50 years of Sustainability in the UN: A Genealogy

Kristoffer Østergaard Bruun Kristensen & Milad Azim

Student thesis: Master thesis


This thesis examines the emergence and development of the United Nations’ discourse about ‘sustainability’. Sustainability or sustainable development has increasingly become the most important measure for all institutions, companies and countries when planning for the future. And for some individuals living a sustainable life is the most ideal way of living. But what does this mean? And how has sustainability evolved into this ubiquitous discourse that influences almost every part of the world we live in today? These questions are far too grand to fit into one thesis, but this thesis will try to answer a small part of these grand questions by focussing on the United Nations and its communication about sustainability. The UN has been the main contributor in the world’s actions against man made climate changes, which is why the UN is this thesis’ point of interest when examining the sustainability discourse. The thesis seeks to answer this very question: How has the UN concept of sustainability evolved over time and how has the concept of sustainability assigned responsibility for action? In answering this question, the thesis’ focus is to make a historical discourse analysis of the UN’s communication about sustainability. Operationalizing Michel Foucault’s terms about genealogy and archaeology provide this thesis with an historical discourse analysis that shows significant changes and elements of discontinuity in the UN’s discourse about sustainability in the period between 1972-2022. The analysis of UN communication shows that the discourse’s subjectification has changed over time. In the beginning of the period the developing countries were described as being more harmful to the environment and therefore needed support from the developed countries. Later on, concepts of science are being included in the discourse with the effect that the industrial countries are being made responsible for creating most of the pollution of greenhouse gases. In the end of the period, we are observing how the discourse manages to objectify the lifestyle of individuals by establishing relations to terms like consumption and lifestyle. During the analysis we observe how a change in one of the dicourse’s conditions results in changes in the existing conditions as well. The findings of the analysis are being discussed at the end of the thesis. In this part the thesis uses Foucault’s governmentality phrase to discuss how the existence of power in the sustainability discourse produces the possibility of conduct of conduct.

EducationsMSocSc in Political Communication and Managment, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2022
Number of pages103
SupervisorsAnders la Cour