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Critical perspectives and contending concepts of sustainability

International Lecture Series \\\ Fall/Winter 2021/22 \\\ Thursdays 5 pm CET via ZOOM
Solar-LED-Laterne an einer kleinen Bauernhütte neben einem Reisfeld.Adobe Stock

As meaningful and important as the discourse on sustainability may be, it is and remains a concept originally shaped in the Global North. Sustainability is thus also based on intellectual roots that were shaped there. From the Global North, the demand for "sustainable development" has reached the entire world. This raises a number of crucial questions: How does the concept fit into thinking structures that do not correspond to those of the Global North? What factors determine our notion of sustainability? To what extent must the concept of sustainability be criticized from the perspective of the Global South? Are there alternative ways of thinking about sustainability? These questions will be discussed throughout the lecture series by speakers from numerous continents and countries who have critically engaged with the concept of sustainability. The purpose of the lecture series is to lead to a more comprehensive, global understanding of sustainability that might even be more internationally viable.

Students, PhD-students and Postdocs interested in this topic are welcome to attend. All students are encouraged to actively participate in the discussions.

  Download the event poster and program.


How to participate

The lectures will take place on Thursdays at 5:00 pm CET (Central European Time).

To participate, please follow the zoom link below.
(no registration necessary)


Meeting ID: 633 9088 3931 s
Identification code: 804513


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To access the reading material (no prerequisite for participation!), please register with the KIT learning platform Ilias and have it activated.

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21 October 2021

Andreas Braun
KIT, Germany


Deconstructing “Sustainability”: Introduction to alternative understandings

This talk is the prelude to the international lecture series. Instead of elaborating arguments, approaches and perspectives, it raises central questions and gives an overview of the upcoming lecture series. The idea of sustainability is propagated centrally by countries of the Global North. The Global North has generated its economic development by making maximum use of limited resources and incurring high global environmental costs. Only after a threshold of prosperity was crossed did the question of sustainable development prominently enter the political agenda. The countries of the Global South, on the other hand, are now supposed to face the challenge of achieving economic development and sustainable development in one single step. Are there historical examples of this? Which requirements arise for countries of the Global South? Which discursive structures can be identified? Which injustices are given? The lecture raises these questions, which can be thought of as guiding principles through the lecture series. It further discusses why it is so crucial to include perspectives from the Global South on sustainability if international collaboration on sustainability is to be possible.


28 October 2021

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr
The New School, USA

The Southern Origins of Sustainable Development Goals: Ideas, Actors, Aspirations

With the increasing importance of ‘emerging powers’ in the global economy, questions are raised about the role of developing countries in shaping global norms. The assumption in much of the literature has been to see global norms as originating in the ‘North’ (or the ‘West’). Recent research has begun to challenge this view. This lecture contributes to this debate in studying the agency of the South, first in the emergence of the sustainable development as an international agenda in the 1970s, and second in the negotiation of  the 2030 UN agenda for sustainable development (SDGs).
The lecture draws on two corresponding papers. The first – “Southern Origins of Sustainable Development” – chronicles the ideas originating from the South in the emergence and subsequent evolution of the sustainable development concept and the adoption of the SDGs. We highlight the role of key individuals as norm entrepreneurs at the origin of sustainable development as they challenged the North-led understanding of the environmental challenge in the 1970s and 1980s, and the agency of Southern actors in proposing an alternative vision as a successor to the MDGs. We chronicle the agency of Southern actors in promoting some key priorities of sustainable development. We argue that these ideas originated from the perspective of the knowledge, lived experience, policy experience, theorizing and analysis of the Global South. We find that norm entrepreneurship involved contesting mainstream views and advancing marginalized ideas. The case also illustrates international norm emergence as a long term process of contestation and evolution.  The second paper – Leaving No One Behind as a Site of Contestation and Reinterpretation – chronicles the contestation over inequality and poverty in the negotiations over the SDGs.  It highlights the ways in which indicators and narratives were instrumentalized to pursue policy priorities, turning seemingly neutral technical choices into political debates.


4 November 2021

Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee
Bayes Business School, United Kingdom


Decolonizing Sustainability: Indigenous Perspectives on the Anthropocene and Gaia

Abstract of reading material:  This article aims to change the terms of the conversation about the ecological crisis. We argue that the human–nature dualism, a product of Enlightenment thought and primarily responsible for the ecological crisis, cannot be the basis for any meaningful solutions. We show how more recent Western imaginaries like the Anthropocene and Gaia proposed to overcome the separation of nature from culture are also based on exclusions that reflect Enlightenment rationality and legacies of colonialism. In sharp contrast, we show that Indigenous philosophies that preceded the Enlightenment by thousands of years have developed systems of knowledge based on a relational ontology that reflects profound connections between humans and nature. We demonstrate that such forms of knowledge have been systematically subjugated by Western scholarship based on arguments inspired by Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empiricism. A decolonial imagination will be able to generate new insights into understanding and addressing the ecological crisis. We therefore call for organization and management scholars to challenge the anthropomorphic biases and the economism that dominates our field through a respectful engagement with Indigenous worldviews.


