A Public Policy Context for Sustainability and Sustainable Development

The problem with sustainability is that no matter which way we choose to look at it, it invokes issues of intergenerational equity (e.g., World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987; Jodha, 1992). The problem with intergenerational equity is that human behavior, whether through need or through avarice, largely discounts the needs of future generations. How we might break our current cycles of unsustainable behavior is the subject of this essay.

Sustainability as a Value

Sustainability is best recognized as a value - a momentous shift in consciousness whereby intergenerational equity is accepted as an overriding ethic.(a) Criticism that this definition is too loose to be applicable to practical concerns fails to recognize that such an ethic must be, by its very nature, a general command (Dovers, 1989). Such criticism is also myopic. A sustainability ethic may be a utopian vision, but it does offer a useful metric in the policy arena, separating those policies that can be recommended from those that should be resisted. Other critics suggest that a focus on intergenerational inequity denies the existence of intragenerational inequity today. This is also incorrect; nowhere does the ethic stipulate that policies with sustainability as a value should remain unchecked for internal consistency. Justice tomorrow does not preclude working for justice today.

Sustainability as a Subset of Sustainable Development

Dovers (1989) proposed the following: "The acceptance in the policymaking process for [such a] sustainability ethic indicates the complexity of the challenge. It also indicates the variability of what sustainability will mean in any particular policy context, and the impossibility of any definition that is both absolute and workable. The way the ethic is applied will be molded by the relevant context. Absolute sustainability is an impossibility except in a world of perfect information and nil environmental perturbation. In any real-world situation, the meaning and implications of the concept will be subject to countless mitigating factors. Only in context will a concrete idea of what it means emerge."

Because the contextual concept of sustainability interfaces with policy, and policy usually seeks to amend or change a status quo, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate sustainability from sustainable development. Development, after all, concretizes the outputs of policy processes. Two emphases quickly become apparent as relevant goals of sustainable development: human well-being and ecological health. Sustainable development requires a knowledge of the interactions of key sustainability themes, some of which may (a) feedback positively or negatively on themselves, (b) mesh synergistically, and (c) be irrelevant in any one specific context. A human activity that is sustainable always (a) has a temporal, spatial, and thematic dimension, (b) implies an effective understanding of ecological and socioeconomic interactions, and (c) is by definition a dynamic process (Table 1).

Analyses of the sustainable-development process examine the major components of the physical, chemical, and biological environment at national, regional, and global scales in relation to human goals. A goal cannot itself be reached, but gives general direction and guidance; for example "sustainable forestry" may be a socially-defined goal, one that may be politically or scientifically designated. A target is the operationalization of a goal; targets are always quantitative, and are defined both spatially and temporally. Standards are measurements that impart something of importance; for example, standards tell us when air quality is sufficiently low as to be harmful to human or ecosystem health. Standards (criteria, norms, thresholds, rules-of-thumb) can be based on concerns we have for human health, ecological sustainability, economic welfare, aesthetic appreciation, spiritual awareness, and other human values. Sustainability of programs and goals can be operationalized with the help of indicators and benchmarks (Milich, Tunstall, and Henninger, 1994).

Table 1. Sustainability and the policy process

no degradation of basic life-support systems (ecological)
maintenance of biodiversity (biological)
provision of basic human needs (agricultural)
stability or growth in the total system providing goods and services (economic)
access to goods and services (distributive)
support of intangible human needs (social)

global, regional, national, local, household (spatial)
relevant time horizons (temporal)
identification of critical "sectors" (e.g., wetlands; biodiversity; air quality) and resources (thematic)

identify the special needs of gender and minority groups in society (cultural)
recognize/create/support of institutions and grassroots organizations (political)
educate and exhort
monitor, reassess, redesign (back to text)

The Dominant Paradigms of Sustainability

In my view, sustainability has come to be associated with two specific paradigms. The first, environmental sustainability, is itself a subject of contention. Absolutists hold that the renewable resource stock must be held constant, all waste must be assimilated or recycled, and nonrenewable resources should be exploited only to the degree to which renewable resources can be substitutes (Kadekodi, 1992). From the perspective of a goal toward which society ought to be striving, such an ethic is admirable. Utilitarians, on the other hand, argue that a strictly conservationist attitude is not practicable, for it is impossible to use even a renewable natural resource and leave it unaltered. Nor can human needs and aspirations be satisfied without some consumption of nonrenewables. Even if it is irreversible, alteration is not necessarily degradation. It is possible, on the one hand, to concur with Brookfield (1991), who writes that "[i]t does no violence to sustainability to point out that conversion of a forest into well-managed agricultural land is not degradation if the product from the new use is of greater total utility, and can be maintained through time." On the other hand, we may recognize that Brookfield's thesis is a dangerous generalization if other goals, such as protection of biodiversity, assume greater importance.

