Misplaced Concreteness and Concrete Places : Critical Analyses of Divergent Discourses on Sustainability

Abstract: This dissertation critically examines the tension between mainstream and counterpoint perspectives on sustainability on the basis of analyses of four approaches to this issue: environmental economics, ecological economics, adaptive management, and bioregionalism, which are presented as successive attempts to challenge mainstream, modernist perspectives on socio-ecological relationships. The different worldviews and identity constructions associated with the two extremes in this spectrum of approaches are examined on the basis of interviews with environmental economists and bioregionalists in California. The thesis begins by critically analyzing the efforts by environmental economists to internalize sustainability issues into economic theory, building on a weak sustainability criterion. It proceeds with a presentation of the alternative academic approach of ecological economists, with special emphasis on Ecological Footprint Analysis, based on a strong sustainability criterion. The study reveals how the attempts of ecological economists to introduce alternative models and concerns into dominant arenas of the sustainability debate are resisted and sometimes co-opted by the modern discourse on development. It then investigates an extreme counterpoint to mainstream discourse as represented by the bioregional movement in the remote Mattole valley in northern California, which emphasizes the value of concrete, personal involvement. The bioregionally inspired but scientific approach of adaptive management is also discussed as a possible alternative or complement to this struggle. The concluding discussion focuses on the role of abstract versus concrete reference points in the struggle for socio-ecological sustainability and justice.

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