11 November 2021

Phyllis Bo-yuen Ngai
University of Montana, USA


Local Interpretation of the Global Discourse of Sustainability and Sustainable Development in Rural Cambodia

In environmental discourse, sustainability and sustainable development are buzzwords. In practice, these goals are widely advocated by international agencies, governments, and local non-governmental organizations. While the global discourse of sustainability and sustainable development operates as a powerful source of influence worldwide, we have access to few studies that specifically examine how development practitioners in the Global South interpret and apply these concepts. Development is about change that takes place in a particular context. Thus, it should not be assumed to imply uniform change as the global discourse about development leads us to believe. Examining local actors’ interpretations promotes nuanced insights about a range of development issues, reduces buzzword vagueness, and illuminates gaps in the global discourse. For instance, critical discourse analysis of a local Cambodian NGO’s interpretation of the global discourse about sustainable development reveals that there is no mention anywhere of integrating indigenous epistemology and ontology in its vision and practices. In fact, its development approach operates to replace indigenous ways of life and ecological traditions with Western conceptions of modernization and development. Religious, cultural, and social elements that govern local attitudes, values, and lifestyles have been pushed to the background in the pursuit of economic development. While SDG Goal 15 (protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems) and Goal 16 (promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development) vaguely imply a call to action concerning “cultural sustainability,” cultural concerns are nowhere to be found in the local interpretation of the SDGs. Although the global discourse regarding sustainable development encompasses notions of plurality and genuine dialogue, local and international organizations operating in rural Cambodia focus on transferring “know-how” from the Global North and, thereby, promotes “foreign” practices that often turn into bureaucratic violence. Such development practices marginalize traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous peoples whose interpretations of sustainability have a lot to offer the world. Conducting additional local investigations in various development contexts will further inform dialogue about sustainability and sustainable development by incorporating a wider range of local perspectives. 


18 November 2021

Astrid Vanessa Pérez Piñán
University of Victoria, Canada

Elizabeth Vibert
University of Victoria, Canada


The View from the Farm: Gendered Contradictions of the Measurement Imperative in Global Goals

Abstract of reading material:  How do global development goals translate into local action? How do such goals support or undermine already existing efforts, at the local level, to build robust and sustainable communities? In this article we examine the experience of a women’s cooperative vegetable farm in rural South Africa, considering the on-the-ground consequences of high-level planning for development and, in particular, the measurement and accountability demands associated with such initiatives. We focus on the broad aims of Sustainable Development Goals 2 (to end hunger) and 5 (to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment). We explore farmers’ responses to external demands for measurement and accountability, some of which they are not well equipped to meet and others of which collide with their own priorities to support their households and wider community. We find a major problem of translation between global goals and the needs of people on the ground: far from resulting in material support for small-scale farmers, the daily burdens of the ‘audit society’ directly impede aims like ending hunger and achieving gender equality. The first section of the paper briefly canvasses recent efforts at global goal setting, considering the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and SDGs in turn. The longer second section offers the case study of the women’s farm, examining how the measurement demands related to global goals impact locally generated priorities.


25 November 2021

Hameed Jamali
Institute of Management Sciences, Pakistan


Operationalizing Sustainable Development Goals in Vulnerable Coastal Areas of Ecuador and Pakistan: Marginalizing Human Development?

Drawing on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in socially and ecologically vulnerable coastal areas of Ecuador and Pakistan, we focus on Chinese-funded investment projects to analyze how SDGs are susceptible to be instrumentalized in the context of exploitative economic dependencies, as well as national development agendas. In our case studies, forced displacement of vulnerable inhabitants during the post-earthquake recovery in coastal Ecuador and displacement of small-scale fishers in coastal Pakistan are justified by SDG implementation. We identify a techno-managerial approach to SDGs in order to discuss its effects in terms of endangering ecosystems and human freedoms, increased social vulnerability and dependence on wage labour. Despite contextual differences, both case studies reveal a similar pattern of intervention under the pretext of SDGs where human freedoms and capabilities are severely undermined by large-scale projects of territorial and social securitization.


