Sustainable Development: the Painful Birth of an Idea


Stephen J. Macekura, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2015)

Stephen J. Macekura, <i>Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century</i> (Cambridge, 2015)

U.S. President George H. W. Bush captured the malleable meaning of sustainable development when he announced at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that “to sustain development, we must protect the environment. And to protect the environment, we must sustain development” (261). Sustainable development might call to mind a managerial ethos similar to that of early twentieth-century American conservationist Gifford Pinchot, who suggested that his country needed fewer lumbermen to cut down trees, and more foresters to plan for the future. In the realm of international affairs, sustainable development might represent a compromise between a state’s desire for economic growth and a recognition that it comes at a high cost — to wildlife, to ecosystems, and to everyone in the global commons we know as Earth. Perhaps the concept itself is overdue for the kind of scrutiny scholars have devoted to other influential postwar ideas, such as modernization or development writ large.

With Of Limits and Growth, Stephen J. Macekura shows us how the term emerged as a strategy to reconcile the environmental aims of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with the economic ambitions of less rich countries of the Global South. The book draws on an impressive array of primary sources from several different countries, and it highlights an aspect of international affairs that few have studied in depth, namely the role of NGOs in shaping global norms and policies. It focuses primarily on the activities of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), though other NGOs also make appearances. It also connects to the present, showing “why the tensions that continue to plague the sustainability idea were present at its inception” (12).

Macekura sets the tone for the conflicts between environmentalists and the less rich countries of the world by showing the link between the rise of wildlife protection advocacy and postwar decolonization of Africa. Many of the policies advocated by NGOs, he says, were designed to “shore up existing colonial arrangements” (21). Influential figures such as the English scientist Julian Huxley, first Director-General of UNESCO, were worried that Africans would not respect ecological values or exercise restraint in hunting. This was also the perspective of the American game hunter and future head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Russell Train, who saw Africans as land-hungry and indifferent to the fate of wildlife. Both men were active in the earliest years of the IUCN, and by the late 1950s, a conflict was already brewing between a paternalistic group of rich Europeans and Americans, worried about wildlife, and formerly colonized peoples trying to establish viable political and economic infrastructures.

Initially, NGOs worked directly with local political leaders, and they met with some success, especially after the 1961 creation of the IUCN’s fundraising arm, the World Wildlife Fund. Productive working relationships rarely lasted, however, and sometimes the bonds were only as strong as the amount of political control exercised by the former colonial state. For example, when Tanganyika first gained independence in 1961, the World Wildlife Fund had an ally in its first president Julius Nyrere, who supported the creation of national parks to protect the rhinoceros. But by the late 1960s, with less reliance upon Britain, and more money coming in from the United States for economic development projects, Nyrere reversed course and abandoned any pretense of including natural resource conservation or wildlife protection in his state-building schemes. In the face of American Cold War efforts to win hearts and minds with aid packages, NGOs found themselves on the margins.

Macekura’s most compelling chapter is reveals how NGOs tried to overcome marginalization by abandoning their practice of cozying up to individual governments, and instead targeting instruments of aid, especially in the United States. After the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, NGOs argued that the key requirement of the act — the environmental impact statement — should apply to all government agencies, including those doling out aid to other countries. Rather than try to cajole or convince governments — a strategy that clearly had failed — now environmental NGOs could use existing legislation and a new ally, the courts, to influence the character of foreign aid packages. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) resisted bitterly, as did the Department of Defense. They did not wish to subject their activities abroad to the same vetting process that the new law required of Americans. Foreign highway projects, military bases, even arms deals — would these require environmental impact statements? Macekura describes in detail the attempts by the US foreign policy community to avoid the clutches of NEPA. “The ongoing conflict raised even basic questions that at once seemed profound and absurd,” Macekura writes. “An official from the DoD wondered, only half-jokingly, if the new… regulations would mean that they would have to file an environmental impact statement before declaring war” (192).

Other chapters provide overviews of international environmental politics, from the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Macekura follows individuals such as Maurice Strong, Barbara Ward, and Raymond Dasmann, all of whom tried to overhaul environmental thinking in the 1970s to show more respect for the aspirations of local people. One 1975 meeting of the IUCN in Kinshasa, Zaire, marked a crisis point — complete with a so-called coup against the IUCN president — in which a new decision was made to focus on promoting development itself, with ecological principles built into planning. These efforts were embodied by such publications as the 1980 World Conservation Strategy, and in approaches to aid like the 1970s “appropriate technology” movement. One key aspect of their vision of sustainable development was that environmental agreements ought to be sweetened by major aid packages from rich countries. Yet U.S. presidents from Nixon to Bush resisted committing to such resource transfers.

Macekura himself believes in sustainable development, and he lauds the goal of reconciling “environmental protection” (to use his phrase) with economic growth. Of Limits and Growthrarely gets beyond this dualistic framework. Some potential side-plots are left unexplored, such as the use of the IUCN or the World Wildlife Fund as instruments of soft power by the US, UK, or other governments. Also, he glosses over distinctions among environmental issues, treating wildlife protection and anthropogenic climate change, for example, as essentially the same, stamped as “environmental protection.” That said, Of Limits and Growth shows Macekura to be a fair-minded scholar conversant in the discourses of international relations and environmental issues alike. He views sustainable development through the lens of a historian but also as a concerned human, and he looks toward the future: “our ability to reconcile environmental protection with economic development in the future depends on our willingness to redress the nettlesome and persistent disparities of wealth and power in our own time” (316). Overall he presents a convincing portrait of how environmental NGOs emerged in a postcolonial context, adapted to political challenges, and produced one of the most recognizable concepts in international affairs.

Stephen J. Macekura. Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 319 pp. $44.95 (paperback).

Review by Jacob Darwin Hamblin, originally published as “The Invention of Sustainability” in Diplomatic History (2016).

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