ABSTRACT: Sustainable planning policy in Europe rests on an extreme degree of consensus, that sustainability is right. There is no ethical basis for this. An extreme consensus can in itself be unethical. In its most abstract form, sustainability has no inherent value. The standard argument for recent sustainability policy - transgenerational responsibility - has no inherent ethical status either. In practice sustainable planning continues standard practice, and this offers the best explanation for its success. Sustainability is an ideology used to justify existing policy (and social order). This version: December 1997.

Sustainability has become generally accepted as a planning goal in Europe. This rests on a consensus which is unquestioned, with rare exceptions (Korthals 1994). There is much official and semi-official literature on sustainability in European Union policy, which is not reviewed here. (For recent lists see EEA 1995; EC 1994; 1995). Although there is a large European Environmental Agency, for urban sustainability the European Foundation in Dublin has assumed a de facto co-ordinating role, especially in research (EF 1992; 1993; 1994a; 1994b; Mega 1995). Besides the EU, other inter-governmental organisations in Europe show concern for sustainability - even if all that means is organising their own conference.

It is easy to present this as inconsistent, or as hypocrisy, and to provide examples where policy and action seem unrelated. For instance, despite EU support for urban sustainability and reduction of automobile traffic in cities, the European Parliament is giving itself 4000 new car parking spaces. Even though its new buildings in the Leopoldwijk/ Quartier Léopold (in Brussel/Bruxelles) adjoin a rail station, specially renovated for the project. However this is not as inconsistent as it seems, and that is a central theme in this article: sustainability is often the opposite of its appearance.

Sustainability in Europe can be placed in a broader context, a sort of definition. Two points of reference appear in almost all the sustainability policy documents: the Brundtland Report, and the UNCED conference in Rio in 1992. This indicates one defining characteristic: sustainability policies are highly "official". In part, they flow from treaty obligations, enforced by national governments internally (see Sands 1993; Campiglio et al. 1994), or are co-ordinated by EU directives (Healey and Williams 1993). Beyond the official policies, however, is a much broader area of environmental ethics and policies. The spectrum of ethics generates a spectrum of planning policies. Healey and Shaw (1993) identify five "environmental discourses" in Britain: welfarist utilitarian from around 1940, growth management from around 1960, environmental care management from around 1970, environment as asset in the 1980's, and now sustainable development.

This is not the place to give even a summary of the differing eco-ethics, the various ideas of nature, and attitudes to nature. A complete sector has emerged in 20 years, in political theory and philosophy, with a whole range of concepts - anthropocentrism, eco-centrism, deep ecology, shallow sustainability, land ethic, bio-regionalism, eco-feminism, goddess theology, and more (see Dobson and Lucardie 1993). Environmental philosophy can already be divided into twelve sub-disciplines (Zweers 1991, 12).

At first sight, official sustainability policy is easy to locate in this complex context. There is a primary division of these ethics, in many works on the subject: either anthropocentric ethics, or biocentric/ ecocentric ethics (Wissenburg 1993, 4-6). The metaphor of depth is often used. To simplify, deep ecology recognises more intrinsic value in nature than "shallow" ecology. For deep ecologists, anthropocentrism is a fundamental defect of modern culture (perhaps also of ancient culture). On this scale, it seems evident that sustainability policy is anthropocentric. It is aimed at human survival and future generations of humans: it seems quite different from the extremes of deep ecology.

Against such extremes, the policy hierarchy of the EC/EU Fifth Environmental Action Programme seems purely anthropocentric. It opens:

The overall objective of the Community is the improved and continued welfare of all its citizens. (CEC 1993, 55)
Similarly, activists reject Article 1 of the UNCED Declaration as "a triumph of unrestrained anthropocentricity" (Pallemaerts 1993, 12). Again however, the initial view is deceptive. The classification of sustainability as anthropocentric is only superficially valid. What exactly it is, is an issue for this article.


