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  • Writer's pictureLeura Dalla Riva

The contradictions of "sustainable development": an approach based on critical theory

Author: Leura Dalla Riva

Translated by: Henrique de Jesus dos Santos

"Ecology without class struggle is gardening" - Chico Mendes

In view of a critical approach to sustainability in its many dimensions, one might ask: to what extent do the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals conceal a proposal that fullfils the needs of capital's socio-environmentalism? In order to answer the proposed question, it is first necessary to present the division presented by José Henrique de Faria (2014) on the Traditional Theories of Sustainability, in an attempt to take a critical approach to the notion of Sustainability that they have elaborated.

According to the aforementioned author, the Traditional Sustainability Theory emerged with the concept of sustainability presented in 1987 through the UN's Brundtland Report, known as the "Our Common Future" document, which outlined a tripolar paradigm, focusing on the integration between the economy, the environment, and society, seeking sustainability through three essential movements: social equity, ecological prudence, and economic efficiency. This sustainability model would be based on four principles: the precautionary principle, the preventive principle, the compensatory principle, and the polluter-payer principle.

A first chain of thought would be the Traditional Classical Theory, for which the very pressure for competition and economic growth in the market would lead to the rational and automatic use of sustainable alternatives and technological progress (FARIA, 2014, p. 05). It's a paradigm that has gained a lot of attention in the economic sector, as many entrepreneurs have taken on "sustainable development" as a tool to improve their internal and external relations and gain advantages in the market (FARIA, 2014, p. 03-04). In a similar sense, the modern Traditional Theory would argue that the internalisation of environmental costs (externalities) and the introduction of market subsidies (such as tax aid, etc.) would be enough to achieve a different type of development that would take environmental and social impacts into account. For the author, both this Traditional Classical conception of sustainability and the Traditional Modern conception stem from an economic-liberal conception of the market.

The third chain of thought presented by Faria is the Traditional Ecological-Technocratic Conception, which defends the notion of planned sustainability, in other words, it preaches that "overcoming environmental problems is pursued by managerial means, from a technocratic perspective, generally based on the centralism of the decision-making process, confined to the technical capacity of the organiser" (2014, p. 06).

A fourth chain of thought would be the Traditional Biocentric Conception and Radical Environmentalism, which is summarised in a holistic view that all social policies and activities should be subordinated to the demands of nature's sustainability, a movement also known as "deep ecology". Furthermore, "the approach of radical environmentalism rejects the consumerism that prevails in modern societies intending to allow the inclusion of the objectives of satisfying the basic economic needs of the population and social justice" (2014, p. 07). Finally, the author presents the Traditional Conception of the Policy of Popular Participation, which argues that popular participation is fundamental in environmental policy and in drawing up public policies. It would oppose ecocentric theories, "based on the assumption that man and society must be at the centre of attention and reflection, hence why this is considered to be a 'sociological approach for a sustainable development'" (2014, p. 07).

A critical bias of this Traditional Theory could be visualised, according to the author, in the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, that is, in the so-called Agenda 21 (FARIA, 2014, p. 08):

[...] According to the concept of the United Nations (1992), Sustainable Development should be a balanced economic, political, social, cultural and environmental model that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This conception would oppose the "adopted style of development" which, in Agenda 21's assessment, is ecologically predatory in its use of natural resources, socially perverse with the generation of poverty and extreme social inequality, politically unjust with the concentration and abuse of power, culturally alienated from its values and ethically reprehensible in its respect for human rights and those of other species.

This critical bias of the Traditional Theory visualised in the UN's 17 SDGs is not to be confused with the "Critical Theory of Sustainability" proposed by Faria, meaning that, it would not be a truly critical approach, since "Critical Theory, as Adorno (1994) suggests, must invest against the deformed images of reality that serve the function of power, not giving voice to the disordered reality of capitalism" (FARIA, 2014, p. 11). Thus:

Critical Theory aims to denounce social situations and phenomena based on the realisation that a society without exploitation is the only alternative for establishing the foundations of justice, freedom and democracy. In this sense, a sustainable society is not just one that seeks to preserve the conditions of nature and the environment within the limits determined by the needs of production and the reproduction of capital. The living conditions of those who work must also be valued. [...] The Critical Theory of Sustainability must be based on the incessant search for social contradictions relegated to a secondary plane by traditional theory, seeking to identify them with the essential aim of understanding what this theory hides or its ideologies. This theory is not opposed to policies, programmes and measures that are truly aimed at sustainability, but aims to point out their limits, problems and contradictions (FARIA, 2014, p. 11-12).

