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Toward Sustainable Development: Concepts, Methods, and Policy

Toward Sustainable Development: Concepts, Methods, and Policy

by International Society for Ecological Economics
Toward Sustainable Development is a comprehensive and wide ranging exploration of the theoretical and practical aspects of the concept of sustainable development. Internationally known scholars present an in depth critique of traditional economic methods and ideas, and a new framework for analysis of issues of development and environmental policy. The book: outlines


Toward Sustainable Development is a comprehensive and wide ranging exploration of the theoretical and practical aspects of the concept of sustainable development. Internationally known scholars present an in depth critique of traditional economic methods and ideas, and a new framework for analysis of issues of development and environmental policy. The book: outlines the historical development of the concept of sustainable developmentclarifies the many interpretations of what sustainable development ispresents new and detailed assessments of the concepts, methods, and implementation of sustainable development policiesAs well as explaining the conceptual and theoretical background, the book discusses methods and techniques, and examines issues of policy and implementation. It offers both critical observations on old approaches, and valuable guidelines for recent innovations.

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Toward Sustainable Development

Concepts, Methods, and Policy

By Jan van der Straaten, Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh


Copyright © 1994 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-477-2



Jeroen C. J. M. van den Bergh
Department of Spatial Economics
Faculty of Economics
Free University
De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Jan van der Straaten
European Centre for Nature Conservation
Tilburg University
P.O. Box 1352
5004 BJ, Tilburg
The Netherlands


At the end of the eighties the concern for environmental issues became widespread. An increased concentration by scientists, environmentalists, and policymakers on global and long-term problems accompanied this concern, which reflected a renewed interest in long-term environmental issues that takes serious account of the interdependence of various political, social, distributional, economic, industrial, and environmental problems and processes. As part of this trend, the phrase "sustainable development" was introduced and became more well-known after the publication of the report Our Common Future (WCED 1987). Since then, a mass of literature has been generated in various fields of science, most of which does not go far beyond the descriptive stage. In addition to the more or less traditional fields applying their knowledge and techniques to environmental issues, both mainstream science and alternative approaches are more intensively exploited in what is commonly regarded as a new and fruitful field of application. This growing interest is indicated clearly by many international meetings and publications of new books and journals in the field. Interestingly, and surprisingly to some, the catchword "sustainable development" still remains present in both professional and other literature.

The use of the concept of sustainable development is a starting point for broader examinations of economics, environment, and development, and is even becoming more accepted now in specialized sub-disciplines, giving rise to notions of sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy patterns, sustainable transport, sustainable land use, and sustainable industry. Sadly enough, much work emanating from sustainable development does not seem to be able to go beyond abstract or descriptive studies, and sometimes even results in a repetition of arguments and definitions. One consequence of this is that many scientists are becoming somewhat cautious in using the term. The purpose of this book is to open up the discussion related to sustainable development on multiple levels. Thus different theoretical perspectives are seriously considered, with the aim being to extend the traditional, dominant monodisciplinary views and to provide alternative views and methods for dealing with a multitude of sustainable development-related problems. For this reason, as the title of the book already suggests, some critical view on traditional theory and tools may be useful.


Although sustainable development as a policy objective was stimulated by the mentioned WCED report, it could be argued that it implicitly was included already in some classical economic theories. For instance, notions of limits to growth and development towards a steady state can be found in the works of Ricardo, Malthus, and Mill. From the perspective of natural resources providing inputs for production processes, a steady state may be considered as a specific type of sustainable development, in which the availability of natural resources determines the physical scale of the economy.

Several economic issues are related to the idea of a steady state. Ricardo addressed questions related to the distribution of economic produce and the consequences of it for development. Malthus considered the objective of a stable and sustainable population level, given the fertility of mankind and minimum welfare conditions. Mill investigated the economic contents of a steady state.

With the introduction of neoclassical economic theory at the end of the nineteenth century, classical theory lost its influence. The formal and rigid analysis, which is so characteristic of the neoclassical approach, was a main reason for not incorporating the dependence of economic production, consumption, and welfare on natural resources and ecosystems. The role of the market is stressed in these theories, so that account was taken of natural resources only as far as they were being traded on a market. The implication is that nonrenewable resources, such as fossil fuels and ores, are easily dealt with, but clean air and water, as well as functions of ecosystems, are labeled as free goods. The main result of this theory is that such goods require governmental intervention that corrects the functioning of the market process. Otherwise, a disoptimal level of such goods will result. Generally, one can say that the market can only deal with the optimal allocation of private goods. The optimal scale of production of goods and the optimal level of natural resource stocks is something that requires additional considerations, since the optimal scale of production and consumption is not related to market processes (Daly 1989). This requires that one has to take account of the physical and biological base of economies. Optimality is not an unprejudiced goal in this case. One has to realize that this concept is dependent on welfare aspects and ethical issues related to the existence of future generations, living nature, and abiotic elements of the natural environment.

