Geoforum 36 (2005) 410–417 www.elsevier.

com/locate/geoforum

Sustainability schizophrenia or ‘‘actually existing sustainabilities?’’ toward a broader understanding of the politics and promise of local sustainability in the US
Rob Krueger
a

a,*

, Julian Agyeman

b

Interdisciplinary and Global Studies, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA 01609, USA b Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University, 97 Talbot Avenue, Medford, MA 02155, USA Received 5 August 2003; received in revised form 1 June 2004

Abstract As an approach to development, many see capitalism as reaching across an enormous range of scholarly domains and political interests. For some time geographers and others have begun to conceptualize capitalism as less of a system of intrinsic economic logic and more a collection of social and discursive relationships. By bringing capitalism into the ‘‘discursive world’’ these commentators and others have provided the theoretical ground for an exploration of alternative economic forms, especially those that are more socially and ecologically just. This paper makes an argument for putting sustainable development through the same theoretical scrutiny. Drawing on examples from the US we recruit the concept of ‘‘actually existing sustainabilities’’ from AltvaterÕs concept ‘‘actually existing socialisms’’ as an entry point to this conversation. Our purpose is to show that the potential for sustainability in the US exists in current local policies and practices if we rethink how we frame it. Ó 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Sustainability; Environmental justice; Smart growth; Local

1. Introduction: rethinking the ‘‘practice’’ of American sustainability Sustainable development has been constructed as an alternative to the capitalism of unfettered consumption and progress without ecological limits (see Hawken et al., 1999; Dryzek, 1997). For even some moderate proponents of the sustainable development agenda ‘‘capitalism’’ has taken the earth and, ultimately, its inhabitants to the brink of ecological disaster. To redress these concerns, since the 1992 Earth Summit many international organizations (governments and NGOs alike) have identified and developed practices that promise to move the global process of economic development
*

Corresponding author. E-mail address: krueger@wpi.edu (R. Krueger).

onto a sustainable trajectory (see Local Agenda 21 (LA21); the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives; the UN Habitat Agenda). As envisaged by participants in Rio and the subsequent World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002, sustainable development was to emerge from a combination of international, national, and local policies. According to the principle of ‘‘subsidiarity’’, local authorities, as the level of governance closest to the people, were identified as a primary site for visioning, scoping and finally implementing ‘‘sustainability’’. In this paper, we are interested in exploring the prospects for local sustainability in the US. Sustainability in the US might be characterized as ‘‘schizophrenic.’’ At the national scale hope for US sustainability seems bleak (e.g., Bush backing out of Kyoto, tax cuts favoring the rich at the expense of