Some of the objections to sustainability derive from its status as consensus. Consider this analogy as illustration. Imagine that something you consider morally objectionable, such as cannibalism, is being openly advocated by some people. At first you think they will be ignored. Later however, some politicians say they also support cannibalism. Government and the private sector begin to open experimental facilities for processing human flesh. Nobody objects: all the media are enthusiastic about the projects. They publish advice on cooking human meat. The Government declares cannibalism a policy goal, and the United nations declares cannibalism is necessary for humanity. You, of course, are horrified by this, yet all your friends think that your objections are strange. Your colleagues at work think so too. They stop talking to you, and you lose your job because you irritate them.

Appeals to empathy are a bad basis for judgement, but at least the analogy demonstrates one problem with sustainability: moral objections are not recognised. It is easy to imagine objections to cannibalism, and to see that the individual in the story is being unfairly treated. Yet many people, and governments, will recognise no "objection of conscience" to sustainability. Certainly, there is no provision in EU policy to opt out from sustainability.

Some of those who support sustainability do not even recognise the possibility of objection. I have had this kind of conversation several times with environmentalists:

"What is your position on those who oppose sustainability?"
"No-one is against sustainability"
"I am."
"No, I think we just disagree on the definition."
"I am against it on all definitions."
"No-one can be against sustainability."

This is probably inherent: if objections of conscience are recognised, no sustainability policies are possible. It is like belief in a universal God: if you believe God is only for believers, then you do not believe in a universal God.

By nature, sustainability must claim a monopoly of belief: as a "belief" it cannot admit an opposite belief is equally valid. It is a consistent and universalist world-view, Weltanschauung. Its adherents act in accordance with one general principle: that it should be accepted by all persons. In practice, too, there is common action for sustainability, by governments, non-governmental organisations, loose groups of activists, and industry. The ability to unify diverse groups also suggests sustainability is an ideology, in a negative sense.

It is certainly easy to be suspicious of, for instance, Greenpeace-approved eco-cars: it seems too illogical to be sincere. More generally, there are two explanations for the universalism of sustainability:

Part of the answer may be found in the way supporters of sustainability exercise the claims, in Europe.

Certainly, they use elite power and practices of exclusion. The educational system is typical. Consider the situation of two students: A is anti-sustainability, B is pro-sustainability. Both start a relevant course at university - planning, or energy policy. From the first day on, A finds that there are no anti-sustainability courses, while B can choose from several courses. Student A fails all the exams by giving anti-sustainable answers. Student B is rewarded by passing the exams, getting extra travel grants, a second degree, a research post, and so on. This is not a caricature: apparently, there is no university in Europe that offers a course in anti-sustainability. The social pressures on students to accept sustainability are enormous. The entire educational system is an almost total barrier to anyone who opposes sustainability. This in turn reflects the wider consensus on sustainability. At worst, being against sustainability leads to social isolation and failure.

There is an ethical aspect to this also. If eternal injustice is the price of continued human presence on earth, is it not too high a price? Other moral considerations aside, it is better that a community, dependent on injustice for its continued existence, ceases to exist. In practice, in any case, injustice has more to do with the present than the far future.

The academic world has a more direct effect on policy in Europe: it advises, and it formulates policy on the basis of research. The activities of the European Foundation are typical in this respect: it has apparently never invited an opponent of sustainability to speak at conferences, or publish, or do research. In turn, the apparent unanimity of "the experts" helps to legitimise EU and national policies, and a more general exclusion. The National Commission for Sustainable Development (NCDO) in the Netherlands is an example. It organises a series of "National Sustainability Debates", explicitly linking sustainability and nation. Opponents of sustainability may not speak at these, or participate in other NCDO activities. They have no comparable organisation. The Environment and Housing Ministry refuses to finance an anti-sustainability commission on the same basis as the NCDO. (When I asked, the spokesman had difficulty understanding the question).

This all seems logical: no government likes to finance its opponents, no organisation likes to give them a platform. However, that is the point: those who oppose sustainability have already become the government¼s opponents, they are already excluded from the semi-official national debates. A minority view is excluded, de facto: the minority even risks being labelled "un-national". This process is inherent to nation states, and not specific to sustainability, or to the Netherlands,


Sustainability, as belief or ethic, has specific characteristics. It requires implementation by the state, by the powerful, by elites. It almost inevitably requires that power is retained by those who already hold it. It requires experts: sustainability policies can not be implemented by revolutionary masses, or by mullahs. It tends, therefore, to reinforce existing social-political structures.

