Sustainability economics

In volume 69 of Ecological Economics, 2010, Baumgärtner and Quaas face the difficult task of defining “sustainability economics” (SE). The point of departure is considering two main elements:

  • The relationship of humans and nature as a matter of justice.
  • The normative, ethical notion that humans should care for preserving the natural environments for us and for future generations.

The paper starts with aiming at a combination of these elements with the notions of individual wants reflected in the political philosophy of liberalism. This definition provides the synthesis proposed by the authors:

sustainability economics is ethically founded in the idea of efficiency, that is non-wastefulness, in the use of scarce resources for achieving the two normative goals of (1) the satisfaction of the needs and wants of individual humans and (2) justice, including
justice between humans of present and future generations and justice towards nature, in the setting of human–nature relationships over the long-term and inherently uncertain future.

While this definition retains the individual needs as one of the components, it is not necessarily supporting the liberal standpoint of individual decision as the cornerstone of ethics. It is theoretically possible (even though arguably unattainnable) to attempt to fulfill individual wants with centralized planning.  This presents a challenge to ethical positions attempting to conciliate individual freedom and inter-generational justice and/or physiocentric ethics. However, the same position can be seen from an individualist perspective, but extending the notion of other’s freedom space to his/her needs tied to the preservation of nature. For example, it can be considered that one’s needs are restricted by the need of future generations to enjoy non-degradated  water supply (this is closely connected to the old concept of negative externality).

However, ethical decisions regarding future states are pervaded by uncertainty. It is very difficult to assess the extent to which an individual present decision would affect the status of natural resources for the next generation. This uncertainty is the cause that normative frameworks for sustainability are completely dependant on two elements:

  • Our status of scientific knowledge, as the only resort we count on the assess the potential effects of today’s acts in the life of future generations.
  • Technology forecast, as patterns of degradation can change radically by the development and applications of new technologies, e.g. new technologies for cleaning water flows or new ways of reducing contaminants by the application of new techniques.

In consequence, science provides an outlook of the impact of our actions today, but technology can change radically that impact, modifying the way resources are used. The problem is that science related to the environment is subject to uncertainty, and technology forecast is even more of the same. This is why sustainability economics has an underlying class of ethics very different from that of moral decisions (considering that killing or stealing is inmoral is not dependant on our scientific knowlege or level of technological development).

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