One World Comes to One Country?
: Governing Sustainable Development from the Johannesburg Summit

  • Carl Simon Death

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis interrogates the political effects of sustainable development discourse as seen through the lens of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg, South Africa. By approaching sustainable development from the perspective of Michel Foucault’s work on power, discourse and government, it argues that negotiations at the Summit re-orientated sustainable development in terms of cooperation, consensus and voluntary partnerships. By showing how summits are more than just institutional mechanisms for producing agreement but are also stages on which theatrical and symbolic modes of exemplary politics are performed, the thesis draws attention to how the WSSD functioned as a key technique of exemplary governmentality. Yet the Summit also facilitated the emergence of new constellations of political actors, and provided a stage for myriad political protests and demonstrations. One of these protests – a mass march on 31 August 2002 – was the largest anti-government protest in South Africa since the end of Apartheid. By approaching these protests as Foucauldian ‘counter-conducts’ rather than ‘pure’ acts of resistance or revolution, the thesis shows how they were implicated within forms of advanced liberal rule. As such the thesis contributes to a discursive understanding of sustainable development in the post-Johannesburg era; to an appreciation of the evolving role of global summits as forms of theatrical exemplary government; and to the political effects of resistance and protest. It concludes that the WSSD worked to make politically sustainable a global order which is manifestly unsustainable – whilst also providing opportunities for the status quo to be protested and resisted.
Date of Award03 Feb 2009
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council
SupervisorRita Abrahamsen (Supervisor) & Ayla Gol (Supervisor)


  • South Africa
  • Michel Foucault

Cite this