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These approaches. Berke and Manta Conroy (2000) found many cities had policies such as local entrepreneur grants. More specifically. Lenin or Western post-war propaganda. In particular. AltvaterÕs (1993) concept ‘‘actually existing socialisms’’ to begin examining what we will call ‘‘actually existing sustainabilities’’ (hereinafter AESs). Interestingly. To be sure the US. their uneven distribution within places and across space. is currently unsustainable. local planners and planning committees may be developing policies that may not fall under the moniker of ‘‘sustainability’’. Here our purpose is to expose some conceptual weaknesses in the sustainable development. Thus. 2. The single most frequently quoted definition of sustainable development comes from the WCED (1987) that states ‘‘sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’’ (WCED. This definition implied a shift from the traditional. In the penultimate section we argue that we should re-focus our political economic analysis on these actually existing sustainabilities. and mixed use zoning not explicitly linked to a sustainability agenda. may be more vigorous (see below). ‘‘Smart Growth’’. especially Smart Growth and the environmental justice literatures. This has led to competing and conflicting views over what the terms actually mean. Our focus here is on sustainability as a set of practices that may or may not be tied to one of the agendas. and environmental justice literatures.1. where they fall short. the relative importance of process and product. 1980). we examine selections from the sustainable development. we reviewed in the previous section. Agyeman / Geoforum 36 (2005) 410–417 411 housing and other social programs). such as LA 21 (or Communities 21 in US). As a construct. conservationbased usage of the concept as developed by the 1980 World Conservation Strategy (IUCN. mixed-use development. As we will argue through the course of the paper we believe the metaphor is useful for elucidating variants of local sustainability that exist outside the scope of these constructs. and what is the most desirable means of achieving the goal. or even environmental justice. preservation policies for local food production. tax abatement schemes. is to sharpen our analytical focus and identify some practices and policy arenas that define sustainability. at least cleavages of it. Sustainable development There has been a surge in material in recent years dealing with the concepts of sustainability and its action-oriented variant sustainable development. or even guiding principles. however. In the next section we examine the main theoretical constructs for examining sustainability in the US. In this paper we adapt this idea to sustainability by defining AESs as those existing policies and practices not explicitly linked to the goals of or conceived from sustainable development objectives but with the capacity to fulfill them. Yet. and. economic and political . some recent studies suggest that at the local level the sustainability agenda. Let us say at the outset that our goal for this paper is not necessarily a critique of US sustainability. to a framework that emphasized the social. Krueger. most importantly. For example. we briefly describe how these existing practices can evolve into ones capable of producing more locally sustainable outcomes. In the next section of the paper we flesh out these conceptual weaknesses further by examining some empirical work on sustainability in the US. 2. Said differently: could it be possible that there is a greater ‘‘sustainability’’ potential in US local policies than is currently realized? Theoretically. Smart Growth. 1987. 43). As our analytical entry point to this question we borrow. ‘‘Constructing’’ sustainability In this section we review different theoretical accounts that suggest how we might ‘‘get to’’ sustainability. Smart Growth. are useful for helping us to identify actually existing sustainabilities yet are constrained by these themes or lack the theoretical ability to extend beyond their limited practical scope. not the ‘‘myth’’ of socialism created by reading Marx. sustainability has been linked to larger agendas. to link it to actual practices rather than broad initiatives or agendas. We explore these issues through the course of the following sections. in all scales and domains. From these literatures we focus on several dominant themes such as strong versus weak sustainability. actually existing socialisms are those socialisms and socialist practices that existed in the post-War period. or goals found within them. some of these local agendas often do not identify sustainability per se as a priority. these are local initiatives occurring without national guidance or financial support.R. or produce immediately recognizable outcomes in terms of sustainability yet can be leveraged toward that end. Nor do they replicate the ‘‘LA 21 approach’’ adopted by Europe and much of the rest of the world. we wonder whether the current framing of sustainability results in a missed opportunity to fully explore sustainability as actual practice. albeit metaphorically. when we do engage in critique we give critical attention to how specific activities may lead to more sustainable places. J. Our primary purpose here. In Section 4. It forces us to frame sustainability differently. and procedural or process justice. Furthermore they appear to be evolving out of traditional ‘‘planning’’ activities. In this way. we suggest that local sustainability as practice emerges largely from ‘‘off the shelf’’ planning activities. For Altvater. and environmental justice literatures with regard to our concept of actually existing sustainabilities.

