Is Sustainability Sustainable?

Daniel Bonevac

The most important concept in current environmental thinking is sustainability. Environmental policies, economic policies, development, resource use—all of these things, according to the consensus, ought to be sustainable. But what is sustainability? What is its ethical foundation? There is little consensus about how these questions ought to be answered.

Many environmentalists are troubled by the plethora of understandings of sustainability in the literature. Andrew Dobson, for example, counts more than three hundred definitions!1 Others see this as a virtue, equating sustainability with other contested concepts such as happiness, justice, and rights. Either way, exploring the ethical significance of sustainability is a vital task.

Surprisingly, almost nothing has been done to justify sustainability as an ethical constraint. My aim is to investigate whether that can be done. I shall argue that the chief conceptions of sustainability in the environmental literature are not themselves sustainable. They often have innocuous interpretations that are plausible but do little to advance the environmentalists’ or any other particular agenda. Their more radical interpretations, however, lack ethical foundations; they face obvious counterexamples when applied to individual lives and communities. There is no reason to take any of them as criteria that any environmental, economic, developmental, or resource management policy must meet, or even as goals toward which any such policy ought to strive.

What Sustainability Is

In order to investigate the ethical basis for sustainability, we need to understand what sustainability is. Giles Atkinson et al., define sustainable development as “development that lasts.”2 A sustainable policy, in general, is one that we can continue to follow in the long run. As Paul Ekins and Les Newby put it, sustainability is “the capacity for continuance more or less indefinitely into the future.”3 That idea expresses an important ethical insight.4 But it seems to have little content. Mani Monto, L.S. Ganesh, and Koshy Varghese admit that “it is a well-accepted fact that the concept [of sustainability] is extremely vague and difficult to make operational.”5 Devising criteria and measures of sustainability has become a cottage industry. Here I shall focus on the general definitions that motivate that industry and have had the most influence on work on sustainability. They offer more specific definitions of “sustainable” than “lasting,” but are more general than lists of detailed criteria and measures.

In doing so, I am neglecting many definitions, some plausible, some less so. John R. Ehrenfeld, for example, writes, “I define sustainability as the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever” (emphasis in original).6 Put aside the issues raised by the italicized words and focus on a simpler question. Is it possible, according to this definition, for any policy to be sustainable? Since the sun will eventually go nova, evidently the answer is no. As Herman E. Daly insists, “‘sustainable’ cannot mean ‘forever.’”7

Ehrenfeld’s definition reflects a fallacy recurring in the work of many environmentalists that we might call the finitude fallacy. A paradigm case:

The finite size of resources, ecosystems, the environment, and the Earth, lead to the most fundamental truth of sustainability:

When applied to material things, the term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron.8

The fallacy rests on a mathematical truth, namely, that the limit of a sum of increasing finite quantities is infinite. But note several things:

  • An infinite sum of constant finite quantities is also infinite. So, it’s not just “sustainable growth” that would be a contradiction in terms; a no-growth “steady-state” scenario would be just as unsustainable. In fact, an infinite sum of decreasing finite quantities that did not asymptotically approach zero would also have an infinite sum. So, even substantial improvements in efficiency, conservation, recycling, productivity, and substitution of resources—or, on the negative side, a vastly reduced or impoverished population—are likely to lead to the conclusion that the policy in question is unsustainable.

  • The life expectancy of the solar system, and even of the universe, is not infinite. So, what we really have to worry about is a finite sum. From this alone we can deduce nothing at all about the sustainability of anything. We would have to know actual patterns of use, rates of increase or decrease, as well as the total amount of the resource in question. That, presumably, is also large, and may not be constant, since even “non-renewable” resources may be renewed if the time frame is large enough.

