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Sustainable Development

Oliver Parodi
Ignacio Ayestaran
Gerhard Banse

Part 1. Methodological Questions, Conceptual Debates and Frameworks

From the Cultural Dimension of Sustainable Development to the Culture of Sustainable Development

Jürgen Kopfmüller

Texte intégral

1 Introduction

1Before the concepts of “sustainable development” and “culture” can be treated in depth, their definition and meaning must be clarified. It soon becomes apparent that this effort is as complex, difficult and, consequently, often controversial for the concept of culture as for that of sustainability. As this issue is covered in greater detail in other contributions to this volume, I would like to limit myself first to distinguishing two definitions: On the one hand, the definition of culture in the narrower sense of the term as the intellectual-artistic realm of a society, i. e. music, literature, theatre, painting, but also education and knowledge. In the other, broader definition, which will underlie this contribution, culture encompasses everything created by human beings and comprises all processes of the way in which people interact with other people and with the natural environment. Consequently, this implies also basic attitudes and values, traditions, lifestyles, ethics, religion, but also the legal, economic, social and political systems of a society.

2“Culture” thus would mean the way in which we live or want to live and how we shape social development. To find the proper place for this concept of culture, let me use an example based on an item well known to all of us: “Civilization” means owning a toothbrush, “cultural technique” means being able to use it, while “culture” means actually using it, i. e. the ability and willingness, respectively, to implement things found to be correct.

3In the debate about the definition and implementation of the guiding principle of sustainability, which has been going on for more than twenty years, some outstanding milestones can be identified:

  • The 1987 report by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations (cf. Hauff 1987) with its widely quoted central definition according to which sustainable development has been achieved when it meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
  • The UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992 with the Declaration of Rio and the Agenda 21 adopted there.
  • The World Summit on Sustainable Development organized in Johannesburg in 2002 with the “Plan of Implementation” it adopted.

4On the basis of these documents and the sustainability debate so far some key challenges can be highlighted in the way the guiding principle of sustainability is implemented:

  • What is at stake is nothing less than the development of a “new ethics of human survival” and a “worldwide programme of change” based on it – concepts representing the motivation and guiding orientation of the Brundtland Report (cf. Hauff 1987).
  • Guidance is provided mainly by the implementation of the postulate of justice taking into account both inter-and intra-generational perspectives. In other words: The application of the principle of responsibility to persons living in the future and those living today is in the focus of this debate.
  • This mainly implies reflecting on and, in particular, solving problems of distribution with respect to a variety of environmental resources, income, and assets, but also benefits and burdens resulting from political measures.
  • The focus on the postulate of justice implies that the guiding principle be put into concrete terms and operationalized in a holistic way adequately reflecting the ecological, economic, social, institutional, and also cultural aspects of social development.
  • From all this result the claim as well as the task to shape social development in the direction of sustainability. In view of the multitude and intensity of existing problems, this will require some far reaching changes in the existing patterns of production and consumption as well as different political and institutional framework conditions.

2 “Culture” in the Key Documents of the Sustainability Debate

  • 1 Cf.
  • 2 Cf.

5One glance at the milestones of the sustainability debate referred to above shows that the concept and the subject area of culture do not rank prominently in those milestones. The concept practically does not occur at all in the Brundtland Report and only occasionally in the other documents. In the Declaration of Rio1 with its 27 development principles for a “new and equitable global partnership”, the focus is on the right of development for all people worldwide, and on such subjects as reducing poverty, enhancing participation, a new world economic system, or the role of women. Only Principle 22 contains a specific reference to the subject of culture in demanding recognition of the identity, culture, and interests of indigenous ethnic groups. The Agenda 21 as the global action programme implementing the guidelines of the Declaration2 comprises 40 chapters about various topics, none of which specifically refers to culture (cf. e. g. Jerman 2001). However, culture as a concept is mentioned in various places, mainly in such terms as agriculture, aquaculture, or marine culture; sometimes it refers to the cultural multifunctionality of forests, and various chapters contain the requirement to take into account cultural factors and features in achieving the respective goals. In the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, which is focused especially on the subjects of combating poverty, protecting resources, financing development, and good governance, the concept of culture is used primarily to underline the importance of maintaining cultural diversity and the cultural heritage in the interest of sustainable development, especially with a view to indigenous groups of populations.