and critical environmental areas. that (critical) natural capital must not be spent— we must live off the income produced by the capital.e. Strong sustainability thus maintains that there are certain functions or ecosystem services that the environment provides that cannot be replaced by techno-fixes. encouraging community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions. with members in real estate. the IUCN had modified its definition. preserving open space. It is an effort to recast the policy debate over sprawl in a way that more directly links the environment.2.S. the potential for mixed use. Natural capital can be used up as long as it is converted into manufactured capital of equal value. a broad coalition formally joined hands as the Smart Growth Network (SGN).412 R. working definitions of sustainability have been broadly accepted by governments. preservationists. smart growth is urban-designer led (i. creating walkable communities. through their lack of access to decision-making and policy making processes. and cost-effective. Environmental justice activists claim that the ‘‘pathof-least-resistance’’ nature of locational choices within our economy functions to the detriment of people of color. Within the sustainability discourse itself there has also emerged two divergent trends. A 1983 Government Accounting Office Report (GAO. the U. . the economy and daily life concerns. By shifting the focus from self-sacrifice to selfinterest. 2. and it does not take into account the fact that some natural materials cannot be replaced by manufactured goods and services. i. they have opened up new opportunities to build consensus among once disparate groups’’. Smart Growth has evolved rapidly from its origins in the1990s. to live with a disproportionate share of environmental ‘‘bads’’–and suffer the related public health problems and quality of life burdens. fostering distinctive. 1993. and. Soft or weak sustainability accepts that certain resources can be depleted as long as others can substitute them over time. top down) therefore more concerned with the product (a compact community). fair. 1999). strengthening and directing development toward existing communities. but the amount of environmental and public health protection afforded these groups by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is substantially less than that generated for whites and more wealthy people (Lavelle and Coyle. Hard or strong sustainability implies that renewable resources must not be drawn down faster than they can be renewed. Along with that of the WCED. attractive communities with a strong sense of place. NGOs and business. 2. moreover. creating housing opportunities and choices. Environmental justice The roots of the US environmental justice movement can be traced to citizen revolts against the siting of toxic waste or hazardous and polluting industries in areas inhabited by predominantly people of color. studies have shown that not only are people of color more likely to live in environmentally degraded and dangerous places.3. Agyeman / Geoforum 36 (2005) 410–417 context of ‘‘development’’. 1992). 1994. advocacy and policymaking. By 1991. the champions of Smart Growth have reframed the debate over sprawl and broadened the audience. In the effort to define what up until that time had been a little more than a catchy phrase. they came up with 10 Smart Growth principles: mixed use. 1992). (2002. Bullard. compact and authentic communities. it is the most used definition: ‘‘to improve the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of ecosystems’’ (IUCN. The problem with weak sustainability is that it can be very difficult to assign a monetary value to natural materials and services. p. urban/suburban sprawl and car centered un-sustainability. 1994). These tend to be cast in terms of living within the finite limits of the planet. 1991). providing a variety of transportation choices. than the process (involving communities in visions of what their community might look like in the future). McNaughten and Urry (1998. 1983) indicating that African–Americans compromised the majority population in three of the four communities of the south-eastern US where hazardous waste landfills were located and the landmark report ÔToxic Wastes and Race in the United StatesÕ (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. 342) note ‘‘the concept is not a reformulation of sustainability. p. farmland. making development decisions predictable. Environmental Protection AgencyÕs Urban and Economic Development Division held a series of meetings to try to build consensus around land-use issues and to work out how to get better information and tools into the hands of anti-sprawl workers: local officials. planners. or constructions of sustainability—that of strong/hard sustainability versus weak/soft sustainability (Jacobs. Among many critiques. In the process. As Tregoning et al. environmentalists and others. Thus arose the traditional definition of environmental injustice—that people of color are forced. taking advantage of compact building design. Krueger. and on the other. this disproportionate burden is an intentional result (Portney. Smart growth The Smart Growth movement has emerged as a promising attempt to make the connections between on the one hand. natural beauty. 1987) contributed significantly to the development of a public awareness of ‘‘environmental racism’’ (Bullard. but a new iteration of it. In 1996. Later in 1996. developers.e. In addition. 215) argue that ‘‘since Rio. of meeting needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs and of integrating environment and development’’. J.