  • If all the relevant terms are finite, then we can draw conclusions only to the extent that we can know their values. But once the numbers become large, how is that possible? How much oil does the Earth contain? How many years might it be before human occupation of the Earth is extinguished by forces beyond our control? At what rate will oil use, energy demand, or farm productivity increase or decrease—not this year or next, but a hundred, a thousand, a million years from now? Humanity’s use of oil, for example, has not grown at a constant rate throughout the ages. For most of human history, usage was zero. It began to grow—slowly at first, then more rapidly, and again more slowly. It may eventually return to zero as new technologies replace those based on fossil fuels. If rates of resource use are not constant, however, but are functions of time, then we can draw no long-run conclusions unless we know what the functions are. Since they depend on future technological developments, however, they are unknowable. If these things are unknowable, then we cannot know whether policies are sustainable in the long run.

The fallacy, then, consists in moving from large finite timescales to infinite timescales, claiming knowledge that no one can possibly have about the future, and claiming that growth (or overconsumption, etc.) is unsustainable, when the underlying arguments would lead to the much more radical conclusion that anything that does not reduce the human population or its resource use to something approaching zero is unsustainable. Some environmentalists would embrace that radical conclusion. Most, however, shy away from it, but without realizing that their talk of finite resources, limits, carrying capacity, etc., may ultimately commit them to it.

For the concept of sustainability to have any real use, “the long run” must be restricted to a time period about which we can reasonably claim to have justified beliefs: a century or two, at most. Anything more than that, and dialogue about sustainability leaves the realm of reasoned policy discussion, not to mention science, and becomes nothing more than rhetoric.

Sustainability and Needs

Sustainability moved to center stage in environmental discussions in the report of the Brundtland Commission, formally the World Commission on Environment and Development, convened by the United Nations in 1983.9 Also known as Our Common Future, the Brundtland report was published by Oxford University Press in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”10 Call a policy Brundtland-sustainable if it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Is it true that a policy is ethically permissible only if it is Brundtland-sustainable?

In assessing sustainability under any of its definitions or interpretations, I shall use a three-pronged test.

  • Is it plausible at an individual level? Is sustainability an acceptable ethical constraint on individual action?

  • Is it plausible at a group, organizational, or communal level? Is sustainability an acceptable ethical constraint on collective action?

  • Is it satisfiable? Is it possible for any policy to meet the sustainability constraint being proposed?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, I shall judge that conception of sustainability to be itself unsustainable. Throughout, I shall consider sustainability solely as a necessary condition on permissible action.11 Whether it would be sufficient if adequately formulated is an interesting question that few environmentalists have addressed. I shall also assume that, for the foreseeable future, human beings must use some nonrenewable resources (e.g., oil, natural gas) to produce energy in order to live modern lives.

Let’s ask, first, whether Brundtland-sustainability is a reasonable constraint on individual action. An individual’s policy, rule for living, or “maxim,” to use Kant’s phrase, can fail to be Brundtland-sustainable in either of two ways. First, it may fail to meet the needs of the present. Jones’s profligacy and fast living may get him into trouble now. Second, it may compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Jones’s running up large debts may impose a substantial burden on his children, for example. These two ways of failing to be Brundtland-sustainable stem from different sources. If Jones fails to meet his own needs, he is certainly imprudent; it is less clear that he is immoral. If Jones places such a great burden on his children that they cannot meet their own needs, then he does appear unequivocally to do something immoral.

The plausibility of Brundtland-sustainability as an ethical constraint, however, depends crucially on how we interpret “needs” and especially “compromise.” If “compromise someone’s ability to meet their needs” means “makes it impossible for someone to meet their own needs,” then Brundtland-unsustainable policies are, on an individual level, prima facie impermissible. That is to say, on that interpretation, Brundtland-unsustainable policies are, all other things being equal, wrong. It is vital to include the “all other things being equal” phrase, for it might be impossible to act in such a way that everyone in a future generation is capable of meeting his needs. Or, it might be possible to do so only at a prohibitive moral cost.

