The Many Meanings of Sustainability: A Competing Paradigms Approach

In Steven A. Moore (ed.), Pragmatic Sustainability: Dispositions for Critical Adaptation. New York: pp. 16-28 (2016)
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Although the word 'sustainability' is used broadly, scientific approaches to sustainability fall into one of two competing paradigms. Following the influential Brundtland report of 1987. some theorists identify sustainability with some form of resource availability, and develop indicators for sustainability that stress capital depletion. This approach has spawned debates about the intersubstitutivity of capitals, with many environmental theorists arguing that at some point, depletion of natural capital cannot be offset by increases in human or social capital. The alternative approach is grounded in stock and flow systems systems modeling, and defines sustainability through indicators that determine whether the system structure is robust (e.g. resists perturbation), resilient (recovers after disruption) and adaptive (capable of change in response to external conditions). Both paradigms have applications in economics and ecology.

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Paul B. Thompson
Michigan State University


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