Sustainable development became the dominant discourse in global environmental affairs in the 1980s, spurred by the landmark Brundtland report to the United Nations, and remains widely popular, embodied for example in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by an assembly of all the world’s countries in 2015. Sustainable development combines ecological protection, economic growth, social justice, and intergenerational equity, which can be sought globally and in perpetuity. “Green growth” becomes possible, while ecological limits and boundaries fade into the background. However, it is necessary for a collective effort that involves governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations, and citizens to make this happen. Sustainable development is an integrating discourse that covers local and global environmental issues and a host of economic and development concerns. Beyond this shared discourse, different actors (such as corporations and environmentalists) ascribe different means to the idea. Despite its popularity as a discourse, sustainable development has not actually been achieved anywhere.
Countries such as Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland have apparently turned in some of the most successful environmental policy performance in recent decades. The reason has much to do with their adoption of ecological modernization discourse. This discourse is most at home in prosperous consensual democracies, though it has spread to many countries, including developing ones, as well as to global governance. Ecological modernization sees environmental protection and conservation implemented by government as good for business, and so economic growth. The slogan “pollution prevention pays” is prominent. Ecological modernization is largely a moderate technocratic discourses that stresses green re-tooling of the capitalist economy, though more radical “strong” versions exist that would contemplate thoroughgoing structural change that moves beyond the liberal capitalist status quo.