Many environmentalists, however, are unhappy with this “expansionist” interpretation of the Brundtland definition.12 They recognize, correctly in my view, that most of our current economic, developmental, and environmental policies are already Brundtland-sustainable. So, a demand for Brundtland-sustainability in this sense does not support an agenda of sweeping policy change. It suggests that, at least in highly developed nations, policies are already largely environmentally acceptable. In developing nations, it suggests that policies toward deforestation, water usage, and the like need to be reformed. But the adjustments to the status quo this definition demands are relatively minor from a global point of view. The Brundtland report is pro-growth; Wilfred Beckerman describes its view in these terms: “the surest way to improve your environment is to get rich.”13

If we mean something weaker by “compromise,” so that the implications of the constraint are more radical, the constraint loses much of its plausibility. Suppose, putting prudential issues aside, that the condition means that we must not do anything to decrease the probability that future generations will be able to meet their own needs. On an individual level, this prohibits Jones from doing anything that would make it less likely that his descendants will be able to meet their needs in the future. But anything he spends or uses now does that. Does this require Jones, then, to maximize the amount of money he leaves them? Does it require him to forego everything beyond meeting his own needs in order to promote the capacities of future generations? Does it prohibit him from using any nonrenewable resources beyond those he requires to meet his own needs? Any nonrenewable resources at all? Anything he uses, after all, will not be available to meet future needs. Since the principle seems to require Jones simultaneously to meet his own needs and to do nothing that compromises the ability to meet needs in the future, it is unsatisfiable if he must use any nonrenewable resources to meet his needs. Meeting his own needs, to the extent that he uses nonrenewable resources, necessarily compromises abilities to meet future needs.

On an individual level, then, Brundtland-sustainability is either plausible and easily satisfied or implausible and unsatisfiable. The situation is no better at an organizational level. Consider, for example, a sports team. Surely the team should not focus so exclusively on the short term that it cannot meet its needs in the future. But it seems much too strong to say that it can do nothing to meet needs now that lowers the probability of meeting its future needs. Should the team pursue an accomplished but aging star who can help the team this year, or young prospects who may do little for the team now but will increase its chances in the future? This is a real question, faced by many kinds of organizations. It is by no means clear that one should never pursue the person who can help the most now at some cost to one’s future prospects. Again, Brundtland-sustainability is either easily satisfied or utterly implausible.

Preservation of Capital

Many environmentalists construe sustainability as preservation. We might cast the Brundtland definition in these terms: a policy is sustainable if it preserves abilities to meet needs. The most common definition of sustainability, however, understands it as preservation of capital. Robert M. Solow, followed by K.G. Maler, defined economic sustainability as maximizing the flow of income that could be generated from a given stock of assets (or capital) while at least maintaining them.14 David W. Pearce, Anil Markandya, and Edward B. Barbier treat sustainability as requiring that conditions necessary for equal access to the Earth’s resource base be met for each generation.15 Richard C. Bishop writes: “To achieve sustainability policies should be considered that constrain the day to day operations of the economy in ways that enhance the natural resource endowments of future generations.”16 Marco Keiner requires that each generation “leave a lesser burden” (italics in original) than they inherited, increasing the quantity and quality of ecological, human, and manmade resources.17

Advocates of a capital-preservation view generally distinguish three kinds of capital:

  • Economic (man-made capital)

  • Social (human capital, social capital)

  • Environmental (natural capital)

The simplest version of the view is that sustainability is preservation of environmental capital. It is also implausible, however, for modern human beings. Living a modern life entails using some nonrenewable natural resources. If we consider gross effects on the environment, therefore, we must consider this understanding of sustainability to be unsatisfiable. We might refine it to concern net effects; perhaps we can increase the stock of natural capital by adding renewable resources to compensate for our use of nonrenewable resources.

This raises the question of substitution. May we substitute renewable for nonrenewable resources? May we substitute economic or social capital for environmental capital? Should we be concerned with preserving economic and social capital as well as environmental capital? Or should we be concerned solely with the sum of all three, allowing substitutions of one kind for another? Answers to these questions lead to three different versions of the capital-preservation view.

