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Sustainability’s Formative Moment

The Birth of the Boundaries Narrative and the Rise of the 'Human


This project examines the emergence of the "Boundaries narrative" between 1968-1974 in connection with the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment.

"The environment" as a problem was well known, but in 1968 there were no international political institutions for managing it. Neither developing countries nor the business community had an interest in imposing restrictions for the environment’s sake. In this struggle between scientifically and ideologically motivated demands for restraint, and economically and politically motivated demands for continued expansion, the idea emerged that growth and environment could be reconciled — what would later be called sustainable development.

We will study in detail the interplay of different expert cultures, from governments via constellations of scientists, to smaller groups that could include executives, researchers, diplomats, activists, economists and others. We are particularly interested in three key individuals and their networks: Canadian businessman Maurice Strong, economist Barbara Ward and MIT management professor Carroll Wilson. We will both question the earlier periodization of the sustainability narrative, and develop a new understanding of its scientific and political basis. The project is of potentially great importance for the narrative’s legitimacy in a time of mounting conspiracy theories, when the world could at the same time be on a path towards decisive transformation through the implementation of Agenda 2030.

Duration: 2022-2025

Funding Agency: Formas

The opening of the UN Conference on the Human-Environment Stockholm June 1972. Photo: Wikicommons