Sustainability Science

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 385–395 | Cite as

In search of lost time: the rise and fall of limits to growth in international sustainability policy

  • Erik Gómez-BaggethunEmail author
  • José Manuel Naredo
Special Feature: Review Article Socially Sustainable Degrowth as a Social-Ecological Transformation
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Socially Sustainable Degrowth as a Social-Ecological Transformation


International environmental policy has failed to reverse climate change, resource depletion and the generalized decline of biodiversity and ecological life support systems. This paper traces economic roots of current environmental problems and examines the evolution of sustainability policy since the publication of Club of Rome’s report Limits to growth and the celebration of the first Earth summit in Stockholm in 1972 to the publication of UNEP’s Green economy report and the celebration of the last Earth summit in Rio 2012. Our emphasis is on the evolving framing of the relations between growth and the environment and the role of markets and states in the sustainability policy agenda. We review influential policy documents and Earth summit declarations since the early 1970s. Three major changes are identified in international sustainability discourse: (1) an analytical shift from a notion of growth versus the environment to a notion of growth for the environment, (2) a shift in focus from direct public regulation to market-based instruments, and (3) a shift from a political to a technocratic discourse. We note that attempts in sustainability policy to address the conflict between growth and the environment have pulled back severely since the 1970s and discuss the observed patterns of change in relation to changes in the balance of political and ideological forces. We conclude summarizing main insights from the review and discussing perspectives of the sustainability debate on growth and the environment.


Earth summits Ecodevelopment Economic growth Green economy Market-based instruments Sustainable development Planetary boundaries 



We thank Giorgos Kallis, Roldan Muradian, Iago Otero and two anonymous reviewers for their comments to a previous draft of this manuscript. This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA)OsloNorway
  2. 2.Institute of Environmental Science and TechnologyAutonomous University of BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain
  3. 3.Escuela Técnica Superior de ArquitecturaUniversidad Politécnica de MadridMadridSpain

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