6On the whole, it can be stated that the references to cultural aspects, limited as they are, in the documents referred to above mainly serve functional, instrumental purposes, i. e. primarily with a view to other objectives without giving these an independent perspective of implementation. Only rarely is the meaning of “culture” and cultural aspects, respectively, expressed in precise terms. It is also striking to see that the few specific references are mainly given to the preservation of cultural diversity, mostly in countries in the “south”, and their indigenous populations. No specific players in the cultural sector are addressed.

3 Culture in the Concepts of Sustainability

7A similar picture is seen for the existing (scientific) sustainability concepts. In the debate in Germany and, in principle, also in many other countries, the so-called “one-pillar concepts”, mostly focused on the ecological dimension of sustainable development, the “three-” and “four-pillar concepts,” and transdimensional integrative concepts can be distinguished.

8Three documents about the “one-pillar concepts” will be referred to below: In the “Zukunftsfähiges Deutschland” (“Sustainable Germany”) study by the Wuppertal Institute (cf. BUND/Misereor 1996), the first study about sustainability in Germany to meet with relatively broad public response, the subject of global ecological justice in the “global environmental space” is in the focus of interest, with far reaching target values for ecological key indicators being derived for Germany. Various guiding principles about ways of meeting those targets are formulated (“The Right Measure of Time and Space” or “Living Well Instead of Owning Much”), while the concept of culture is not used explicitly. In the quasi-follow-up study published recently, these key principles are supplemented and modified. Reference is made, among other things, to the so-called Social Pact of the United Nations which supplements political and civil human rights (Civilian Pact) by defining economic, social, and cultural human rights (cf. Brot für die Welt et al. 2008a). In addition, the authors of the study refer to the “cultural helplessness” in society which blocks necessary processes of change, referring, for example, to the inflexible patterns of our way of meeting our needs – for instance those based on fossil fuels (cf. Brot für die Welt et al. 2008b). Also in the two studies by the German Federal Office for the Environment of 1997 and 2002, which show ways towards permanently ecological development, the concept of culture found little explicit reference. On the other hand, they did cover, in a comparatively comprehensive way, the role our consumption behaviour plays in meeting environmental objectives, and the meaningful changes which could be made.

9As concerns the “three-” and “four-pillar concepts”, the two concepts best known in Germany will be discussed first. While the concept of culture played hardly any role in the “Arbeit und Ökologie” (“Work and Ecology”) study commissioned by the Hans Böckler Foundation, an organization close to the trade unions (cf. DIW et al. 2000), the final report by the Committee of Inquiry of the 13th German Federal Parliament, “Protecting Man and the Environment” (cf. DBT 1998), was characterized by a slightly broader reflection on the concept of culture. First of all, in addition to the core dimensions of ecology, economy, and social matters, the areas of culture and education were considered quasi-accompanying aspects to which great importance was attached within the framework of strategies implementing goals in the three dimensions. Besides this instrumental view of cultural aspects, cultural problems requiring corrective action were addressed above and beyond the ecological or social problem areas, and topics such as social stability or solidarity were characterized as important cultural factors.

10Mention should also be made of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, whose widely quoted process of developing a sustainability indicator system including various test countries for the first time also had achieved an expansion of the three classical dimensions by a fourth, institutional dimension (cf. BMU 2000). Nevertheless, no explicit reference to cultural topics was made, no independent indicators for those topics were mentioned, and cultural aspects again were covered only in their potential supporting function in the implementation of strategies related to the other indicators.

11Within the framework of this “pillar”-oriented pattern of thought, the question of how “culture” could be integrated into this structure was discussed mainly in three options: in the format of an attachment to one of the “classical” pillars, as an additional, independent fourth or fifth pillar (cf. e. g. Wehrspaun/Schoemps 2002), or as a cross-sectional subject. However, no specific and specifying activities to that end have so far been initiated.

