‘Weak’ versus ‘strong’ sustainability

The dominant worldview among western and ‘developed’ nations is that of the growth paradigm: unbounded economic growth is the key to continuously raising living standards and prosperity around the globe. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some in government, that the idea of infinite economic growth in a finite world is an outdated worldview.

Despite collective failure to set globally-binding CO2 emission standards, some countries have individually begun to embrace various conceptions of ‘sustainability.’ How societies and governments define sustainability has far-reaching implications for the types of decision making tools and policy measures they can implement. As it turns out, not all conceptions of sustainability are created equal.

Conceptions of sustainability

Worldviews, decision making tools, and policy approaches can be loosely categorized as either ‘weak’ sustainability or ‘strong’ sustainability. It is a purely academic exercise to categorize them as such, but it does shed light on the larger value systems that inform individual behavior and national policy.

‘Weak’ sustainability is still a fundamentally anthropocentric orientation, with social equity and environmental protection regarded as subordinate to sustainable economic growth. The focus is often on creating more efficient supply-side economies through integrating ‘ecosystem services’ into the market. Great hope is placed on technological solutions to issues of energy and resource availability. The concept of ecological limits to growth is still questioned. Many governments and corporations have begun to implement this understanding of sustainability.

‘Strong’ sustainability, on the other hand, reverses the order of priority and gives precedence to ecological scale over economic efficiency. Social equity, it is believed, is best achieved by restoring ecosystem health, recognizing ecological tipping points and cultivating system resilience. New economic indicators of well-being and quality of life are advocated (over more simplistic standards of living) and market-based solutions that impose monetary values on life and “ecosystem services” are rejected on moral grounds. As changes in supply-side efficiencies only address part of the issue, the role of consumption patterns are also stressed.

‘Weak’ sustainability in practice

The US and EU have increasingly embraced ‘weak’ sustainability policy measures to regulate such things as air quality and pollution, carbon emissions, and fisheries management. Carbon markets and air quality regulations, such as those recently delayed by President Obama, are designed by assigning market values to such things as CO2 emissions and health impacts from air pollution – they are fundamentally market-based responses that strive to encourage economic growth while recognizing ecological health concerns.

As is clear from the battles between the EPA and pro-business conservatives in Congress, environmental protection is still seen as a threat to economic growth by many. However, as is increasingly evident in the EU, formulating environmental policies in the language of market-based economics can successfully convince business and government of the fundamental interconnections between healthy economies and healthy ecosystems.

‘Strong’ sustainability in practice

A small number of countries have taken policy measures into the realm of ‘strong’ sustainability – and thus embraced a radically different worldview. Bolivia, for example, led by indigenous President Evo Morales, recently passed a Law for Mother Earth, effectively affirming the rights of nature “to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” Implicit in these rights is the idea that the Earth is a living, self-organizing entity that has rights equal to or greater than human beings, who are just one species in the whole community of life.

This law thus affirms the primacy of ecosystem health and resilience over economic growth – a profound paradigmatic shift. This is not a complete rejection of modern economics necessarily – Bolivia is still heavily involved in resource extraction and global trade. However, it entails a significant shift in values and economic priorities where human and non-human flourishing is acknowledged as the true goal of economic activity.

Specific policy approaches are still being developed to fit this new (or old) worldview, but potential examples include adaptive natural resource management systems that understand and account for overall ecosystem health and resilience, and more participatory democratic processes that empower citizens and limit corporate power.

The question arises then as to which of these approaches to sustainability will actually achieve the quickest and most dramatic changes in global consumption and production patterns. Should the language and tools of the status quo be employed to induce change quickly in the business world – a strategy which risks that the needed paradigmatic shift won’t take place in the long-run? Or should a completely different ecological worldview be formulated and communicated to encourage the paradigm shift – though refusing to use market tools that might undermine the new paradigm may alienate some political and business leaders?

Share your thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “‘Weak’ versus ‘strong’ sustainability

  1. It’s unlikely that “soft” sustainability will EVER succeed. It will always be the first thing given up when times get hard or businessmen whine. So let’s not even call it “sustainability”——“eco-washing” might be closer to the truth.

    The real question (to my mind) is how to persuade the wealthy white men who are in power (in the U.S. at least) that hard sustainability is in their best interests. This is no easy feat, when a potential candidate for President can continue to claim that global warming/climate change is an unproven rumor while most of his state is being devoured by freak wildfires (though it DOES make you wonder what Mother Nature will have to do to get the bozo’s attention).

    Hope you folks out there at Hogwarts come up with a good answer real soon! (tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes…oh my!)

    Best to you, Chris!
    Kathleen Paul

  2. Pingback: Growing the Economy | Sense and Sustainability

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