The second paradigm, that of economic sustainability, is even more prone to dissenting viewpoints than is environmental sustainability. "Traditional" economists believe in models of economic development that assume natural resources to be "gifts of nature," and believe in the indestructability of land as well as the costlessness of waste disposal (Kadekodi, 1992). These practitioners believe firmly in the sanctity of economic progress, the basic indicator of which is Gross National Product (GNP). GNP, though, is grossly misleading in one fundamental aspect: it regards money spent on averting, repairing, and adapting to pollution as a contribution to societal wellbeing. The environmental damage being mitigated has, however, no value. Confidence in such market mechanisms has been shaken by the growing recognition that it is necessary to price natural and environmental resources, and pay for waste disposal. The World Bank adopts a slightly apologetic tone when it attempts to explain the conservatism of traditional economists. "The main reason economics has been slow to internalize environmental externalities is that economics deals with scarcities, and until relatively recently, many environmental goods were not scarce. Scarcity value is the trigger for economics to address any concerns" (Goodland and Daly, 1992). While there certainly remain many economists who regard notions of scarcity to be doomsday scare tactics driven by political agendas, "natural resources accounting" at the national level is increasingly frequent, and a new field has been spawned, one represented by The Journal of Ecological Economics.

Somewhere between the traditional and the ecological economists lies a school of thought that might be termed "investment economics." In line with the ethical definition of sustainability presented above, this school contends that in fairness to the future, it is the total stock of all forms of wealth that must not be depleted. Consistent with this view is that environmental wealth is depletable as long as that depletion is compensated by a build-up of human and capital wealth. Equally, if anthropogenic capital is run down, environmental capital must be built up to compensate. Under this framework, human and environmental capital are substitutes for each other, and deciding how much to have of each becomes a societal value (Pearce, 1989). The problem with this philosophy is that it assumes that the substitutability between human and environmental capital is just fine, as long as tradeoff is fully informed in terms of the "right" prices for the two forms of capital. But who can put the "right" price on, say, a Siberian tiger? There exists a fair amount of environmental capital that is intrinsically irreversible: once lost, it cannot be regained.

Sustainability's Downplayed Paradigm

A third dimension to sustainability exists, one that is infrequently exposed to view or discussed: Equitability in access to, and use of, natural resources. At the global level of operationalizing sustainability, equitability requires that citizens of the developed world do not operate in a pseudo-sustainable state by virtue of having differential access to (or use of) natural resources compared with people of the developing world. For instance, the U.S. would falsely be claiming a sustainable agroecosystem by eliminating all pesticide use in this country while simultaneously continuing to abet environmentally damaging, land-degrading practices in other nations from which it buys substantial amounts of agricultural products, such as Costa Rica (bananas) and Mexico (tomatoes).

Sustainable Livelihoods

At the household level, equitability means something completely different, and strikes at the roots of underdevelopment and its relationship to environmental degradation. After a century of unprecedented economic growth as well as scientific and technological triumphs, there are more poor, illiterate, and unemployed people now than ever before. Close to a billion people live in poverty and squalor, a condition that leaves them little choice but to continue to undermine the ecological underpinnings of life itself (Brundtland, 1989). Such inequitable distribution of the benefits of development is a trap, involving us all in a vicious circle of unsustainability and poverty. Perpetuating this inequity can only continue the drawdown of the world's natural resources and environment.

As a start to resolving inequity at the household level, one extra consideration must be added to the concept of sustainability - that of sustainable livelihoods. Globally, jobs are growing at a far slower pace than population. Lifestyles are being destroyed as people lose their jobs and are unable to find the same or different work. This is true as much in the natural-resources sector as in industry. For example, farming is an expensive occupation to pursue nowadays, and many family farms in the U.S. operate on the brink of failure. Under the umbrella of "sustainable livelihoods," small farmers would be protected as a matter of choice, and policies that do not competitively disadvantage them would therefore be created. In the developing world, commodity prices could be indexed to inflation in the developed world (prices for industrial goods and services are often indexed this way in the developed world) so that the wild swings in prices that decimate the income of workers in the commodity sector might be averted. Furthermore, the costs of goods and services exported to the developing world would not always be increasing in relation to prices of commodities imported from these countries. An editorial comment in Development (Editorial, 1992) sums up such social sustainability thus: "The question we always need to bear in mind is development for what or rather for whom? The answer all would agree is that development is for people. We have to find strategies for sustainable livelihoods, jobs not to create wealth as such, but to provide the means for men, women and children to have enough to choose, with dignity, the lives they wish to lead with respect to their local environment."

