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Bloomsbury Academic
Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice

Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice

by Julian AgyemanJulian Agyeman


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This unique and insightful text offers an exploration of the origins and subsequent development of the concept of just sustainability.

Introducing Just Sustainabilities discusses key topics, such as food justice, sovereignty and urban agriculture; community, space, place(making) and spatial justice; the democratization of our streets and public spaces; how to create culturally inclusive spaces; intercultural cities and social inclusion; green-collar jobs and the just transition; and alternative economic models, such as co-production. With a specific focus on solutions-oriented policy and planning initiatives that specifically address issues of equity and justice within the context of developing sustainable communities, this is the essential introduction to just sustainabilities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780324098
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date: 05/09/2013
Series: Just Sustainabilities
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 602,018
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Julian Agyeman is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. He is an environmental social scientist whose expertise and current research interests are in the complex and embedded relationships between humans and the environment, whether mediated by institutions or by social movement organizations, and the effects of this on public policy and planning processes and outcomes, particularly in relation to notions of justice and equity. He is co-founder and editor of the international jourbanal Local Environment: The International Jourbanal of Justice and Sustainability and his books include Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (with co-editors Robert D. Bullard and Bob Evans, 2003), Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice (2005) and Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability (with Alison Hope Alkon, 2011). He is series editor of Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice (Zed Books).
Julian Agyeman is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. He is an environmental social scientist whose expertise and current research interests are in the complex and embedded relationships between humans and the environment, whether mediated by institutions or by social movement organizations, and the effects of this on public policy and planning processes and outcomes, particularly in relation to notions of justice and equity. He is co-founder and editor of the international jourbanal Local Environment: The International Jourbanal of Justice and Sustainability and his books include Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (with co-editors Robert D. Bullard and Bob Evans, 2003), Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice (2005) and Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability (with Alison Hope Alkon, 2011). He is series editor of Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice (Zed Books).

Read an Excerpt

Introducing Just Sustainabilities

Policy, Planning, And Practice

By Julian Agyeman

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Julian Agyeman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-410-4



Why just sustainabilities?

The ideas of 'sustainability' and 'sustainable development' began to achieve prominence in the 1980s among local, national, and international policy-makers and politicians, together with policy entrepreneurs in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A significant contributing factor was the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development's report Our Common Future, or more commonly, the Brundtland Report. Following the 1992 United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development (the so-called Rio Summit or Earth Summit), there has been a massive increase in published and online material dealing with 'sustainability' and 'sustainable development.' This has led to competing and conflicting views over what the terms mean, what is to be sustained, by whom, for whom, and what is the most desirable means of achieving this goal. To some, the sustainability discourse is too all-encompassing to be of any use. To others, the words are often unthinkingly prefaced by 'environmental' and 'environmentally,' as in 'environmental sustainability' or 'environmentally sustainable development.'

Beginning as a critique of what I eventually called the 'equity deficit' (Agyeman 2005, 44) that still pervades most 'green' and 'environmental' sustainability theory, rhetoric, and practice, the just sustainabilities concept began to take shape in the early 2000s, when I, Bob Bullard, and Bob Evans wrote:

Sustainability cannot be simply a 'green', or 'environmental' concern, important though 'environmental' aspects of sustainability are. A truly sustainable society is one where wider questions of social needs and welfare, and economic opportunity are integrally related to environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems. (Agyeman et al. 2002, 78)

Integrating social needs and welfare, we argued, offers us a more 'just,' rounded, and equity-focused definition of sustainability and sustainable development, while not negating the very real environmental threats. A 'just' sustainability, we argued, is therefore:

The need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems. (Agyeman et al. 2003, 5)

While defining 'just sustainability,' we used the term 'just sustainabilities' because we acknowledged that the singular form suggests that there is one prescription for sustainability that can be universalized. The plural, however, acknowledges the relative, culturally and place-bound nature of the concept. For instance, a piece in the New York Times (9 October 2011), 'When the uprooted put down roots,' highlighted the growth across the US of 'refugee agriculture' among, for example, Somalis, Cambodians, Liberians, Congolese, Bhutanese, and Burundians. This story gave me pause to think about the potential of new agricultures to help us reimagine what constitutes 'local foods.' Is it, for example, what our increasingly diverse populations want to grow and buy locally as culturally appropriate foods, or is it what should be grown locally according to the predominantly ecologically focused local food movement? A just sustainabilities approach would suggest the former.

Similarly, the environmental movement with its dominant 'green' or environmental sustainability discourse does not include strategies for dealing with current or intragenerational inequalities and injustice issues within its analysis or theory of change. While researching a BBC TV program in the early 1990s, I asked a Greenpeace UK staffer if she felt that her organization's employees reflected the diversity of multicultural Britain. She replied calmly: 'Equality? That's not an issue for us. We're here to save the world.' I can understand what she means. She thinks, as do a lot of environmental organizations, that as her organization is saving the world, the environment, for everyone, an inherently equitable act, there's no need to look at, for instance, who's at the Greenpeace table in terms of the workforce, the board of directors, and, in short, who's setting the agenda.

