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Macroeconomics and the Environment

Essays on Green Accounting

Salah El Serafy

Though scientists and environmentalists have long expressed concern over the rapid deterioration of the global environment, economists have largely failed to recognize the issue’s relevance to their field. Salah El Serafy argues for an increased focus on the economic aspects of environmental degradation, calling for a fundamental shift in how economists measure and discuss national income.
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Chapter 13: Sustainability and substitutability: defending weak sustainability

Essays on Green Accounting

Salah El Serafy


A version of this chapter appeared in Environmental Values, 1998, Volume 5, number 1, pp. 75–82. ‘Sustainability’ has become a desirable objective among ecological economists, and seems also to have found favor with development agencies albeit not always convincingly. It is not surprising therefore that many environmentalists dismiss exclamations of support for sustainability as empty rhetoric. Needless to say different scholars have brought forth different perceptions of sustainability, not all of them reconcilable with each other. Questions are often raised over what exactly to sustain, at what level, for how long and for what purpose. The answers have remained imprecise, variant, and when cogently formulated they have not garnered consensus. For national accounting purposes, and therefore for the benefit of macroeconomics, sustainability relates narrowly to income estimation. But even within this narrow view the question may be asked if sustainability for the poor would mean perpetuation of their poverty? Or should it be taken to mean that they do not become even worse off? And yet, despite all these uncertainties there seems to be agreement that sustainability is probably a ‘good thing’, obviously superior to its opposite which may be called ‘unsustainability’.

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