A Policy Design Model for Sustainable Development

The idea of sustainable livelihoods leads away from theory toward issues of practicality, once more steering discussions of the semantics of sustainability to considerations of sustainable development. In the above discussion, I have established the groundwork for a working definition of sustainability as an ethical goal that sustainable development strives to reach: Economic and social growth that (a) does not exhaust carrying capacity, (b) respects and safeguards the economic, cultural, and natural environment, (c) creates many incomes and chains of enterprises, (d) is nurtured by public policy, and (e) builds indigenous institutions that involve and empower citizens. Sustainable development permanently enhances the capacity of a society to improve its quality of life, especially by investing in human capital - in the education, health, food security, and well-being of the population.

Moreover, sustainable development requires participation of ordinary people in its planning and execution. It must involve, respond to, and be accountable to the people who will live with the results of the development effort. It must help them build institutions of free discourse and inclusive decisionmaking.

Rather than designing policy to fulfill these sustainability requirements, let us introduce the sustainability ethos into policy design. In the heuristic of Figure 1, I have defined "sustainability" to consist of five individual, equally-weighted factors.

Figure 1. Toward the goal of "sustainability": The twelve "Es" of policy design.

1. Economics: Sustainable development policies must be economically effective, if not economically "efficient" in the classic sense. Basic cost-benefit analysis will at least hint at what the economic outcome of policy might be, ceteris paribus. Economic analysis must take into account those external factors that have been all-too-often ignored to date, such as the cost of polluting ground- and surface waters with pesticides from infiltration or runoff. For example, we might want to assign a cost for any anthropogenic degradation of water from a pristine condition, rather than accepting expert-declared "acceptable" thresholds.

2. Ecology: It is critical to clearly distinguish ecological from environmental policy impacts. Ecological impacts are those that reduce the productivity or biodiversity of natural ecosystems. For example, who would be truly impacted by an oil spill onto Alaska's Arctic tundra away from the migration path of caribou? Probably next to nobody; yet the productivity of the ecosystem would be severely compromised over the area impacted. Less theoretically, the use of DDT was found to harm pelican and raptor populations, neither of which directly benefit humans.(b) Thus was DDT banned, despite its alleged efficacy. In the short term, therefore, ecological impacts affect humans only indirectly.

3. Environment: Environmental impacts, on the other hand, are those that affect humans directly and over different timeframes. Prime examples are (a) contaminated water and air, which are broad-based but areally confined; and (b) health effects from using or ingesting pesticide-tainted food, which may be limited to farmworkers having continual contact, or expanded to a broader set of consumers.

4. Equity: A rich example of inequitable policymaking in the environmental arena exists in the case of Northwest Coast Native American groups in the U.S. (Gerry Filbin, U.S.-EPA, Office of Sustainable Development, pers. comm. 6/9/93). There are seven pulping plants along the Columbia River that discharge dioxins and furans into the water, chemicals that are far more bioreactive and deleterious to human health than are most pesticides. EPA dioxin and furan standards for freshwater fish are set on the assumption that 90 percent of the entire U.S. population consumes less than 6.5 grams/day of fish. Four Native American tribes (Yakima, Yumitilla, Nez Perce, and the consolidated tribes of the Warm Springs reservation, all represented by the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission) are subsistence fishers (steelhead, salmon, trout, squawfish, eel, and lamprey being among the species taken). Per capita, tribal members consume 60 - 65 grams/day of fish (10 percent of tribespeople consume more than 220 grams/day, 34 times the EPA's assessment of daily consumption levels). Thus, the metric used by EPA is useless in assessing the probable health effects to Native Americans of eating fish from these waters. Similarly, there are signs all over the eastern seaboard warning of contaminants in fish; the people who are most reliant on fish as a much-needed supplement to their diets are poor African- or Hispanic-Americans. Thus, policies that do not account for enhanced consumption levels of different socioeconomic groups can often be inequitable.

5. Ethics: Pesticide regulation in the U.S. offers a good example for the insertion of ethical considerations into policymaking. The EPA currently defines a "negligible risk factor" to be one cancer case in a million exposed population. The role of ethics is to ask whether it is morally just to generate even one such cancer case. An affirmative answer may be indicated since there are greater benefits to be derived from assuring food security and good nutrition, targets that might be more easily reached if food costs are kept low through the use of pesticides. But ethical analysis must transcend the direct impact of pesticides and their residues on human health; it should also examine ecosystem health, posing the question of whether we are morally justified in contaminating, say, the benthic life-zone of Monterey Bay in California, on which thousands of marine mammals ultimately depend. Ethical considerations also interface neatly with equity issues. It is outrageous that the EPA can ban a pesticide for use in the U.S., yet no government organization intercedes to prohibit the export of these same chemicals to countries where they are generally applied under conditions that are far less safe for human and ecological health than would be the case in the U.S.

Once a policy is made (refer to Dryzek's formulation of discursive democracy, 1990), then the two "Es" of the implementation phase take effect.