More specifically, official sustainability policy in Europe requires that power to enforce it be held, or even returned, to certain sectors. It needs the automobile industry, the energy sector, transport, the construction sector. In fact, the industrial sectors of past generations now take on a central importance for future generations. These are exactly the sectors which had been written off for the future, Tofler's 'second wave'. Paradoxically, sustainability policies restore their importance - and offer the prospect of subsidies.

The logic of sustainability is also inherently globalist: it is comparable to the doctrine of universal human rights. Apparently neutral models, that allow one state to claim another state's policies are part of its internal affairs (van de Bergh and Nijkamp 1995, 2) can provide the basis for intervention, even military intervention. As with human rights, general acceptance of the underlying ethic makes it difficult to politically oppose specific interventions.

Too much consensus makes sustainability a dangerous belief for those who reject it. Its supporters are convinced of their own logic and right, and convinced that they are entitled to impose it on nations, and on the world. That is remarkable for an 'ethic' without any genuine ethical basis.


Sustainability is an ethic of duration. It says, at its most basic: It says that in opposition to other possible conclusions about duration: It is also an ethic which assigns value to duration. There are at least five possible variants here:
  1. "A situation of long duration is better than one of short duration".

  2. "A situation which has lasted long is better than one which did not". This is the basis of radical traditionalism: return to traditions proved by age.

  3. "The continuance of the existing situation is better than its termination" - the basis of political conservatism.

  4. "The continuance of an entity is better than its termination, so that those entities which can continue must have priority". This is the basis of radical conservatism: change society until it can totally withstand change, and last longer.

  5. "All situations/entities must last for ever" - a hypothetical variant only.
Sustainability is obviously not a clear guide to human action (the presumed function of an ethic). In addition the question remains: who, or what must last? Is it humanity? or civilisation? or culture? or "our culture"? or nature? or the Earth? or the ecosystem? or the relation humanity-nature? or the cosmos? or something else?

The ethic of sustainability cannot itself indicate a choice between all these possibilities. There is no ethical basis for any duration preference. The use of sustainable policies in Europe corresponds most closely with the options (4) and (5) above. In turn, they correspond with pre-existing ideologies of conservatism. This is an "ethic" only in the sense of a preference or statement: it cannot be constructed on the basis of any self-evident truth, or universally accepted value. The conclusion is, simply, that no moral argument can justify the continued existence of the existing.


It is impossible here to give a complete refutation of the doctrine of transgenerational responsibility. "Intergenerational" responsibility is, strictly speaking, intra-generational (Vojnovic 1994, 1): "transgenerational" avoids the confusion. If the doctrine was ever simple, it has now been made complex (see Birnbacher 1988). That is one of the reasons for the success of ethics (even when it has no ethical basis). No individual can answer an ethical doctrine alone, once it is established. Yet, so long as ethics itself has political and social legitimacy, an acceptable refutation is required to affect policy. Obviously, this favours majority and consensus ideas. Perhaps ethics will be abolished some day: in the meantime, a minimal indication of the defects of the transgenerational responsibility doctrine.

This doctrine is used to construct the preferred duration referred to in the previous section: it is additional to the arguments for pure sustainability. Again, there is no logical basis for this. Responsibility cannot be translated into duration. The only argument from responsibility which can, of itself, justify duration, is to claim that there are responsibilities to durations. If not then:

In other words, despite the common assumption, responsibility to future generations does not imply sustainability. At most, sustainability is subsidiary to fulfilling the responsibility.

Even if this were not true, responsibility as a value cannot justify sustainable policies. It cannot distinguish between:

A. "It is our responsibility to leave future generations a planet free of nuclear waste!"
B. "It is our responsibility to leave future generations a planet full of nuclear waste!"

Sustainability policy relies on additional arguments: transgenerational equity, or transgenerational empathy:

A1. "We do not live in a nuclear waste dump, so we cannot ask future generations to do so."
A2. "We would not like to live in a nuclear waste dump, so we should spare future generations this suffering also."
Again, the additional arguments are biased toward continuance of the existing. Equity among generation implies similar conditions of life in each generation. Empathy with future generations is limited by the impossibility of imaging their condition, and therefore their preference. Ask people today about their preferred future, and they will describe the present, with negative aspects removed.

