September 17, 2014
FROM: Final report for Defra
Research on the relationship between well-being and sustainable development
Paul Dolan*, Tessa Peasgood Tanaka Business School, Imperial College London
Sustainable development also has its own nuances of meaning with emphasis given to different aspects, such as the environment or social justice, depending on the context in which it is being used. This heavily debated concept has increasingly become the core element of environmental discourse, leading to very diverse interpretations (Mebratu, 1998). Mebratu (1998) considers the three ways of perceiving sustainability (a term that is used interchangeably with sustainable development, as we do here). The first is termed ‘the ideological version’ which considers the eco-theology approach that encompasses liberation theology, radical feminism and eco-Marxism. It deals more with the way in which people view the world and their place within it. The second is termed ‘the academic version’ which turns the environment into a commodity. The crux of this perception is that, if the environment were given an appropriate value in economic decision making, it would be protected to a much higher degree.
The third type is termed ‘the institutional version’ and is the category most suited to this report. The goal is for clean, equitable economic growth. However, even within this institutional version there are concerns about what might be referred to as environmental sustainability, related to the use of the world’s natural resources, as compared to justice-focused sustainable development, which emphasises the costs and benefits both within and across different generations (Pearce, 1993).
Within the concern for the environment, steady-state sustainability encompasses the most well used definition of the concept. This comes from the Brundtland report (1987) where sustainable development requires that we leave enough resources for future generations to satisfy their needs: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs.” It has its roots in the Malthusian theory of ‘environmental limits’ (Mebratu, 1998). A similar sentiment is expressed in the report Caring for the Earth where human development occurs but within the limits of what the earth can supply at that time (IUCN et al, 1991). Risemberg’s (2002) definition encourages a world where we live in self contained systems that do not rely on input from outside the specified system and which are self-sufficient. This form of development assumes that, when considering natural resources, there is no net change.
Utopian sustainable development is a step further as it assumes that sustainable development will improve upon the present and not just maintain a set standard. For example, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD, 2006) suggests “To be sustainable, development must improve economic efficiency, protect and restore ecological systems, and enhance the well-being of all peoples.” Hawken (1994) also advocates that “we need to leave the World in a better state than when we found it”, expressing how sustainable development is a mechanism to achieve this. This approach is termed win-win-win by Scottish Executive (2006) because it is advantageous to the economy, the environment and society. However, on numerous occasions it has been rejected as being unobtainable in practice.
The UK Government’s sustainable development strategy, ‘Securing the Future’ (HM Government, 2005), states that “the goal of sustainable development is to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and to enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations”. The latter part of this definition is consistent with Brundtland’s steady-state definition whilst the use of the word “better” in the first part is more suggestive of a utopian account, at least in relation to the well-being of the current generation.
Steady state and utopian sustainability are related to the weak and strong forms of sustainability, respectively, and how they are to be achieved (Phillips, 2006). In the recent Scottish Executive (2006) report on sustainable development, weak sustainability assumes that human made capital such as technology will substitute natural capital when it is run down, providing a specified level is never breached. Strong sustainability, however, demands that natural capital is protected absolutely and that no substitute can be made if resources are depleted. Strong and weak sustainability are prominent in ecological economics (Victor, 2005), and focus on the substitutability between the economy and the environment (Ayres et al, 2001). There is much debate about the limitations of the weak form (Figge, 2005; Gutes, 1996; Gowdy and Ohara, 1997) and the operationalisation of the strong form (Ozkaynak et al, 2004; Franceschi and Kahn, 2003; Kaivo-oja, 2002). However, they are both important here because the ways of achieving sustainability may be at odds with well-being, rather than the definition of sustainability itself being at odds with well-being.
A justice-focused approach to sustainability emphasises a broad range of costs and benefits to current and future generations from the adoption of sustainable practices. An example is from Pearce (1993): “Sustainable development is concerned with the development of a society where the costs of development are not transferred to future generations, or at least an attempt is made to compensate for such costs.” Haughton (1999) emphasises important equity considerations for the sustainable planning of a city: inter-generational equity, intra-generational equity, geographical equity, procedural equity and interspecies equity. In this view, sustainability is about maintaining equity for communities and societies rather than just the preservation of natural resources.
At the heart of ‘Securing the Future’ (HM Government, 2005), lies “living within environmental limits” and “ensuring a just, healthy society”. These guiding principles focus on inter generational, intra-generational, and geographical equity. ‘Securing the Future’ is explicit, then, in its focus on environmental and justice-focused sustainability. In addition, there is the aim of “promoting good governance”, which emphasises procedural equity. Similarly, The Scottish Executive report (2006), Blair and Evans (2004) and IRH (2005) emphasise participative aspects of delivery and the democratic and political processes for achieving sustainability goals.
Despite the differences illustrated above, all the sustainability concepts have equity issues as an integral element (Campbell, 1996). Nevertheless, the equity principles within the sustainable development literature are interpreted differently and several arguments stand out, such as environmental equity, intergenerational equity and geographical equity.