I recently submitted a paper dealing with solving the environmental sustainability problem. Feedback was very helpful and greatly appreciated. However, the reviewers commented that:
By “wider perspective” do they mean I should broaden my use of the word “sustainability” to include economic and social sustainability? Or do they mean something else? What does “normative” mean to the reviewers? Do they feel that sustainability cannot be defined because it’s a normative concept? Well, I don’t know.It would be helpful to consider sustainability in a wider perspective. Sustainability is neither equivalent with the work done in the wider context of Limits to Growth, nor is it equivalent with environmentalism. … A broader review of the literature on sustainability would also reveal that sustainability is a normative concept open to debate among various stakeholders, and not a purely scientific or environmental approach.
I feel that if you are working on a large, difficult problem and cannot define it precisely, then problem solving effort will be much less efficient, due to an ambiguous goal. The larger and more difficult the problem, the more precise the definition of the problem must be. This is a standard business, military and scientific project principle. Why shouldn’t it apply to social problems?
Guessing quite a bit, here’s an addition I’ve made to the paper:
I’m inexperienced in writing journal articles, so I’ve not developed the fine sense of judgment that many on this list/forum have. Do you think this definition adequately addresses the concerns of the reviewers?There is much confusion about the term sustainability, which diminishes problem solving efficiency. As just one example, Pezzey, 1989, cites over fifty definitions of “sustainability.”
We define sustainability as the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. For more practical detail, the behavior you wish to continue indefinitely must be defined. For example, environmental sustainability is the ability of the environment to support a defined level of environmental quality and natural resource extraction rates indefinitely. Then there is economic sustainability, which is the ability of an economy to create a defined level of economic production indefinitely. And we must not forget social sustainability, which is the ability of a social system to function at a defined level of social well being indefinitely.
Disagreement on defining the desired levels and required types of sustainability will continue. This frequently involves endless discussion about values, cultural differences, feasibility, fairness, etc. But such normative debate is best treated as part of the problem to solve, which the above definition accommodates.
Compared to say, the useful but contentious 1987 Brundtland definition of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” this clear and more implementable definition allows us to state a second definition of sustainability, one close to the popular sense of the word: environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Of these three types the highest priority must be environmental sustainability, because if our species destroys its ecological niche then economic and social sustainability at reasonable levels becomes impossible. Hence this paper focuses on environmental sustainability. For brevity, and more importantly as a way to emphasize this priority and return to the earlier and proper meaning of the term, we frequently just say “sustainability.” (For a similar, delightful, and more thorough argument see Daly, 1996, p. 1 to 9.)
Daly, Hermann. 1996. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Beacon Press.
Pezzy, J. 1989. Definitions of Sustainability. CEED Discussion Paper No. 9. The UK Center for Economic and Environmental Development, Cambridge.
More importantly, is it a step forward in defining sustainability, or are there perhaps some good definitions sitting out there I’m not aware of? No need to reinvent the wheel.