12Criticism of the approaches designed along the single dimensions finally gave rise to the “transdimensional”, integrative approaches. Here reference must be made to the integrative sustainability concept of the Helmholtz Association (HGF; cf. Kopfmüller et al. 2001) and the sustainability strategy of the German federal government (cf. Bundesregierung 2002). The point of departure in development of the integrative concept, which has been applied so far in a multitude of research projects within and outside the HGF (cf. Kopfmüller 2006), were not the single developmental dimensions but the elements considered constitutive of sustainable development: The requirement of intra-and intergenerational justice, the global perspective, and the anthropocentric approach. These three elements, especially the justice requirement, then give rise to a holistic integrative concept of sustainable development in which the economic, ecological, social, institutional, and cultural aspects of societal development are adequately taken into account.

13These constitutive elements were “translated” first into three general sustainability goals extending beyond single dimensions:

  • securing human existence;
  • maintaining society’s productive potential;
  • preserving society’s options for development and action.

14These goals were put into concrete terms in a next step defining guidelines and rules for action representing the core of the concept (see Table 1). On the one hand, they comprise substantial rules as minimum requirements for achieving the general objectives and, on the other hand, instrumental rules describing how to put these minimum requirements into effect.

15Two of the substantial rules in this concept explicitly refer to culture. One of them is the rule about “preserving the cultural heritage and cultural diversity”. Based on the principles of the 1991 “World Report of Culture and Development” by a committee appointed by UNESCO (cf. WCCD 1991), two equivalent functions are ascribed to culture: on the one hand, the instrumental function referred to above in the sense that cultural capabilities and capacities can be important tools for socio-economic development of societies; on the other hand, culture is also attributed a value of its own. It not only serves to allow other objectives to be reached, but is the very social basis of these objectives. Among other things, culture determines how people live or work together and how they manage their natural environment. In this concept, culture is the most important source of creativity – undoubtedly an important factor in sustainable development – and therefore must be preserved, and its diversity must be protected from the many threats in the form of globalization and international cultural uniformity. In this respect, culture is regarded not as a static concept but as a dynamic process: What is considered worth preserving must be defined in societal communication and negotiation processes.

Table 1: System of Sustainability Rules

Table 1: System of Sustainability Rules

Source: Compiled after Kopfmüller et al. 2001, pp. 172, 174

16The other rule referring to culture is that of “preserving the cultural function of nature”. This is mainly about considering not only the life-preserving function of nature as a source of raw materials and a sink of pollutants, but also the function of enriching human life as an object of sensory, contemplative, or aesthetic experiences. Despite all cultural differences, there are some value categories for nature of almost general validity: nature’s value as a place of experience and recovery, respectively; its mere existence (which arises from the knowledge that special natural assets exist); the symbolic value; the reminder value (which is strongly connected with individual or group identities); and the scarcity value as a criterion of the need for protection. The concepts applying, for instance, to natural or cultural landscapes worth preserving or protecting are widely regulated by international agreements, if possible, involving the population affected and important groups of civil society.

17With these two rules, the logic of the integrative concept of HGF attributes to cultural aspects of sustainable development an independent function equivalent to the other aspects.

4 The Politico-societal Level

18In the sustainability strategy of the German federal government (cf. Bundesregierung 2002), which can also be classified as an integrative approach, it is not the individual dimensions which constitute the point of departure and the structural framework, but four cross-cutting principles:

  • Intergenerational justice
  • Quality of life
  • Social cohesion
  • International responsibility
  • 3 In the author’s opinion, this is the first time this concept appears in an official document in su (...)

19These are then put into concrete terms in thematic fields and indicators. Compared to other national sustainability strategies and other documents, this strategy deals with the subject of culture and sustainability in a relatively reflected way. Mention is made of the fact that the implementation of sustainable development challenged creative potentials in a society which were decisively based on cultural capabilities. Hence, a “culture of sustainability”3 should be developed in which imagination and creativity had to be employed to arrive at visions going beyond conventional technical and efficiency-oriented approaches. Culture is seen as an important part of quality of life, and cultural diversity is regarded as just as important as biodiversity. Reference is made to a “culture of mutual co-operation” necessary to implement sustainable development, and contributions by contemporary art are attributed an important function in the process leading to sustainable development. This makes the German strategy one of the very few documents assigning to this sector of culture an explicit role in creating wider awareness in this realm.

