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How long can we keep doing this? Sustainability as a strictly temporal concept


  • Chris R. Colocousis

    () (James Madison University)

  • Cesar J. Rebellon

    (University of New Hampshire)

  • Nick Smith

    (University of New Hampshire)

  • Stefan Sobolowski

    (Uni Research Climate and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research)


Abstract Sustainability has become both an increasingly prominent societal project and a central object of study. At the same time, the concept’s purview has grown to encompass not only issues that bear directly on humanity’s ability to endure, but an increasingly value-laden set of ideas such as social justice. We argue that this conflation of the functional and the normative in established conceptualizations of sustainability is a problematic trend for several reasons. First, it has obscured a common sense understanding of sustainability squarely focused on the ability of a given system or practice to persist across time. Second, by shifting the focus from that which can objectively endure to that which should subjectively be preserved, recent conceptions of sustainability encourage a tendency toward the expansion of sustainability’s purview, often along increasingly ideological lines. Third, by diffusing a core substantive focus on temporal durability and incorporating increasingly normative social prescriptions, we suspect that many conceptualizations of sustainability have alienated potential allies, conveying to them that a vote for sustainability is ultimately a vote for a slew of progressive causes. Further, as prescriptive conceptions of sustainability promote coalitions among groups who do have common goals, the moral basis of those goals provides traction for ideologically opposed groups to forestall fundamental functional reforms on the basis of their association with less critical normative issues. Subsuming normative considerations under the banner of sustainability may ultimately be more detrimental than beneficial for achieving the most pressing functional goals upon which most normative goals themselves depend.

Suggested Citation

  • Chris R. Colocousis & Cesar J. Rebellon & Nick Smith & Stefan Sobolowski, 2017. "How long can we keep doing this? Sustainability as a strictly temporal concept," Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Springer;Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences, vol. 7(2), pages 274-287, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:jenvss:v:7:y:2017:i:2:d:10.1007_s13412-015-0355-4
    DOI: 10.1007/s13412-015-0355-4

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Liam Magee & Andy Scerri & Paul James & James Thom & Lin Padgham & Sarah Hickmott & Hepu Deng & Felicity Cahill, 2013. "Reframing social sustainability reporting: towards an engaged approach," Environment, Development and Sustainability: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Theory and Practice of Sustainable Development, Springer, vol. 15(1), pages 225-243, February.
    2. Stefanie Glotzbach & Stefan Baumgartner, 2012. "The Relationship between Intragenerational and Intergenerational Ecological Justice," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 21(3), pages 331-355, August.
    3. Oluf Langhelle, 2000. "Sustainable Development and Social Justice: Expanding the Rawlsian Framework of Global Justice," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 9(3), pages 295-323, August.
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