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Sustainability, Human Welfare, and Ecosystem Health

Author(s): BRYAN NORTON


Source: Environmental Values, Vol. 1, No. 2 (SUMMER 1992), pp. 97-111
Published by: White Horse Press
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Sustainability,

Human

Welfare, and Ecosystem

Health

BRYAN NORTON
SchoolofPublicPolicy
GeorgiaInstitute
ofTechnology
Atlanta,GA33032, USA
ABSTRACT: Two typesof sustainability
are contrasted.'Social
definitions
scientific9
suchas thatof theBrundtland
treatsusdefinitions,
Commission,
as a relationship
welfare
ofpersons.These
between
andfuture
tainability
present
definitions
differ
from'ecological*oneswhichexplicitly
of
requireprotection
onsustainability.
'Scientific
contextualism'
ecologicalprocessesas a condition
intheirefforts
does notfollowmainstream
economists
toexpressall effects
as
unitsofindividual
itrather
strives
toexpresssensitivity
welfare;
interchangeable
to different
can exerton the
typesand scalesof impactsthatpresentactivities
future.We can therefore
toact sustainably
as an
expressthemoralobligation
toprotect
thenatural
ofhumanlifeand
thecontext
obligation
processesthatform
thoselargebioticandabioticsystems
essentialtohuman
culture,
emphasizing
culture. Ecosystems,whichare understood
as
life,health,and flourishing
mustremain
dynamic,self-organizing
systemshumanshave evolvedwithin,
if humansare to thrive.The ecologicalapproachto sustainability
'healthy*
innature
as itsprimary
therefore
setstheprotection
ofdynamic,
creative
systems
goal.
KEYWORDS: Sustainability,
ecologicalmanagement,
obligationsto future,
welfare,
intergenerational
equity,irreversibility.

The goalof 'sustainability*


hasemergedas a rallying
cryfora broadspectrum
of advocatesof bothenvironmentalist!!
and rationaldevelopment.The term
inthefieldofresource
had
wasfirst
use,anditinitially
sustainability
popularized
a fairlypreciseapplicationin phrasessuchas 'maximumsustainableyield',
a
withmaintaining
whichrepresents
thehighest
levelofexploitation
consistent
term
is
the
orfishery.Today,however,
steadyflowofresourcesfroma forest
used muchmorebroadlyto include,forexample,levels of pollutionand
current
levels
withmaintaining
ofnatural
thatareconsistent
systems
degradation
Inthecontext
ofuseandenjoyment
'sustainable
ofthosesystems.
development',
itmustbe usedinthebroadersense,andhenceitis inthisbroadersensethatthe
termhasbecomea shibboleth
ofmainstream
environmentalists.
Environmental
Values1 (1992):97-111
1992TheWhite
UK.
HorsePress,
Cambridge,

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98

BRYAN NORTON

*
inpolicydiscussions,
Itisnodoubtuseful,
tohavea termlike'sustainability
,
in daysof old, can standas a label forthemany
which,like "conservation"
activities
ofenvironmentalists.
Thedangeris thattheterm,
like'conservation'
beforeit,will becomea cliche.1Nobodyopposesit becausenobodyknows
forenvironmenexactlywhatitentails.To avoidthistrapitwillbe necessary
and philosophers,
to develop,explainand
talists,withthehelpof scientists
ofenvironmental
tothe
justifya theory
practicethatgivesformandspecificity
In
of
what
is
needed
is
a
of
set
goal
sustainability. particular,
principles,
derivablefroma plausiblecoreideaofsustainability,
butsufficiently
specificto
in
in
decisions
and
providesignificant
guidance day-to-day
policychoices
the
environment.
affecting
As a first
itis usefultonotethattheterm
stepingivingformtothedefinition,
sustainable
so
it
would
to
use,
implies
appear excludeseverelymoralistic
such
as
of
extreme
approaches,
positions
deep ecologistswho arguethatthe
natural
worldoughtnottobe considered
'resources'forhumanuseatall.2Atthe
otherextreme,
advocatesof unlimited
economicgrowth,
who arguethatit is
to
constraints
on
the
of
the
free
market
togenerate
wrong placeany
ability
goods
andservicesinresponsetoconsumer
wouldrejecttheimplication
that
demands,
environmental
concerns
constraints
on
the
use
of
nature.3
Between
justifyany
- andI think
theseextreme
however
itis safetosaythattheseextreme
positions,
have
few
advocates
lie
the
vast
ofenvironmentalists,4
positions
very
majority
whobelievethatuseoftheenvironment
is morally
acceptable,butthatthisuse
is constrained
in unsustainable
notto misusetheenvironment
by obligations
ways.