1. Enactment: The policy itself must be passed intact from the legislative branch to the executive branch. There should be no method by which bureaucrats can corrupt, forestall, or negotiate over implementing the policy. Any deliberate undermining of legislative intent should be dealt with most severely. Enactment of the policy must occur through the formulation of clearcut, noncontradictory rules.

2. Evaluation: Is the policy effective? Is it equitable, both in formulation and enactment? If evaluation indicates that problems exist either in the way that the policy is formulated or in the manner in which it is enacted, then, as Figure 1 indicates, there must be a feedback mechanism to the policy-design process itself. If only minor adjustments are necessary, then the policy could be corrected within the implementing agency itself. If, as is quite possible, field reality reveals that the policy formulation itself is unworkable, then it may be necessary to reconvene the original "public sphere" (Dryzek, 1990) to correct whatever has proved to be untenable.

The means by which a policy might be evaluated appear as the final five "Es" at the bottom of Figure 1.

1. Does the policy engage the target population? If members of this population deem a policy designed to dispense benefits to be disagreeable, or if it is too difficult for them to participate, then clearly there is a failure in enactment.

2. Does the policy energize the target population? Does it make people more, rather than less, confident that government has the public good as its goal? Does it make people want to work toward beneficial change, toward refining (and perhaps redefining) sustainability? Does it make people feel as if they are part of a larger community that is working together to assure a better life for everyone? Does it make people believe that government is serious about addressing problems, neither reacting in a crisis-intervention mode nor diverting attention from critical but contentious issues?

3. Does the policy educate and enlighten the entire population, not just the target population? Does the policy define who is powerless and why, and attempt to redress social imbalances?

4. Does the policy empower the target population? Does it change the social construction of powerless groups for the better? Does the policy enhance the ability for local communities to think and act for themselves? Does it, in other words, liberate people and allow them to reach their maximum human potential? Does the policy encourage grassroots organizations to form, persist, and effectively find solutions to local problems?

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, "to sustain" derives from the Latin sustenire, meaning "to hold up." "Sustenire" is a transitive verb, requiring a subject and an object. Something or some person must act to hold up whatever is to be upheld (Hulse, 1991). Rather than being an etymological digression, I believe that recognizing the source of the word "sustainability" leads us to the crux of the matter. Sustainability is not a perpetual-motion machine. It requires humans to be careful stewards, to uphold the integrity of the planetary-scale life-support systems. It is at the local scale that a sustainability ethic must begin. Nurturing "local" ecosystems may eventually aggregate to the global scale, to the benefit of the entire planet.

Brookfield, H. C., 1991. Environmental sustainability with development. Development 1, 113 - 119.

Brundtland, G.H., 1989. Sustainable development: an overview. Development 2/3, 13 - 14.
Dovers, S., 1989. Sustainability: definitions, clarifications and contexts. Development 2/3, 33 - 36.
Editorial, 1992. Employment and sustainable livelihoods. Development 4, 3 - 4.
Dryzek, J., 1990. Discursive Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 254 pp.
Goodland, R. and H. Daly, 1992. Three steps towards global environmental sustainability (part 1). Development 2, 35 - 41.
Jodha, N. S., 1992. Understanding and responding to global climate change in fragile resource zones. In: J. Schmandt and J. Clarkson, eds., The regions and global warming: impacts and response strategies. New York: Oxford University Press, 203 - 218.
Kadekodi, G. K., 1992. Paradigms of sustainable development. Development 3, 72 - 76.
Milich, L., D. Tunstall, and N. Henninger, 1994. Indicators as a means towards operationalizing sustainability: The thresholds and rules-of-thumb approach. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute. Unpublished internal paper, 82 pp.
Pearce, D., 1989. An economic perspective on sustainable development. Development 2/3, 17 - 20.
World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 400 pp.

a. Of course, many traditional peoples, even those enclaved within the dominant and seductive capitalist economy of the U.S., have an unbroken history of espousing this ethic. In Wisconsin, the Menominee nation has a 5,000-year history of occupation of their homeland. The 4,500 tribal members depend on 93,600 ha of forest for their livelihood. Marshall Pecore, their chief forester, states the tribes philosophy thus: "On Menominee here, we don't talk about, 'Yeah, and the sugar maple's hot today. Let's move as much and cut it all off today because we'll make a lot of dough.' What we have to be concerned with is that second and that third generation, to make sure that they have sugar maple. Our main emphasis and our main goal is long-term management, long-term for that seventh generation. Our management plan is designed every 50 years, but the goals and objectives are set in lifetimes." As one tribe member put it, "The forest today is what it was 200 years ago when the old ones looked at it. Sometimes I go to just sit there and look around, and I know that" (National Public Radio, 1994). (back to text)

b. Direct adverse impact casts aside arguments over keystone species status within predator-prey relationships; if all raptors were to become rare, for example, rodent and lagomorph populations would likely increase dramatically, adversely affecting the food chain on which humans depend. (back to text)