The Emergence of Sustainability

  • Fabio Rubio ScaranoEmail author


I use Mario Bunge’s approach to the interplay between emergence, submergence and convergence to address the emergence of sustainability. In line with this approach, my argument is that sustainability emerges as a novelty out of the convergence between independent lines of inquiry, such as sociology, economics and ecology in the science realm, and out of the tension between environmentalism and development as social movements or ideologies. It is also related to the emergence of a new ethics based on intergenerational justice. The convergence of sustainability as science, as policy and as moral value, in turn, implies submergence or even full disappearance of the old. For instance, out of the modules from which sustainability emerged, namely biological conservation (in science) and environmentalism (its social movement counterpart) are undergoing a crisis that might precede their submergence if not full disappearance. The notion of socio-economic development, one of the modules that contributed to the emergence of sustainability, is also in crisis as alternative views collectively framed as ‘postdevelopment’ appear. Sustainability, as an emerging new whole, still requires ‘glue concepts’ (sensu Bunge) to bind together its social, economic and environmental dimensions—this applies equally to sustainability as policy, as moral value and as science. Sustainability emerges as a normative goal (i.e. a desire based on beliefs and values) and as a principle of collective good and, as such, it is a new utopia. Finally, I discuss how the emergence of sustainability furthers the vitality of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Failure or success of sustainability might determine the fate of humankind on the planet.



I dearly thank Ebba Brink for critically reading the manuscript, for sharing her reflections about emergence and convergence, about transdisciplinarity, and for our constructive discussions about sustainability science—all which helped give final shape to this paper. I also thank Aliny Pires for artwork in Fig. 1, for her inspiring capacity to transform ideas in images and for critically reading the manuscript. My warmest thanks also to Prof. Ulrich Lüttge for two decades of partnership, for his insightful coaching all these years and, more recently, for critically reading this manuscript and introducing me to the philosophy of Hans Jonas. My studies on sustainability are supported by the Brazilian Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BPBES), funded by CNPq Grant Number 405593/2015-5.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidade Federal do Rio de JaneiroRio de JaneiroBrazil

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