Based on this Critical Theory, Faria highlights the contradictions and ideology behind the Traditional Theory of Sustainability which, although in its critical bias marked by the UN's 17 SDGs, "seeks to preserve the production of the product or commodity, not its producer, the worker. The emphasis is on the process and not on the subjects of that process", in other words, "it makes explicit the reproduction of the means as if the means were only primary materials or commodities, but implicitly includes the reproduction of the labour force for the capital" (FARIA, 2014, p. 15).

The non-questioning of the process of accumulation and reproduction of capital indicates that the accumulation of wealth is not questioned, as long as a degree of well-being is feasible, which means, sustainability presupposes the accumulation of wealth permeated by the capitalist ethic of well-being under the conditions of the capital system [...] the ideology, institutional apparatus and economic, social, political and cultural structures are conditioned by the dominant mode of production so that the criteria of justice, impartiality and equal rights follow the canons of the capital system.

The author also points out that the traditional theory indicates that "companies' sustainability programmes should allow them to obtain 'advantages in this action' and that they should invest against 'social decay'. However, "the need to pay for the 'right' to pollute tends to further promote productivism and competition for scarce resources, leaving the richest companies and nations in a very favourable position in the ever more globalised competition" (FARIA, 2014, p. 15).

In a similar sense, when addressing the issue of state regulation of corporations' actions, Joel Bakan (2008) argues that entrepreneurs adopt social responsibility because it generates a competitive advantage. Corporations can and should be controlled, at least to a large extent, by market regulations rather than government regulations. According to these models, people's purchasing decisions about products and shares must have a political character to serve as efficient limiters of public interest over corporate behaviour. The author also argues that one of the premises of democracy is that everyone has the same values because they are citizens and have the right to vote. Transferring regulation over corporations from the government to the market protects them from the effects of citizen participation in the political process and allows them to be controlled by an institution in which "one dollar - not one person - equals one vote" (Bakan, 2008).

When this power is transferred to the market, the modest and the rich become entirely unequal, which is why historically there has been a need to regulate markets. To say that consumers are the kings of the new capitalism is to ignore the fact that most of the world's population is too poor to participate in the consumer economy. Furthermore, it is questionable to assume that consumers decide what to buy with social and environmental objectives in mind (BAKAN, 2008). Therefore, through this traditional conception, it is not sustainability that is being pursued, but the economic and market advantages that can be obtained through the implementation of certain "sustainable" measures.

Using the Critical Theory as a basis, Faria (2014) argues that this conception of the 17 UN SDGs that support a "balanced economic, political, social, cultural and environmental model" is nothing more than "a romantic model of the capital system, in which one supposes that the logic of the accumulation of this system would give place to the miracle of the logic of an egalitarian social justice". Therefore, for this critical version, it is not the capitalist mode of production that should be questioned, but the "style of development adopted" (FARIA, 2014, p. 18).

In this way, provided that the mode of development is altered and corrected, it would be possible to eradicate poverty and exclusion, respect human rights and social integration, deconcentrate metropolises, adopt intelligent agricultural practices that are not aggressive to human health and the environment, carry out sustainable forest management and promote decentralised industrialisation, as well as respect for the different values among peoples, compatibility between production and consumption patterns and equity in the distribution of income and the reduction of social differences (FARIA, 2014, p. 18-19).

However, Faria exposes the contradictions and illusions of this approach, because:

Eradicating poverty does not mean an equitable distribution of socially produced income. Smart agricultural practices do not necessarily mean sustainable practices. Industrial decentralisation is not enough to solve the damage to the environment, to health and to preserve nature's resources, especially at a time when industries are operating under a global production reorganisation. Respect for values does not directly correspond to guaranteeing humane living conditions in society, but only that differences must be observed and tolerated. Compatibility between production and consumption does not mean a pattern of production that is not driven by the process of private accumulation (FARIA, 2014, p. 19).

As Layrargues rightly points out, the environmental movement at its origins "accused capitalism, the enormity of institutions, profit, industrialism, consumerism, materialism, individualism, competition, hierarchy and its subtle forms of oppression and domination, and other values as the responsible elements for the contemporary environmental crisis" (LAYRARGUES, 2003, p. 43). However, during the second half of the 20th century, environmental problems ceased to be seen as "a civilisational dilemma of the capitalist system" and began to be masked by the dominant bourgeois ideology as a natural problem (purely ecological), separate from the social dimension.

