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Environmental Values

'Sustainable Development': Is it a Useful Concept?

Wilfred Beckerman

Environmental Values 3(1994): 191-209. doi: 10.3197/096327194776679700

It is argued that 'sustainable development' has been defined in such a way as to be either morally repugnant or logically redundant. 'Strong' sustainability, overriding all other considerations, is morally unacceptable as well as totally impractical; and 'weak' sustainability, in which compensation is made for resources consumed, offers nothing beyond traditional economic welfare maximisation. The 'sustainability' requirement that human well-being should never be allowed to decline is shown to be irrational. Welfare economics can accommodate distributional considerations, and, suitably defined, the concept of welfare can include the subjective effects of changes in - as well as the levels of - well-being. Hence there is no reason why welfare maximisation should not remain an overriding policy objective. Nor can sustainability be regarded as a 'constraint' on welfare maximisation unless there is a clear conflict between the two - which has yet to be demonstrated. This is not to deny the importance of intergenerational justice, nor the need for economic incentives to correct market imperfections if the environment is to be managed in a socially optimal manner. Apart from a few small developing countries heavily dependent on minerals or other finite primary products, the measurement of some wider concept of 'sustainable' GNP is a waste of time and such estimates as have been made are virtually worthless.


KEYWORDS: Environmental policy, intergenerational justice, measurement of GNP, optimality, social discount rate, sustainability constraints, sustainable development, welfare maximisation

REFERENCES to other articles in Environmental Values:

Sustainabilty: An Interdisciplinary Guide. John Pezzey

CITATIONS in other Environmental Values articles:

DISCUSSION Includes 3 replies to Wilfred Beckerman.

Sustainable Development and Social Justice: Expanding the Rawlsian Framework of Global Justice Oluf Langhelle

Capital Substitutability and Weak Sustainability Revisited: The Conditions for Capital Substitution in the Presence of Risk. Frank Figge

Sustainability and Sustainable Development: Philosophical Distinctions and Practical Implications.Donald Charles Hector

Deep Ecology, the Holistic Critique of Enlightenment Dualism, and the Irony of History. Andy Scerri



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