A political geography of sustainable development, 1972-2022

A political geography of sustainable development, 1972-2022: the multi-scalar political construction of a hybrid socio-ecological paradigm.
Proyecto Fondecyt Regular 2019 N° 1191239.
Responsables: Jonathan R. Barton, Álvaro Román y Nancy Nicholls.
Institución: Instituto de Geografía, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.
Duración: 2019-2022.

This research project has as its overarching question, the following: To what extent have political contexts shaped the evolution of sustainable development praxis? Rather than sustainable development being a single, universal paradigm that has been uniform in its conceptual progression, its integration into public policy, and in public and private practice, the argument that will be explored in this project is that sustainable development is a hybrid conceptual form that has been adapted by different institutions and organizations to fit within specific dominant political frameworks. The hypothesis that guides the research is as follows: Sustainable development, from its emergence at the Stockholm Conference in 1972, has been coopted and adapted by different institutions and organizations to specific, dominant political frameworks, and is therefore a hybrid socio-ecological paradigm that exhibits considerable contextual diversity rather than as a singular global narrative.

Since the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 which set in motion the agendas around sustainable development and subsequent Summits, leading to the current Agenda 2030, there has been a political struggle to define its conceptual underpinnings and the nature of this evolving socio-ecological paradigm. Considerable research has been undertaken on sustainability issues, and the concept has been brought firmly into public policy considerations. However, most of this work is apolitical, in that – as a normative concept – it promotes desirable processes and outcomes, but fails to consider the political frameworks in which sustainable development is situated. The proposed research project seeks to repoliticize the debate around the sustainable development paradigm and understand the different geographies of promotion and diffusion that have taken place since 1972, focusing on the political frameworks that have shaped its incorporation. During the period 1972-2022 (to the next Sustainable Development Summit, Rio+30), the international development context has been defined by ideological positions of capitalism, communism, socialism, neoliberalism, neostructuralism, social democracy and populism, which are themselves often hybridized and heterodox. These ideologies are rarely discussed with reference to sustainable development.

The proposed research will analyze the evolution of the paradigm as a political construct at three scales: global, regional (Latin America) and Chile. The three principal objectives are to: 1. Analyze the relationship between political theory and frameworks and the evolution of the sustainable development paradigms at different scales; 2. Examine the factors that shape homogeneity and heterogeneity in the integration of the paradigm in different contexts; 3. Explain the ways in which sustainable development has been coopted and adapted by different political positions, and the relevance of this for understanding sustainable development praxis within the context of Agenda 2030. The methodology is mixed, interpretivist and post-structural. It involves three methods: the analysis of sustainable development theory and political theory in order to develop a conceptual framework for examining the nexus of politics and sustainable development; the analysis of the translation of this nexus into public and practice through the revision of secondary materials and ‘grey’ sources (e.g. policy agendas and related documents, declarations), involving content analysis and discourse analysis; interviews with key informants to understand perceptions of the paradigm and its politicization in Chile. The expected results will contribute to the critical analysis of the paradigm of sustainable development, its strengths and weaknesses in specific contexts, and a more nuanced appreciation of how Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals will be pursued over the coming decade, in Chile and Latin America more widely. In terms of its contribution to knowledge, it will complement work in the fields of political geography, political ecology and historical geography.