All policy decisions depend on approaches of various policy actors based on their fundamental principles. Fundamental principles that influence policy decisions differ across policy domains. Also, their influences could be strong or weak while their considerations may be explicit or implicit. At the same time, some considerations could be unclear, unstated, obvious and/or stated.
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In some policies, policy principles could be stated in their generic form to be used in an explicit manner (Dovers 2005). As a result, existing policies have fundamental drawbacks and open to criticism. This essay offers a critical analysis of the neoliberal approach to assessing sustainability.
Neoliberal approach aims to foster sustainable economic growth, favours the profit motive and high growth rates (Davidson 2011). The approach also values humans as vital species. According to neoliberalism, market-based economies will offer enough environmental protection, as well as optimal societal outcomes. This approach does not consider the role of the state, communities or individuals as vital.
Instead, neoliberal approach places the ultimate faith in free markets and believes that the outcomes will ‘trickle down’ to address challenges. In this regard, one may argue that neoliberal approach promotes competition, non-restriction and a model for economic growth.
In addition, any public, societal, or individual roles are inefficient, but competition remains the cornerstone of growth. Hence, one must strive to survive and nature will balance itself (Gunay & Gulersoy 2010).
There are underlying issues with the neoliberal ideology on sustainability. A study by Davidson, Kellett, Wilson, and Pullen (2012) noted that many actors that strived to differentiate indicators of urban sustainability often drew from the neoliberal, silo ideology to conceptualise sustainability. In this case, these models present sustainability as possessing economic, social and environmental dimensions (Davidson et al. 2012).
The neoliberal approach, however, has been criticised for its “inability to account for challenges to sustainability arising from interactions among social, economic and environmental variables” (Davidson et al. 2012, p. 57).
In this regard, any sustainability model that cannot evaluate dimensional interactions and their collective impacts are also regarded as ineffective in offering critiques that address well-established structural issues associated with sustainability. The fundamental issue with the neoliberal approach is that, to a greater extent, it supports the substitution of capital resources.
In this sense, it is assumed that capital and technological advancements will provide solutions to natural environment limitations. As a result, Neumayer claims that this is a weak version of sustainability because it promotes private interests and principles of free markets rather than the role of the state in social, economic and environmental dimensions (Neumayer 2003).
On the other hand, radical ideologists have argued that the state has a fundamental role in protecting society and environments from uncontrolled business and technology activities, which could interfere with forces of the market. Neoliberal ideologists believe that all forms of capital can be substituted and technology developments will provide solutions to resource constraints.
In other words, if a resource runs out, then other sources will be found to replace the existing one. In this regard, the degradation of natural forests does not matter because “new forest plantations can be created to provide the essential raw materials” (Davidson 2011, p. 4). Hence, there is no need to limit growth because “human and technological progress can overcome such challenges” (Davidson 2011, p. 4).
Conversely, opponents present strong sustainability that seeks to restrict growth because they believe that both current and future generations will not be sufficiently compensated for depletion of natural resources occasioned by uncontrolled, increased utilisation. At the same time, they dismiss the claims that technologies will offer solutions to resource constraints.
Many scholars like Springett and Foster and Beckerman have argued that the neoliberal approach does not promote sustainability further than its current strategy, which propagates maximisation of economic welfare in society (as cited in Davidson 2011, p. 3).
In this regard, one may argue that neoliberal actors are working within the sphere of resource exploitation and optimism because of too much emphasis on resource utilisation, allocation and use of financial resources to promote quality.
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Within this point of view, the environment, society and state are subsystems within an economic sphere. In other words, these actors favour economic growth as the only element that can offer a stronger foundation to its subsystems.
Neoliberal policies could have detrimental outcomes to sustainability as they aims to distribute all resources that result from competition (Gunay & Gulersoy 2010). The political economy of sustainability may posit that the approach could rediscover society through economic growth, high production, competition, innovation, and flexibility, among others.
