Cultural History of Sustainability


In her extensive project, Elke Seefried is working towards a concise monograph on the cultural history of sustainability. While it takes into account a long-term view beginning in the 18th century, the study’s focus lies on the discourses and practices of sustainability in politics, science, and civil society since the 1980s. Since then, “sustainable development” and “sustainability” have become central concepts in international environment, development and globalization discourse. Based on the perception that environmental and developmental issues are closely interrelated, sustainable development is meant to reconcile ecology, economy, and social issues in a forward-looking perspective.

The study hence looks, in particular, into the reciprocal effects of global, national, and local discourses on sustainability and patterns of action in the period between the 1987 Brundtland Report on “Our Common Future” and the Rio+10 Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. The book will show that the concept has always been shaped by inner contradictions and conflicting interests as the discourse varied from criticism of growth to guiding principles of sustainable growth and ecological modernization. It has been the vagueness of the concept that has made it so attractive in the realms of politics, business, and civil society. The study is part of the Leibniz-supported cooperative project on the History of Sustainability (link).

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