indicators projects (N = 7) and multi-faceted sustainability (N = 1). seeks to build on these insights yet expand them so we can begin ‘‘seeing’’ sustainability in practices outside these theoretical frames. Lake identified five strains or emphases in these sustainability initiatives: quality of life (N = 7). We now turn to some more detailed extensive analyses of local sustainability. Lake is clear in his chapter that his interest was not an extensive analysis of sustainability. Lake drew his population from those cities that adopted International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) sponsored LA21 initiatives or substantially equivalent programs. His analysis. government inefficiency. Each ‘‘perspective’’ requires certain commitments that frame how one might view of sustainability a priori. Portney analysed the data using simple statistics. and percentage of the labor force employed in manufacturing. In his analysis. claims of environmental racism point to the limited participation of non-whites in environmental affairs and the lack of public advocates who represent minority and low income communities (Pulido. percentage of African–Americans living in a city. Rather. and somewhat reflect LakeÕs findings. J. • All LA 21 cities were second-tier cities or smaller (representing 2. (3) Land-use planning programs and policies. Portney identified seven categories to organize the sustainability initiatives in these cities: (1) Sustainable indicators projects. on average. • Half of the LA 21 cities also host a major university. 1996. in and of themselves incomplete constructions. they do not take sustainability as seriously as others. Local sustainability? Some empirical evidence In the previous section we argued that the sustainability. .R. Krueger. including sustainable indicators initiatives’’ which Portney (2002. mixed-use development. (5) Pollution prevention and reduction efforts. Activists and environmental justice academics argue that the victims of environmental inequities will only be afforded the same protection as others when they have access to the decision making and policy making processes that govern the siting of hazardous materials and polluting industries (Faber. That is not to say. Our approach. Smart Growth and environmental justice perspectives suggest approaches to local sustainability but are indeed limited in their scope of what we could understand sustainability to be. 1998). • LA 21 cities are relatively homogeneous in their population in terms of race and class. that in this cohort of 24. These are but brief introductions to various constructions of sustainability and we have been necessarily selective in our review. Portney (2003) conducted a comparative analysis of sustainability initiatives in 24 US cities. • LA 21 cities. that these cities eschew sustainability. Together these seven categories (34 total variables) establish PortneyÕs Taking Sustainability Seriously Index. He tabulated growth. 1998). ‘‘focuses on the policies. through his analysis.g. p. in contrast. income. Lake contrasts San FranciscoÕs sustainability initiative. and percent of population using public transport. and procedural or process justice are all part of the ‘‘story’’. which maintain that every municipality should have an equal share of environmental ‘‘goods’’ and ‘‘bads’’. 1998). and activities of cities. Variables that did correlate. For us. but are. Lake links these characteristics to a cityÕs motivation for initiating a sustainability program. 3. which sought to use sustainability to stimulate its flagging economy. Portney found that few independent variables contributed to a better understanding of why certain cities take sustainability more seriously. 365) sees as ‘‘consistent with an overall effort for cities to become sustainable’’. regardless of the race or class of its population (distributional justice). are median age. pollution) and deploy specific policy measures to remedy them. but rather to focus on ‘‘LA 21’’ cities in the US. Examining weak and strong sustainability. Environmental justice activists go beyond socalled ‘‘fair share’’ principles. Despite limited focus only LA 21 cities Lake suggests that cities are motivated by specific reasons (e. Lake goes on to critique these approaches and the overall potential of cities to contribute to global sustainability—more on this later—our point for now is that LakeÕs work links the broad sustainability agenda to particular practices and it is these practices that we must focus on if we are to elucidate and examine the potential for local sustainability. they argue that environmental bads should be eliminated at the source (procedural or process justice) (Faber. cities with young populations who still rely on manufacturing as a base have the most to improve upon in terms of local sustainability policy. programs. So.. cost of living. employment. which is based on concern over deteriorating environmental quality to BostonÕs. (4) transport planning programs and policies. Lake (2000) examined the composition of US cities with sustainability initiatives. the relative importance of process and product.3% of the total US population). environmental quality (N = 14). Camacho and David. We now present some empirical work that supports this contention. Instead. 6) Energy and resource conservation/efficiency initiatives. Agyeman / Geoforum 36 (2005) 410–417 413 Furthermore. city government and operations (N = 6). sustainability as practice can take a variety of forms. percentage of high school graduates. (2) Smart growth activities. For example. for Portney. Some of LakeÕs key findings were: • Twenty-two US cities satisfied the LA 21/ICLEI criteria for having a sustainable initiative. have higher levels of education than the rest of the country. In fact. (7) Organization/administration/management/ co-ordination/governance. however.

