Handbook of Sustainable Development
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Handbook of Sustainable Development

Second Edition

Edited by Giles Atkinson, Simon Dietz, Eric Neumayer and Matthew Agarwala

This timely and important Handbook takes stock of progress made in our understanding of what sustainable development actually is and how it can be measured and achieved.
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Chapter 10: Weak sustainability, conservation and precaution

Alan Randall


The Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability – meet(ing) the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) – would be satisfied by any arrangement that succeeds in maintaining welfare for the indefinite future. The goal of sustaining welfare can be met, in principle, by arrangements that allow great scope for substitution in production and consumption and rely, as time unfolds, on continuing technological progress and accumulation of capital to compensate for population growth and depletion of natural resources (Solow, 1974). Life may well be different in the future, just as life today is different from just a few generations ago, but it will be at least as satisfying. That is the promise of approaches that seek to sustain welfare – weak sustainability, the Hartwick rule, and green accounting (see Chapters 2, 22 and 23). The idea that welfare is what should be sustained accords well with post-industrial-revolution human experience in the well-off countries. Our production systems and consumption bundles keep changing and the old ways of doing things disappear apace, but it all seems to be making us better off. Those concerned with sustainability could hardly take seriously a weaker form of sustainability. After all, weak sustainability places a lot of faith in technology, substitutability of capital for natural resources, and the ability of markets to transmit the right incentives.

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