20However, if one considers the actual way in which the four guiding principles were put into effect in the 21 thematic fields and 25 indicators, i. e. the real core of the strategy (see Table 2), one finds already at this point that the “philosophy” referred to in the introductory parts was not properly put into effect. Also the different key topics emphasized (climate protection, mobility, or land consumption), which were partly modified and amended in the biannual progress reports about the strategy and the strategic approaches outlined and taken up in the progress reports show hardly any reference to these aspects. This again reveals a persistent phenomenon diagnosed in the debate about sustainability policy, namely the discrepancy between announcements and implementation, between theory and the daily practice of real politics.

Table 2: Structure of the German Sustainability Strategy

Table 2: Structure of the German Sustainability Strategy

Source: Bundesregierung 2002

21In the same connection, the level of local Agenda-21 initiatives must be mentioned which, for a long time, played a pioneering role in putting the guiding principle into effect from the beginning of the so-called Rio follow-up process in the early 1990s. This function has lost much of its significance over the past few years, at the latest with the publication of a national sustainability strategy. While Germany and other countries were still in a growth phase up until the end of the 1990s, as far as the number of local initiatives is concerned, there has since been a phase of settling and consolidation. This is due to the gradual disappearance of numerous initiatives but, at the same time, associated with an increase in quality of those remaining. This is expressed especially in a paradigm shift away from focusing mainly on the environment and classical economics in favour of local sustainability strategies. This clearly expands the system of targets and criteria, frequently guided by existing “overarching strategies” at the levels of federal states or the national level. In some very rare exceptions, a systematic system of municipal sustainability management is being built up, based, among other things, on more systematically qualified processes of participation, the “citizen municipality” model, “good governance” approaches, and clear roadmaps of specific strategies of implementation.

22At the same time, two emerging trends and perspectives, respectively, on a local level can be recognized: On the one hand, there is a tendency favoring so-called metropolitan regions as one possible approach towards improved positioning of regions in global development and competition processes and, on the other hand, more attention is devoted to small towns and their roles and potentials for sustainable development. The focus here is on the importance of these towns in regional economic systems and their potential to act as “substantive niches” in globalized processes. At the same time, an opportunity is seen in this way to put more emphasis on the importance of local traditions, identities and cultures, to preserve their diversity and, in this way, to develop small towns into potential “nuclei” of sustainability.

23Still, it must be said quite generally that regions and municipalities at an early stage were seen as suitable places of cultural development, and thus also of sustainable development, but to this day cultural aspects have not achieved any central importance on that level. Issues of culture more likely are attributed to a different dimension (mostly to the “social” dimension) and not considered an independent area. The criteria used, and the topics treated, rather revolve around the numbers of theatres or cinemas available, or the number of visitors to museums, and only in very rare cases there is a search for, or strengthening of, regional identities, ways of adequate societal coexistence, or the like. Finally, only a small number of examples of successful political implementations of these declarations of intent can be found today.

24In addition to those referred to above, there are various other documents and activities showing that the subject of sustainable development and culture has already been addressed in a reflected way. Here reference is made to three of those documents: on the one hand, the 1996 report by the UN World Commission on “Culture and Development”, entitled “Our Creative Diversity” (cf. WCCD 1996), which is based on the world report of 1991. It considers the search for, and formulation of, a “global ethics” as an important step and a result of global cultural development. Such ethics is to incorporate values, for instance human rights, democracy, or transparency, as well as tolerance and solidarity. It also asks for better implementation at a political level, especially for more weight to be attached to cultural aspects in development politics, stronger emphasis put on diversity and balance instead of according peculiarities, and for the establishment of an action plan to that effect. That plan was published by UNESCO in 1998 under the title of “The Power of Culture” in an effort to link cultural policy more closely to matters and politics of development (cf. UNESCO 1998). This action plan refers to the establishment of development strategies more sensitive to culture as a core duty based on the fundamental understanding that sustainable development and cultural creativity, diversity, and development are interdependent. This incorporates a clearer definition of cultural rights as human rights, but also of topics such as equal access of people to the different media. Consequently, key duties of cultural policy are found to be the need to establish targets (where possible also quantitative in nature), and create the structural preconditions of, and the means for, generating human creativity and corresponding self-development.

  • 4 Cf.

