">Weak vs. Strong sustainability: origin of our current distorted relation toward ecosystems - the Tapio blog

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Thibaud Petit

Oct. 13, 2022






Weak vs. Strong sustainability: origin of our current distorted relation toward ecosystems



A little bit of context


For the last centuries,  we thought we could exploit our planet’s natural resources without enduring all the consequences.  Last summer’s  natural  disasters as clear signals such as the intensification of floods, droughts, and the increase of the sea level with all their consequences proved us to be wrong. In fact, according to the WWF, 28 July 2022 has been the Earth Overshoot Day,  the date from which humanity has consumed (ecological footprint) all the resources that the Earth can replenish in one year (biocapacity). As the origins of the distorted relation to biodiversity and ecosystems are numerous, we decided to tackle it with the notions of “weak vs. strong sustainability”. But what are these concepts related to and how current and relevant are these still nowadays? That’s what you will discover in this article.



The relation between natural vs. manufactured capital?


These approaches put in parallel two notions: natural capital and manufactured capital.  As stated by Ekins, natural capital  is on the one hand a “metaphor to indicate the importance of the ecosystems in the development of the society and the human welfare”. On the other hand, manufactured capital relates to material goods (tools, machines, buildings, infrastructures) necessary for the development of the economy and the maintenance of human welfare.



How does weak sustainability differ from strong sustainability?


The difference between weak and strong sustainability is in how they see natural capital and manufactured capital to guarantee humanwelfare necessary for the rise of oursociety, oureconomy, and eventually of human welfare. Weak sustainability proponents tend to consider natural capital and manufactured capital as interchangeable and that the weakening of  natural capital  can be replaced easily by technical solutions. 





According to the weak sustainability approach, there is no fundamental difference depending on whether human welfare is generated by natural capital  or manufactured capital (or any specific capital). Consequently, sustainability is guaranteed as long as the aggregate stock (= the sum) of natural capital  on the one hand and manufactured capital on the other is maintained, or ideally increased for the sake of future generations.


This approach to sustainability was particularly promoted during the Enlightenment. Over the last centuries, we have been thinking that natural resources were unlimited and could be exploited without acknowledging the negative consequences it could have on our economy and way of life.The tone of weak sustainability proponents strongly reminds of the non-alarmist eco-modernist narrative, in whichscientific & technological progress and growth (manufactured capitals) would enable us to mitigate our environmental impact. However, the eco-modernist approach (just like the weak sustainability one) could be considered a gamble.


By unknowingly privileging the weak sustainability approach, we contributed to maximise monetary compensation for environmental degradations that we directly witnessed last summer. Although weak sustainability is still supported today, experiences and scientific progress have shown more systemic limits, both  economic  and  ecological . Given the climate urgency and the challenges of the ecological transition, other approaches need to be considered.


Will strong sustainability save us? 


Strong sustainability proponents disagree with the interchangeability of natural and manufactured capitals. In contrast to their weak sustainability counterparts, natural capital,  the biosphere  and  ecosystems are essential to produce manufactured capital and should not be viewed as an inexhaustible stock of resources. Rather, it should be considered as complementary  to manufactured capital and other forms of capital in producing human well-being (Brand 2009 cited by Pelenc & Ballet).  


While destruction of manufactured goods is rarely irreversible, this is not the case for natural capital as attested with the beginning of the 6th mass extinction of species (Elkins et al.). Destruction of natural capital also includes the disappearance of ecosystem goods and services essential to human welfare. Talking about ecosystem services, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defines those as the benefits  people  receive from  ecosystems, and among them some of which are marketed in our economy. These ecosystem services include e.g. provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and fibre; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling. 


Establishment of CNC: opportunity to engage the civil society


One idea proposed in 2015 to preserve our ecosystem services was to establish  “critical natural capital”  (CNC). According to Chiesura and de Groot, CNCis commonly defined as that part of the natural environment, which performs important and irreplaceable functions. The idea is to define parts of the ecosystems vital to human existence and welfare and then establish a threshold from which its degradation should be evaluated as “critical”. Such a reflection on interactions between the natural environment and human well-being deals however with a bunch of complex questions. 


For example, what are the criteria to assume that degradation (or the disappearance) of one or the other natural capital area one will affect human welfare? How do you know which natural capital area is critical for whom and why? What should be considered as an “intolerable loss”? Given their complexity, such questions were tackled at experts and scientist levels. 


However, as the civil society actors and companies are the first victims of climate disasters they are likely to play a central role in the definition of CNC and our relation to biodiversity. 




To make a long story short, weak sustainability  sees economy and ecology are seen as interchangeable, with the effect that the economy often becomes an 'end in itself'. On the opposite, strong sustainability  clearly states: without nature,  no people,  and without people, no economy.  Looking back at our slogan, you might already know the approach we privilege. However, as mentioned before, this requires the involvement of all actors of the civil society. 


Eventually, enlightened environmentalism  states that the right knowledge and driving forces that increased human welfare in the last decades could be relevant to raise awareness about the necessity of preserving natural capital  and our biodiversity. 


Confronted with these challenges ahead, we have two options: complacent or conditional optimism. Either we keep claiming that preservation of natural capital and ecosystems is vital, but keep complaining or mourning that nothing happens in this sense. Or despite all challenges linked to the ecological transition, we know deep down, we can handle these with the right knowledge, tools, by innovating and raising awareness among civil society actors. As Steven Pinker, enlightened environmentalism proponent whose approach deserves to be discussed in another paper, “we cannot be complacently optimistic about climate change, but we can be conditionally optimistic. At Tapio, we already made our decision. What about you?





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