Sustainable Development: Representing a reflexive modernity inside the United Nations

Abstract: This paper suggests that the discourse of sustainable development (SD) within the United Nations (UN) represents a paradigm shift from first/industrial modernity to a reflexive modernity. Reflexive modernity is defined by the changing nature of political structures in the face of globalised environmental risk, as well as a questioning of the hegemony of the scientific process as a basis for the development of humanity and the planet. SD is a concept that innately reflects these concerns, questioning normative assumptions.  This paper will argue that the rise of SD in governance discourse is not only a catalyst for a reflexive modernity, but also is representative of a modernity that is already in a state of reflexivity.  This proposition is examined by exploring the various ways that SD is utilised in the governance structure of the United Nations (UN).

Keywords: United Nations, Risk, Sustainable Development, Climate Change, Reflexive Modernity, globalisation

Journal of Global Analysis | Vol. 1 | No. 1 | 2010


In light of the increasing scientific consensus of the detrimental impact humanity is having on the earth’s biosphere, the consequences of, and the possibility for curbing these risks have jumped dramatically onto the priority agendas both politically and academically.  Within the social sciences the notion of an emerging World Risk Society (WRS) (Beck 1992, 1999), which has created a reflexive modernity represents this realignment, and in political domains the notion of sustainable development (SD) is being increasingly used to represent the need to realign current developmental patterns. This paper examines the possibility that SD and reflexive modernity are intimately connected.  Until very recently these two concepts have been seen as representing different storylines of humanity’s interaction with nature (Irwin 2001).  More recently however, there has been a paradigmatic shift in how these issues are being understood and notions of reflexivity and sustainable development are being drawn together in a mutually supportive framework (Borne 2010; Beck 2006).  This relationship is currently underdeveloped and lacking rigorous empirical observation.  This paper makes initial, but substantial, steps in addressing this short and proceeds in the following manner. The first section expands on the nature of reflexive modernity in the context of Beck’s WRS thesis.  Section two will introduce SD, outline initial observations drawn from the literature and suggest a significant relationship between SD and reflexive modernity.  Section three discusses the nature of governance and the role of the UN with relation to SD.  Section four offers a review of the qualitative methodological approach that is used.  Section five presents the substantive component of this paper by exploring the empirical data.  The results are separated into three main areas of SD discourse from within the UN.  Each area is represented by a ‘theme’ of SD, and each theme progressively builds a picture of the discursive representations of SD within the UN, and the relationship this has with a reflexive modernity.    The paper is concluded with a brief discussion on the implications that these findings have at both a policy and theoretical level. Initially however, it is pertinent to outline the underlying theoretical premises upon which this paper is based.

Section One: Reflexivity in a World Risk Society

The consequences and abatement of global environmental risks have been increasingly raised on political and social agendas world wide. In light of this, Ulrich Beck’s World Risk Society (WRS) thesis (1999) has become an increasingly relevant assessment of contemporary, social, economic, political and environmental processes (Borne 2009a; Elliot 2002; Lacy 2002; Mythen 2004). The underlying message of  the WRS  is that the established ideology of an industrial society, whose basic principle was the distribution of goods, a reliance on scientific certainty and the political autonomy of the nation state, is being replaced by an emergent ‘risk society’.  Beck focuses on specific forms of risk, referring to the three icons of destruction.  These include nuclear power, environmental despoliation and genetic technology (1992: 39).

This risk society is defined by the distribution of hazards, scientific ambiguity, and the opening up of governance processes to wider sectors of society. In a risk society modernity has become reflexive.  At the most fundamental level, reflexive modernity is seen as a recursive turning of modernity upon itself. The breadth of Beck’s conception of reflexivity applies with equal measure to both global institutional and political scales, as well as local and individual levels of analysis (see Borne 2010; Mythen 2004). Of course such a sweeping social theory attracts many critics which range from Beck’s lack of empirical observation to substantiate his theoretical claims to the often ambiguous and contradictory nature of his definitions of reflexivity. Indeed Beck himself concedes that reflexive modernity ‘…is not hard to misunderstand’ (Beck 1999:109).  This paper goes some way to addressing both of these criticisms.  The following discussion will begin by examining the latter criticism.

The literature surrounding definitions and discussions on reflexivity is often, convoluted and contradictory.    Upon review it is evident that the essence of the misunderstanding over reflexive modernity occurs when considering whether reflexivity represents firstly, a purposeful knowledge-based action, which may be termed reflection, or secondly, should be considered as the unintended consequence of modernity, which is reflexivity. This situation is further complicated by a lack of distinction between the two, not only amongst Beck’s critics but also within Beck’s work itself (Beck 1999, 2006).  For example, in early elaborations of reflexive modernity Beck argues that:

“In pointed terms, the ‘reflexivity’ of modernity and modernisation in my sense does not mean reflection on modernity, self relatedness, the self referentiality of modernity, nor does it mean the self justification or self criticism of modernity in the sense of classical sociology; rather (first of all), modernisation undercuts modernisation, unintended and unforeseen, and is also therefore reflection free, with the force of autonomised modernisation” (Beck 1995: 176)

