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close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1998, 417 p.)
close this folder1. Eco-restructuring: The transition to an ecologically sustainable economy
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction: On sustainability
View the documentThe need for holistic systems analysis
View the documentEnvironmental threats and (un)sustainability indicators
View the documentSharpening the debate
View the documentNon-controversial issues: Population, resources, and technology
Open this folder and view contentsControversial issues: Pollution, productivity, and biospheric stability
View the documentFinding the least-cost (least-pain) path
View the documentConcluding comments
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences


Robert U. Ayres

The paper that follows was originally prepared for the United Nations University (UNU) as a background "white" paper in support of the development of UNU's long-term research programme (in fact, the UNU version was based on an earlier version that I prepared for a workshop held at IIASA in January 1991). As such, it was also the main background paper for the UNU Eco-Restructuring Conference held in Tokyo in July 1993, at which most of the papers in this book were first presented.

For various reasons, the preparation of this book from those conference papers has been an unusually long and difficult process. The review and revision process has been very slow. A few of the original papers had to be dropped because the authors were too busy to undertake necessary revisions and submit revised versions. Some that were topical at the time have become a little dated. To fill gaps (some of which were evident from the start) several additional papers have been solicited and included. But because these authors were not present at the conference they lacked the common background and required more than the usual amount of "editorial guidance." I think, however, that the final result is useful and interesting, if not the "last word" on the subject (which, in any case, will never be written).

The objective of the 1993 Tokyo conference was to explore the technical and economic feasibility of long-term sustainability. The conference did not totally neglect the political and institutional issues, but they were deliberately given secondary status. Social and cultural issues were set aside altogether, as being outside our collective ken. The overarching issue of population control was discussed only in my background paper, which follows, and only in terms of generalities. The bulk of the book deals with technological issues. Economics should have been given more attention than it was, but few economists are prepared to take on the practical aspects of long-range restructuring. This remains an open subject for future research.

Because of the background sketched above, I have since revised the paper only moderately to respond to reviewers' comments, while retaining much of its original logical structure. I recognize that the structure is not ideal for the intended audience of the book. (It is probably not ideal for any audience). But, as I say, the paper was essentially the "terms of reference" for all the other authors. To change it fundamentally would be a little unfair.

It must be acknowledged that, in many ways, the terms of the discussion have changed since the paper was written. In some ways, as on the problem of global climate change, there has been clear progress. One can only applaud this fact. On the other hand, thanks to the too vague definition offered in the Brundtland Commission Report Our Common Future, the term "sustainability" has been popularized and made virtually meaningless in recent years. It has been consistently misused, in particular, by the World Bank and other economic development agencies. These institutions are inclined to interpret "sustainable development" as "perpetual growth," which is an extreme perversion of the original sense of the phrase. But sustainability is also now an icon of generalized political correctness, where it is carelessly applied to a variety of attributes from culture to democracy.

Holding to the original sense of the word, this chapter seeks to sort out the questions about sustainability on which there is substantial scientific agreement from those unresolved questions that are still subject to considerable controversy. In this context, several testable theses are proposed. The first thesis is that there are limits to the capacity of the natural environment to accommodate anthropogenic disturbances. The earth is finite. Second, there are also limits to the substitutability of conventional market goods and services for environmental services. Third, there are limits to the extent to which technology can repair or replace environmental resources that are irreversibly damaged. For instance, only the most naive technological optimist can imagine undertaking to substitute positive engineering control systems, designed by humans, for natural means of climate control and stabilization.

With respect to some controversial questions we cannot expect firm answers. For instance, there is a possibility that nature may be exceedingly adaptable, resilient, and resistant to anthropogenic disturbance. Or nature may not be so resilient. It is conceivable, too, that human ingenuity could invent engineering alternatives to natural processes being threatened, or that technology could offer means of "adaptation" to ecological and climatic stress. However, the argument is that these possibilities are not probabilities. The limits of resilience are probably not very distant, and it is very difficult to justify a high degree of confidence that "business as usual" can continue without risk for even a few more decades.

In brief, the underlying problem is that many current demographic, economic, and industrial trends currently seem to point unmistakably in the wrong direction, i.e. away from sustainability. To achieve sustainability, and to minimize ecological risk, it will be necessary to reverse most of these trends. Indeed, some aggregated measures of material and energy use may have to be reduced by large factors (four to ten). Such a reversal will entail very fundamental changes in the economic system. The directions and magnitudes of these changes are assessed briefly, and various approaches to their implementation are analysed.