Document Type


Publication Title

William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review

Publication Date

Fall 2002


The second session of the Global Preparatory Committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development opened on January 28, 2002, in New York. Three observations emerge from ten days of plenary meetings and “side events,” cacophony and sound bites, visions of a vibrant, pristine world in the dimly lit United Nations (“UN”) basement, dingy with cigarette smoke. First, there was no big picture, no meta-narrative of sustainable development. There is no grand theory, no neat framework to which a coherent set of rules can be applied, and under which subcategories can be organized and responsibilities allocated.

These three observations correspond to three concepts widely viewed as characteristically postmodern. First, the absence of a big picture corresponds to Jean-Francois Lyotard's definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward meta-narratives.” Second, the mad proliferation of projects reflects what geographer David Harvey describes as “the most startling fact about postmodernism...its total acceptance of...ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic.” Third, the contrast between the United States' key role in globalization, and its marginal role in the WSSD process, exemplifies critic Fredric Jameson's description of postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” These three distinct but related concepts provide a working definition of postmodern international law (“PIL and show how PIL can be used to define, albeit contingently, and to encourage greener globalization. From a postmodern perspective, to paraphrase Stanley Fish, there is no such thing as global governance, and it is a good thing, too. This does not mean that there is no governance, nor does it mean that additional (or improved) mechanisms for governance might not be useful. It does mean, however, that centralized, unified, global governance is unlikely to further “sustainable development,” especially as understood by the global have-nots. It also means that terms like “governance” and “improved” may themselves be problematic and subject to dispute. Thus, it may well be more constructive to deconstruct at this point, and PIL offers an array of tools for deconstruction and even subversion. Subversion is necessary, at least in part, because of the recalcitrance of the United States. The richest and most powerful country on the planet is unlikely to “do the right thing” as long as it is perceived as political suicide for democratically elected leaders o try to persuade the American people to significantly lower their standard of living.



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