PART I: SUSTAINABILITY AND HUMAN WELFARE


definition
ofsustainability
is thatoftheBrundtland
Today,themostoften-cited
Commission'sreport,
Our CommonFuture:"Sustainabledevelopment
is dethatmeetstheneedsofthepresent
without
theability
velopment
compromising
offuture
tomeettheirownneeds."5TheCommission
followedthis
generations
definition
witha formulation
ofthe"twokeyconcepts"oftheirdefinition:
"the
theessentialneedsoftheworld'spoor,towhich
conceptof 'needs,'inparticular
shouldbe given",and"theideaoflimitations
overriding
priority
imposedbythe
stateoftechnology
andsocialorganization
ontheenvironment's
abilitytomeet
and
future
needs".6
present
Sincetheexactmeaning
ofsustainability
willdependuponthespecification
of the 'limitations'mentionedin thesecondconcept,it is notablethatthe
Brundtland
definition
statestheseas determined
essentially
by "thestateof
and
social
is
therefore
definedas an
technology
organization".Sustainability
between
human
needs
and
human
intertemporal
relationship
productiveca-

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SUSTAINABILITY AND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

99

betweenhumanwelfareatdifferent
parities,as a relationship
stagesofhuman
is mentioned,
it appearsas a passive
developmentWhiletheenvironment
elementintheequation- needsarehuman-determined,
andlimitations
areseen
as humanlimitations.The environment
does notimposeanynon-negotiable
limitson sustainable
oflimitations
on theabilitiesofhumans
use,independent
to controlit. Anylimitation
on use of theenvironment
mayin principlebe
overcomeby somenewbreakthrough
in technology
and social organization.
Ourobligation,
onthisview,is tobalancepresent
ofneedsagainstthe
fulfilment
to fulfiltheirneeds.
abilityoffuture
generations
The Brundtland
of one broad
definition,
then,can standas characteristic
whichI willcallthe'socialscientific9
both
approachtosustainability,
approach,
because it is popularamong social scientists,
such as demographers
and
andbecauseitfocusesmostempirical
attention
on humandemands
economists,
andon characteristics
oftechnical
andsocialinnovation.7
While the Brundtland
definition
was intendedas a relatively'neutral'
attractive
toabroadrangeofenvironmentalists
anddevelopmental,
definition,
we can now see thatit may notbe. The implication
thattherecan be no
inresources
ofsustaininsuperable
shortages
bytheverydefinition
precludes,
limitations
oftheenvironment
itself:characability,
imposedbycharacteristics
teristics
thatmightlimitits abilityto produceconsumablegoods or absorb
humanwastes.On theBrundtland
ofeconomicandsocial
projections
approach,
canbe calculatedwithout
forthescale ofhumanactivities.
growth
accounting
thisimplication
thatnaturesetsno naturallimitson economic
Intuitively,
uses is implausible;it impliesthatno humanactivitywill,in principle,
be
the
ofresources.Thisimplication
seemstocontradict
precludedbyshortages
obviousfactthatthestocksofanygivenresourceare finite,
and thatsomeof
suchas copperore,arequitelimited.8
Thedenialofnatural
limitsdoesnot
them,
however.Itrecognizes
thatstocksofnon-renewable
challengethisfactdirectly,
resourceswill declineand thepriceof raw resourceswill rise; thekey to
maintainingthis positionrests on a high degree of confidencein the
ofresources.The finitude
ofcopperdoes notcausea limit
intersubstitutability
willreplace
oneconomicgrowth
resource
because,as thepricerises,a substitute
it Similarly,as the cost of disposingof pollutantsand wastes increase,
willbe stimulated
and
meansofrecycling
todevelopalternative
entrepreneurs
ofsustainability
definitions
thatsocialscientific
then,
disposal.I amsuggesting,
ofresources,
a verystrong
ofintersubstitutability
indeed,
presuppose
principle
inthe
a Principle
is inherent
ofInfinite
(PII). Thisprinciple
Intersubstitutability
definition
as a simplebalanceof 'humanwelfare'acrosstime.
ofsustainability
I submit,
willquestionPII. Theyshould,therefore,
be wary
Environmentalists,
and
ofattempts
ofhumantechnology
todefinesustainability
simplyas a matter
welfare.9
It can be arguedthatthe assumptionof PII is intimately
tied to the
unidimensional
valueanalysisofthemainstream
economicparadigm.One will