Responsibility is the negation of "dis-responsibility", and ethics cannot show which is to be preferred. In general ethical formulas are like formal grammars: they generate vast numbers of preferences for human actions, and yet indicate no right or good. From all the rights, responsibilities, duties, imperatives, and obligations, people pick what suits them. The formulas of sustainable ethics are useful for conservatism: to a large extent, that explains sustainability.

A note on the formal characteristics of transgenerational responsibilities.

These questions can be asked about any claimed transgenerational responsibilities...
  • is it collective - are "we" supposed to be responsible?
  • is it collective-to-collective - are "we" responsible only to "them"?
  • or is it dispersed: individual-to-individual, individual-to-group, group-to-individual, and so on?
  • is the responsibility uniform, that is everyone should act in the same way in the same situation, to fulfil their responsibilities?
  • are the responsibilities non-contradictory, coherent, and integrable?
  • are they compatible between succeeding generations, that is, does fulfilling responsibility to generation 4 obstruct responsibility to generation 5?
  • to which future generation do they apply? The most likely future generation? The generation that results from the fulfilment of the responsibility? The generation which would benefit most from present responsible action? All possible future generations? A good comparison is this: a Muslim could argue, that it is our responsibility to give all children a Koranic education, since (having received a Koranic education) most of them will be Muslims. Transgenerational ethics are susceptible to this sort of circularity.
  • is the responsibility limited to humans?
  • is the responsibility limited to that which is transgenerational itself (implying that there is no responsibility to future temporary groups)?
  • is the transgenerational responsibility intended to substitute for non-transgenerational responsibility? Is it claimed to be inherently superior, because it crosses a trans-entity boundary (normative syncretism)?


The main political source of recent sustainability ethics (based on transgenerational responsibility), is German right-wing ideology of the inter-war period. The combination of nature orientation, organicism, and industrial lobbies - later typical of the NSDAP - led to political alliances. One of these was between what would now be called the "motorway lobby" and the "environmentalists". This alliance continues to appear in policy institutions today (for example in the NCDO in the Netherlands). There is, however, a more specific link to this period. The concept of responsibility to future generations, as a guiding principle for attitudes to nature and society, derives largely from the work of Hans Jonas. Jonas was a student of Heidegger, who was a Nazi philosopher, although not the philosopher of Nazism. However it is not Heidegger's technophobia which most underlies Jonas's work: Heidegger would today probably be labelled a deep ecologist (see Zimmerman 1993).

In the doctrine of transgenerational responsibility, Jonas re-writes, in the language of ethics acceptable in liberal democracies, the organicist doctrine of community (race) survival as a primary goal. This quasi-Darwinism is concealed by an apparently sympathetic idea: consideration for future generations. It is not concealed very well. What Lebensraum is to space, sustainability is to time. The future generations are to march through time, like Wehrmacht divisions across the Russian steppe.

Jonas wrote a long and complex book: the contents alone cover 12 pages. It is translated into English under the title The Imperative of Responsibility. The original title indicates its purpose much better. Das Prinzip Verantwortung is a direct answer to Ernst Bloch's Das Prinzip Hoffnung. The last footnote in the book (p. 412) is clearest in its contempt for Bloch, "der Prophet des grossen Traumes". Jonas' work is not only a product of this century's ideological conflicts in Germany, but also of the Cold War. Bloch (who left the DDR during the construction of the Berlin Wall) was suspiciously regarded in West Germany as someone who made philosophical excuses for Communism. The origins of current sustainability policy in Europe are demonstrably political and ideological.

Jonas translation of "survival" into "transgenerational responsibility" is not even necessary. The idea of organic or organicist survival can be applied directly to cities (and in principle to regions also). If the city itself is taken as the organism, there is no need to appeal to intergenerational responsibility:

Sustainability is a concept from (eco-) systems dynamics and refers to the morphogenesis of a dynamic system which is liable to evolutionary changes....urban sustainability ensures a long term survival of the urban system. (Ewers and Nijkamp 1990, 8)
I suggest the reason why this argument is not normally used to justify sustainability policy, is that it too obviously resembles the social doctrines of European fascism.

