Climate change and sustainable development are the subjects of news headlines and global agreements, from the UN’s Agenda 2030 to the recent climate discussions that produced the Paris Agreement. In his white paper on Sustainable Development, Riccardo Cascioli provides much-needed context for these important matters, focusing on the importance of making sure the agenda remains centered on the human person as both its agent and its beneficiary.
The term “sustainable development” has become commonplace on a global level. At present, there is no area of human activity, nor geographical location so isolated, that it is not judged by global standards of sustainability. Everything must be sustainable. Today we talk in terms of sustainable industry, sustainable agriculture, sustainable tourism, sustainable mobility, and even sustainable peace. No one is overlooked; the United Nations (UN) Commission on Sustainable Development goes so far as to have an office for “Small Developing Island States,” that is, those microstates concentrated mostly in the Pacific Ocean, small atolls with fewer than a thousand inhabitants.
We are not just dealing with the geographic expansion of the concept, but also the ontological expansion: people speak more and more often about “sustainable human development.” On official levels, this expression is justified as a desire to place human interests at the center of politics. In reality it is understood and argued as necessary of all human activity — individual and social — to be “sustainable.” Sustainable development is therefore a broad concept susceptible to becoming, in the hands of a powerful world government or superpower, a formidable instrument of oppression. All the more so because — as this paper argues — the generic and vague use of the term “sustainable” allows for highly discretionary interpretations.