Beckerman, Wilfred. 1994. "'Sustainable Development': Is it a Useful Concept?" Environmental Values 3: 191-209.


The concept of 'sustainable development' is either morally repugnant in its 'strong' form, or logically redundant in its 'weak' form.


Beckerman critiques sustainable development on three counts. First that 'sustainability' should be used only as a technical characteristic of any project or development path, not as a moral injunction. He complains that environmentalists have frequently employed the Hicksian and Rawlsian development concepts such as 'maintaining capital intact' with an ethical force and moral obligation that the concepts' originators never intended. (pp.203-205).

Secondly the neo-classical concept of 'optimality' already accounts for intergenerational justice because, its aim is to "maximize the present value of welfare over whatever time period is regarded as relevant. This can account for distributional equity concerns through the discounting procedure of welfare economics He argues that "rationing investment according to the discount rate helps to ensure that we invest now in projects that will give future generations more welfare than if we invested, instead, in projects -- some of which may be environmental projects -- that yield lower returns" (p.199). Thus, sustainable development adds nothing new to the sustainability debate. (pp.196-199).

Finally, Beckerman argues that most environmentalists have dropped 'strong' sustainability, and now define 'sustainability' in weak terms, such that it is equivalent to some requirement that well-being does not decline over time. Weak sustainability allows for the substitutability between some forms of natural capital and man-made capital as long as welfare does not decline. Beckerman argues that this has reduced 'sustainability' to the "old-fashioned economist's concept of 'optimality'" (p.195).

Beckerman summarizes weak sustainability as the idea that welfare should be maximized, but subject to the constraint that the path of development be sustainable. Beckerman counters that proponents of 'weak sustainability' have mis-represented the economic concept of a 'constraint' (p.202). Employing the concept of a 'constraint' is necessary, and logical, only if there is conflict between the 'constraint' and what one is trying to maximize. Since weak sustainability aims to maximize welfare, it makes no sense to employ the notion that 'welfare must not decline' as a constraint. (pp.199-203)

Beckerman concludes that weak sustainability is therefore redundant and illogical. He holds that sustainability only makes sense in its 'strong' form, but that "requires subscribing to a morally repugnant and totally impracticable objective" (p.203). Beckerman closes by acknowledging that there are environmental problems, and that these will not be solved by leaving the market to run itself. However, research should be directed toward developing economic incentives that will secure "socially optimal co-operative action" in relation to environmental assets (p.206). He regrets that much time has been wasted on the sustainable development concept.

Keywords: environmental policy, intergenerational justice, measurement of GNP, optimality, social discount rate, sustainability constraints, sustainable development, welfare maximisation.