What does “sustainability” really mean?

A farmer from the Sikh community works near the Guru Hargobind coal-fired power plant, Punjab, India. Pollutants are repeatedly released into the air and onto the field – which is associated with health problems.
19.2.2021
Article as analysis
Reflections on an overused concept, the aspirations of which are controversial even in academia. A change of paradigm is needed.

The word “sustainability” is on everyone’s lips – we shop “sustainably”, we travel “sustainably”, companies extol their own “sustainable” strategies, in fact, even the financial centre is striving for “sustainability”. Glencore, Nestlé, Credit Swiss or UBS – every website today contains more or less extensive documentation on the subject. But there are as many approaches to and definitions of the real meaning of sustainability as there are players claiming sustainability for themselves and their activities. Sustainability is often seen as combining economic profit and growth criteria with environmental criteria, in other words, with a production and/or consumption approach that is as climate and resource-friendly as possible. Other players expand this approach even further by adding social requirements (for example, well-paid and dignified work, gender justice, etc.). Ever since the advent of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, there has also been an ever more frequent tendency to single out specific goals from among the 17 in order to demonstrate commitment to sustainability.

A first official definition of “sustainable development” can be found in the1987 Brundtland Report. It speaks of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." For the first time, the report underscored the interconnectedness of all economic, social and environmental processes. Accordingly, sustainability is often portrayed as a 3-pillar model – or alternatively as three overlapping circles – with sustainability being achieved when all three pillars are consolidated, or when the circles show a great degree of overlap.

But how precisely do these three dimensions relate to one another? Can all three dimensions be given equal weight? And what is the connection between economic growth and sustainability?

Weak and strong sustainability

The experts are also divided on these questions. The biggest differences within the academic debate are exemplified by proponents of so-called “weak sustainability”, versus those of “strong sustainability”. Both camps accept the premise that human prosperity comprises different types of capital:

  • Man-made capital (infrastructure, buildings, machinery, etc.)
  • Natural capital, which encompasses resources required for production processes (including wood, water, minerals), as well as those relevant to life itself (biodiversity, atmosphere, ecosystems, etc.)
  • Human capital (education, health, etc.)
  • Social capital (e.g., interpersonal relations, values)
  • Financial capital

Both camps deem sustainability to exist when the sum of the various forms of capital is either maintained or increased, so that the prosperity of future generations is not compromised.

However, advocates of “weak sustainability” proceed from the premise that the various types of capital are mutually interchangeable and only the sum of them needs to be preserved or increased, but not each and every type of capital. In their view, this means that a system is already sustainable if, for example, natural capital is consumed by being transformed into man-made capital and thereby increases the stock of the latter. They counter the problem of worsening resource shortages and environmental degradation by pointing to technological progress (which, notably, occurs through the transformation of natural capital into man-made capital). Supporters of this concept of sustainability, which is still widespread in political and economic circles, assume that economic growth is a necessary precondition for human well-being and prosperity and that the associated technical progress can be harnessed to resolve environmental problems.

For their part, advocates of “strong sustainability” argue that natural capital is not simply replaceable by other types of capital. They point to planetary limits as well as geophysical and biophysical tipping points which – once surpassed – can trigger irreversible processes that endanger particular species or all life on earth (the melting of Arctic ice or the destruction of the Amazon are examples of such tipping points). Proponents of this sustainability model point to planetary limits to growth and make the case for contextualising the three dimensions of sustainability so as to illustrate more clearly our dependence on our natural environment. They therefore opt for another representation of sustainability (see Figure below) to show that the three dimensions do not exist independently of each other but rather that we as a society are part of our natural environment. The economy itself does not exist independently of society and environment but is an integral part of social life on the planet and is shaped by society.

Sustainable development – a contradiction?

Different exponents of “strong sustainability” (such as Deep Ecology and Ecological Economics) essentially reject the idea of “sustainable development”, as they view sustainability and development – often treated as synonymous with economic growth – as two incompatible concepts. They stress that the political debate on “sustainable development” (including the 2030 Agenda) has so far been used mainly to make cosmetic changes to the existing economic system while failing to address the underlying problems of uneven power distribution, exploitation and redistribution. They also voice the criticism that our growth-oriented economic system is heavily reliant on the exploitation of natural and human resources (workers), which has brought us to a point where social inequalities and environmental degradation are now jeopardising human survival on the planet. Various feminist academics (for example from the realms of Feminist Economics or Feminist Political Ecology) add that the all-encompassing philosophy of economic growth is leading not only to greater social inequalities and environmental degradation, but that even care-giving, which is a cornerstone of human survival (and still delivered predominantly by women) is coming under increasing pressure, as it too is being made subject to the prevailing business and profit orientation. Lastly, critical voices are also being heard from the South regarding the “sustainable development” model, mainly on account of its western-inspired, linear concept of progress and prosperity as well as its lack of connectedness to nature and lack of spirituality (alternative models being for example, the Bolivian concept of buen vivir or the Indian concept of swaraj). Hence, many critics are also calling for a fundamental paradigm change whereby the environment, care and interpersonal relations are given a central place and the economy is redefined and regulated on the basis of the relevant goals.

A paradigm change is indispensable

The concept of “sustainable development” may still be hazy and contentious but Alliance Sud views both the Brundtland Report and the 2030 Agenda as two major building blocks in the history of “sustainability”. But the writing of that history is still ongoing: it is not enough to embrace sustainability and to single out individual SDGs as key evidence of it. A discussion is needed of the visions underlying “sustainable development”. Alliance Sud positions itself clearly on the side of advocates of “strong sustainability”, who aspire to shape the economy in a way that it contributes to social and environmental sustainability. Economic activity is a precondition for the fulfilment of needs, for technical innovation and prosperity. At the same time, however, there is a causal relationship between our deregulated growth and profit-oriented economic system, and many of the problems that are supposed to be remedied through the SDGs (exploitation, inequality, loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gases, pollution of the oceans, health problems, etc.). It therefore seems highly unlikely that the goals of the 2030 Agenda will be attained without tackling the root causes of the problems. To achieve the SDGs and make the world a more just and livable place, economic activity and investment must be regulated in a way that environmentally-friendly and good social behaviour is rewarded, while environmentally-damaging and inhumane behaviour is sanctioned. It is necessary at the same time – and borrowing the term “capital” from the jargon of economics yet again – to redistribute global financial capital, which has expanded massively over recent decades though failing to produce any matching growth in the other types of capital. Financial capital, however, boosts human prosperity only when invested in the other types of capital; and in a primarily profit-oriented economic system, this occurs only when an investment is profitable or allows the investor’s financial capital to grow further.

While the current development debate therefore revolves around how best to leverage public monies to attract as much private investment as possible towards “sustainable” projects – by increasing their profitability and minimising the risks – Alliance Sud takes the view that there is a much more important, fundamental and honest debate to be had. A debate on the causes and implications of the glaring global inequalities (including the concentration of global financial capital in very few hands), as well as the possibilities for achieving the SDGs by redistributing and regulating financial capital (through equitable taxation, for example). Moreover, a paradigm shift towards greater humanity and closeness to nature, global cooperation and solidarity seems indispensable if we are to pass on to succeeding generations a world worth living in. We do not have much time left.