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Weak sustainability is a contradictio in adiecto

The term sustainability is a buzz word. However, its inflationary usage did not contribute to clarify what sustainability means after all. People dealing with the term sustainability usually refer to the Brundtland report’s definition of sustainability. There it is defined as meeting the needs of the present generation without comprising the ability to meet future generations’ needs. Indeed, this definition is vague. Apart from the discussion about what is a need, we have to ask ourselves how to achieve meeting present and future generations’ needs. There are usually three different aspects identified, that render the fulfilment of these needs possible. Humans have social/psychological needs and biophysical needs. These two cover social and environmental aspects of sustainability. Further, as the means of exchange is money, there is also an economic aspect of sustainability. Humans’ economic survival ensures their access to the needed (environmental) goods and to participate in social life. From this follows that these three aspects of sustainability are necessary to fulfil people’s needs. Environmental, social and economic capital are the very basis allowing the extraction of (intangible) commodities humans need for survival.

When we speak of capital we also have to think of how and with which rate this is generated and consumed. Over billions of years planet earth built up environmental capital that was the basis for humans to build up social capital and finally economic capital. Building up these newer forms of capital has been possible only through the reduction of environmental capital. A simple economic rationale is that one should keep the capital stock at least stable, otherwise one day no capital will be left. Thus a society and its economy should for example life only off the rent, rather than from the savings. If spending is larger than the production of capital humans go broke. Since sustainability has been split in three different aspects, the question is whether they are equally important, whether and to what extent humans should make trade-offs between them, hence whether the different capitals should be kept stable overall or rather individually. These questions make up the main differences between the two different interpretations of sustainability; weak and strong sustainability.

The weak sustainability interpretation allows trade-offs between these different forms of capital to a much larger extent as the strong sustainability interpretation. It is clear that supporters of the weak sustainability interpretation can only reason the overall aliment with sustainability by claiming that all three forms of capital together need to be stable. Reduction of environmental capital today, allows the investment in technologies that will permit future generations to live with less resources (without reducing the well-being) and to substitute future scarce resources with other more affluent ones.

However, following the example of agriculture the article The idea of weak sustainability is illegitimate illustrates that this weak sustainability interpretation does not lead to a sustainable future. Even if resource efficiencies were accomplished, they caused the creation of new problems. Decoupling agricultural production from agricultural land was only possible through massive inputs, that are causing problems ranging from biodiversity loss, over water pollution to soil degradation.

This and other examples give clear indications that weak sustainability was buying time, but not solving problems. The costs of this deal unravel bit by bit, but with increasing clarity and severity. Therefore, the authors of the article came to the conclusion that weak sustainability is a contradictio in adiecto. Hence, the whole idea of weak sustainability is illegitimate. The authors hope that this conclusion will support the international community in moving forward in entering the era of sustainability.

Article info: Biely, K., Maes, D. & Van Passel, S. (2016): The idea of weak sustainability is illegitimate. In: Environ Dev Sustain. doi:10.1007/s10668-016-9878-4

The article has been written within the Horizon 2020 project SUFISA (Grant Agreement No. 635577).


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