25In Germany, this area was covered in 2001 by the “Tutzinger Manifest für die Stärkung der kulturell-ästhetischen Dimension von Nachhaltigkeit” (“Tutzing Manifesto for Strengthening the Cultural-aesthetic Dimension of Sustainability”).4 The origin of that initiative was the meeting on “The Aesthetics of Sustainability,” organized by the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing, among others. The meeting and the Manifesto were to create greater public awareness of the fact that sustainable development must be considered a cultural challenge, and that sustainability policy and cultural policy must be interlinked more closely. Major challenges are seen in the fact that implementation of the demanding principle of sustainability will require substantial changes in societal norms, values, and action patterns, and that culture must successfully be considered and used as a means of reflecting value orientations and of balancing various criteria and interests. For this purpose, the approaches used in the different Agenda-21 processes and in cultural policy must be intertwined more closely, and culture must be seen as a cross-cutting dimension relative to other dimensions. The Manifesto also makes a special point of the need to look for specific patterns, forms, and aesthetics of sustainability and use them to enhance the fascination and attractiveness of the guiding principle to people. The importance of the interaction between natural and social scientific strategies and the cultural-aesthetic competence to share the “sustainability project” must be emphasized and made more evident to people by including competent players.

  • 5 Cf.

26Finally, in 2006, the “Culture and Arts for Sustainable Development” manifesto was written by, among others, the Kulturpolitische Gesellschaft, Bonn, the Evangelische Akademie, Iserlohn, and Pan y Arte e. V., Münster5. The document was to stress the need for closer co-operation between foreign cultural policy and development policy, and to make proposals of practical implementation. It is based on the reasoning that intercultural co-operation and the perception of, and dealing with, the world views of other cultures constitute important preconditions of a common perception of global responsibility and common global sustainable development. This is the basis on which principles were formulated for an enlarged cultural foreign policy of Germany. They refer to the importance of culture as a fifth dimension added to the quadrangle of development politics, the necessary co-operation of the government with civil society, the role of federal states and municipalities in this process, the enhanced co-operation of non-governmental organizations in Germany and developing countries, up to the demand to include cultural objectives in the list of millennium development goals of the United Nations.

5 Conclusion and Perspectives

27All these examples show that we suffer from a twofold deficit in sustainable development and culture (cf. Kurt/Wagner 2002; RNE 2002): on the one hand, a persistent clear deficit in taking into account cultural aspects in the sustainability debate at all levels. This has many reasons, one of which certainly is that in a modern society characterized by functional differentiation, pluralization of ways of life, and individualization of lifestyles, a guiding concept as complex as that of sustainable development, or the complicated cause-effect relations of environmental problems, are difficult to illustrate by clear pictures and hard to make people aware of. Moreover, exhortations to change individual behaviour clash with elementary ingrained patterns of behaviour, and the possibilities to solve problems by individual behaviour are perceived as a mere drop in the bucket. There is another deficit in the sustainability debate, namely that many cases still are narrowed down to environmental aspects, technical approaches to problem solving or orientation by the efficiency principle.

28On the other hand, there is also a deficit in reflecting on sustainability among players and politicians in the cultural sector. Where this principle is treated at all in culture and the arts, the outcome frequently is a restricted view of its environmental aspects.

29These examples also show at least that there are approaches towards a more reflected, more extensive way of handling the cultural dimension as well as proposals of specific steps in implementation, and a debate to this effect seems to have been started. However, what is still missing in many ways are appropriate steps in political implementation as well as effective activities in civil society at a national and local as well as international level.

30It is safe to say that the concept of sustainability is still reflected and anchored in society to an insufficient degree and that there are major deficits in what may be called sustainability policy. In many cases, there are no clear targets, and where they exist, there is frequently a lack of political measures to be taken. In many problem areas, this is associated with the same inadequacy of results. These problem areas, after all, did not arise out of the blue but, as a rule, were caused by specific – cultural – patterns of behaviour.

31Consequently, a “culture of sustainable development” or a cultural shift towards sustainability would be necessary in the sense of the guiding principle becoming an integral part of patterns of thought and behaviour as well as of political decisions. In analogy with the “toothbrush example” mentioned above, it could be said that we “possess” such a “culture of sustainable development” (after all, some approaches are already in existence), that we are also able to apply it (for we know at least theoretically what ought to be done), but – unlike the toothbrush case – we do not do so, at least not to the necessary extent.

