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Sustainable Development

Has sustainable development run its course? What should we do about it? Read what Peter Bartlemus, author of Sustainability Economics, has to say about it.

Sustainable development is like the Holy Grail: it appeals to everyone, many believe in its powers, no one has found it. Vague objectives of meeting human needs or increasing well-being and the quality of life make sustainable development an alluring notion, for which no one can be held accountable. The question is what should and could realistically be sustained. Is it the environment? The economy? Or is it all-encompassing development?

Sustainability Economics provides some answers. It is organized around three categories of sustainability that are the backbone of an emerging discipline of economics. Ecological sustainability deals with the resilience and carrying capacity of natural systems; it sustains people in territories at desirable standards of living. Economic sustainability seeks to maintain the fruits of economic growth, including output, income, consumption and well-being. Sustainability of development takes the high road of meeting the social, economic, environmental and institutional needs and wants of the present and future generations.

Implementing sustainability faces the reality test of measurability. What can be measured can be rationally managed; what cannot be measured can be important, but tends to be subject to politics rather than policy. The book explores the assessment and use and usefulness of the different sustainability concepts.

Physical indicators such as the weight of pollutants and natural resources or area of land use measure ecological sustainability and sustainable development. They are difficult to add up and compare. Their use for defining and sustaining environmental quality and development remains fuzzy. Setting goals and standards helps, but reflects the values and judgements of goal setters.

Economics uses money as a common measuring rod for a huge amount of diverse production and consumption activities. In principle, prices reflect the preferences of enterprises and consumers for scare goods and services. Where markets do not exist or fail, as in the case of natural resources ‘in the public domain’ and sinks for pollutants, different valuation techniques can find their ‘social’ costs and benefits. Some valuations resort to unrealistic models of optimality or the sustainability of human well-being. The greening of the world-wide adopted national accounts and their well-known indicators of output, income and capital is more practical: it defines and measures economic sustainability as the maintenance of produced and natural capital. Other less tangible or ‘irreplaceable’ types of human, social and critical natural capital are more difficult to measure; they need to be taken into account when pursuing more comprehensive and ‘stronger’ sustainability growth and development.

Narrowly defined economic sustainability stands a better chance of success than holistic visions of sustainable development. Sustainability economics and its greened indicators and accounts generate the benchmarks for practical policies that sustain both, the environment and the economy. Much goodwill still rides, however, on sustainable development; it also reminds us that non-countables do count even if the setting of goals has to rely on subjective norms and values.

If this sounds complex and controversial – it is! But let us not forget: the sustainability of our environment and economies affects vital issues of wealth and health, not only now but also in the future. Sustainability Economics cuts through much of the fog of abstract theories and jargon in a concise non-technical introduction. Numerous illustrations sum up issues that would indeed need a thousand words to do them justice. Annotated further reading guides to these words. Pointed questions invite further review and discussion. Finally, an electronic annex, available as a free download, presents a syllabus for a course on sustainability economics that would complement the more traditional teaching of economics and the life sciences.

Related Products

  1. Sustainability Economics

    An Introduction

    By Peter Bartelmus

    Series: Routledge Textbooks in Environmental and Agricultural Economics

    The book is a concise introduction to an emerging field within economics. Drawing on numerous disciplines, including environmental science, environmental and ecological economics and optimal growth theory, sustainability remains a hazy and complex subject. The author set out with two objectives:...

    Published May 11th 2012 by Routledge