2 December 2021

Maria Paula Meneses
University of Coimbra, Portugal

Introduction of Epistemologies of the South: Knowledges Born in Struggle

Book summary:  In a world overwhelmingly unjust and seemingly deprived of alternatives, this book claims that the alternatives can be found among us. These alternatives are, however, discredited or made invisible by the dominant ways of knowing. Rather than alternatives, therefore, we need an alternative way of thinking of alternatives. Such an alternative way of thinking lies in the knowledges born in the struggles against capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy, the three main forms of modern domination. In their immense diversity, such ways of knowing constitute the Global South as an epistemic subject. The epistemologies of the South are guided by the idea that another world is possible and urgently needed; they emerge both in the geographical north and in the geographical south whenever collectives of people fight against modern domination. Learning from and with the epistemic South suggests that the alternative to a general theory is the promotion of an ecology of knowledges based on intercultural and interpolitical translation.


9 December 2021

Johannes M. Waldmueller
Universidad de las Americas, Ecuador
(As of autumn 2021 University of Vienna, Austria)


Agriculture, Knowledge and the ‘Colonial Matrix of Power’: Approaching Sustainabilities from the Global South

The now enshrined list of 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 231 indicators (so far) set out to reframe development according to a more holistic perspective than previous related policy frameworks at the international level, precisely by combining socioeconomic and environmental issues. Yet, drawing on the example of the need for truly sustainable, resilient (notwithstanding relevant controversies around this key notion) and biodiverse agriculture, able to resist climate change-induced crop failures, my talk will delve into critical considerations, mainly stemming from the global South, that see SDGs as essentially remaining grounded within a singular cultural understanding of how to address poverty. At least with regard to agriculture, and in particular, techno-scientific agroindustry – responsible for some of the largest CO2 emissions in the world (approx. 20%) – the SDGs thus remain mono-cultural, one-dimensional, overly technocratic, and are far from universal as they fail to acknowledge the stipulated alternative pluriverse, including pluriversal approaches to agriculture (particularly agroecology), frequently understood in the Global South as going beyond liberal, reductionist and technologically determinist notions of sustainability.
However, contrary to overly politicized debates about power in the hands of whom, the problem addressed in my talk is neither a merely technical nor political one: being essentially related to knowledge production – i.e. what counts as assessable indicator, and what not, based on which data – I call for the pluralization of approaches to both global ethics and sustainability, taking agriculture as a key arena of international policy making in accordance with major works by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs for the Right to Food.


16 December 2021

Omar Angel Arach
Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral, Argentina


Destructive Expansion, Epistemic Violence and Cosmopolitical Insurgencies. Reflections around the Promotion of Megaprojects in American Territories.

In this presentation I would like to reflect on the violence inherent in the implementation of megaprojects, that is, large spatial transformation projects, usually promoted as vehicles for development. The realization of a megaproject, far from being a merely technical matter, is a political process, where power relations come into play to take away a portion of space from its inhabitants, carry out gigantic interventions (blowing up mountains, changing the course of rivers, draining lakes, displacing large masses of population, etc.) and metamorphosing the territory according to powerful and distant geo-economic and geopolitical interests.

In particular, I would like to refer to the way in which scientific knowledge is used to design, legitimize and implement these projects. I especially want to reflect on the way in which the reality affected by a megaproject is delimited and characterized and how the consequences of the transformation operated on it are dealt with. I would also like to reflect on the responses of the populations affected by these projects whose challenge their implementation. I consider that they bring a series of questions that shake the epistemic foundations on which the megaprojects are based and can help to renew our political imagination at a time of civilizational crisis.


13 January 2022

Jorge Polo Blanco
Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral, Ecuador


Critical Reflections on the Eurocentric Way of Approaching Nature and some Notes on the Contradictions of Radical “Pachamamismo”

We will investigate critically some of the components that shaped the epistemic paradigm of European modernity, considering that quantification, mathematization and measurable objectivity are not simply theoretical principles found in modern science, they constituted something more: They were the elements through which a new worldview arose. With this, a new way of understanding and imagining nature was established – and also a new way of intervening and violating it. Some critical theories will be introduced, like Amerindian perspectivism and decoloniality, that have responded to this supposedly universal and homogeneous vision. They are concluding that, despite the existence of global patterns of power and knowledge, alternative ways of understanding and acting on the environment involve decolonizing the method of resource extraction. This requires not only reversing certain economic practices and models of accumulation, but also dismantling the epistemic violence that justifies and protects such practices and models. Extractivism, one of the most outstanding results of this modern-western rationale, has been debated and opposed by indigenism. However, when the public policies of a State located on the periphery of the capitalist world-system seek to foster equitable human development (with the fundamental goal of reducing poverty) and, at the same time, aim to recognize the intrinsic rights of nature, inevitable frictions, contradictions and paradoxes arise.