According to Layrargues (2003, p. 44), this movement was brought about by the ideological appropriation of environmentalism, which weakened the movement. According to the author, this appropriation took place through two main strategies: the first was the dissemination of the notion that the environmental crisis is planetary and therefore all human beings are equally victims and responsible for the problems faced; the second is that, based on the first, human beings as a species are now considered to be to blame for environmental problems, with no consideration of specific social subjects in this process. This discourse based on the urgency of an environmental crisis for which everyone is a victim and responsible has led people to focus on and prioritise this issue as something separate from social problems, leaving aside secondary issues such as the social and economic differences between and within countries.

Based on these strategies, social conflicts began to occupy the margins of the political agenda and, therefore, the environmental movement's initial conception that it was the side effects of the capitalist mode of production that generated social and ecological disruption was abandoned, highlighting the hegemonic infiltration of environmentalist thinking. Concepts such as "Our Common Future" and the notion of "Sustainable Development" have emerged, based on the illusion that humanity as a whole is the originator and victim of the environmental crisis, an agenda that clearly prioritises the visibility of global and future environmental problems over local and present socio-environmental problems. Thus, the figure of "abstract man" omits the (social) causes of the environmental crisis and focuses only on environmental problems (LAYRARGUES, 2003, p. 45). Thereby:

The reality of the environmental issue as a question of distributive justice regulating unequal access and use of natural resources is replaced by the idea of the environmental issue as a technical/cultural question, where the distributive dimension is suppressed by the idea of the goods as the collective heritage of humanity where there is no dispute over the equitable distribution of the benefits and losses of generating wealth from nature (LAYRARGUES, 2003, p. 45).

The author concludes that environmental problems may even threaten humanity as a whole, however, it is the local and present problems that affect specific subjects and highlight social conflicts over access to natural resources, showing that "some (the dominant) are more responsible than others (the dominated)" and also that "some (the dominated) are more affected than others (the dominant) by environmental risks" (2003, p. 45). These aspects are linked today to debates on environmental and climate justice (Stoll, 2023).

Also in this perspective, Foladori criticises notions that see the environmental crisis as a problem of technical relations between society and nature, because "the problem of the environmental crisis should not be posed in terms of human society facing physical limits. Because there is no such abstract 'human society'" (2001, p. 209). The same author, after analysing and criticising some environmentalist lines of thought that identify the environmental crisis as a technical problem between society and nature, concludes that "capitalist relations are not in line with sustainable development" because the environmental crisis is essentially a problem of the configuration of the social relations of the mode of production adopted (FOLADORI, 2001, p. 210).

It can therefore be concluded that, in view of a critical approach to sustainability in its multiple dimensions, the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals conceal a proposal that fulfils the needs of capital's socio-environmentalism. It is worth emphasising, however, that

At no point do we wish to question the importance of sustainable development processes that promote social sustainability based on the most modern criteria of empowerment and governance. These mechanisms and the agencies that promote them can lead to local improvements with a high impact on the population. They are also essential for human rights purposes, as well as solving localised problems of hunger or specific diseases. However, they act on the consequences of a process of differentiation and social injustice, a product of capitalist market relations. For this reason, because they do not affect the very relations of production that generate inequality, their activity has a technical focus and structural limits (FOLADORI, 2002, p. 112).

This critical approach to "sustainable development" therefore "does not oppose policies, programmes and measures that are truly aimed at sustainability, but aims to point out their limits, problems and contradictions" (FARIA, 2014, p. 13)


BAKAN, Joel. A Corporação: A busca patológica por lucro e poder. Trad. Camila Werner. São Paulo:

Novo Conceito Editora, 2008.

FOLADORI, Guillermo. Avanços e limites da sustentabilidade social. 2002. Disponível em < Accessed on 14th Oct. 2023.

FOLADORI, Guilhermo. Limites do desenvolvimento Sustentável. Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 2001.

LAYRARGUES, Philippe Pomier. A natureza da ideologia e a ideologia da natureza: elementos para uma sociologia da educação. Tese (doutorado). Disponível em:

STOLL, Sabrina Lehnen. Justiça climática: um caminho para um futuro sustentável. Ruptura. Available on: Accessed on 1st Nov. 2023.

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