For example. Krueger. the existence of bona fide (e. Principles one through four are related to reproduction in that they address the long-term ability of a community to sustain local social. Of the 105 plans identified.. To do this the City enlisted the grass roots support of its neighborhoods and augmented the cityÕs planning function through consultants. phased growth and impact fees for less suitable developments. Locating sustainability in the US: the case of Seattle Seattle began its sustainability initiative inauspiciously over 20 years ago with an intensive solid waste recycling program. Sustainability in the US. for Portney. open space and parks. pushed for a Growth Management Plan. which calls for the creation and improvement of walkable communities in which people can walk to jobs. Berke 1 We say ‘‘can’’ because though we agree in Portney in principle. (5) polluters pay. (4) equity. Since 1991. but for our purposes what Portney in his ‘‘sustainable city’’ is make linkages between traditional sustainability policies and actual policies and practices. when coupled with social equity and environmental concern may produce sustainable outcomes. social services. farms.000 new households in the city within the city boundaries. more than 20. sustainable community conference proceedings. The purpose of the Act was to preserve forests.000–90. The remaining plans were equally distributed in population size between 20.g. Potential plans were identified through reports from federal agencies (e. 2 Communities of less than 2000 were eliminated from the sample. In their study of local planning. and transportation management. and strategies for public safety. Berke and Manta Conroy (2000) employed six principles to determine how well local comprehensive plans support goals of sustainability. Furthermore. Does planning for sustainable development make a difference in a cityÕs sustainability score? No. a vignette really. Indeed. To further ground this notion we now move beyond extensive cases to a single case. community newsletters. 3 In the late 1980s as SeattleÕs population began to surge along with the economy of the Pacific Northwest.000 people. recreation and shopping. Berke and Manta Conroy drew their sample of 30 communities from the 105 that were identified to potentially have sustainability as an organizing concept in their comprehensive plans. This suggests that local places incorporate specific practices into the planning and development strategies outside the purview of sustainability. and Housing and Urban Development). 30 were deemed appropriate. Environmental Protection Agency. Agyeman / Geoforum 36 (2005) 410–417 In contrast to Lake. Specialized practices and new paradigms are not required for sustainability to occur. ‘‘the explicit inclusion of [sustainable development] has no affect on how well plans actually promote sustainability principles’’ (30).. These include regulatory changes to allow new types of housing. These extensive analyses of local sustainability in the US strongly suggest that sustainability practices may often exist outside the scope of the current sustainability literature. and ecological systems.g.000 people have been engaged in the effort. our point with this paper is to expand our conception of relevant sustainability practices so that we may examine appropriate processes in the search for a more just and sustainable world. 2 The remaining plans (N = 75) were used in the sample of cities that did not have sustainable development as an organizing concept. and employment opportunities. The plans are built around the Urban Village strategy. We agree. This is fodder for an interesting debate. economic. Portney. The six principles include: (1) harmony with nature. actually existing sustainabilities can be found in current practices and policies.414 R. not biodiesel or hybrid buses but getting people around to jobs. city leaders. that describes how the process of moving from off-the-shelf planning and existing practice evolved into planning for sustainability. The City Council is currently reviewing some 4000 neighborhood proposals. but an extension of existing practices that. LA 21) sustainability initiatives is the key question. These practices could constitute the basis sustainability in the US. Yet. zoning changes to accommodate additional households. and have efficient public access to travel between these villages. Portney is uninterested in measuring how sustainable a city actually is (and even suggests it is premature). lead paint and asbestos abatement as practices that lead to sustainability. land banking. and a computer list-server. (2) livable built environment. the process of how this happens on the ground in uncertain and uneven. Principles five and six link the local to broader scalar concerns. and Manta Conroy found that. and (6) responsible regionalism. 3 Without delving too deeply into ‘‘who did whatÕ in the ‘‘Sustainable Seattle’’ (a not for profit) versus City of Seattle sustainability initiatives (see Brugmann. (3) placebased economy. and wilderness areas by locating the anticipated 50. 4. will not be the result of a paradigm shift. He also identifies brownfield reclamation programs. shopping. In 1990 the Growth Management Act was passed. as suggested by both Smart Growth and environmental justice literatures. J. Consultants and neighborhood groups developed plans for accommodating growth while enhancing the livability of their neighborhoods. 1 Thus it is these policies and their attending practices that we must scrutinize when we evaluate local sustainability in the US. 1997 for a fuller explanation of the situation in Seattle). both inside and outside government. . identifies the operation of public transit as a sustainable activity. Specific areas Berke and Manta Conroy identified include population density requirements.

