terms. Are organizations of this kind therefore miss-constructed in relation to present challenges? Should we look for new rules of the game?
  5. A lot of caution exists in addressing ethical dimension of sustainability. Value-related issues and moral judgments are often conceived as extra-scientific components. However, values and ethics are engaged at every level of sustainability – from theory to practice – and have practical consequences. How can the normative components of sustainability be made transparent?

Our ambition is to address the above “missing points,” as well as identify other ones, from a variety of perspectives. We hope that the discussion contributes to a broader understanding of the challenges and promises of a multifaceted sustainability dialogue.


Söderbaum, Peter, Democracy and sustainable development – implications for science and economics. Accepted for publication in the June 2012 issue of Real World Economics Review.

United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, 2012. New York: United Nations (available

World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.