The whole United Nations process of linking environment and development calls for one common agenda, an action plan that can join the global North and South in concerted action. Achieving sustainable development involves the integration of diverse issues, such as formation and implementation of international environmental treaties; trade relations; social issues; debt relief; alleviation of poverty; and change of unsustainable patterns of production and consumption etc. This complex and paramount task can tempt the research community to be too narrowly focused on action-oriented research.
Even though science for sustainable development is thought to avoid fragmentation, in order to implement all the different issues currently included under the heading of sustainable development, they run the risk of being de-linked from the conceptual integration of the three pillars - environment, social and economic - and addressed semi-independently. Many researchers as well as funding agencies predominantly attach themselves to various forms of "sustainability." A large flora of prefix/suffix sustainability characterizes sustainable development research. New offspring concepts to sustainable development have evolved, such as sustainable ecology, social sustainability, economic sustainability, sustainable growth, urban sustainability, sustainable forestry, sustainable urbanisation etc. This might be an indication of a fragmentation of sustainable development implementation, and could lead to similar consequences as the discredited sectorisation, even though it is contradictory to the integrated rationale behind sustainable development.
Since the three pillars interact on a global scale, it might be contra-productive, conceptually and in praxis, to associate specific projects to prefix or suffix sustainability. If environmental protection and social and economic development are globally interlinked, theories of sustainable development ought to have a totalizing ambition, even if it at the same time has to acknowledge the need for differentiated views on global sustainable development goals and actions. The need for totalizing theoretical analytical framework has to be combined with a reflexive and differentiated view on global sustainable developments.
Today, reflexivity is a key concept in knowledge production. Yet, it is often not reflected in the framing of research for sustainable development, perhaps due to that the devotion to implementation and action oriented research has overshadowed the need for reflexivity. The inherent conflicts in sustainable development politics gain little attention. In policy documents of research funding agencies in the global North it appears as a consensus concept, whereas in international policy making it is filled with conflicting interests and interpretations. In spite of the ambiguities of the concept, many seem to identify the concept in line with the so-called ecological modernisation with a strong emphasis achieving sustainable development by regulating the use of scare resources and environmental degradation through market mechanisms, recycling, and technological innovations.
If sustainable development problems are regarded as a temporary or adjustable dysfunctions in the present social or economic order, the questions asked and the solutions sought are different compared to if you see them as fundamental predicaments caused by structural errors in society. A small share of science for sustainable development projects appears to be designed to study the cultural, conceptual and ideological foundations of the sustainable development approach to which so much money is invested, at least in Sweden. Since the framing of a problem is intimately linked to the information sought and the approaches to solve it, it is evident that a broader research agenda would allow various ways to pose the questions. As applied research oriented towards implementing the dominating political agenda, science for sustainable development run the risk of lacking research that posits alternative framings, identifies new problems and reflects on wider implications of sustainable development policy.
There is indeed not one agenda, one vision of the society of sustainable development. The visions of the good life, the utopian thinking, in sustainable development policy remains contested. Since sustainable development entails questions of value, political priorities, and balancing the three pillars, we are faced with a multitude of sustainable development visions and political alternatives. For instance, organizations in the South, such as South Centre, is calling for the South to elaborate a platform of its own on sustainable development while others seek to invoke the idea of an New International Economic Order. The presumption that we now know what the problem is, that it is solely action that is needed, can be precarious. Whose sustainable development visions is science going to facilitate? Since sustainable development policies always will be contested, action still have to be sought and applied research needed, but its assumptions and implications constantly reflected upon.
Since sustainable development is a politically defined project, it is crucial that reflexive research that explores alternatives, new questions, different interpretations of the environmental situations and its solutions shall be able to get funding. In the clash between opposing perspectives, in the negations of the discursive research, new hindsight might be made. At the least it will provide us with preparedness for alternative policies, if current implementation efforts continue to come up short.
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press , 2005. , 6 p.