Keil and Desfor (2003. the literatures on sus- tainable development. BurlingtonÕs Legacy Project (Peter Clavelle). p. It is more policy guidance for urban planners with an anti-sprawl bent than a vision for creating sustainable societies. 2000). and social health (OSE.R. and coming from a different perspective. In this brief case of Seattle we can see that actually existing practices can lead to planning for sustainability. Gibbs. It is true that state level policy and concerns for open space. 5. under this view. an outcome of the current neo-liberal regulatory system. The previous sections suggest an examination of ‘‘actually existing sustainabilities’’ (AESs) may be a fruitful one. It convincingly demonstrates how procedural inequities have led to distributional inequities of environmental risk. the empirical studies described above are useful in that they provide insight into where American sustainability might come from. 2000. Lake (2000) lacks confidence in the localÕs ability to move toward sustainability. Sustainability is largely undermined. 2002). . Indeed. The office was created because the cityÕs leaders ‘‘recognized the need to understand and manage for the linkages between the cityÕs long-term economic. social justice and transfrontier responsibility (Haughton and Hunter.b). critical geographers have largely remained aloof to the clear opportunity sustainability extends to explore the complex relationships between the environment. They are theoretically uninformed on ideas regarding social change. Smart Growth. Typologies are appropriate for identifying and measuring the success of these initiatives. Lake (88) states that. but their spatial distribution is limited. however. water quality and air quality. environmental. BogotaÕs Bus Rapid Transit (Enrique Penalosa) or LondonÕs road pricing (Ken Livingstone) and there is a courageous Mayor. planning. According to the studies reviewed above. they raise further theoretical and empirical questions. Other related factors that are driving local agendas are quality housing and transport. despite the exhortations of Taylor (2000) about the ideological nature of the Principles of Environmental Justice. if ‘‘all’’ is the right word. 4 Nor do they suggest they do. 4 To fully grasp the implications of a localityÕs AES we must interrogate them and situate them in their proper context. J. Finally. With the exception of Lake. however. begs the question of who will we become sustainable for? Similarly.. The triggers to local sustainability exist in probably every city in the US. are driving many local economic development initiatives in the US. The Seattle case suggests that ‘‘actually existing sustainabilities’’ exist in places and that the challenge is to transform them from the tools that reproduce the current capitalist system to different ones that are more sustainable. by the dogged strength of capitalismÕs attendant social relations and power networks. building codes. In the context of the local scale. 2001). be it CuritibaÕs transit system (Jaime Lerner). In terms of their analysis. It is to this discussion we will now briefly turn. in 2000. 1994)). economy. look at any city in the world. it provides guidance for the form and design in the context of urban sprawl. in our view. 2000a. all it needs. 24) note that. is political vision. as well as general quality of life. Agyeman / Geoforum 36 (2005) 410–417 415 As a result of these and many other related efforts. it appears in large part. As we have noted above. In the context of todayÕs entrepreneurial city. The evidence suggests that incipient sustainability initiatives do exist at the local scale. for example. 1996) or as an impossibility given the present political economic circumstances of ‘‘post-Fordism’’ (Gleeson and Low. and social change (Hanson and Lake. SeattleÕs mayor created the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. The sustainability literature puts forth interesting typologies (e.g. sustainability initiatives emerge from the contradictions of capitalism. Sustainability. the notion of examining localities with grand sustainability agendas or initiatives conveys part of the story but by no means all of it. it sets out a plan and milestones for achieving the 10 Smart Growth Principles. can exist in extant policies and practices. The new office will work to identify the cityÕs sustainability leverage points and work with the city manager and council to change policies that promote sustainable practices within the government and the community at large. Both the Seattle case and those above suggest that these policies begin as off the shelf policy tools and strategies that evolve with the sustainability agenda. Toward a political economic analysis of local sustainability? Despite the conceptual lure of sustainability. Those geographers who have engaged sustainability as a concept or a political strategy typically eschew its potential and view it either as yet another regulatory strategy designed to reproduce the capitalist mode of production (Harvey. the basic tools of local government. Krueger. the environmental justice literature is more a political strategy than a theoretical approach. ‘‘processes of urban development have been increasingly linked to ecological concerns’’. Cities are required to plan for their futures through zoning. geographers remain uncertain or even dubious of the local scaleÕs capacity to promote sustainability (Lake. Thematically. strong versus weak sustainability (Jacobs. 1992) or intergenerational equity. The Smart Growth literature is more practical than theoretical. Yet these are capable of revealing precious little about the process local places experience to ‘‘construct’’ sustainability. and environmental justice are uninformed on the notion of social change.

