Sustainable Development and Ecological Modernization: Boundary Discourses between “Strong” and “Weak” Approaches

  •  Ricardo Cunha Dias    
  •  Paulo Castro Seixas    
  •  Nadine Lobner    


The concepts of “sustainable development” and “ecological modernization” are todays’ main discourses of action on the global environmental crisis. However, the quest of priorities interpretation within concepts is raised: there is a path dependence of the hegemonic worldview of techno-economic progress that was supposed to be overcome. The objective of this text is to analyse how this dependence influenced the evolution of such concepts and their operational proposals. Methodologically, the research is based on a literature review on discourses of these concepts. A typology of “strong” and “weak” discourses highlights the possibilities of “business as usual” in its operational interpretation as well as the ways to overcome it. The results show that the confrontation between them lead to a conceptual evolution of sustainable development and ecological modernization that merges into a common agenda: the governance of ambivalence between economic and social progress and environmental frontiers. The text concludes by proposing the existence of a discursive game between “survival” and “tranquillity”. This highlights an essential tension between environmental mitigation and institutional change that has accompanied the political agenda in the past 50 years. The resulting reflexive governance as a choice implies a broad participation in decision-making processes so that environmental trade-offs are collectively discussed, and responsibilities are shared. Notwithstanding, the article claims that this essential tension further implies questioning if governance may not also be a new discourse of appeasement and political unaccountability.

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