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Sustainable Development within Planetary Boundaries: A Functional Revision of the Definition Based on the Thermodynamics of Complex Social-Ecological Systems


  • Bart Muys

    (Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Leuven, Belgium
    European Forest Institute, Mediterranean Regional Office, Barcelona, Spain)


The dominant paradigm of sustainable development (SD) where the environment is just the third pillar of SD has proven inadequate to keep humanity within the safe operational space determined by biophysical planetary boundaries. This implies the need for a revised definition compatible with a nested model of sustainable development, where humanity forms part of the overall social-ecological system, and that would allow more effective sustainable development goals and indicators. In this paper an alternative definition is proposed based on the thermodynamics of open systems applied to ecosystems and human systems. Both sub- systems of the global social-ecological system show in common an increased capability of buffering against disturbances as a consequence of an internal increase of order. Sustainable development is considered an optimization exercise at different scales in time and space based on monitoring the change in the exergy content and exergy dissipation of these two sub- systems of the social-ecological system. In common language it is the increase of human prosperity and well-being without loss of the structure and functioning of the ecosystem. This definition is functional as it allows the straightforward selection of quantitative indicators, discerning sustainable development from unsustainable development, unsustainable stagnation and sustainable retreat. The paper shows that the new definition is compatible with state of the art thinking on ecosystem services, the existence of regime shifts and societal transitions, and resilience. One of the largest challenges in applying the definition is our insufficient understanding of the change in ecosystem structure and function as an endpoint indicator of human action, and its effect on human prosperity and well-being. This implies the continued need to use midpoint indicators of human impact and related thresholds defining the safe operating space of the present generation with respect to future generations. The proposed definition can be considered a valuable complement to the recently emerged nested system discourse of sustainable development, by offering a more quantitative tool to monitor and guide the transition of human society towards a harmonious relationship with the rest of the biosphere.

Suggested Citation

  • Bart Muys, 2013. "Sustainable Development within Planetary Boundaries: A Functional Revision of the Definition Based on the Thermodynamics of Complex Social-Ecological Systems," Challenges in Sustainability, Librello publishing house, vol. 1(1), pages 41-52.
  • Handle: RePEc:lib:000cis:v:1:y:2013:i:1:p:41-52

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Norgaard, Richard B., 2010. "Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 69(6), pages 1219-1227, April.
    2. Neumayer, Eric, 2001. "The human development index and sustainability -- a constructive proposal," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 39(1), pages 101-114, October.
    3. Wackernagel, Mathis & Onisto, Larry & Bello, Patricia & Callejas Linares, Alejandro & Susana Lopez Falfan, Ina & Mendez Garcia, Jesus & Isabel Suarez Guerrero, Ana & Guadalupe Suarez Guerrero, Ma., 1999. "National natural capital accounting with the ecological footprint concept," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 29(3), pages 375-390, June.
    4. Richard Howarth & Richard Norgaard, 1993. "Intergenerational transfers and the social discount rate," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 3(4), pages 337-358, August.
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    More about this item


    anthropocene; Brundtland; dissipation; ecocrisis; entropy; exergy; pareto; resilience; self-organization; transition;

    JEL classification:

    • D11 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Theory
    • D12 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Empirical Analysis
    • D13 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Production and Intrahouse Allocation
    • D61 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Allocative Efficiency; Cost-Benefit Analysis
    • D78 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Positive Analysis of Policy Formulation and Implementation
    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty
    • F64 - International Economics - - Economic Impacts of Globalization - - - Environment
    • F68 - International Economics - - Economic Impacts of Globalization - - - Policy
    • I3 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty
    • O2 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Development Planning and Policy
    • O3 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights
    • O4 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity
    • Q - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics
    • R4 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - Transportation Economics
    • Y3 - Miscellaneous Categories - - Book Reviews
    • Z1 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics


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