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What is Sustainability?

Author

Listed:
  • Tom Kuhlman

    () (Agricultural Economics Research Institute, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 29703, 2502LS, The Hague, The Netherlands)

  • John Farrington

    () (Institute for Rural Research, Geography and Environment, University of Aberdeen, Elphinstone Road, Aberdeen AB24 3UF, Scotland, UK)

Abstract

Sustainability as a policy concept has its origin in the Brundtland Report of 1987. That document was concerned with the tension between the aspirations of mankind towards a better life on the one hand and the limitations imposed by nature on the other hand. In the course of time, the concept has been re-interpreted as encompassing three dimensions, namely social, economic and environmental. The paper argues that this change in meaning (a) obscures the real contradiction between the aims of welfare for all and environmental conservation; (b) risks diminishing the importance of the environmental dimension; and (c) separates social from economic aspects, which in reality are one and the same. It is proposed instead to return to the original meaning, where sustainability is concerned with the well-being of future generations and in particular with irreplaceable natural resources—as opposed to the gratification of present needs which we call well-being. A balance needs to be found between those two, but not by pretending they are three sides of the same coin. Although we use up natural resources at the expense of future generations, we also generate capital (including knowledge) which raises future well-being. A major question is to what extent the one compensates for the other. This debate centres around the problem of substitutability, which has been cast into a distinction between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ sustainability. It is argued that these two do not need to be in opposition but complement one another.

Suggested Citation

  • Tom Kuhlman & John Farrington, 2010. "What is Sustainability?," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 2(11), pages 1-13, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:gam:jsusta:v:2:y:2010:i:11:p:3436-3448:d:10073
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Solow, Robert M., 1997. "Georgescu-Roegen versus Solow-Stiglitz," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 22(3), pages 267-268, September.
    2. de Groot, Rudolf S. & Wilson, Matthew A. & Boumans, Roelof M. J., 2002. "A typology for the classification, description and valuation of ecosystem functions, goods and services," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 41(3), pages 393-408, June.
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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Gosens, Jorrit & Lu, Yonglong & He, Guizhen & Bluemling, Bettina & Beckers, Theo A.M., 2013. "Sustainability effects of household-scale biogas in rural China," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 54(C), pages 273-287.
    2. Robert L. Oxley & Larry W. Mays & Alan Murray, 2016. "Optimization Model for the Sustainable Water Resource Management of River Basins," Water Resources Management: An International Journal, Published for the European Water Resources Association (EWRA), Springer;European Water Resources Association (EWRA), vol. 30(9), pages 3247-3264, July.
    3. Gennady Shkliarevsky, 2015. "Squaring the Circle: In Quest for Sustainability," Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 32(6), pages 629-645, November.
    4. Michela Faccioli & Nicholas Hanley & Catalina M. Torres Figuerola & Antoni Riera Font, 2015. "Do we care about sustainability? An analysis of time sensitivity of social preferences under environmental time-persistent effects," DEA Working Papers 71, Universitat de les Illes Balears, Departament d'Economía Aplicada.
    5. Cook, David & Davidsdottir, Brynhildur & Petursson, Jón Geir, 2015. "Accounting for the utilisation of geothermal energy resources within the genuine progress indicator—A methodological review," Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Elsevier, vol. 49(C), pages 211-220.
    6. Abbas Nadim & Shaike Marom & Robert N. Lussier, 2016. "Sustainable Innovation: Design of an Active Adaptive Organization," Business and Economic Research, Macrothink Institute, vol. 6(2), pages 211-227, December.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    sustainability; well-being; welfare;

    JEL classification:

    • Q - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics
    • Q0 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - General
    • Q2 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation
    • Q3 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Nonrenewable Resources and Conservation
    • Q5 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics
    • Q56 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Environment and Development; Environment and Trade; Sustainability; Environmental Accounts and Accounting; Environmental Equity; Population Growth
    • O13 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Agriculture; Natural Resources; Environment; Other Primary Products

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