Why Sustainability and (Macro)Economics Must Not Slip from the Agenda
The emergence of sustainable development onto global, national and local policy agendas can be attributed to the clear and growing evidence of the impact of climate change, and concerns about the future scarcity of energy, resources, land and food. Furthermore, the acceptance of the need to change existing forms of economic production can be attributed to the sustained pressure since the 1960s from both environmental writers (e.g. Carson 1962; Hardin 1968; Lovelock 1979) and certain economists (e.g. Boulding, 1966).
Sustainable development, in essence, may be thought of as being concerned with three forms of capital: economic, social and environmental. It seeks to both redress the balance between the pursuit and consequences of economic growth and activity, and to shift our perspective from one of short-term gains to a concern for the long-term impact of current activities upon future generations. Sustainable development as a concept also has a clear resonance with issues concerning the quality of life of individuals and holistic conceptions of social well-being.
Unfortunately, beyond this point political and academic opinion diverges markedly in relation to firstly what form of sustainable development we should be seeking to attain, and secondly, how this can be best achieved. In respect to the first question, the debate can be seen as a dispute over the pursuit of strong versus weak forms of sustainable development (in some respects akin to the divide between ‘dark green’ and ‘light green’ forms of ecologism). At the core of this dispute concerns the primordial importance of economic, social and environmental capital for our very existence and notion of being. Strong sustainable development seeks to place environmental capital as the central locus around which our existence gravitates. The diversity of different forms of social existence is a product of the nature of, and changes in, the environment which we inhabit. Environmental capital is conceived as a precious and irreplaceable natural resource which cannot be rejuvenated by human effort. Economic capital, in contrast, is the facilitating mechanism which sustains the existence of societies and communities, and which contributes to the maintenance of social harmony. Economic capital therefore is seen as a subservient form of capital – and disputes amongst the advocates of strong sustainable development concern the primary positioning of environmental and social capital.
Weak sustainable development seeks to maintain economic capital and the pursuit of economic growth as the core component of human existence. It is only through the production of economic capital that social problems such as poverty and inequality can be tackled and redressed. Social and environmental capital are subsequent concerns in relation to disputes over the merit or otherwise of a specific form of economic action. Weak sustainable development recognizes that the pursuit of the types of economic activity and growth that characterized the period from the industrial revolution of the middle to late 17th century to the post oil crisis world of the 1970s and beyond cannot continue. Approaches to tackling environmental problems such as the polluter pays principle or the concept of carbon trading are direct policy embodiments of weak conceptions of sustainable development. However, what this form of sustainable development seeks to achieve is the placing of social and environmental considerations or limits upon economic activity, but not at the expense of threatening the central goal of economic growth.
Both weak and strong forms of sustainable development cannot be achieved without a rethinking of macroeconomic theory and policy. What is needed is an ecological macroeconomics that redefines global economic problems and policies and includes commitment to broader social goals such as equity, education, health care, management of economic growth, environment and so on. This is along the lines of the call made by Herman Daly in 1991 arguing for an environmental economics whose growth objective is assimilated to a limited and sustainable path.
The development of an ecological macroeconomics with an emphasis on strong forms of sustainable development is the concern of Palgrave Studies in Sustainability, Environment and Macroeconomics.
Ioana Negru is based at SOAS, London, and is Editor for the Palgrave book series, Palgrave Studies in Sustainability, Environment and Macroeconomics. Books published in this series cover a mixture of theoretical and policy-oriented work highlighting the relevance of, and urgency for, an engagement with sustainability across macroeconomics. For more information on this new series please visit our Call for Proposals. We welcome your contribution.
Boulding, K. (1966) The Economics of Coming Spaceship Earth, paper first presented at the Sixth Resources for the Future Forum on Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy in Washington D.C. on March 8, 1966;
Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin);
Daly, H.E. (1991) “Elements of Environmental Macroeconomics” in Constanza (ed.) Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability, New York: Columbia University Press, ch.3;
Hardin, G. (1968) “Tragedy of the Commons”, Science, vol.162, No. 3859 (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248;
Lovelock, J. (1979) The Gaia Hypothesis – A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.