The modern concept of sustainable development was coined in the World Commission of Environment and Development (WCED) report: Our Common Future (1987). Many considered it an attempt to resolve the tension between economic growth and environmental concerns that followed the Limits to Growth report (1972).

However, Our Common Future did not mainly address environmental problems. Rather, it considered the practical aspects of coping with the predicted population growth and the consequent increase in demand for food and commodities. This was seen from a socio-economical perspective, with the primary goal of leveling the increasing economic and material differences between the global north and south (Meadowcroft et al., 2019, pp. 295–311). It was implicitly assumed and accepted that the effort for social sustainability would negatively affect the environment.

Even though Our Common Future did tackle the concerns of population growth, it did not address the issue of economic growth in itself—which was a significant part of the critique of Limits to Growth. The WCED-report instead report focused on mitigating global economic differences from a justice-centered point of view. Considering economic growth as a tool for achieving socio-economic sustainability. The foreword of the report bluntly states that “[w]hat is needed now is a new era of economic growth—growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable” (WCED, 1987, p. 7).

It was speculated that this combination of goals could be achieved if industrialized nations shifted towards less material- and energy-intensive activities (WCED, 1987, p. 47). A practice coined as eco-efficiency by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in their publication Changing Course (Schmidheiny, 1992). It was thereby acknowledged that ecological limits did exist, but it was also claimed that these could be avoided by adhering to this new notion of efficiency. The soundness of this rationale was not subjected to philosophical scrutiny before becoming a fundamental principle for global policymaking. Philosophers were, however, quick to point out several critical problems, such as:

·      What are ‘needs’? And who should define them?

·      How can we predict those that future generations will have?

·      How long of a timeframe is “generations”, exactly?

·      How do commercial markets affect ‘needs’?

·      How should the different dimensions be weighted?

·      and (as relevant for us), by what methodology?

These issues and many more have been thoroughly debated in the philosophical discourse, i.e., Michael Redclift (2005, p. 213), Lyle Grant (Grant, 2011) or Naomi Klein (1999, 2002, 2004 and more), but they did not transcend to a political level [1]. Consequently, the UN’s formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) inherited many of the issues and unclarities of the original definition. Consequently, they have been criticized for problems such as “(…) being inconsistent, difficult to quantify, implement and monitor”. Particularly regarding “(…) socio-economic development and the environmental sustainability goals” (Walid & Luetz, 2018, p. 341). Analysis of the maturity of the 17 main goals and the 169 sub-goals concluded that “Out of 169 targets, 49 (29 %) are considered well developed, 91 targets (54 %) could be strengthened by being more specific, and 29 (17 %) require significant work.” (Brigitte Baptiste, 2015, p. 6).

Considering the outlook for technological development within 2030, it seems highly unrealistic to expect this development alone to both reduce poverty and increase economic growth, while simultaneously emitting less and also conserving more natural habitat and biodiversity. Such views of ‘technological salvation’ were more realistic in the ’90s and early 2000s, when there was time to expect unexpected solutions. Today, we know with a high degree of confidence what kind of technological advances we can expect to have implemented over the next decade, and neither wind turbines nor solar panels can achieve sustainability in all these areas simultaneously simply by reducing emissions. As we have argued, many of the problems we need to solve are interlinked on deeper levels, and several of them in such a way that the solution to one problem will aggravate another.

These dilemmas make the discourse around sustainability to frequently state the need to ‘‘integrate’’, ‘‘balance’’, and ‘‘reconcile’’ the pillars of sustainability. Unfortunately, “without necessarily articulating what this means in practice” (Purvis et al., 2019, p. 690). Critical questions addressing such uncomfortable trade-offs tend to be answered in ways that “appear to depend on the level of optimism [that] the work in question is pitching for” (Ibid.). We are clearly in need of a more realistic approach to problem-solving, one that transcends that of naïve technology optimism, tackling the philosophical problems residing in the foundations of sustainability.

[1] The work of Nussbaums ‘Capability approach’ is currently being considered for political inclusion by the UN, however, this is a very recent development.