Strong Sustainability

William E. Rees, Herman E. Daly, and Robert Costanza and Daly argue that we must preserve each kind of capital individually.18 This view, known as strong sustainability, does not allow substitution of one kind of capital for another. We may not justify diminishing natural capital by augmenting social or economic capital, even if the result is a net gain in utility as well as in the total amount of capital available for future generations.

On an individual level, strong sustainability is absurd. Anyone who pays tuition to obtain an education trades economic capital for human capital: impermissible, decrees the requirement of strong sustainability. This is also the case for anyone who uses natural resources to obtain economic or social capital—which includes, in a modern society, virtually everyone who works. Strong sustainability, at an individual level, is unsatisfiable in a modern setting.

Strong sustainability fares no better at a group level. It rules out pollution as well as employee training (the substitution of human for economic capital) and resource use of any sort. A firm would like to spend some money for a team-building exercise? Out of luck; that would substitute social for economic capital.

Strong sustainability actually rules out environmentalism. Fishing boats are not effective substitutes for fish, say its advocates. But it follows just as readily from their position that fish are not effective substitutes for fishing boats. We may not trade economic gains for environmental capital, but we also may not trade economic capital for environmental gains. So, strong sustainability appears to forbid environmental expenditures and programs.

To avoid this consequence, some advocates of strong sustainability prohibit substitutions only in one direction.19 Nothing can substitute for environmental capital, though other substitutions are permitted. This appears philosophically unmotivated. It also seems implausible. Suppose that allowing one obscure, highly localized species to go extinct would produce massive economic and social benefits for humanity, solving problems of poverty, hunger, impure drinking water, lack of medical care, etc. Is it really morally unacceptable to allow it to happen?

Weak Sustainability

John M. Hartwick, Robert M. Solow, and Vinod Thomas et al., argue for weak sustainability, which requires preservation of total capital, permitting substitution of one kind for another.20 It permits us to spend money on environmental improvements. It also permits the use of natural capital to accumulate economic capital. For that very reason, many environmentalists find it too weak to promote their goals. But it is not vacuous. We may substitute one sort of capital for another, but we must not decrease the total supply of capital. We must hand the Earth to future generations in at least as good shape as we found it, even if we alter the mix of economic, social, and environmental capital.

On an individual level, weak sustainability requires passing on to the future at least as much capital as we have at any point managed to acquire. We might do this is any number of ways: earning money and leaving it to heirs; constructing buildings, machines, or other goods; raising and educating children; training people in skills we have acquired; and improving the natural environment. Think of an individual’s net impact on the world as a combination of all his effects on the natural, social, and economic aspects of the world. Weak sustainability requires that our net impact, individually and communally, be nonnegative. It requires that we contribute at least as much as we take. If you ask George Bailey’s question, and wonder what the world would have been like if you had never been born, the answer should be that it would have been worse, or at least that it would have been no better.

“Leave the world no worse than you found it” has some appeal from an ethical point of view. But several points are worth noting:

  • The slogan actually captures only a part of the weak sustainability thesis, which requires that capital never decrease. The unit of measurement is not a life but a moment; you may never do anything that would decrease net capital. You may never use a natural resource without a corresponding increase in human, social, or economic capital that is at least as great. This is an extraordinarily demanding standard. Solitary entertainments that use natural resources without compensating increases in human capital sufficient to balance that use (bowling alone? watching TV alone? reading a novel alone by anything other than natural light? going for a drive in the country?) are out.

  • The principle is consequentialist, that is, concerned solely with results. As a necessary condition only, it does not commit one to consequentialism tout court. But it is incompatible with certain ethical views, for example, Kant’s.

  • The principle makes no allowance for the possibility that some people, through no fault of their own, may not be able to avoid net negative effects on capital. Perhaps it should be amended to read “Minimize your net harm to the world.”

