Issues of environment and development are increasingly being analysed within the framework offered by sustainability and sustainable development. This article explores a number of deep-seated contradictions and tensions that exist within these concepts at least as they are currently construed. It is noted that these contradictions are often glossed over in intellectual and policy debates, but are nonetheless profound and should be made explicit.
The contradictions identified and discussed in the paper are as follows:
–the paradox of technology (cause or cure?);
–uncertainty and decision-making (humility or arrogance in the face of ignorance?);
–intergenerational and intragenerational equity (a politically impossible trade-off?);
–economic growth versus ecological limits (is ‘sustainable development’ an oxymoron?);
–the reconciliation of individual and collective interests, applying both to individuals in their society, and nation states in the international community;
–the potential conflict between the diversity of democracy and purposeful action;
–differing kinds of resilience in the face of change (resistance, marginal change, and adaptability); and
–the question of whether or not optimization is anti-sustainability.
In conclusion we ask what the implications of this labyrinth of contradictions are for moving towards a sustainable state. Are these contradictions too profound and thus insurmountable, or does Homo sapiens' apparently innate ability to live with contradiction and logical inconsistency offer a way out?