Waking from Sustainability's 'Impossible Dream': The Decision-Making Realities of Business and Government

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Georgetown International Environmental Law Review


Sustainability, environmentalism, globalization


As companies are expected to implement global codes of conduct such as the United Nations Global Compact and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and governments and multilateral institutions supposedly become concerned about limiting the environmental and social impacts of business decision-making, it may be useful to consider some of the past history and actual behavior related to corporate and governmental responses to codes of practice, treaties and even national laws. Unfortunately, the track record of business, government and multilateral institutions relating to the conforming of their behavior to such codes of practice and treaties is abysmal. This is unlikely to change.

The observation that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions was rarely as telling as in the context of the utility and consequences of voluntary codes of practice. Sustainability is a kind of fabricated fiction. But by posing it as an ideal we convince ourselves, and others, that we stand for something noble and grand. But an impossible or illusory ideal aggravates the problems rather than generates workable solutions because we fail to come to grips with their real characteristics.

Daniel Boorstin once asked: Have we been doomed to make our dreams into illusions? Camus warns of the inevitability of failing to achieve our goals unless we become more aware of the limited extent of our power to effect fundamental change and concentrate on devising realistic strategies and behaviors that allow us to be effective in our actions. This reflects the fact that there is an enormous gap between what we claim we want to do, what we actually want to do, and our ability to achieve our professed goals even if our pursuit were honest.

No matter how well intentioned, empty dreams and platitudes are counterproductive. The ideal of sustainability as introduced in the 1987 report of the Brundtland Commission and institutionalized in the form of Agenda 21 at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit is a false and even counterproductive ideal. It stands for the proposition that we are almost god-like, capable of perceiving, integrating, monitoring, organizing and controlling our world on levels that are far beyond human capability. This impossible dream applies to governmental, business and individual decision-making.

Sustainability of the Agenda 21 kind is a flawed utopian vision of the perfect that truly is the enemy of the possible and the good. On paper we can always sketch elegant pipedreams that appear to have the ability to do what we claim we desire if only everyone would come together and behave in the way laid out in the blueprint. One lesson learned from such grand misperceptions as the French Enlightenment's failure to accurately comprehend the quality and limits of human nature or Marxism's flawed view of human motivation, is that the if only is an impossibly utopian vision we will never achieve.


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