Rethinking Sustainability: Power, Knowledge, and Institutions.

Author:Brown, Doug
Position:Book Review

edited by Jonathan M. Harris. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2003. Paper, ISBN: 0472089242, $24.95. 295 pages.

This is a nicely edited volume of ten essays, each concerning the practical problems of implementing sustainable development in the midst of today's globalized capitalism. It is not about the abstract, pie-in-the-sky vision of what a sustainable world would or should look like. It is far more applied, less theoretical, and more specific than many volumes that examine sustainability. For this reason alone it is worth a serious look.

Yet the title should not be misunderstood. It is not sustainability itself that is being rethought in this collection. The editor and contributors are firmly committed to the vision of a just, equitable, and democratic world that works for all of us, as well as future generations. More importantly, what is rethought is (1) how the conceptualization of sustainability is distorted by the neoclassical and neoliberal development paradigm of unlimited expansion and (2) how the implementation of sustainable development principles gets compromised at the local level in third world nations. Part 1 of the volume concerns (1) above, and part 2, the remaining five chapters, examines (2). The subtitle is significant, because these essays suggest that power, knowledge, and institutions shape both our understanding of what sustainable development means and how we go about creating it. Specifically, what the authors are examining with power is its very unequal distribution today--something institutionalist readers are clearly aware of. With respect to knowledge, this book argues that there is plenty of evidence from the field that Western development knowledge is assumed to be best and that indigenous, local, and traditional skills and knowledge, which in fact work, are being supplanted, ignored, and lost. Finally, with respect to institutions, patriarchy and insecure land tenure are two of the biggest barriers to the implementation of sustainable development projects in the third world.

This book is based on the realization that the last two decades of capitalist, corporate-led, top-down globalization have created a lot of growth without improving the lives of the poorest third of humanity. In other words, neoclassical development theory has been shown to have failed. Yet it continues to be the dominant paradigm. Jonathan Harris says that sustainable development generally implies "a basic change in patterns...

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