What is the added value of investigating the contested concept of “sustainability” in tandem with the geographical marker of “Asia” in today’s world? To answer this question, we need to return to the formulation of the problematique of “sustainability” and “sustainable development” several decades ago. The Our Common Future report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED)—also known as the Brundtland Commission—put forward the most commonly recognized and most frequently used definition of “sustainable development” (SD) in 1987.1 Development could be made sustainable, so the report stated, “to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987: 15). The report further proclaimed that there were limits to development, but that improvements in technology and social development could “make way for a new era of economic growth” (ibid.).
Els van Dongen and Hong Liu
Contemporary Ecologies of Value
Patrick Gallagher and Danielle DiNovelli-Lang
Current efforts to locate value in material nature arise from the contrary notion that there is no value in nature. The roots of this paradox are entangled with the birth of classical economics, which distinguished itself from what it deemed the superstitions of both its European past and the exotic elsewhere by claiming to have discovered that the wealth of nations lay not in land (as the physiocrats believed), nor in money (as the mercantilists thought), but in the productivity of human labor, which alone could make more of the “necessaries and conveniences of life” from a finite and basically inert natural substrate (Locke  1960). Once the productive capacity of the land was formally separated, or “disembedded,” from its particular natural qualities (Polanyi 1944), it became a puzzle to retroactively determine the value of the latter’s contribution to the overall means of production. The articles collected in the present volume each operate squarely in the context set by this classical riddle, which situates value, on the one hand, and nature, on the other, as the two absolutely necessary yet diametrically opposed elements of the modern political economy of “sustainability”.
Ana Horta, Harold Wilhite, Luísa Schmidt, and Françoise Bartiaux
Energy consumption inconspicuously bridges nature and culture. Modern societies and cultures depend on intensive energy use from the extraction of natural resources. In fact, the industrialization process required large amounts of energy, but main sources such as oil and coal, have been gradually depleted and found to be heavily polluting the environment. Despite their environmental impacts, these resources have provided cheap and abundant power to fuel technological progress and economic growth. (See Agustoni and Maretti  for a good historical summary of the relations between energy production and usages.)
Religion has long stood at the center of debates on the environmental crisis of late modernity. Some have portrayed it as a malade imaginaire, providing divine legitimation for human domination and predatory exploitation of natural resources; others have looked up to it as an inspirational force that is the essential condition of planetary revival. There is an ongoing battle of the books on the salience of religion in the modern world. Some trendy volumes declare that God Is Back (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2009). Others advert to The End of Faith (Harris 2004, harp the theme of The God Delusion (Dawkins 2006), or claim that God Is Not Great (Hitchens 2007). Both sides provide ample evidence to support their adversarial claims. In much of Canada and Western Europe, where religious establishments have courted or colluded with the state, religion has come to be viewed as the enemy of liberty and modernity. Not so in the United States, where the Jeffersonian separation of religion from politics forced religious leaders to compete for the souls of the faithful—and thus to make Christianity more reconcilable with the agenda of modernity,
individualism and capitalist enterprise.
Rebecca Feinberg, Patrick Nason, and Hamsini Sridharan
In studying the lives and livelihoods of human beings, the social sciences and humanities often find their lines of inquiry tugged in the direction of other, nonhuman beings. When Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963) suggested that “thinking with” animals was relevant and fruitful to the study of humankind, scholars began to follow these leads with academic rigor, enthusiasm, and creativity. Propelled into the new millennium by the passion of the environmental movement, compounded by natural and anthropogenic disaster, and now entrenched in the discourse of the Anthropocene, recent scholarship has simultaneously called into question the validity of human exceptionalism and expanded our social and political worlds to include animals and myriad other nonhuman beings. This move is paradoxical: as the significance of human action on this planet has increased, the category of the human is continually challenged and redrawn. While contemporary posthumanist critique rethinks the importance of animals and strives to destabilize long-standing ontological exceptions, it does so just as the effects of human presence overwhelmingly single out our species as the dominant agents of planetary change (see Chakrabarty 2009; Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill 2007).