  • The principle gives a huge role to moral luck. Accidents happen. Anomalies occur. Actions that might reasonably be expected to result in a net increase in capital sometimes do the opposite. Actions that might reasonably be expected to result in a net decrease in capital sometimes work out well. Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and most other consequentialists judge actions according to their tendencies to have positive or negative effects, not according to the effects themselves. Adding an adjustment for that would yield “Minimize the net harm your actions might reasonably be expected to have.”

  • For reasons familiar from debates over consequentialism, the weak sustainability principle, even in this refined form, strikes many people as implausible without a ceteris paribus clause. Are there any circumstances that would justify a net decrease in capital that might have been avoided? Consequentialism’s critics have pointed to situations in which we might accept suboptimal consequences for the sake of human dignity, human rights, honoring contracts, keeping promises, or self-respect. In short, one might argue that weak sustainability neglects various kinds of moral capital that also deserve consideration and respect.

All of these arguments tell against strong sustainability as well, since preservation of each kind of capital entails preservation of total capital.

So far we have been considering weak sustainability as a constraint on individual action. All the arguments above apply if we think of it instead as a constraint on group action. Indeed, a collective perspective suggests additional arguments. Can a group ever permissibly use capital to achieve its ends now, at the expense of the future? Think again of a sports team that signs an aging star at considerable expense to help win the championship, or a business that issues debt to undertake an advertising campaign to improve sales this year. Environmentalists rightly complain that business tends to adopt a perspective that is too short-term, making these kinds of decisions that too often favor the present at the expense of the future. But it is quite another thing to say that such a decision is never justified.

Sensible Sustainability

The divide between advocates of strong and weak sustainability has led several writers to develop an intermediate position, sensible sustainability, which allows limited tradeoffs between economic, social, and environmental capital.21 Sensible sustainability is more plausible than strong sustainability, allowing substitution of one kind of capital for another in certain circumstances while promoting more stringent environmental controls than weak sustainability. Just how much more plausible or stringent, however, depends on how one specifies those circumstances.

Evaluating sensible sustainability is difficult without knowing under what conditions transfers from one kind of capital to another would be permitted. Since sensible sustainability is stronger than weak sustainability, however, all arguments against weak sustainability apply to sensible sustainability as well. In particular, sensible sustainability too is highly stringent. It never permits benefitting the present at the expense of the future. In fact, it never permits sacrificing capital at a later time for the sake of an earlier time, even if both times are in the future. To put this differently, the view prohibits sacrificing present capital for the sake of the future unless the future gains are permanent. If they are temporary, capital will decline at some future point, and that is impermissible. And, to be plausible at all as a moral constraint, it would need a ceteris paribus clause, making it a desideratum, at best, and not a necessary condition.

Preservation of Capacities or Opportunities

Mwangi-wa Githinji and Charles Perrings, and Bryan Norton construe sustainability as preservation of opportunities.22 Andrew Steer advocates a preservation-of-capacities view, but takes it to be equivalent to a capital-preservation view:

If you conceive of sustainable development in terms of passing on to future generations the capacity to do what we have done, or the capacity to enjoy life to the full extent that we do, then what you are really passing on to those generations is a stock of capital—and I do not mean just machines and buildings.23

He is surely wrong about the equivalence claim; we might become more or less efficient at using capital to generate capacities and opportunities, thus preserving opportunities without preserving capital or vice versa.24 This is not merely a theoretical possibility. Living standards have risen dramatically over the past two centuries due primarily to productivity increases.

Preservation of opportunities or capacities runs into the same objections as preservation of capital. It too is stringent, never permits present-future tradeoffs, and would at best hold ceteris paribus. But it also has its own special problems. On an individual level, it has no plausibility whatever. Every choice a person makes forecloses opportunities. To live is to choose, and to choose is to narrow one’s range of future choices. The same holds at a group level.