The mainstream reaction to environmental disruption as a result of economic activities has been in terms of (1) the formulation of so-called negative externalities, and associated with these, (2) price corrections (Pigouvian taxes) to restore economic efficiency. The proposed procedure is that the national state calculates the social costs of environmental disruption and assigns them to the associated sources as to attain an optimal economic allocation of "functions of nature." One should not overlook, however, the societal reality during the period of Pigou early this century that was partly responsible for such a view. The most important element may well have been the fact that environmental issues played only a small role in the public debate. When one adopts a more extensive—and hopefully appropriate—view of a complex natural system subject to a complex interaction of negative influences, it seems that sustainable development cannot simply and straightforwardly be founded on the notion of an externality in the sense of Pigou. In addition, the structural character of environmental effects asks for a more integrated and dynamic analytical approach. The externality concept assumes too much static and partial character of cause-effect relationships that go through both economic and environmental systems. Between the economic activity, the physical-material output, the environmental consequence, and the welfare impact is a whole system of complex dynamic processes that should receive more careful and explicit attention. One can seriously doubt whether the neoclassical method can absorb so much reality. It would, in any case, be interesting to apply this method to the above issue. It seems very likely, for instance, that one should leave the analytical world of neoclassical economics and move to more experimental—and less general—methods of numerical simulation, based on artificial and empirical data (Braat and Van Lierop 1987; Faber and Proops 1990; Van den Bergh 1991, 1993).

A second element that is typical of the mainstream economic approach can be phrased as the "substitution principle." It is based on the argument that market processes will bring forward a substitution of less for more scarce inputs, whether into production, consumption, or welfare. What is generally assumed, in theory, is that the main input relationship between various production factors leaves much scope for various types of substitution. However, from a materials balance perspective (Ayres and Kneese 1989), it is readily clear that there is much to say against this, and in favor of complementariness of, for instance, labor and capital on the one hand, and natural resource inputs and conditions on the other hand. Although this debatable assumption is not necessarily linked to the formal neoclassical approach, it is a common one that is not often enlightened.

Until the sixties, environmental problems were largely disregarded in social decision making as well as in economic theory. From the sixties on, it was increasingly recognized that environmental problems have a structural character and may not be approached simply from an market-allocation perspective using externality and substitution concepts (Boulding 1966; Daly 1969; Ayres and Kneese 1969). In spite of increased "environmental awareness," the seventies did not show sufficient implementation of environmental policies for dealing with resource use, waste emission, or ecosystem destruction. In particular, international trade and economic growth caused an increase in environmental stress that often more than compensated efforts to cut it back. In this context the recognition of the structural and wide-reaching character of environmental problems by the WCED (1987) can be regarded as a logical next phase in dealing with environmental issues.


Some important previous events and political actions that have paved the way for the emergence of the concept of sustainable development are:

• the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and the establishment of the UNEP in 1972;

• the Limits to Growth report (Meadows et al. 1972);

• the U.S. Global 2000 Report to the President (Barney 1980) and its response The Resourceful Earth (Simon and Kahn 1984);

• the World Conservation Strategy (WCN/IUCN 1980);

• the IIASA report Sustainable Development of the Biosphere (Clark and Munn 1986); and, of course,

• the previously mentioned U.N. report Our Common Future (WCED 1987).

In general, the reactions to the latter report have been very positive, mainly because of its political effect and stimulus for scientific research. As a critique, the possibility of inconsistency between its growth objective and regard for ecological limits has been noted (Daly 1990; Hueting 1990).

Finally, as a meeting that may have reinforced the work on sustainable development, one may also note the UNCED meeting on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (see Chapter 4).

Much of the literature related to sustainable development has a strong bias towards developing countries (Bartelmus 1986; Redclift 1987; Repetto 1986; Tolba 1987; Schramm and Warford 1989; Pearce et al. 1990; Simonis 1990; Pearce and Warford 1993; Van Pelt 1993). Some authors prefer a historical or theoretical economic argument that ends with proposals for sustainable development (Barbier 1989; Pezzey 1989; Young 1992). Various papers show the variety of opinions and approaches that are possible (Collard et al. 1988; Turner 1988; Pearce and Redclift 1988; Archibugi and Nijkamp 1989; NAVF 1990; Costanza et al. 1991; Gilbert and Braat 1991; Breheny et al. 1992; Dietz et al. 1992; Opschoor 1992; IIASA 1992; Bannister and Button 1993). Studies focused on models usually deal with dynamic theoretical and systems-dynamic models (De Vries 1989; Van den Bergh 1991). Kuik and Verbruggen (1991) present a range of attempts to monitor and evaluate the unsustainability of actual patterns and levels of economic activity.

