[Over an extended period ZNet has been publishing excerpts of chapters from Robin Hahnel’s latest book, Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis, available from M.E. Sharpe. Excerpts published here are not the full chapters which are made available inside the book. More information about the book and links to purchase it are below. Or, if you want, first, go to previous excerpts: Introduction / Chapter 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9]
It is tempting to seek refuge in the words of former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, who, when asked to define pornography famously said, “I shall not today attempt to define it, but I know it when I see it.” In the case of sustainable development, a more modest claim might be, “I am not sure what it is, but I am quite sure what it is not.” Or we could attempt to browbeat anyone who persists in pressing for a definition by taunting, “If you are still asking for a definition, you are asking the wrong question.” Finally, when exasperation has become unbearable, perhaps we should blurt out the naked truth: “Sustainable development is what we want, stupid!” ….
A Workable Definition
A workable definition for sustainable development? If this chapter was good for nothing else, it should have served as a clear warning: “Be careful what you ask for. You might get it!”
Sustainable means repeatable. However, humans in the modern age have not been content with survival, or repeating the same activities, with the same results, year after year. We now generally aspire to more. We hope to progress, and we hope to progress along many dimensions. I think the word sustainable can best be used as a warning about dangers we must avoid during our quest for progress if we do not wish to compromise the prospects of those who will follow us in ways that cannot be justified. In other words, sustainability is ultimately about intergenerational equity.
If the prospects of the next generation depended only on how much seed corn they had to work with on average, the traditional economic concept of maintaining the seed stock would be a sufficient condition for intergenerational equity. When “seed stock” became hoes, plows, and tractors as well as seeds, the notion that as long as the capital stock as a whole equipped our descendants with the means to be as productive as we were sufficed. But when we came to our senses and realized that the world was filling fast—that per capita stocks of different components of natural capital were already scarce and shrinking fast—sufficient conditions for intergenerational equity became both more complicated and more stringent. In truth, methodological problems associated with aggregation of different components of the capital stock, as well as practical questions of substitutability, became troublesome issues as soon as hoes were added to seed corn. But these problems became acute as soon as we realized that the prospects of the next generation depend on how much natural capital they will have to work with as well as how much produced capital we will leave them. And since the environment also provides a variety of vital sink services that do not neatly fit the metaphor of capital as enhancer of human productivity, the problem of defining how development—that is, human progress—could simultaneously be sustainable—that is, not compromise the ability of future generations to continue to develop—became even more problematic. So… here is an attempt to combine what we should now understand is a complicated matter into a definition:
• WHEREAS the natural environment provides valuable services both as the source of resources and as sinks to process wastes,
• WHEREAS the regenerative capacity of different components of the natural environment and ecosystems contained therein are limited,
• WHEREAS ecosystems are complex, contain self-reinforcing feedback dynamics that can accelerate their decline, and often have thresholds that are difficult for us to pinpoint,
• WHEREAS passing important environmental thresholds can be irreversible,
• WHEREAS some social institutions are similar to natural ecosystems in displaying valuable characteristics and responding unpredictably to intervention,
• WE, the present generation, now understand that while striving to meet our economic needs more fairly, democratically, and efficiently, we must not impair the ability of future generations to meet their needs and continue to progress.
• In particular, WE, the present generation, understand that intergenerational equity requires leaving future generations conditions at least as favorable as those we enjoy. These conditions include what have been commonly called produced capital, human capital, natural capital, ecosystem sink services, technical knowledge, and perhaps social capital as well.
• Since the degree to which different kinds of capital and sink services can or cannot be substituted for one another is uncertain and since some changes are irreversible, WE, the present generation, also understand that intergenerational equity requires us to apply the precautionary principle with regard to what is an adequate substitution for some favorable part of overall conditions that we allow to deteriorate. The burden of proof must lie with those among US who argue that a natural resource or sink service, or a valuable social institution that we permit to deteriorate on our watch, is fully and adequately substituted for by some other component of the inheritance we bequeath our heirs.
Green Economics: Confronting the Ecological Crisis by Robin Hahnel is available from M.E. Sharpe.
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