Thoughts on the evolution of “Strong Sustainability” and how we integrate it into our thinking and solutions at Blue North

At Blue North, we make extensive use of the distinction between “Strong” and “Weak” sustainability in our consulting work, and we have embedded the former within our online tools, particularly the SHERPA cloud-based sustainability management system.

Where does this distinction – “Strong” versus “Weak” – emanate from and why is it important? As far as I can tell, some of the earliest articulations that demonstrate thinking aligned with what is now called “Strong sustainability” are evident in the writings of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth-century classical economist. In his paper “An Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798) he connected mankind’s ongoing well-being and the environment’s capacity to support sufficient food production: His central thesis being that the human population – which grows exponentially – would inevitably (and with catastrophic consequences for humanity) exceed the land’s productive capacity, which is naturally constrained to, at best, grow in a linear way. Malthus thus made a very explicit connection between the economy and the environment and highlighted that the latter would be the ultimate limiting factor to economic and societal progress.

A more recent and significantly more influential catalyst for what has become “Strong sustainability” was the Romanian mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegan (1906-1994). He invented a new branch of economics that he termed “bioeconomics”, in which he argued that the subject matter of economics was far broader than that encompassed by neoclassical economics – which accepts its simplified descriptions of market exchange as a fully satisfactory proxy for reality. He warned that policy recommendations emanating from adherents of this worldview were doomed to failure as they ignored the social and biophysical contexts within which the core economic activities of consumption and production take place.  Georgescu-Roegan brought physics into economics – specifically via the second law of thermodynamics, the entropy law – and showed that all economic activity is ultimately dependent on the natural environment as a source of all raw material and energy inputs, and the recipient of the inevitable pollution and waste associated with all economic activity. For Georgescu-Roegan the entropy law imposes an inescapable hold: All economic activity is wholly dependent on accessible and concentrated high value (low entropy) inputs, and produces, unavoidably, low value dispersed (high entropy) pollution and wastes.

Georgescu-Roegan showed that the economy must be regarded as a sub-system of the biosphere, subject, like everything else, to the fundamental laws of physics. This stood in stark contrast to the neoclassical economics worldview (which underpins “Weak” sustainability). Here, as already noted, the economy is regarded as an isolated and independent system operating to its own rules with the singular focus on maximising economic growth – which is understood as being a function only of capital (financial), labour, and technology, and the way these three are deployed. Manmade/financial capital is also regarded as fully substitutable with “natural capital” (although they don’t define or even acknowledge natural resources in this way). On this logic, manufactured wood products such as furniture and roof trusses, substitute fully for the loss of forests where the trees providing the wood were felled. Underscoring this is the oft quoted remark made by the famous neoclassical economist Robert Solow that “the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources”. It must be noted that neoclassical economics is far and away the dominant and largely unchallenged worldview informing economists and policy makers the world over – unsurprisingly then, it is the exponential growth pattern of neoclassical economics that is the dominant pattern of our age.

From Georgescu-Roegan we can identify Herman Daly as another profoundly influential economist in the “Strong” camp. A student of Georgesu-Roegan, he is regarded as the father of Ecological Economics which is now the intellectual home of “Strong sustainability”. With others he formulated the three principles that must be respected within an economy for it to be regarded as truly sustainable:

  1. Renewable resources (such as forests, fish stocks, soils etc.) should be utilised by an economy no faster than the rate at which these resources naturally renew / regenerate.
  2. Pollutants and wastes should be emitted no faster by an economy then the rate at which the environment can absorb them and render them harmless.
  3. Non-renewable resources (such as fossil-fuels and minerals) should be extracted and used no faster than the rate at which renewable substitutes for them are put in place.

Daly concurs with Goergescu-Roegan in demanding that the economy be understood as an interacting sub-system of society and the biosphere, with the flows of energy and material that traverse and connect this integrated system being (unsurprisingly!) subject to the laws of physics, in particular the entropy law. He goes further in strongly advocating that an economy must ultimately, like the natural systems within which it is embedded, reach a steady-state where qualitative development takes precedence over ongoing quantitative growth. It is this growth, he argues, that if left unchallenged, will lead unavoidably to environmental collapse, in turn collapsing society and the economy. In short, the economy, according to Daly, must ultimately restrain itself to remain within the carrying capacity of the planet.

While there are many others not mentioned here who have made key contributions to defining and articulating “Strong sustainability”, a few relatively recent formulations and models are worth noting as they all express in different ways the “Strong sustainability” worldview. These have all served to bring “Strong sustainability” concepts to more general awareness, certainly in the sustainability field if not in economic thinking in general. They are:

  • The Five Capitals Model developed by Forum for the Future[1]
  • The Planetary Boundaries concept and measurement introduced by the Stockholm Resilience Centre[2]
  • The tracking and reporting of Earth Overshoot Day done by the Global Footprint Network.[3]
  • Doughnut Economics developed by Kate Raworth. [4]

At Blue North we have sought to develop all the content within our Sherpa sustainability management tool such that it incorporates the systems-view and rigours demanded by “Strong sustainability”. Our content frameworks are built around this systems “map” (see below).  The framework demands acknowledging that the organisation (the economic dimension) is nested within a social context (the Social Dimension) and these both are nested within the natural environment (the Environmental Dimension). The various arrows signify various connections and flows: The “economic engine” of the business is dependent on in-flows from society and the environment and has a flow of impacts back to society and the environment. Understanding and managing these flows is critical for the organisation’s long-term economic viability and resilience. From this framing, fundamental principles are defined that provide the scaffolding for a robust sustainability strategy: They ensure that the strategy is sufficiently broad in scope and define what, at a minimum, should be explicitly pursued by the business.

Another example of how we integrate “Strong sustainability” is the Evaluation Framework we have developed. We use it with clients to allow them to assess whether their sustainability strategy is sufficient to really deliver the needed changes in society and ecologically (and to show the potential pitfalls of a sustainability strategy build off the wrong principles). Structured around a simple two-dimensional matrix, the horizontal access evaluates the business’s response to the “sustainability challenge” (extending from “no response required” on the left to a proactive/leading response on the right”), and a vertical axis that identifies the sustainability worldview – “Strong” or “Weak” – that guides/informs the business’s response. The framework and how we then characterise businesses in each of the quadrants is shown below:

We simply ask: Where would you place your business’s sustainability strategy currently? What is your aspiration for your organisation – which quadrant do you aspire to be in – going forward? This simple evaluation allows a quick assessment and allows the “Strong sustainability” concepts to be understood and considered in a straightforward way – it also highlights the importance of challenging our paradigms before jumping in and developing an integrated report!

We regard the “Strong” versus “Weak” distinction as profoundly important. While acknowledging the difficulty for our modern industrial economic thinking to shift towards the “Strong” worldview, we regard this shift as an imperative for the development of sustainability strategies that are not only honest about what they can achieve, but have designed within them the potential to fundamentally address the societal and ecological challenges that are the fruit of the prevailing neoclassical economics, and hence “Weak sustainability”, worldview.