Human Development

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Environment, Development and Sustainability (2005) 7: 501–518 DOI 10.1007/s10668-004-5539-0

Ó Springer 2005

DEBATES ON SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: TOWARDS A HOLISTIC VIEW OF REALITY LEONARDO ALBERTO RIOS OSORIO1,*, MANUEL ORTIZ LOBATO2 and ´ XAVIER ALVAREZ DEL CASTILLO3 1 Universitat Polite`cnica de Catalunya, Edifici Campus, TR10, Calle Colom, 2, P.O. 08222 Terrassa, Barcelona, Spain; 2UNED (Distance Education University of Spain), Terrassa, Barcelona; 3Universitat Polite`cnica de Catalunya, Terrassa, Barcelona, Spain (*author for correspondence, e-mail: rios@catunesco.upc.es; fax: +34-937398295; tel.: +34-937398294)

(Received 10 February 2004; accepted 28 October 2004)

Abstract. The paper analyzes the concept of sustainable development in the light of the different interpretations existing on the issue since its appearance and establishment as an ideal to lead humanity’s line of progress. Within these interpretations, a characteristic generation of diverse debates can be appreciated, arising from different perspectives, academic as well as ideological, aiming at describing, clarifying and determining their conceptual reach. Based on these facts a model of categorization for these debates has developed, a model in which interpretations generated on the concept of sustainable development were catalogued into four realms: conceptual, contextual, academic and geopolitical. The configuration of these four areas of debate, as well as the recognition of the diversity of interpretations existing on sustainable development, is a reflection of the intrinsic complexity of the phenomena, which affect the natural and social world, both at the local and global level. The analysis of this complexity is based on the subjectivity, which is inherent to the interpretation of these phenomena, with permanent reference to the cultural context from which the diverse discourses were structured. This global perspective on the state-of-the-art controversy concerning the idea of sustainable development as an articulatory axis reveals the necessity of building epistemological models, which can give a new direction to scientific research. From these new models, based on the analysis of the holistic character of reality, the subjective and the objective must be integrated in the generation of knowledge, which contributes usefully to the unceasing reconstruction of our world-(view). Key words: conceptual debate, contextual debate, disciplinary debate, geopolitical debate, sustainable development, sustainability, transdisciplinary.

Abbreviations: WCED – World Commission on Environment and Development.

1. Introduction Since the appearance of the concept of sustainable development until its instauration as a guideline for humanity and its establishment as a subject in the academic field, one of the most transcendent aspects in its evolution Readers should send their comments on this paper to: BhaskarNath@aol.com within 3 months of publication of this issue.

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has been the establishment of a definition in which all aspects involved in its creation can be included. The origins of the phrase, ‘sustainable development’ can be traced back to 1983, when the UN General Assembly constituted the WCED. At the time, its main target was to design ‘a global program for change’. The commission released its report to the UN Assembly in 1987, in a document known as the ‘Bruntland Report’, or Our Common Future, in which consensus was reached and the ‘sustainable development’ expression was coined to include decision-taking processes and policies based on the interdependence and complementariness of economic growth and environment preservation. Apart from this, the document shows the necessity of reforming institutions and laws in the frame of sustainability in order to face the challenges of the future with the overall purpose of achieving inter- and intra-generational equity. A pioneer definition generated by the commission, which...
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