One more point about sustainability ethics: like many ethics, they rely on exclusion of some moral entities. Ironically, environmental philosophy is the most active in pointing out that classic ethical doctrines only consider humans. The "rights of trees" are one example of new ethical thinking on this issue. It has probably been said often enough, that it is equally logical to say chainsaws have "rights". Probably, most ethical doctrines depend on exclusion of some categories, a priori, or they would collapse under their own absurdity. Sustainability limits its moral universe to humans and the carrying capacity of their planet. Extreme deep ecology excludes the humans from any consideration. Both however, have no moral consideration for anything else.


It is not the purpose of this article to review sustainable planning. In any case, the more comprehensive the description in planning literature, the more evident that it is an integrative ideology. It is regularly extended to cover almost all aspects of urban life and structure. In doing so, there is a tendency to restate principles used before the word "sustainability" came into general use. Urban attributes considered desirable overlap each other, and refer back to earlier normative urban theories, such as those of Jane Jacobs or Kevin Lynch.
It is thus clear that sustainable city policy requires a multi-faceted strategy, in which socio-economic interests are brought in harmony with environmental and cultural interests. Such ideas have already been advocated a decade ago by Lynch....(Camagni et al. 1995, 1).
The problem of what exactly a sustainable city is, is also complicated by the word¼s market value. Every city administration, every developer, wants to be "sustainable". One typical effect of this is "extensional" sustainability. One additional feature makes a house "sustainable", ten of these houses make a housing project "sustainable", and two or three of these projects make a "sustainable city" - at least for the media. Even without such effects, the concept remains vague. The most concrete aspects of policy are emission norms, water norms - whatever is easily measured. The only other concrete indication in sustainable-planning literature is the repeated use of the same examples, the city of Curitiba in Brazil probably most of all (its policies were developed as a UN model project).

A comprehensive application of sustainability would involve taking the abstract concept of intra-generational responsibility, and translating it into requirements for the current generation (as in Vojnovic 1994). In turn, these must be translated into planning goals, and these goals into policy. At this stage, planning and urban design overlap. This process is far from complete in Europe. Almost certainly, the end result will vary from country to country, influenced by national culture and traditions.


The origins of sustainable thinking have little to do with planning as such. The general impression - in all the publications and debates - is of a desperate search for every possible argument against change in the existing political social, economic, cultural and technological order. Certainly, that has planning implications. The ideology which goes under the name "sustainability" is a radical conservatism, and it may, paradoxically, lead to changes and restructuring. This is often the explicit intention of radical-conservatives: to change to a change-avoiding order.

Despite Hans Jonas¼ explicit anti-utopianism, any appeal to the future can have similar effects. The standard liberal-democratic criticism of utopianism applies equally to an ethic designed to spare future generations from technological utopias:

Der Glaube an ein zukünftiges Glück, das durch die Opfer der Gegenwart ermöglicht wird, ist durch nichts belegt. Das Glück der Zukünftigen, für das der Terror der Gegenwart das unerlässliche Mittel sein soll, ist kein Ergebnis wissenschaftlicher Prognostik, sondern einer den Anspruch der Wissenschaftlichkeit usurpierenden Prophetie. (Birnbacher 1988, 11)
Appeals to past generations (as in nationalism), or to God, or to transcendence, or to materialism, or even appeals to not appealing to transcendence (as in liberalism) - all of these can be used to justify anything. It is better simply to look at what is being justified.

Sustainability should be classified as a "substitutive conservatism" - a term which also avoids the confusion about whether it is ideology, belief, or Weltanschauung. It tries to find something to put in the place of change. It is not even anthropocentric. Hans Jonas imitated the formula of Kants categorical imperative:

Handle so, dass die Wirkungen deiner Handlung verträglich sind mit der Permanenz echten menschlichen Lebens auf Erde...(Jonas 1979, 36).
The central value of this imperative is not humanity at all: it is permanence.

What should be clear in the end is that sustainability has very little to do with things like oxide emissions and ground water pollution. Sustainability should be judged on its "hidden agenda" - which in any case is often open and visible. On that political, moral and/or ethical agenda, it is wrong.


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