Lele, Sharachchandra and Richard B. Norgaard. 1995. "Sustainability and the Scientist's Burden." Conservation Biology 10(2): 354-365.


"Objective" science is value-laden. Scientists engaging in the sustainability discourse should realize an equitable, realistic view of the role of analysis, and pursue a pluralistic, local, and socially grounded approach.


The authors argue that in order to define 'sustainability' three questions must be addressed:

What is to be sustained, at what scale, and in what form?

Over what period and at what level of certainty?

Through what social process and with what tradeoffs against other social goals?

Lele and Norgaard argue that answering these questions "involve[s] an inextricable combination of value judgments, world views, and consensual knowledge" (p.355). Also, how these definitions get played out in social policy "depends critically upon the structure of social relations and institutions in which the science is embedded" (ibid). Hence, an 'objective' or even consensual definition of sustainability is impossible.

In addition, even the framework within which one defines sustainability "requires making a priori decisions about which factors matter, how they probably interrelate, and how to bound the analysis" (p.357). These judgments are shaped by a person's upbringing, disciplinary training, and position in the social order. Also, models and measurements are linked to the purposes individuals have for natural resources, and these individual preferences are linked to social differences.

The authors then outline three common categories of thought in terms of sustainability, and expose the value judgments hidden in each, highlighting how these are complicated in real world applications (pp.357-360). These are: (1) an ideology of 'naturalness', in which the Earth's natural processes are consecrated as inherently good; (2) an objective basis of subjective well-being, in which it is argued that ecosystems managed by humans can be sustainable, and that sustainability thresholds can ensure that; and (3) an ideology of aggregate global indices, in which rational decision-making seeks to balance risks and benefits through the "ecological equivalent of the GNP."

The ideology of natural pristiness stems from the "European notion that wilderness is defined by the absence of human influence" (p.357, quoting Clark, 1993). This in itself is a value judgment. It is logically paradoxical to adopt this view, because the pristineness cannot be valued without the humans that value it, but their presence makes it 'unnatural'. In addition, "the use of naturalness as both means and ends creates tautologies...leaving little room for empirical validation" (p.357). Lele and Norgaard also discuss the social implications of this perspective. If research is focused on "pristine" ecosystems, disturbed ecosystems, such as the secondary growth forest, are ignored. They argue that more disturbingly, "an ethic that respects all natural beings and processes becomes distorted into one that rejects the less privileged of its own kind" for example, communities dependent upon tropical forests (p.358).

In critique of humanly managed 'sustainability thresholds', selecting which are essential features of an ecosystem is a value judgment. For example, where foresters' estimates of 'useful production' relate only to timber, leaving out branch, leaf and litter production, they may deem that villager extraction exceeds production, and is thus unsustainable. These criteria "are often determined by the loud and the powerful" and reflect the biases of Western, and urban interests (p.359).

Finally, in regard to aggregate global indices that assess the contributions of ecological resources toward human well-being, the authors ask, "how can this contribution be measured objectively if notions of well-being vary vastly across individuals and communities?" (p.359). They argue that "there is no objective procedure for aggregating individual preferences" (ibid.) This cannot be done without attention to the role of values and interpersonal relations (p.360). Secondly, the index approach "subtly promotes the monetary ethic" by only valuing that which can be priced. Most importantly, since market pricing is based upon the distribution of resources, creating these indices perpetuates current conditions of unequal distribution. Thus, it becomes "rational" to convert inhabited tropical forests into parks, because rich tourists can pay for it (p.360).

Hence, none of these approaches among scientists achieves value neutrality. The authors caution, through examples of scientific efforts at impacting social practice that have backfired, that it is important to "redefine the scientist's burden before shouldering it" (p.361). They advise that scientists should make the value-judgments that are currently implicit in their models explicit, especially to the communities that will be impacted by their policy recommendations.

Lele and Norgaard call for a group-oriented, pluralistic approach to research such that the subjective values of all persons involved, and a variety of methods reflected by those values are represented in defining the goals of sustainability. In order to approach this goal, they recommend that scientists reduce their scale of study, so that the interpretations and preferences of a relatively homogeneous community can be identified, and sustainability can be defined within that socio-ecological context. This will result in closer communication between community members and researchers. Secondly, they argue that the institutions which support and utilize this research will need "to become more spatially decentralized, operationally transparent, conceptually pluralistic, and politically broad-based" (p.363).

Keywords: value judgments, scientific models, sustainability