From the above, it is apparent that Beck adheres to a definition of reflexive modernity which is created by the unforeseen externalisations of the modern world that are reshaping the central components of modernity.  However, as Beck’s work develops, a softening of this position becomes evident.  The reflexive and reflective domains begin to converge.  In  the WRS, Beck argues that reflexive modernisation is a ‘… reflex-like threat to industrial society’s own foundations through a further modernisation which is blind to dangers, and the growth of awareness, and the reflection of this situation’ (Beck 1999: 81). It may be surmised from this that Beck moves towards a definition of reflexivity that is formed through a combination of reflexivity and reflection. This is a primary observation for research presented here.

This is because the use of SD as a litmus test for examining reflexive modernity presupposes a certain level of reflection as institutional structures and individuals respond to increased evidence of global environmental risk.  With this established what remains is the question of proportionality in the reflexivity equation.  In order to overcome this Elliot (2002) puts forward a framework for accommodating these dichotomies.  Elliot begins by arguing that the distinction between reflex and reflection is questionable, a significant problem being to identify where reflexivity ends and reflection begins. In making this assertion Elliot distinguishes between strong and weak forms of reflexivity.  A strong reflexive position maintains that reflexivity occurs because of institutional dynamism, which results from purely unintended consequences.  A weak form of reflexivity would suggest a combination of reflex and reflection, ‘…a partial and contextual interaction of dissolution and reflection’ (2002: 302).  Based on this, it is reasonable to surmise that Beck has moved to a weak reflexive position, where reflexivity results from unintended processes, which in turn leads to a process of intended reflection. Extending this proposition it is argued here that the reflective element of reflexivity processes represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as they are influenced by the less visible reflexive processes.

Overall, the relationship suggests that increasing processes of a reflexive modernity will consequently lead to reflective activity.  This observation is accompanied with the proviso that this relationship is not linear, well defined, or temporally static.  Reflexive processes set in motion today will have unintended reflexive consequences in the future, which in turn will produce altered reflective activity.

The above discussion has important implications for the production and consequences of systems of global governance. Primarily, this analysis accepts at the most elementary level that global governance in the face of globalised risks must be flexible and non linear with the ability to open up space for the unintended or negative, as well as positive, externalities of intended governance processes. This paper will explore these issues in the context of the UN in section three, at this stage it is essential to discuss how the increased use of SD in governance networks is seen as an indication of the emergence of a reflexive modernity.  The following discussion will elaborate on notions of sustainable development and argue that a symbiotic relationship exists between SD and reflexive modernity.

Section Two:  Sustainable Development: Establishing a Symbiotic Relationship  

It is at this point that the concept of SD is introduced. Debates surrounding SD evoke a plethora of issues and diverse viewpoints.  These can range from ontological and epistemological speculations through to discussions on appropriate legislative tools for achieving a sustainable future, as well as technological advancements and applications. There is no attempt here to elaborate in any detail on these issues.  What is pertinent for this discussion to acknowledge is that the concept is complex and multifaceted with a literature that remains disturbingly muddled (Lele 1991; Pezzoli 1997; Williams and Millington 2004).  The extent of this muddle is clear as Fowke and Prasad (1996) identify more than eighty definitional variations of the concept that substantially extends that set down at the World Conference on Environment and Development (WCED 1987).

As a broad assessment, it is sufficient to understand that the way SD is defined depends on a number of factors.  These can include scientific evidence of environmental degradation, utilisation of this evidence, political designations, power dynamics, basic understandings of nature and much more (Irwin 2001; Macnaghten and Jacobs 1997; Jabareen 2004; Ratner 2004; Redclift 1993).

A number of attempts have been made to categorise and compartmentalise the various elements of the SD literature (Chatterton 2002; Clarke 2002; Pezzoli 1997; Williams and Millington 2004; Sachs 1999).  These assessments of the nature of SD often rely on a framework that outlines strong and weak forms of the concept.  Such interpretations are underpinned by the degree to which SD represents a departure from current modes of production and consumption.  Strong sustainability suggests a radical reordering of current socio-political and economic frameworks that are necessary to meet the challenges of current ecological and social risks. This may be said to be closely linked to the eco-centric beliefs of deep green environmentalists like Arne Naess (1973,1989). Such a vision of SD can also be aligned with deep ecology, social ecology, environmental justice, eco-feminism and spiritual ecology (Agyeman and Evans 2004; Buckingham 2004).  Whilst there is some evidence that SD manifests in its strongest form (Chatterton 2002), much of the literature points to SD existing in the weaker incarnation (Hulme and Turnpenny 2004). Weak sustainability operates within the existing socio-political framework; this interpretation of SD focuses on the ability of technology to produce a sustainable future.

