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'Sustainable Development': Is it a Useful Concept?

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  • Wilfred Beckerman

Abstract

It is argued that 'sustainable development' has been defined in such a way as to be either morally repugnant or logically redundant. 'Strong' sustainability, overriding all other considerations, is morally unacceptable as well as totally impractical; and 'weak' sustainability, in which compensation is made for resources consumed, offers nothing beyond traditional economic welfare maximisation. The 'sustainability' requirement that human well-being should never be allowed to decline is shown to be irrational. Welfare economics can accommodate distributional considerations, and, suitably defined, the concept of welfare can include the subjective effects of changes in - as well as the levels of - well-being. Hence there is no reason why welfare maximisation should not remain an overriding policy objective. Nor can sustainability be regarded as a 'constraint' on welfare maximisation unless there is a clear conflict between the two - which has yet to be demonstrated. This is not to deny the importance of intergenerational justice, nor the need for economic incentives to correct market imperfections if the environment is to be managed in a socially optimal manner. Apart from a few small developing countries heavily dependent on minerals or other finite primary products, the measurement of some wider concept of 'sustainable' GNP is a waste of time and such estimates as have been made are virtually worthless.

Suggested Citation

  • Wilfred Beckerman, 1994. "'Sustainable Development': Is it a Useful Concept?," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 3(3), pages 191-209, August.
  • Handle: RePEc:env:journl:ev3:ev311
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh, 2014. "Sustainable development in ecological economics," Chapters,in: Handbook of Sustainable Development, chapter 3, pages 41-54 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    2. Schlör, Holger & Fischer, Wolfgang & Hake, Jürgen-Friedrich, 2012. "The meaning of energy systems for the genesis of the concept of sustainable development," Applied Energy, Elsevier, pages 192-200.
    3. Toman, Michael & Pezzey, John C., 2002. "The Economics of Sustainability: A Review of Journal Articles," Discussion Papers dp-02-03, Resources For the Future.
    4. Mircea Saveanu, 2014. "Sustainability as a Resource Distribution Constraint," Acta Universitatis Danubius. OEconomica, Danubius University of Galati, issue 10(2), pages 139-151, April.
    5. Hinterberger, Friedrich & Luks, Fred & Schmidt-Bleek, Friedrich, 1997. "Material flows vs. 'natural capital': What makes an economy sustainable?," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 23(1), pages 1-14, October.
    6. Hanley, Nick & Moffatt, Ian & Faichney, Robin & Wilson, Mike, 1999. "Measuring sustainability: A time series of alternative indicators for Scotland," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 28(1), pages 55-73, January.
    7. Emna Omri & Nouri Chtourou & Damien Bazin, 2015. "Solar Thermal Energy for Sustainable Development in Tunisia," Post-Print halshs-01070616, HAL.
    8. Garmendia, E. & Prellezo, R. & Murillas, A. & Escapa, M. & Gallastegui, M., 2010. "Weak and strong sustainability assessment in fisheries," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(1), pages 96-106, November.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    environmental policy; intergenerational justice; measurement of GNP; optimality; social discount rate; sustainability constraints; sustainable development; welfare maximisation;

    JEL classification:

    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty
    • H41 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods - - - Public Goods
    • I31 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - General Welfare, Well-Being
    • Q2 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation
    • Q5 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics

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