According to Gunay and Gulersoy (2010), urbanisation from the neoliberal point of view is then “all the economic development-led national state politics that supports privatization and free-market; and in which the role of state is restricted for governmental and economical efficiency in the frame of place competition” (p. 1).
This trend, therefore, could eliminate cultural heritage or turn cultural property with public values to new values and promote personal interests and offers different interpretation to cultural values.
Today, sustainability and urban conservation have become political weapons. While sustainability should protect cultural heritage and historical sites by promoting their social and economic values, within the framework of the neoliberal approach, policymakers have disregarded social importance of such cultural heritage and turned them into tools of promoting personal, political and economic interests.
One major weakness of the neoliberal approach is that it disregards the role of other stakeholders such as state, communities and individuals in sustainability.
Contrary to this belief, Kinzig found out that policymakers should use laws and regulations to change individuals’ behaviours to promote environmental conservation efforts such as recycling and energy efficiency by focusing on social values and the associated behaviours (Kinzig, 2013).
The researcher notes that pro-environmental behaviours such as conservation and recycling could result into pro-environmental values (Kinzig, 2013). In other words, public policies, laws and regulations should aim to promote individuals’ behaviours that reinforce environmental conservation and lessen negative environmental impacts.
The failure to account for the roles of all stakeholders in the neoliberal approach shows its major weakness. According to Armana and Davidson (2014), the role and significance of population to sustainability discussions remains vague and unclear. Population has not formed a major component of sustainability issue.
In addition, scholars have ignored complexities that exist between population and sustainability despite the fundamental roles population plays in promoting sustainability and a just society. The neoliberal approach has not promoted the role of population in enhancing sustainability.
As a result, it could be challenging to understand how this school of thought provides an account that captures the role of population in sustainability. Given this discrepancy, it could be difficult to make sense of the discourse about the neoliberal approach and the role of population.
As noted earlier, Davidson et al. (2012) identified economic, social and environmental dimensions within typology drawn from the neoliberal ideology. In this regard, the neoliberal approach, however, has been criticised for its “inability to account for challenges to sustainability arising from interactions among social, economic and environmental variables” (Davidson et al. 2012, p. 57).
The major challenge that the approach faces is the complexity of these factors and decision-making processes for a built, sustainable environment. Although the neoliberal approach is popular among contemporary policymakers, the approach is unable to offer sustainable solutions as the natural environment experiences pressure from population explosion, climate change and inefficiency in resource consumption.
It is, therefore, imperative to provide a robust approach that can inform and facilitate decision-making processes for a sustainable future.
According to Irwin (2007), “the state, the market and labour relations have been completely overestimated as a mode of operating unchangeable stasis by the Neopragmatists” (p. 643). Neoliberal proponents have shown greater efforts to use the market to manage all forms of interactions and communication that involve individuals, institutions and the natural environment, among others.
These theorists, however, have failed to recognise the changing circumstances with regard to application of the neoliberal approach. The neoliberal approach has a wider focus that has resulted into several, overwhelming impacts.
While scholars have addressed several complicating factors with regard to the limit of categorical truth and issues of cause and effect, the conventional interpretations should be discarded because they can no longer support the emerging trends associated with consumerism propagated by the neoliberal ideology.
According to Irwin, it is essential to understand the prevailing situations well and one should not remain confined to the neoliberal ideology because “is not only unnecessary, it is short-sighted and detrimental to both the environment and humanity” (Irwin 2007, p. 643).
Centner (2009) noted the failure of the neoliberal approach in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was an attempt to conceptualise and implement a programme that focused on sustainable development by accounting for “a justice imperative, which encompassed environmental, sociopolitical, and economic concerns” (Centner 2009, p. 173).
This attempt to adopt the Urban Environmental Plan faced several issues because of the challenges of prioritising many conflicting goals. According to Irwin, the issue of focus on planning entailed three fundamental neoliberal words noted in sustainable development, namely “sustainability, participation, and competitiveness” (Centner 2009, p. 173).
