Raymond Murphy

Sustainability: A Wicked Problem



This article outlines the theories of why modern practices are either sustainable or unsustainable, emphasizing that non-ecological economic modernization is the default option. If paralysis results from disagreements among proponents of ecological modernization, local participatory approaches, environmental justice, Marxian theory, anti-consumerism theory, human ecology, etc., then the result will be free rein for practices that threaten sustainability. This is an issue of such seriousness, scope, and urgency that these alternative approaches should not be seen as mutually destructive but as complementary. Sustainability efforts can be made at different levels and in different ways: local and global, participatory and organizational, market-based and regulatory- based, efficiency improvements and consumption reduction, etc. The five articles in this volume by talented young sociologists are excellent and I agree with much of their analyses. By documenting limitations of attempts at sustainability, those papers demonstrate what a wicked problem sustainability is. Even their omissions, which I have focused on to push analysis further, indicate wickedness. I conclude by suggesting that critical analytic skills should now be turned from the flea to the elephant, namely to the investigation of sustainability indifferent economic modernization.


  • Sustainability theories
  • economic modernisation
  • localism
  • nature
  • future


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