Of Limits and Growth: Global Environmentalism and the Rise of "Sustainable Development" in the Twentieth Century

Macekura, Stephen Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Leffler, Melvyn, Department of History, University of Virginia
Russell, Edmund, Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hitchcock, Will, Department of History, University of Virginia

Of Limits and Growth chronicles the relationship between environmentalism and international development from the 1940s through the 1990s. It highlights how concerns about decolonization and a global push for economic development motivated Western reformers to form international environmental NGOs at mid-century. After struggling to convince leaders of developing nations to adopt environmental protection policies during the 1950s and 1960s, environmental NGOs then focused their activism on the lenders of development aid, particularly the United States, World Bank, and United Nations. This project explores four major ways in which environmental NGOs attempted to reform development practice: through the promotion of small-scale, "appropriate" technologies; the incorporation of environmental reviews in the lending process; the adoption development planning models based on ecological principles; and by organizing international cooperation around environmental issues at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 and the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Based on materials from over twenty-five governmental and non-governmental archives in the United States, Europe, and Africa, this study demonstrates that the discourse and concept of "sustainable development" arose from the pressures exerted by environmental NGOs regarding international development during the 1960s and 1970s. While sustainable development has usually been considered the result of injecting ecological science into development policy, this project shows instead that it emerged from political negotiations in which leading environmentalists accommodated the developmental aspirations of Third World intellectuals and leaders. Furthermore, this dissertation elucidates the legal and political mechanisms created by NGOs to make lending agencies accountable for their effects on the environment. iii While these environmental protection measures have ushered in a new era of accountability, the close relationships between major NGOs and centers of power led many in the environmental community to wonder if this accountability came at the expense of more open access and democratic representation in major development institutions. By charting both changes in intellectual approaches to international development and institutional changes in developing lending, this project illuminates the ways in which environmentalists and development experts attempted to reconcile a persistent desire for economic growth with the imperatives of environmental protection.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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