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Economic Theory for the Environment

Essays in Honour of Karl-Göran Mäler

Edited by Bengt Kriström, Partha Dasgupta and Karl-Gustaf Löfgren

Karl-Göran Mäler’s work has been a mainstay of the frontiers of environmental economics for more than three decades. This outstanding book, in his honour, assembles some of the best minds in the economics profession to confront and resolve many of the problems affecting the husbandry of our national environments.
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Chapter 8: Notes on Irreversibility, Sustainability and the Limits to Growth

Anthony C. Fisher and Jinhua Zhao


8. Notes on irreversibility, sustainability and the limits to growth Anthony C. Fisher and Jinhua Zhao 1 INTRODUCTION The concept of ‘sustainability’, of sustainable development, has become well known, and indeed generally accepted as a criterion for resource allocation, among researchers, at least some policy makers, and the general public, in recent years. A watershed document here, though certainly not the first articulation of the theme, was the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report after the Commission’s chair, former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Grundtland. As the Commission put it: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (page 8). Although this does not explicitly address the natural environment, most of the subsequent discussion of sustainability has focused on limits, or constraints on development, imposed by the environment. A notable exception to the general acceptance of the sustainability criterion has been the reaction of economists, the people who are professionally concerned with resource allocation. Economists, though not opposed to sustainability, have subjected the concept to rigorous scrutiny in attempting to determine its relationship to other accepted criteria for resource allocation, principally economic efficiency. Environmental and resource economists, in particular Karl-Göran Mäler (1991) in his seminal article in the first issue of the journal Environmental and Resource Economics, have also explicitly considered the implications of constraints imposed by nature, such...

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