20 January 2022

Ashish Kothari
Kalpavriksh/Global Tapestry of Alternatives, India


Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to Sustainable Development and the Green Economy

The COVID19 crisis has sharply exposed how ecological devastation for human use rebounds on us, and how a certain model of ‘development’ has left hundreds of millions of people without a secure economic and social base, and created the conditions for more disasters (climate, disease, conflicts). This and other ongoing global crises, built on the structures and relations of patriarchy, racism, capitalism, statism, and anthropocentrism, have prompted a search for alternatives. Are there systemic alternative practices and frameworks that can challenge these structures of injustice and unsustainability as also illuminate pathways to a sustainable and equitable future?

The presentation will focus on such frameworks of transformation, including Eco-swaraj (Radical Ecological Democracy), buen vivir, and degrowth. Many of these arise from grassroots initiatives at meeting needs in sustainable and egalitarian ways, across the world. This includes initiatives at meeting human needs and aspirations through direct or radical democracy, localized economies embedded in ecological and cultural landscapes, notions of human well-being that relate to actual needs of people and to qualitative values like satisfaction and social security, democratic knowledge and technology generation, and sustaining cultural diversity and exchange. It stresses that the locus of all such activity be neither in the state nor in corporations, but in local communities and collectives of various kinds. It proposes that a just and sustainable recovery, out of COVID, will be multi-coloured, a rainbow new deal with a diversity of solutions and approaches, which can also help avoid or build resilience against future such crises. It also shows how these approaches go well beyond what are either superficial and status quoist like ‘green growth’ or seriously inadequate like ‘green new deal’ and ‘sustainable development’.


27 January 2022

Gonzalo Aguilar Cavallo
Universidad de Talca, Chile


Indigenous Peoples' Human Right to Cultural Identity: Ecological Knowledge as a Valuable Way for Nature Conservation and Development in Latin-America

This course will discuss the contribution of indigenous peoples’ knowledge to the conservation of nature and the protection of the environment as an alternative way to the traditional Eurocentric- oriented view for development. This topic will consider at least the following initial observations. Firstly, there is not only an environmental but huge climate crisis mostly engendered by human activities. These human activities relate to specific types of consumption and economic growing based on western-origin ideas. Indeed, these activities, covered by a veil of legality, usually damage the environment and endanger vulnerable people’s living conditions. There is a growing perception in Latin-American countries that this will not lead us to a sustainable development. Secondly, over the last decades, indigenous peoples’ rights have been increasingly recognized, both at international and national levels. That has been most important for indigenous peoples in Latin-America, as their lands and natural resources are coveted. The Inter-American Human Rights Court has played a crucial role in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights. Therefore, indigenous peoples have gradually regained recognition as a dignified and valuable culture which makes them stronger to compete with traditional western views of development. Lastly, the recognition of indigenous peoples’ collective rights has allowed an increasing recognition and appreciation of the indigenous cosmovision, their holistic view of the world, and their traditional ancestral knowledge. Considering the current environmental crisis, the validation of indigenous ecological knowledge appears to be an alternative to development in face of the ineffective recipe of accumulation of goods and other vestiges of colonialism.


3 February 2022

Matthew Murphy
University of Victoria, Canada

From Principles to Action: Community-based Entrepreneurship in the Toquaht Nation

International human rights instruments and, in some cases national laws and treaties, recognize the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination; but how do the values and knowledge of Indigenous communities shape self-determined efforts to pursue economic opportunities that are aligned with a particular worldview and vision of enhanced wellbeing? Building on a framework developed by Māori scholar, Dr. Kepa Morgan, the Toquaht Nation in British Columbia, Canada, collaborated with researchers to develop a system, called the Toquaht Project Assessment System, that they use to assess economic development opportunities, then monitor the actual impacts of projects that are implemented. Use of the system ensures, through a consistent, systematic and community-driven process, that Toquaht economic development efforts are aligned with Toquaht values and the Toquaht community’s own vision of development. In this lecture, Dr. Matthew Murphy will share how the Toquaht Project Assessment System was created and how it works.


10 February 2022

Andreas Braun
KIT, Germany


Conclusions and Closing Session

The lecture summarizes the lecture series and the contents of the discussion. It identifies central findings, open questions, implications and needs for action for the future. In particular, it addresses the question of how the different perspectives on sustainability can be integrated into joint research projects.


Download the event poster and program.



Portraitfoto des Mitarbeiters Andreas Braun

Jun.-Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Andreas Ch. Braun
Profesor de Ciencias Regionales

Tel.: +49 721 608 43862
E-mail: andreas ch braun∂kit edu


Portraitfoto der Mitarbeiterin Irma Mantilla

Irma Mantilla
Oficial Regional América Latina
Asuntos Internacionales

Tel.: +49 721 608 47739
E-mail: irma mantilla∂kit edu

Portraitfoto des Mitarbeiters Danny Tröger

Danny Tröger
Asistente científico

Tel.: +49 721 608 46316
E-mail: danny troeger∂kit edu

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