2004). Sustainability. suggest union demands for preserving the community health care provision and high quality employment in the context of restructuring BostonÕs health care industry comprises an AES. rather than examining it as a struggle between ‘‘Capitalism’’ and ‘‘Sustainability’’. Campbell (1996. Keil and Desfor (2003) thus suggest examining the embeddedness of local sustainability policies. suggests that sustainability can be a process of institutional learning. . The concept of AES also requires us to look for sustainabilities in new places. ‘‘wisdom’’ seems to be anything but conventional. 301). then is a social process with the resultant tensions emerging from enormous differences in social. We must consider that in these capitalist places alternative outcomes can exist.it is both unfair and unreasonable to expect that government at the local scale can accomplish more than is [actually] encompassed in these programs. In this paper we have thus sought to conceptualize sustainability from the ground up. to environmental concerns and the hegemonic social relations of contemporary global capitalism have shown the viability of such an approach (see Lipietz..7) remind us: The indeterminacy of complex interactions across multiple scales argues convincingly that sustainability cannot be comprehended as a function of managed solutions. as a set of evolving practices. despite its obvious criticisms. Yet. boldly states that ‘‘in the battle of big public ideas. In this paper we . Gibbs (2002. in the US. . Employing the ontological/epistemological distinction articulated by Castree (2000). or predicted outcomes. regardless of whether they formally bear the mantle of sustainability. were able to transform ‘‘conventional’’ planning practices into ones that promoted processes based upon principles of sustainability. This paper has identified the process and applied some theoretical language to open this notion up to debate. and discursive practices that often seem irrational at best and schizophrenic at worst. that even in these neo-liberal times an incremental approach to sustainability. such as regulation theory or regime theory. the Seattle case. p. LA 21 or Communities 21. however. sustainability has won: the task of the coming years is simply to work out the details. The danger is that if we do not explore this analytical thread and link it to action. however. This compares to 172 communities in South Korea. these accounts provide descriptions of the opportunities and constraints of local sustainability. state level commitment to sustainability. Once we bring this struggle ‘‘down’’ to a set of practices. In fact. alongside sustainability ‘‘visions’’ and ‘‘sustainability’’ policies there are ‘‘actually existing sustainabilities’’. Indeed. 140) states. The ICLEI survey identified 81 US communities that meet the LA 21 criteria. practices and their implications for local places and their differences across space and between places. does acknowledge. 2002. Krueger. we will be able to hold people accountable. In many cases the impossibility of sustainability seems to be a foregone conclusion. . Jonas et al. part of the Ôcapacity to actÕ . our theories of social change will have more traction. Scholars linking political economic accounts of social change. 106 in Belgium. within local areas is comprised of the opportunities and constraints that are imposed by forces acting at broader spatial scales’’. the resources. 425 in the UK. Gibbs. and Environmental Justice literatures above. Krueger. ‘‘Indeed. Conclusion: actually existing sustainabilities? According to ICLEI there are 6415 communities in 113 countries with LA21. Smart Growth. 2003. it does not necessarily foreclose local efforts to promote sustainability. . coming from a regulationist perspective. Unlike the sustainability. institutional. These days. More focused research must be completed. these opportunities will go unrealized. Though requiring us to respect scale. for example. Yet as Hanson and Lake (2000a. J. the power to initiate and accomplish the fundamental transformations in systems of production and consumption that are required . Keil and Desfor. The US sustainability case suggests that despite national and. across scales. reflect sustainable initiatives. an academic planner. it forces us away from macro-concepts to look at policies. 6. they argue that examinations of local sustainability policy should be ‘‘process oriented’’ for such an approach exposes the inherent and differentiated tensions that comes with sustainability policy and practice. or other local sustainability initiatives (ICLEI. to move the world toward the goal of truly sustainable development. The power of the political economic explanation is that it can transport sustainability from normative concept to actions existing in a social context that are beholden to ‘‘logics’’ of prevailing economic systems. p. 1992. Local government in the United States lacks the authority. 2002). p. Agyeman / Geoforum 36 (2005) 410–417 . and to narrow the gap between its theory and practice’’. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the US is a straggler at best and grossly negligent at worst. ideologies and discourses. Gibbs. 2002. definitive scenarios. Krueger and Savage (2004). however. .b. is possible. and the departments that preceded it. and most importantly. Bringing the concept of actually existing sustainabilities into the conversation requires a finer grained analysis into those policies that.416 R. in many cases. as it actually exists in local places. . Through the language of sustainability the Seattle Office of Sustainability and the Environment. and 39 in Zimbabwe.

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