Various older and recent studies of interest for sustainable development stay close to the realm of the growth debate, relating environmental problems to economic (GDP) growth (Mishan 1967, 1977; Daly, 1977, 1991; Hueting 1980). On a more theoretical level one can distinguish between a rather pure neoclassical perspective (Solow 1974, 1986; Hartwick 1977; Dasgupta and Heal 1979), and alternative approaches (Siebert 1982; Barbier 1990; Van den Bergh 1991). Finally, there is also a related literature dealing with the fundamental question of whether to base ecological sustainability on anthropocentric, (i.e., intergenerational) or non-anthropocentric, (i.e., "ecocentric," "holistic," or "bio-egalitarianism") arguments. A whole literature is now concerned with this debate (Maclean and Brown 1983; Kneese and Schulze 1985; and a new journal, Environmental Values).

Definitions of sustainable development abound. Some attempts show a systematic approach to construct a definition (Brown et al. 1987) or to provide a collection of different viewpoints (see the Appendix in Pezzey 1989). It is generally agreed upon that "ecological sustainability" is a more clear concept than "sustainable development." The confusion usually arises, of course, from what is meant by "development," and how broadly or specifically the term is defined. "Sustainable growth" is also a frequently used term, although many authors believe that it is a contradiction of terms.

In addition to the above books and articles, there is by now a mass of publications in scientific journals devoted to sustainable development. To review the variety of approaches, one may consult Goodland and Ledec (1987), Van Pelt et al. (1990), Klaassen and Opschoor (1991), Van den Bergh and Nijkamp (1991a, b), Dietz and Van der Straaten (1992), Common and Perrings (1993), Pezzey (1993), and Opschoor and Van der Straaten (1993). Although it is impossible here to be complete in the overview of literature on "sustainable development," the above references provide a broad introduction to the various issues, opinions, methods, and applications. In the next section these aspects are briefly discussed.


As it is generally agreed upon that sustainable development refers to both system-wide and very long-term processes and conditions, it may be interesting to start the discussion here with a broad and historical view on the relationship between man and nature. Man depends on nature in multiple ways, most clearly by depending on the existence of a foodweb from which to extract his necessary inputs. In a way even, man has placed himself at the top of the foodchain at various levels, from local to global. But this perspective is, of course, only a partial one. To obtain a more complete picture, one should add to the ecological and ecosystems approach the dependence of man on non-renewable energy and mineral resources, as well as the fact that natural systems are sensitive to human sources of pollution, noise, and other disturbance. A recent trend in the man-nature relationship is that nature nowadays is increasingly dependent on mankind. Since happiness of people seems to be determined to a large extent by the direct and indirect presence of nature, in all its variety and quality, the dependence exceeds a merely physical level. The history of the relationship between mankind and natural environments shows quite some turbulence, even before the present age of culmination of environmental problems. This relationship has now begun to be documented and analyzed more purposefully (Wilkinson 1973; Common 1988; Simmons 1989; Ponting 1991; Pezzey 1993).

The new perspectives of sustainable development are quite multidimensional, as is clearly demonstrated by Pezzey (1993), who discusses physical, ecological, economic, psychological, sociological, and especially, historical elements of sustainable development. The interaction of economic and ecological knowledge is already often referred to in interdisciplinary research, although we are still in the process of early learning (Costanza 1991).

The approaches in this book focus on the following aspects of sustainable development:

• a broad interpretation of economic costs (Ekins, Chapter 2);

• evolutionary processes related to physical and cultural economic-environmental interactions (Hinterberger, Chapter 3);

• normative backgrounds in policy making (Glasser, Craig, and Kempton, Chapter 4);

• spatial dimension in economic-environmental systems (Maxwell and Costanza, Chapter 5);

• energy as a common denominator for economic and environmental processes (King and Slessor, Chapter 6);

• psychological issues in economic valuation studies (Blamey and Common, Chapter 7);

• historical development and policy aspects in a systems setting (Van den Bergh and Van der Straaten, Chapter 8);

• distributional conflicts in shaping international and global environmental policy (Martinez-Alier, Chapter 9); and

• integration of ecological knowledge, standards, and economic incentives in environmental policy (Cumberland, Chapter 10).

New ideas and concepts in themselves are attractive, but especially in the context of sustainable development, one is inclined to look ahead at the practical implications of proposals for changing perspectives. Of course, one may argue that this is legitimate in view of the pressing need for quick actions in the related field of policy. On the other hand, it is also true that one must be careful in hastily diving into new enterprises of quick implementation of untested ideas and tools, especially since in the context of sustainable development the focus lies, by definition, on long-term processes. This two-sidedness, of large scale and long-term issues on the one hand and the need for policies on the other hand, explains why one may observe two streams of thought. On the one hand, a search exists for new frameworks, models, and theory with regard to sustainable development problems. And on the other hand, quite specific and seemingly operational plans for policies and instruments are proposed, including very creative ones like bonds for natural areas and the proposals in Chapters 9 and 10.


Excerpted from Toward Sustainable Development by Jan van der Straaten, Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh. Copyright © 1994 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh is professor in the department of spatial economics at the Free University in Amsterdam.

Jan van der Staaten is senior researcher at the European Centre of Nature Conservation in Tilburg, the Netherlands.

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