SD is representative of a questioning of the current patterns of development, bringing into focus the most basic normative assumptions of modernity.  It is at this level that a relationship is observed between SD and reflexive modernity. What is principally argued is that   SD and the WRS present a mutually integrative storyline of contemporary society.  It is suggested that both highlight particular aspects of modern developmental processes.  These can be summarised as follows.  Both expose the relationship between humanity and the environment; draw into question notions of progress, science and rationality; open up the boundaries between the global and the local; and both are concerned with inter-generational equity and the incompatibility of geological and political time-scapes (Adam 1998).  On this basis, it is argued that a symbiotic relationship exists between the concepts of SD and reflexive modernity.

This symbiosis is played out as follows.  Perceiving SD through a WRS lens provides a level of sophistication and an overarching theoretical perspective essential for understanding the intricate and dynamic nature of SD. This will ultimately lead to an informed assessment of how SD is being articulated and presented in particular governance frameworks and the consequences this has for wider social formations and environmental impacts.  From the reverse perspective, through examining  representations of SD, it will be possible to assess some of the assertions made within the WRS thesis, particularly Beck’s assertion of the emergence of a reflexive modernity. This will result in a subsequent tightening up of the theoretical base (Elliot 2002). As has already been  noted in this paper, previous accounts of SD and WRS suggest that these two dialogues of contemporary social processes offer different stories of the relationship between society and its environment. For example, Irwin maintains that Beck’s radical account offers a strong contrasting framework for the social and natural relationship to that offered by sustainability. Irwin suggests that:

“…whilst the concept of sustainable development suggests that scientific/ technological development and the institutional system can cope, Beck’s account is of a world where everything is open to question, where every aspect of life is imbued with doubt and uncertainty, and where the very sense of science, truth and progress (…) is being challenged and found wanting“ (2001: 51).

However, this paper argues that Irwin’s analysis severely reduces the breadth of interpretations that exists within the sustainability debate, focusing narrowly on its scientific/technocratic dimension. As already outlined, SD exists on many different levels and its emerging rhetoric holds strong synergies with Beck’s analysis of the WRS. In order to empirically test this proposition  sustianable devleopment was explored within the context of the United Nations.  The following section will draw connections between SD and the UN.

Section Three: Governing Sustainable Development  

The UN is a highly visible and influential actor within global governance.  It is also an organisation that integrates SD into the core of its governance structure. As with SD, many definitions of governance present themselves, not least because the notion of governance contains ‘…powerful tensions, profound contradictions and perplexing paradoxes (Rosenau 2005: 45). The ‘Commission for Global Governance’ offers the following definition. Governance is:

“The sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs, a continuing process through which conflicting and diverse interests may be accommodated and co-operative action may be taken” (Shridath and Carlsson 1998: 2).

Applying these definitions of governance to SD, Gupta suggests that SD governance should be defined as ‘…the interactive network of regimes at international level, that try and integrate the various elements of SD’ (2002: 363).  At the international level the UN is an organisation where the complexities and the contradictions of governance are juxtaposed.  As such, the UN does not fit comfortably into the category of international institution.  As Cronin points out: ‘The UN is an organisation of, by, and for independent sovereign states, yet it is also a semi independent actor staffed with a semi autonomous civil service’ (2002: 54).  This assessment leads to the suggestion that there are two faces of the UN; one as a collection of the world’s nations pursuing their own narrow interests within a multilateral environment, and the other, an entity in its own right.  Moreover, the UN, is not a closed system, but instead is a fundamentally dynamic body, permeated by a myriad of flows that converge internally and are subsequently radiated outwards again towards wider society.

Cautioned by the above, an analytical perspective must be capable of accommodating these two frequently altering dynamics. Knight and Krause (1995) suggest looking at the UN from what they term as a state/society perspective.  These authors assert that this perspective ‘…highlights the fact that the interaction between international society and domestic societies is not always mediated through the state’ (1995: 253).  These authors further argue that simply viewing the UN as a bureaucratic system, constituent of its member states and various organs, is reductionist and misleading.  More accurately, the UN should be viewed as an ‘arena’ of ideologies and values, a forum for discussion and negotiation, and not merely as a ‘place of operations’ (Strong 2003: 117). With the above in mind it is important to outline the following political realities.  Each nation state within the UN has considerably diverse global status with regard to their influence on the global political stage.  This truism is inevitably reflected within the governance systems of the UN.  French indicates that ‘…formal equality does not mean equity’ (2002:143).  These observations directly impinge on the ability of SD to represent a reflexive modernity as developmental discourses in general have been criticised for representing the developmental realities of the western world (Escobar 1995).  With specific relation to SD, commentators have argued that the concept represents little more than the extension of current forms of capitalist production (Cohen 1997).

In sum, understanding the UN in the above terms provides a framework from which the relationship between governance, the UN and SD can be understood, whilst simultaneously developing an insight into the relationship this has with the emergence of a reflexive modernity.  To date this paper has explored the various dimensions that interact in order to understand the relationship between SD and reflexive modernity from within the environment of the UN.  These discussions have, for practical purposes, reduced highly complex debates into a manageable structure. The following section outlines the methodological framework that was used.

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