Twenty years on, however, British researchers Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) have changed the debate. Now equality is an issue, and a big one. In The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, they revealed what many of us had suspected. Based on 30 years' research, the book convincingly demonstrates that societies that are more unequal are bad for most everyone – rich as well as poor. The data and the comparison measures Wilkinson and Pickett use in their book allow global comparisons. The differences are striking, even among the supposedly 'rich' countries. Virtually every contemporary social and environmental problem – violence, obesity, drugs, physical and mental illness, life expectancy, carbon footprint, community life and social relations, long working hours, teen birthrates, educational performance, prison populations, you name it – is more likely to be worse in less equal societies.

In terms of moving toward just sustainabilities, and especially combating climate change, Wilkinson, Pickett, and De Vogli (2010) argued that there are three reasons why greater equality is necessary. First, inequality drives competitive consumption, or the desire for materialistic satisfaction ('keeping up with the Joneses'). People with materialistic values exhibit fewer pro-environmental behaviors and have more negative attitudes toward the environment. This drive toward materialism, to consume, pushes up carbon footprints. Second, cohesion and levels of trust are higher in more equal societies, leading to more public-spirited actions toward the common good. Evidence they cite includes smaller ecological footprints, higher levels of recycling, fewer air miles, lower levels of consumption of water and meat, and less waste production. Finally, developing sustainable communities needs high levels of adaptability, innovation, and creativity. They cite that more equal societies show higher levels of patents granted per capita, positing that this is because people are more socially mobile and possess higher qualifications.

Educational attainment requires investment in human capital and potential. As a geography teacher in the UK in the early 1980s, I was confronted by a student of mine called David, who said: 'Sir, what do thickies [dumb kids] like me do now we've finished our exams?' Nothing in my education had prepared me for this. David was not dumb. He was an average kid who felt he'd failed himself and us, his teachers. He hadn't. We'd failed him in our inability to help him flourish and find out what he was good at. We were, of course, far too quick to tell him what he wasn't good at and he'd internalized this, probably to this day. Twenty-five years later I was traveling in Ghana and was stopped by a young woman selling hot peppers. She asked me if I wanted to buy her peppers, and quickly assured me that I shouldn't think of her only as a seller of peppers – she was trying to make money to pay for her education.

Two instances, thousands of miles and 25 years apart, made me fully realize the need for a just sustainabilities approach to development. People around the world are simply trying to flourish, to develop their capabilities, and to realize their potential. In the environmental movement, the loss of environmental potential is rightly lamented: 'Every acre of rainforest we lose might have held a cure for cancer.' To me, however, David in the UK, the Ghanaian hot pepper seller, and African American men generally, more of whom are in prison than in college, comprise the tip of the iceberg of global inequality. They represent a desperate planetary waste of human potential and denial of capability. These could be the future researchers discovering those cures for cancer.

This loss of potential is every bit as profound as the loss of environmental potential as we destroy the rainforest and other ecosystems. Of course, a focus on increasing both human potential and environmental potential is necessary if the spirit level is to balance. So what's the message? From global to local, human inequality (the loss of human potential) is as detrimental to our future as the loss of environmental potential, and only a just sustainabilities approach to policy, planning, and practice has an analysis and theory of change with strategies to transform the way in which we treat each other and the planet.

Toward just sustainabilities

The definition of just sustainabilities above focuses equally on four essential conditions for just and sustainable communities of any scale. These conditions are:

• improving our quality of life and wellbeing;

• meeting the needs of both present and future generations (intragenerational and intergenerational equity);

• justice and equity in terms of recognition (Schlosberg 1999), process, procedure, and outcome; and

• living within ecosystem limits (also called 'one planet living') (Agyeman 2005, 92).

I will take each of these four conditions in turn and expand on them. Of course, in reality, just sustainabilities can only be fully interpreted as an integrated whole, and these conditions are deeply interconnected (and thus their separation here is somewhat arbitrary).

Improving our quality of life and wellbeing In this section I will explore why improvement in wellbeing is essential for both justice and sustainability, and why economic growth cannot be relied upon to deliver just sustainabilities. I will also ask whether wellbeing can be delivered without continued economic growth. I will consider better yardsticks for progress that are based on wellbeing and will begin to consider the sort of economic models that might enable social wellbeing and flourishing.

There are several reasons why the achievement of just sustainabilities requires improvement in wellbeing and quality of life. For the vast majority of the world's people – in poorer developing economies – there are patent shortcomings in health and wellbeing. Some of these can be overcome through conventional economic growth and increased material consumption. But even in wealthy societies it is arguable that the majority of people are not able to experience a good quality of life, as a result of various sources of stress. However, justice implies that all people should have the capability to flourish (Sen 2009), and flourishing must mean more than simply survival. Moreover, it is also fairly obvious that, in a democratic system, winning public support for policies inspired by just sustainabilities would require the delivery of some sort of improvement in quality of life.

