Reframing Sustainability



Over the last quarter century, since the Brundtland Commission proposed their definition of ‘sustainable development’, the dialogue about sustainability has failed to reduce the threat that human activities pose to the global ecosystem. The time has come to question deep- rooted assumptions, including the role of economics. In this paper, priorities are re-examined and principles developed to be able to build a sustainable economy. It is argued that sustainable economics is subservient to society’s higher objectives and is about control and balance, rather than laissez-faire free markets. A conceptual model for sustainability is proposed that is closer to reality than the traditional model consisting of three pillars of society, the economy and the environment. This more integrated model has cornerstones of ‘culture’, ‘land’, ‘population’ and ‘energy’. Using this model allows economics to be repositioned in support of the needs of society and compliant with effective stewardship of the ecosystem.

Energy is the most challenging aspect of the transition to a sustainable economy, because the distortion to the economy arising from fossil-fuel dependency is considerable, and the consequences of fixing it are huge. Fossil fuel dependency is a seriously dangerous addiction; it is argued that the pain of curing it cannot be avoided and should be faced without further delay.

A renaissance in economics is possible but neoclassical economics has to be challenged to makes way for new economic models. Many blocks of economic policy will survive but need to be repositioned around the cornerstones of sustainability to provide the integrated model required to steer human affairs out of the current crisis and onto a safe track.

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6 responses

  • Rafael Giusti says:

    I agree with most of the article.
    I believe there is one very important topic which is not covered in most of sustainability discussions: “consciousness energy consumption”.

    Most of the time we focus on how to replace our current demand of energy. But in fact, we can improve a lot by decreasing demand for energy.

    Many communities around the world live in complete harmony with nature, for example: indigenous or native communities. We have to study them deeper and understand better our relationship with mother nature.

    I would like to see more discussions about this topic.

    • Richard Sanders says:


      I agree that we need to greatly reduce energy consumption and that we have much to learn from indigenous people’s especially in the art of living as a substitute for consumption.

      Seeing we are effectively on a lifeboat (spaceship Earth is also our lifeboat!) I believe rationing is important. It is also fair!! It would not be difficult (technically) to have a daily energy ration that turns off your electricity if you have used your daily ration. It would then restart at midnight for the next day.

      If the daily ration started with a generous amout that slowly decreased over say a year people would very quickly learn to live within their ration. (It would need to be set according to the number of people living in the dwelling).

      Thanks for commenting.


      • Peter McManners says:


        An interesting rationing idea but complex and I suggest less effective than high energy price. Every decision about product design, house insulation or transport options is skewed because energy is far cheaper than it should be. Rationing may help to ease the pain of the transition but high energy price is, I suggest, the best long-term economic lever to drive change.

        Having said the above, it would be good to see your rationing system installed and observe how people respond. Thanks for the suggestion.


    • Peter McManners says:


      I agree that reducing energy use is very effective and should be the first choice.

      The problem as I see it is a deep-rooted assumption that if we need more energy we need only build more generating capacity. The current economic system assumes a limitless amount of energy is available because we can build limitless numbers of power stations. The reality is that our future energy sources are renewable energy and the economics are different. We have an energy budget constrained by the amount of renewable energy we can easily harvest. We have to work within this budget and energy gets more expensive until demand has abated to match supply.

      There is no way around energy being more expensive except through rationing.


  • Andrew Fanning says:

    Dear Peter,
    Thank you for this visionary piece. It was a pleasure to read despite (or perhaps because of) the painful adjustments described to policies governing land use, population, energy and their economics necessary for a balanced, sustainable society. I would also suggest that structural reforms of the financial system, as proposed in the excellent paper by Richard Sanders, be added to the list of looming medicines that our child-like societies are refusing to swallow. I would like to follow up on two issues (for now!) that came to mind.

    First, I was impressed by your call for a “policy reversal” in project planning and development as described in Section 6.3. You write:

    “A common method of development is to start with a project proposed on economic grounds; then consult on the social issues that arise and finally commission an environmental impact assessment. Although widely used this is an unbalanced approach. […] This policy reversal will take time to be accepted and embedded in society. For each decision, the issue becomes how to make the most sustainable option economically viable. This is markedly different to seeking to make the most economic solution sustainable.”

    To me, this is a key observation as it calls into question the dominant unit of allocating resources (e.g. the project). I wonder if you can elaborate upon and/or suggest any works by groups/authors that have attempted to give this idea more shape? Or suggested alternatives to the use of projects as the unit of ‘development’? For example, it doesn’t seem to me that the above constitutes a “policy reversal” exactly since making the “most sustainable option” economically viable is still not necessarily sustainable in the sense of living within planetary limits – it could just be less destructive than other overshoot options. But I agree that this is the type of thinking we need to incorporate into the project cycle or maybe even move beyond ‘projects’ altogether.

    Second, your paper got me thinking about potential conflicts that could arise both between and within heterogeneous countries from “build[ing] a sustainable society based on their values, their people and their resources”. What about dictatorships? What about countries (democratic or otherwise) with imperialist ambitions? What about failed states? I for one would like to see more discussion from an international relations perspective regarding the issue of sustainability and sovereignty. It has been said that global problems require global solutions leading me to conclude that sustainability requires a transformation of the Westphalian system of sovereignty in the nation state. But how to define (and then agree upon!) jurisdictions for sustainable planetary governance?!?



    • Andrew

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments and support. You ask about my concept of ‘policy reversal’. To my mind this is obvious but only after long and deep thought. The sustainable development root I describe starting with a project justified on economic grounds and then examining the social and environmental impact is so deeply engrained that we longer question it; but if you do question it a light comes on in your mind which makes sustainability feasible. Deciding what is best on sustainability grounds and then working out how to make it economically viable is a very powerful method ‒ for those of us that believe sustainability matters. However, try having the conversation with mainstream economists and see how hard it is to get them to take off their blinkers. You ask about other writers in this space; other conference people may be able to add their comment but I don’t know of anyone else pushing this viewpoint. Perhaps I can take pride in ‘owning’ the concept but the issue is to spread the idea and make it mainstream.

      Your second point about ‘sustainable planetary governance’ is much more complex. We would like to see all places and all countries adopt sustainability but how to achieve that? In my recent book, Green Outcomes in the Real World: Global Forces, Local Circumstances, and Sustainable Solutions, I outlined how to move beyond idealism to pragmatic solutions for the real world. There is a degree of ‘selfish determination’ required for countries to find their own way.