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The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy?

Urban Studies Program, Simon Fraser University, 2nd Floor, 515 W. Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC, V6B 5K3, Canada
Sustainability 2010, 2(2), 645-659;
Received: 30 December 2009 / Accepted: 9 February 2010 / Published: 22 February 2010
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Advanced Forum for Sustainable Development)
PDF [227 KB, uploaded 24 February 2015]


In 1991, development economist and American public intellectual Albert O. Hirschman wrote the Rhetoric of Reaction [1]. In this book, which was prescient of more contemporary popular books such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine [2] and James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State [3], Hirschman proposed a way to understand the kinds of arguments made by conservatives about proposals for change. His compelling trilogy of modes of arguments included arguments of perversity, futility, and jeopardy. I argue here that this schema can additionally be used as a way to understand the limits that are seen to exist to approaching sustainable development. I will demonstrate the pervasiveness of arguments that our best attempts to move toward sustainability in our cities today may present threats that are just as grave as those of not acting. This exercise serves two purposes. One is to urge those who would call themselves sustainability scholars to think critically and carefully about the lines of thought and action that may separate different sustainability motivations from the far reaches of interdisciplinary work in this field. The other is to suggest that, because of the persistence of certain kinds of arguments about the impossibility of sustainability, suggestive of deep and enduring instincts of doubt through human history, we should be skeptical of the legitimacy of these claims about the limitations of achieving sustainable development. View Full-Text
Keywords: sustainable development; Albert O. Hirschman; pragmatism; planning; social change sustainable development; Albert O. Hirschman; pragmatism; planning; social change

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Holden, M. The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy? Sustainability 2010, 2, 645-659.

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