Vol. 9 Núm. 1 (2022)

Sustainability as a meta-narrative: the semantics of global governance? A systems-theoretical and concept-historical analysis

Marco Billi
Adjunct Professor, School of Government, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez (UAI). Researcher at Center for Climate and Resilience Research (CR2), Systemic Transdisciplinary Studies Hub (NEST-R3) and Institute of Public Affairs (INAP), University of Chile. PhD Political Processes and Institutions, UAI. Mg. Systems Analysis applied to Society, University of Chile. MSc. Economics, School of Economics and Business, L. Bocconi University.

Germán Marchant
Young Researcher, NEST-R3. Mg(c) Systems Analysis applied to Society, University of Chile. MSc. Psychology, University of Chile.

Gonzalo Bustamante
Full professor and researcher, School of Liberal Arts, UAI. PhD Culture of Economics, Erasmus University de Rotterdam. MSc. Philosophy, Universidad Católica de Santiago.

Código DOI:



137 - 169


Jul 27, 2022

Palabras Claves


Sustainability has become a ubiquitous concept in modern society, but its inherent ambiguity makes it a source of enduring controversy. While the mainstream narrative has striven to make it the fundamental telos of all human activities, counter-narrative accounts have tended to treat it as an empty, rhetorical catchword potentially used to justify imperialism. Not siding with either of these interpretations, this manuscript delves into how sustainability is, becomes, and endures as a concept, in addition to the performative effects it engenders in modern society. In particular, we argue that sustainability has functioned as a semantic horizon and meta-narrative that allowed modern governance to emerge and become the new global rationality. The paper takes an analytical approach based on conceptual history and sociology, observing concepts as webs of meanings in relation to latent social structures. On this basis, the paper provides a conceptual-historical reconstruction of the emergence, core meaning and communicative performance of sustainability semantics, followed by a reflection on its relation to governance. The manuscript concludes, first, that sustainability emerges as a way to overcome the communications paradox involved in the reciprocal interdependence between society and its environment. Second, that the current communicational success of sustainability semantics derives from its ability to combine flexibility and coherence across the cognitive and normative dimensions. And third, that this ability makes sustainability a common horizon of possibility (of meaning), in turn granting legitimacy and coherence to an emerging governance regime coordinating global efforts at steering and governing the interaction between society and its environment. 


1 This considers papers indexed in the Web of Science database. Query made on 22 August on the WoS Core Collection, between 1975 and 2020

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