Sabine Weiland, Vivien Weiss, and John Turnpenny
Ecological challenges are becoming more and more complex, as are their effects on nature and society and the actions to address them. Calls for a more sustainable development to address these challenges and to mitigate possible negative future impacts are not unproblematic, particularly due to the complexity, uncertainty, and long-term nature of possible consequences (Newig et al. 2008). Knowledge about the various impacts—be they ecological, economic, or social—policies might have is therefore pivotal. But the relationship between such knowledge and the myriad ways it may be used is particularly challenging. The example of policy impact assessment systems is a case in point. Recent years have seen an institutionalization of such systems for evaluating consequences of regulatory activities across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2008) and the European Union (CEC 2002). It is argued that, by utilizing scientific and other evidence, impact assessment has the potential to deliver more sustainable policies and to address large-scale global challenges.
Capitalism and the Environment
Paige West and Dan Brockington
Capitalism is the dominant global form of political economy. From business-as-usual resource extraction in the Global South to the full-scale takeover of the United Nations 2012 conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, Brazil by corporations advocating the so-called green economy, capitalism is also one of the two dominant modes of thinking about, experiencing, and apprehending the natural world. The other dominant mode is environmentalism. There are many varieties of environmentalism, but the dominant mode we refer to is “mainstream environmentalism.” It is represented by powerful nongovernmental organizations and is characterized by its closeness to power, and its comfort with that position. Th is form of environmentalism is a well-meaning, bolstered by science, view of the world that sees the past as a glorious unbroken landscape of biological diversity. It continuously works to separate people and nature, at the same time as its rhetoric and intent is to unite them. It achieves that separation physically, through protected areas; conceptually, by seeking to value nature and by converting it to decidedly concepts such as money; and ideologically, through massive media campaigns that focus on blaming individuals for global environmental destruction.
Werner Krauss, Mike S. Schäfer, and Hans von Storch
This special symposium grew out of a workshop held in Hamburg in 2011 (Krauss and von Storch 2012) and of a long-term interest in climate research as post-normal science. A decade earlier, Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch (1999) stated that the management of uncertainty and its extension into the political and social realm make climate science a case for post-normal science. Interpreting a survey among German and American climate scientists, they suggested that scientific policy advice is the result of both scientific knowledge and normative judgment.
Environment, Society, and Food
Rebecca Feinberg, Paige West, and Dan Brockington
During the past two decades social scientists have paid an increasing amount of attention to the circulation of commodities and the effects that commodity production, distribution, and consumption have on social life (see Miller 1995). Today, social scientists are beginning to think carefully about the political ecologies of these same commodity circulations (see Bryant and Goodman 2004; Doane 2010; West 2012). We are exploring the environmental consequences of the creation, circulation, and consumption of commodities, the role of nature in shaping the commodity form, their circulation and resulting social life, and the broader political economy in which commodity circulation is found.
Paul H. Gobster
What does ecological restoration mean in an urban context? More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and in response to the dynamic patterns of urbanization, a growing number of ecologists, land managers, and volunteers are focusing their efforts in and around cities to restore remnants of natural diversity (Ingram 2008). Ecological restoration is still a quite youthful field, yet many scientists and practitioners hold a relatively fixed set of criteria for what defines a successful restoration project, irrespective of where sites are located. Among the criteria commonly stated, sites should be composed of indigenous species, have a structure and diversity characteristic of currently undisturbed or historically documented “reference” sites, and be maintained through ecological processes such as fire that ensure long-term sustainability with minimal human assistance (Ruiz-Jaén and Aide 2005; SER International 2004). Application of these criteria has led to many ecologically successful restorations, but some ecologists in the field have begun to question whether the same standards can be realistically applied to sites such as those within urban areas that have been radically altered by past human activity (e.g., Martínez and López-Barerra 2008) or are being influenced by novel conditions that result in unpredictable trajectories (Choi 2007). Perhaps more significantly, it is becoming increasingly recognized that the broader viability of restoration projects, especially those in urban areas, hinges on how socially successful they are in gaining public acceptance for restoration activities and practices, building constituencies to assist with implementation and maintenance, and addressing a broader set of sustainability goals that reach beyond the protection of native biodiversity (e.g., Choi et al. 2008; Hobbs 2007; Rosenzweig 2003).