Handbook of Sustainable Development
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Handbook of Sustainable Development

Second Edition

Edited by Giles Atkinson, Simon Dietz, Eric Neumayer and Matthew Agarwala

This timely and important Handbook takes stock of progress made in our understanding of what sustainable development actually is and how it can be measured and achieved.
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Chapter 27: The international politics of sustainable development

John Vogler


There are many definitions of sustainable development, but few betray its political nature. One exception is to be found in a 1992 statement by Maurice Strong, the moving force behind the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in that year: ‘Sustainable development involves a process of deep and profound change in the political, social, economic, institutional and technological order, including redefinition of relations between developing and more developed countries.’ From the perspective of international politics, the critical part is the ‘redefinition of relations between developing and more developed countries’. ‘Sustainable development’ represented a political construct designed to facilitate a bargain across the deep structural divide between North and South. This would allow global negotiation on the environmental concerns voiced by developed states through the necessary accommodation of the economic and political demands of the developing countries. In the much changed and highly differentiated circumstances of the early twenty-first-century international system, it continues to serve this function. This chapter seeks to outline the way in which the concept has been moulded by international politics, how it reflects not only the balance between the G77/China and the OECD countries but other significant changes in the world system as well. The concept has always been associated with the United Nations organization and landmarks in its evolution are provided by four great UN conferences held over the forty years from 1972 to 2012; at Stockholm, Rio (twice) and Johannesburg.

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