Weak and Strong Sustainability – Interesting idea but Misleading!

What actions are sustainable and what actions are not? Can the generation of societal benefits outweigh the reduction of non-renewable natural resources, such as, oil, gas, metals and minerals and is this all in line with the concept of sustainability?

by Adrian Braun

November 2018

The distinction of weak  and strong sustainability has become quite prominent in the entire sustainability and sustainable development discourse, originated from the field of environmental economics. Weak sustainability allows utilization of ecological and societal assets by generation of human capital in exchange at the same time. For example coal mining links to greenhouse gas emissions, landscape destruction and health and safety issues for workers and local communities. On the contrary coal is used to create “capital” that is relevant for the human society. Energy and heat are evidently the most notable ones in this regard. Thus the concept of weak sustainability allows environmental degradation, in case a human benefit is the direct consequence. Strong sustainability on the opposite refers largely to the general definitions of sustainability and does not imply these sorts of internalisations. In environmental economics, human and natural capital are complementary in “weak” sustainability, but a transition process from natural capital to human capital is not “strongly” sustainable.

Fair enough, the idea is not new, going back to the 1980s and 1990s, but nonetheless actors from politics, corporations and academia refer to it continually.  Undoubtedly, the idea is worth to discuss and in certain scenarios it might be the case that the created value outweighs the ecological and societal input. However, in practise it is a too easy way out of the responsibility to find solutions with the least possible society and ecosystem impacts. The society needs …….. and hence we have to produce it to create “human capital”. This argument is not good enough as justification to touch natural resources!

Let´s take oil and gas exploitation in the Arctic Ocean as another example. Oil and gas are an important energy source to run machines, cars, factories and much more. No doubt, major human benefits are generated from these natural resources. Some might argue it fulfils the patterns of weak sustainability. Perhaps it does, but for what do we have then the concept of sustainability at all? Oil and gas extraction in the Arctic is depletion of a non-renewable natural resource stock in one of the most fragile marine ecosystems on the globe, far away from the major markets. Linking this sector moreover to the large-scale carbon dioxide emissions in the global warming context and the hardships of how to determine the exact ecological footprints, we are actually very far away from any sort of sensible sustainability. The global society and all its actors should keep in mind, that the basic principle of sustainability is that future generations get the same access to resources as the present one. Weak sustainability undermines this principle.


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