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The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy?

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  • Meg Holden

    () (Urban Studies Program, Simon Fraser University, 2nd Floor, 515 W. Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC, V6B 5K3, Canada)

Abstract

In 1991, development economist and American public intellectual Albert O. Hirschman wrote the Rhetoric of Reaction [1]. In this book, which was prescient of more contemporary popular books such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine [2] and James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State [3], Hirschman proposed a way to understand the kinds of arguments made by conservatives about proposals for change. His compelling trilogy of modes of arguments included arguments of perversity, futility, and jeopardy. I argue here that this schema can additionally be used as a way to understand the limits that are seen to exist to approaching sustainable development. I will demonstrate the pervasiveness of arguments that our best attempts to move toward sustainability in our cities today may present threats that are just as grave as those of not acting. This exercise serves two purposes. One is to urge those who would call themselves sustainability scholars to think critically and carefully about the lines of thought and action that may separate different sustainability motivations from the far reaches of interdisciplinary work in this field. The other is to suggest that, because of the persistence of certain kinds of arguments about the impossibility of sustainability, suggestive of deep and enduring instincts of doubt through human history, we should be skeptical of the legitimacy of these claims about the limitations of achieving sustainable development.

Suggested Citation

  • Meg Holden, 2010. "The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy?," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 2(2), pages 1-15, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:gam:jsusta:v:2:y:2010:i:2:p:645-659:d:7161
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Parikka-Alhola, Katriina, 2008. "Promoting environmentally sound furniture by green public procurement," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(1-2), pages 472-485, December.
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    Keywords

    sustainable development; Albert O. Hirschman; pragmatism; planning; social change;

    JEL classification:

    • Q - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics
    • Q0 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - General
    • Q2 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation
    • Q3 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Nonrenewable Resources and Conservation
    • Q5 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics
    • Q56 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Environment and Development; Environment and Trade; Sustainability; Environmental Accounts and Accounting; Environmental Equity; Population Growth
    • O13 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Agriculture; Natural Resources; Environment; Other Primary Products

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