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 3: Sustainable development in ecological economics

Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh


The notions of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’ are interpreted in various ways. This has become most clear perhaps in the field of ecological economics, where different disciplines have offered particular perspectives on these notions. Ecological economics (EE) was founded at the end of the 1980s. It integrates elements of economics, ecology, geography, thermodynamics, ethics and a number of other natural and social sciences to provide for an integrated and biophysical perspective on environment–economy interactions. EE expresses the view that the economy is a subsystem of a larger local and global ecosystem that limits physical growth of the economy. At the same time, it is critical of the dominant paradigm of (environmental and resource) economics, characterized by rational agents and equilibrium thinking. Many EE studies are characterized by the use of physical (material, energy, chemical, biological) indicators and comprehensive, multidisciplinary systems analysis. The goal of sustainable development occupies a central position in the study of EE. All intellectual founders and antecedents of EE have written extensively about sustainable development, even if not using this particular terminology. For example, H.E. Daly proposed the idea of a ‘steady state economy’, associated with the objective to minimize the use of material and energy ‘throughput’ of the economy (Daly, 1991). In addition, he developed the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW: see also Chapter 23) as a sustainable welfare indicator (Daly and Cobb, 1989).

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