32This is not the place to discuss why this is the case. However, some major elements will be outlined which ought to give rise to such a “culture of sustainable development”. First of all, reference should be made to the need for “changed cultures” in the groups of societal players. In science as one of the major providers of orientation and advice to society, one very central element would be for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary handling of questions to constitute the rule rather than the exception, for which, of course, the necessary institutional, structural, administrative, and also financial preconditions would have to be established. In the economy, especially more awareness and suitable incentives would have to be created for responsible action in business in the interest of sustainability, which could be gauged by standardized criteria, where possible, and whose outcome could be made transparent and published. Finally, it ought to be possible to create conditions for closer integration of sustainability criteria in the personal criteria for decision-making of people.

33All this requires an adequate “code” being created in the form of politico-institutional framework conditions. These would have to comprise the definition of targets, the execution of target-oriented measures, and the appropriate control mechanisms, but also an element as important as systematic monitoring of laws and draft legislation for their potential impact on sustainability. This would have to be associated with a changed culture of societal decision-making processes, for instance, with respect to adequate participation of stakeholders or the question of the competent geographic-political level in the sense of the subsidiarity principle.

34Moreover, also some of the “big issues” should be raised again, or in a modified way and, if possible, should be answered as well. This refers especially to the role quantitative economic growth will be able to play in a future resource-related finite world, and what societies and economic systems, respectively, could be like which would have to function with less or no growth. In this connection, there is also need for a redefinition of what we mean by “progress”, “prosperity”, or “quality of life”, and how we want to measure them. The debate in the 1970s about the need for, and shape of, a new world economic order is another issue to be clarified, as is the question of a feasible global governance architecture for adequate management of the globalization processes in industry, politics, and society.

35This would have to be associated with the dissemination and popularization of relatively new concepts and ideas associated with them. Examples proving this point, for instance, are the “culture of moderate economic activity”, which bears in mind the different limiting factors as well as the consequences of economic activities, or the “culture of the market” in the sense of “adding ethics to the markets”, which means that, above and beyond the classical criteria of market control by supply and demand, the socio-economic distribution of goods and services traded via markets would be assigned adequate importance.

36The real challenge is posed not so much by the individual elements of such a culture of sustainable development, some of which have been addressed here and which, per se, are rarely absolutely new, but rather the need to put this into effect jointly, where possible, and create the necessary preconditions, respectively.

37When dealing with the conditions and possibilities of implementing this cultural shift within the broad concept of culture as defined above, it is necessary to find a meaningful measure of objectifiability in order to assess the compatibility of economic or social developments with these goals of cultural shift and, where necessary, take controlling action. On the other hand, beyond all objectifiability, it is also necessary in a society to keep working towards integrating this principle of sustainability into the different action systems. The “culture of sustainable development” would then mean incorporation of the principle into our everyday life and our functional systems (see Wehrspaun/Schoembs 2002). Support by players from the arts and culture in the narrower sense of the term is of considerable importance also for this to work. Consequently, increased initiation and better promotion of good practical examples are urgently required in order to show that it has been, or is, possible to work for better perception and suitability for everyday use, of the principle of sustainability to achieve the desired improved broad impact.

38[This article has already been published in German in Parodi, O.; Banse, G.; Schaffer, A. (eds.): Wechselspiele: Kultur und Nachhaltigkeit. Annäherungen an ein Spannungsfeld. Berlin: edition sigma 2010, pp. 43-57.]



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1 Cf.

2 Cf.

3 In the author’s opinion, this is the first time this concept appears in an official document in such clear words.

4 Cf.

5 Cf.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: System of Sustainability Rules
Légende Source: Compiled after Kopfmüller et al. 2001, pp. 172, 174
Fichier image/jpeg, 371k
Titre Table 2: Structure of the German Sustainability Strategy
Légende Source: Bundesregierung 2002
Fichier image/jpeg, 240k


Dipl.-Volkswirt; Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT), Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse (ITAS) / Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS); Karlsruhe, Germany;


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