These key terms have led to prioritisation of incompatible material-symbolic landscapes. In short, Centner (2009) shows that the neoliberal approach has failed to achieve its intended goal because of competing interests. In such cases, Davidson recognises the need for tradeoffs among the three dimensions of sustainability (economic, social and environmental) (Davidson 2011).
The failure of the plan could reflect the poor relationship between political actors and economy because both factors have critical role to play in outcomes of sustainability efforts. In the case of Argentina, the policy actor had a single school of thought on sustainability, but they were unable to manage competing goals of sustainability dimensions. These dimensions were different based on political actors’ perspectives.
What are the alternative approaches to the neoliberal model?
Studies show that the neoliberal approach is popular with many urban sustainability plans. However, the neoliberal approach has critical issues and weaknesses that have poorly affected its practicality and applicability. On this note, Davidson et al. (2012) proposed a social democratic approach as an alternative to neoliberal ideology.
The authors argue that it would shift categorisation from a neoliberal approach to a social democratic one by suggesting a plan for evaluating urban development “relational to themes of amenity, accessibility, equity and environmental performance relative to resource conservation” (Davidson et al., 2012, p. 57).
The proposed model would be sensitive by accounting for all sustainability elements (social, economic and environmental) with regard to land use planning to sustain both the built and natural environments.
Davidson (2011) notes that a social democratic model focuses on developing stronger global institutions and conservation efforts and effective state and local abilities to redistribute resources and manage constraints from the global political economy. Social democrats express deeper concerns regarding the environment, increasing inequalities and population explosion than liberals.
While a social democratic model promotes free-market economic approaches, it uses specific terms, such as ‘development’ rather than ‘growth’ alongside quality development instead of quantity. A social democratic approach facilitates the protection of adequate physical resources for sustainable use. In this sense, it could be effective than the neoliberal approach that does not promote sustainable use of natural resources.
Today, there are ongoing calls for ‘environmental justice’. However, like other categorised approaches, the environmental justice remains vaguely and loosely defined, particularly within the sphere of social movement demands. According to Schlosberg (2004), many have attributed environmental justice to the issue of “equity, or the distribution of environmental ills and benefits” (p. 517).
Schlosberg notes that restricting environment justice to equity leads to incomplete definition because many stakeholders such as activists, NGOs and communities have advocated for much than equitable distribution of ills and benefits. The author strives to point out the inadequacy of a recent model that should promote sustainability.
A political economy typology of sustainability is an important tool that guides policymakers and their ideologies when formulating sustainability policies. In reality, models such as neoliberal, environmental justice or social-democratic show how political actors argue over effective solutions to promote environmental, social and economic elements of sustainability.
This critical analysis of the neoliberal approach shows its issues and weaknesses. It shows that the model may fail because of poor definitions of key terms, competing interests and failure to achieve tradeoffs.
As a result, these models lack strong foundations for promoting environmental sustainability. They also show that policy actors may fail to understand the prevailing situations because of rigid ideological paradigms that structure and layer their arguments.
A structured approach to a political economy typology could be an effective means of evaluating sustainability and potential solutions because it allows scholars to categorise various ideologies. Hence, sustainability scholars can focus on effective sustainability approaches (Davidson, 2011).
The model can aid in categorising diverse opinions and discourses and differentiate various views based on the actor’s approach to economy, society and the environment. A structured approach can ensure that stakeholders understand diverse views. In this regard, there would be broader views of all different approaches, which could allow scholars to evaluate merits of these diverse models.
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Davidson, K. 2011, ‘A Typology to Categorize the Ideologies of Actors in the Sustainable Development Debate’, Sustainable Development, vol. 22, no. 1pp. 1-14. DOI: 10.1002/sd.520.
Davidson, K., Kellett, J., Wilson, L. & Pullen, S. 2012, ‘Assessing urban sustainability from a social democratic perspective: a thematic approach’, Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 57-73. DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2011.631990.
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