The Imperatives of Sustainable Development: Needs, Justice, Limits (book review)

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 6. December 2017 - 23:48

The Imperatives of Sustainable Development: Needs, Justice, Limits

by Erling Holden, Kristin Lingered, David Banister, Valeria Jana Schwanitz and August Wierling.
London and New York: Earthscan from Routledge. 263 p. published in July 2017.
book review by Arthur Lyon Dahl

The debate about sustainable development has been going on for thirty years since the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland published “Our Common Future” in 1987. It has taken form in Agenda 21 (1992) and been redefined in the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015. While the International Environment Forum has long emphasized the ethical foundations of sustainable development, these have often been lost in the complexity of the issues involved.

Here is an extremely important book that aims to restore the ethical heart of sustainable development and to make it operational with indicators and thresholds defining the sustainable development space that should be the goal of all countries. From a holistic perspective, it lays out a simplified and transparent reality to capture the essentials of sustainability in a form understandable by the general public. The first chapter defines the moral imperatives of sustainable development, followed by three theoretical chapters on needs, justice and limits. The central chapter gives a normative model of sustainable development, followed by more practical chapters on implementation, with facts and figures, an analytic narrative, how much as been lost in translation, especially in implementing sustainable development at the local level, and a final chapter on next steps.

The book starts from three equally important moral imperatives: satisfying human needs, ensuring social justice, and respecting environmental limits. For each of these, it reviews available theoretical frameworks, and selects the one most fit for purpose: Sen’s capability approach for needs; Rawl’s two principles of justice for justice; and the planetary boundary approach for limits. From these, it derives six sustainability themes, two for each moral imperative. For each theme, it reviews the available indicators and data availability, and recommends those that would be the most workable at the present time. It then sets thresholds for each indicator that would define what is sustainable or unsustainable for each indicator. The themes are non-negotiable and cannot be substituted. All must be achieved together for sustainability.

The six sustainability themes and their headline indicators are:
1. eradicating extreme poverty (Poverty line)
2. enhancing individual human capabilities (Human Development Index)
3. ensuring rich participation in society (Participatory Democracy Index)
4. ensuring fair distribution of resources (Gini Coefficient)
5. mitigating climate change (Tons CO2 equivalent per capita)
6. safeguarding biosphere integrity (Aichi biodiversity targets)

The result is the definition of a sustainable development space which should be the goal of all countries and the planetary system. There is no single pathway to this space. Different countries face different challenges and must follow different pathways. Calculations show that no country today is in that space, and for many the trajectory for at least some themes is in the wrong direction, especially with the human population still increasing within a limited global environment, per capita consumption increasing, and people living longer so that lifetime impacts are increasing as well. We have a long way to go, while the negative consequences of our unsustainability are accelerating.

The book concludes with four issues that will define sustainable development over the next 30 years: developing countries and urbanization, resource efficiency and technology, healthy people and healthy planet, and governance - engagement and participation.

The approach is academic, with frequent references to the literature and step-by-step development of their argument, which can take some time to get through but produces a certain clarity of thought that is important for such a complex subject. My only question concerns their optimism that urbanization is part of the solution to sustainability, when communities at a more human scale closer to their resources while integrated through information technology may be socially and environmentally more desirable. There has unfortunately been some sloppy editing, including some repetition and two places where lines of text have been repeated or misplaced, but these are minor concerns relative to the importance of the message.

Holden and his co-authors, motivated by a fundamental desire for justice, have provided an essential complement to the Sustainable Development Goals, to which they have been careful to link their approach. Integrating all those goals, targets and indicators is a major challenge. Here is an essential set of tools to provide general measures of our progress (or lack of progress) towards sustainability. For organizations like IEF, and all faith-based organizations as well as many civil society organizations for which ethics are important, this book provides an approach to sustainable development with values at the centre. We should be pushing for its integration into international, national and local efforts to guide the transition to sustainability that is so urgently needed.

Last updated 6 December 2017