When a group chooses one course of action, it forecloses others. There are capacities and opportunities we have that future generations will never have, because choices that we, they, and everyone in between makes will eliminate them. Those choices will of course create other possibilities. Whether they will be better or worse is a moral question for which there may or may not be any clear-cut answer. Whether they will exceed current opportunities in quantity seems both imponderable and irrelevant, pace Ralf Dahrendorf, since similarity of opportunities is a crucial variable (see Brian Barry) and since all the quantities are infinite.25 In any case, preservation of opportunities is simply impossible.

Even putting that aside, preserving opportunities would forbid contracts, since the point of a contract is to constrain future behavior. So, a person or organization obeying the opportunities-preservation requirement could not get married, get a job, sign a lease, take on a mortgage, sign a contract, sign a treaty, or enter into an international organization.

Much the same holds true for capacity-preservation. Choosing to develop some capacities leaves others undeveloped. Someone who had the capacity to become a first-rate lawyer may no longer have that capacity, having devoted his life to teaching philosophy or playing the gamba. It seems to follow that devoting one’s life to developing some capacities at the expense of others is morally unacceptable. But that is just to say that one should not develop one’s capacities. And that is absurd.

Preservation of Well-Being

John Hicks and Joseph E. Stiglitz are concerned with the sustainability of per capita consumption.26 John C.V. Pezzey speaks of non-declining per capita utility.27 Ian Goldin and L. Alan Winters construe a sustainable policy as one that does not compromise future growth for the sake of the present.28 John G. Riley, Gerhard Pfister and Ortwin Renn, and Partha Dasgupta and Karl-Göran Mäler speak of non-declining inter-temporal welfare.29 Herman E. Daly stresses non-declining throughput.30 John C.V. Pezzey and Michael A. Toman speak, perhaps most generally, of non-declining well-being.31 These are not equivalent to the capital-preservation, capacities-preservation, or opportunities-preservation views. Nor are they equivalent to one another. All these views, however, have a common structure, shared by the views we have already examined. All treat sustainability as preservation of something of value: capital, capacities, opportunities, growth, per capita consumption, per capita utility, welfare, or well-being (see Brian Barry).32 Their common thought is that we should not allow a designated thing of value to decline. The arguments I have directed against capital-preservation theories address that thought, and so apply to all preservation theories. But a variety of additional arguments pertain to preservation-of-well-being approaches, alongside the problems of intergenerational utility, welfare, or well-being comparisons noted by Bryan Norton.33

One set of considerations concerns the justification for demanding non-declining well-being. Why should a non-declining profile be preferred to a declining profile or a profile that is not monotone in either direction, even if it offers less well-being overall (see Beckerman)?34 Imagine that you face a choice between two lives. In one, your level of well-being is low but steadily increasing. The other offers a much higher level of well-being at every point, but contains ups and downs. Must we really choose the former?

There are other problems. Imagine that we have a one-time opportunity for a sudden, significant, costless, but temporary increase in well-being. Should we seize it? Intuitively, the answer is yes; there is no cost to us or to the future, and there is a significant benefit. Why not? People often accept opportunities for temporary gains in well-being—trips to amusement parks, vacations, temporary but lucrative job assignments—without any sense that the inevitable decline in well-being at the end makes them impermissible. Yet a non-declining well-being requirement rules all these out. That remains true even if the memory of the temporary boon increases well-being for the rest of eternity over what it would have been otherwise.

Individual decision-making patterns suggest further objections. People often decide to accept declines in consumption, utility, etc., for a variety of reasons. People go to college, save for a mortgage, have children, pay for their children’s educations, quit jobs, go on diets, and retire. All of these things may involve temporary or permanent declines in per capita consumption, utility, etc. Certainly they involve declines in income. But surely there is nothing immoral about them.

The same is true of groups. Organizations too choose to downsize, make charitable contributions, make investments, liquidate, and do other things that involve declines in consumption, growth, utility, etc. This is neither irrational nor immoral.