Growth and wellbeing Conventional economic growth cannot be relied upon to deliver wellbeing and quality of life for a number of reasons. First, there is serious doubt over the ability of the economy to continue to generate rates of growth adequate to allow for population growth and consumption increases (Harvey 2011). Second, there are potentially serious limits to the growth model arising from environmental factors (notably climate change). Finally, there is little evidence of a sustained relationship between growth and wellbeing, especially at higher levels of income and consumption.

Setting aside for a moment the underlying challenge of environmental sustainability, the capacity of the economy to generate continued growth has been cast into question by the crises of recent years, which were predicted by economists such as Stiglitz (2002). Neo-Marxists such as Harvey also suggest that the last phase of growth was achieved through an unsustainable credit boom, which saw long-term increase in indebtedness, finally running aground on the economic impossibility of making secure loans to the unemployed and insecure in society (Harvey 2011). Harvey suggests that following the financial sector boom and bust, further bubbles might arise in 'green technology' or healthcare, especially on the frontiers of nanotechnology. However, future cycles of boom and bust in these areas seem unlikely to provide the levels of global growth required to provide increased wellbeing in conventional economic models.

In terms of environmental sustainability, while there is clearly still further scope to sidestep problems such as peak oil by paying ever more to obtain it, achieving continued compound growth, while at the same time successfully limiting carbon emissions to a sustainable level, is a technological challenge beyond anything previously achieved. Jackson (2009) reports that the carbon intensity of every dollar came down by a third in the last three decades, but total carbon emissions have still increased by 40 percent since 1990 (see Figure 1.1).

For everyone to have a chance of having a standard of living equivalent to those in Western Europe by 2050, Jackson calculates that we would have to increase our technological efficiency 130-fold, ten times faster than anything that has happened in the past. While authors such as von Weizsäcker et al. (1997) have offered convincing models for achieving a decoupling of economic activity from environmental consumption at up to four times the current level, and others have identified targets between 20 and 50 times the current level (Reijnders 1998), a factor of 130 would seem to lie in the realm of science fiction.

Sarkar (2011, 165) also argues that technological solutions are impractical. He suggests that our unpaid debts to nature are a source of our present prosperity:

Exhausted deposits of non-renewable resources ... cannot be refilled. Since the future generations will most certainly have to live in an environment degraded by us, we can say that the impoverishment of our descendants, which we accept without the slightest qualm, is also a source of our huge present-day surplus.

Even if high rates of growth could be sustained, past evidence suggests that this would not deliver increased wellbeing for all. The failure of growth to trickle down to benefit poorer groups in all societies is well documented, and can be seen most dramatically in India, where income inequality has widened rapidly alongside high growth rates. Nair (2011) argues that the Chinese experience, despite creating a massive middle class, is little different. His conclusion is that in the face of resource and environmental constraints, Asia as a whole must seek new models of consumption, which he terms 'consumptionomics.'

At the other end of the scale, Wilkinson and Pickett's (2009) work on the corrosiveness of inequality has strongly confirmed previous claims that continued growth in rich societies adds little if anything to wellbeing (see Figure 1.2). In wealthy societies they find much stronger relationships between income distribution and health and wellbeing. In other words, above a certain threshold, greater equality makes far more difference to real lives than greater income. In particular, the relationship between the material standard of living and rising life expectancy observed in 'developing' countries breaks down, and is partly replaced by a positive correlation between greater equality and longer lives (see Figure 1.3).

All this could be taken to suggest that economic depression or recession should be welcomed as a positive trend for just sustainabilities. However, without a guided transition to a different economic system, this is not so. Jackson (2009) notes one real dilemma arising from the role of growth as a 'stabilizer' for the economy (mopping up productivity increases). He sees 'no clear model for achieving economic stability without consumption growth' (ibid., 10) but suggests that sharing out work and increasing leisure time might help stabilize output, and that with higher savings rates the challenge may be more manageable (both permitting higher investment in sustainability infrastructure, and reducing current consumption rates). In other words, he appears to propose a transfer from private to public consumption. Jackson also notes the positive relationship between growth and wellbeing at low income and consumption levels.

This suggests that growth remains desirable in much of the world. Moreover, if growth simply stalled within the current system, it would do nothing to reduce inequality, and could equally well trigger further retrenchment and domination by elites. Finally, current economic infrastructures for energy generation, food production, and transport are environmentally intensive, and unless they are replaced, even a low- or no-growth economy will still be likely to exceed environmental constraints within a few decades.


Excerpted from Introducing Just Sustainabilities by Julian Agyeman. Copyright © 2013 Julian Agyeman. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

1 Introducing just sustainabilities
2 Food
3 Space and place
4 Culture
5 Conclusions

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