Indeed, environmentalism seems to demand it. Environmentalists often urge us individually and collectively to restrict our consumption, to settle for “enough” rather them maximizing our acquisition of goods, etc. Moreover, environmental policies are expensive; they demand declines in per capita consumption, utility, growth, etc. But the interpretations of sustainability discussed above would rule out these choices. It appears, then, that such interpretations are incompatible with environmentalism as generally understood.

One could argue that these arguments do not work against a preservation of well-being criterion. People get married, have children, go on diets, and the like to increase their well-being, not some more specific measure. Similarly, organizations downsize, make investments, etc., for the sake of their well-being. So, perhaps “don’t act so as to decrease your well-being” is a good moral principle, even if more specific versions fail.

This principle, however, is either prudential rather than ethical or a version of ethical egoism. It rules out many instances of altruism. People and organizations who donate to charities, environmental groups, or the needy often decrease their own well-being (and utility, consumption, opportunities, etc.) for the sake of helping others. A well-being-preservation approach implies that acts of charity are acceptable only if they on balance benefit the giver. Worse, the principle rules out moral heroism—sacrificing oneself for the good of others. But we regard people and groups who do that as having gone above and beyond the call of duty, not as having failed to live up to it.

Finally, these conceptions of sustainability are unsatisfiable. The hard fact is that consumption, utility, welfare, well-being, abilities to meet needs, opportunities, and capacities sometimes decline. Herman E. Daly points out that we cannot bequeath utility to the future; we can only bequeath opportunities. It is up to future generations what they make of them. But utility, well-being, etc., decline for many reasons in addition to missed opportunities.35 Tornadoes strike. Earthquakes knock down buildings. Wars break out. Recessions happen. People get old. People make mistakes.

These are unfortunate events, but a principle that demands that we avoid them cannot be satisfied. One might as well direct people not to make mistakes, not to grow old, and not to die. All those things would be good, but we cannot, at present, anyway, achieve them.

Other Sustainability Concepts

I have discussed sustainability concepts that I take to be the most important and influential, arguing that they are either plausible but so weak that they fail to support the environmentalists’ agenda or implausible and even unsatisfiable. I should, however, mention three families of definitions of sustainability that are widespread but, ultimately, less interesting.

The first is the conception of a sustainable policy as one that takes some account of environmental concerns. The United States Department of Energy, for example, offers this definition:

Sustainable development is a strategy by which communities seek economic development approaches that also benefit the local environment and quality of life.36

Margaret Thatcher, cited in David W. Pearce et al., similarly considers a policy sustainable “provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded.”37 These conditions are weak, plausible, even uncontroversial, but do little to support the environmentalist agenda.

The second is the conception of sustainability as remaining within the carrying capacity of the Earth.38 This too is uncontroversial, but very weak. No one favors destroying human life. It supports significant change in environmental policies, moreover, only in the presence of extremely strong empirical premises.

Finally, a growing body of writers is developing a conception of sustainability that includes equality and participatory democracy. These have nothing directly to do with environmental concerns. In fact, claims of such writers to the contrary, these values conflict frequently and directly with environmental goals. Sacrificing economic growth for environmental goals will harm the poor most of all by making it harder to move up the socioeconomic ladder. And “participatory democracy,” if it means something more than assigning special privileges and powers to environmental groups and activists, will likely impede environmental goals as well, since the proportion of people willing to accept job losses, higher taxes, and lower standards of living in exchange for alleged long-term environmental benefits is likely to remain small for the foreseeable future. Defining sustainability in terms of equality and democracy seems to be an attempt to define away real conflicts between values, if not to shift the topic of discussion altogether.

One final point. Advocates of sustainability in any of the senses discussed here rarely reflect on the implications of their views for other kinds of social and economic policies. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, nationalized health care systems—in sum, the welfare state—appear to be unsustainable. All face large and growing deficits for structural rather than cyclical reasons. All are essentially pyramid schemes, which are paradigms of unsustainable economic systems. Consistent application of these concepts of sustainability would lead to conclusions very different from those most environmentalists want to embrace.

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