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100

BRYAN NORTON

oflabour,resources
findPII plausibleonlyifoneassumestheinterchangeability
as pricesin markets.Interand capital,and thatall valuecan be represented
is essentialto thecentralidea ofmainstream
economics;thatall
changeability
choices
at themargin.10
consumer
as
choicescanbe understood
incrementally,
If sustainability
is to be a simpleproblemofbalancingwelfareacrossgeneraandinterchangetions,thenhumanwelfaremustbe understood
incrementally
richer
leave
our
descendants
we
in
Provided
mainstream
economics.
as
it
is
ably
thanwe are,accordingto thisanalysis,we cannothavedonewrong;thefuture
or a
forlostresources,
substitutes
can simplytradeits wealthforamenities,
in
which
all
of
value
In
an
incremental
environment.
system
pollution-free
andallresources
valuesareinterchangeable
have,withrequisite
capital,adequate
need be givenno specialpre-emptive
constraints
environmental
substitutes,
status.
To recognizelimitsinherentin natureitselfwould be to introduce
ofpassenger
intotheanalysis.Ifover-consumption
discontinuities
pigeonswere
economic
in
to
the
mainstream
1900,
profits
paradigm,
according
analysed
to the
deemed
'beneficial'
been
could
have
from
over-exploitation
resulting
one
newsourcesofprotein.If,however,
future
as capitalcapableofgenerating
one
would
an
thatpassenger
insisted
resource,
irreplaceable
pigeonsrepresented
ofsquab,evenas thestocksplummeted
havearguedthatcontinued
consumption
harmperpetrated
an
towardextinction,
by one
unrecompensable
represented
ones.
on
generation subsequent
to set out to showthattheeconomicparadigm,
It is tempting
despiteits
all valueson a
(in thatit can represent
advantageof simplicity
unquestioned
todeal withquestionsofintergenerais toosimplistic
singlescaleofwelfare),
modelof
itcouldbe arguedthattheincrementalist
tionalequity.In particular,
economics(whichseems to be presupposedin the Brundtland
mainstream
is ill-suitedto deal withpolicyproblemsin whichincremental
definition)
effectsthatwill have impactsover verylong
choicescan have irreversible
here. Instead,an
will
not
of
time.11
permitsuchan argument
Space
periods
welfarewillbe proposedandexplained.
ofintertemporal
alternative
conception
outalldecisionsinto
contextualism'
Thisconception,
'scientific
,doesnotflatten
retainsa sensitivity
but
units
individual
of
instead,
welfare,
interchangeable
the
of
that
towarddifferent
and
scales
presentcan exerton the
types
impacts
future.

PART II: A CLASSIFICATION OF RISKS


The flattening-out
impacts,measuring
approachtojudgingintergenerational
welfare
valuations,
usually
accordingtoa singlescaleofpresent
intertemporal
in
the
differences
dollars,ignoresapparently
typesof impactsthe
important

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SUSTAINABILITY AND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

101

A broadandinclusiveconception
canhaveonthefuture.
ofsustainabilpresent
todeal withpollution
andwasteas well
itymustgaugetheabilityofthefuture
as withdeclining
stocksofresources.12
Forthesakeofa convenient
terminology,
and becauseit seemsreasonableto treatsomepresentactivities
as creating
a
ofresources
"risk*
offuture
andsinksforwasteproducts,
letuspropose
shortages
anintuitive
scaleforclassifying
mayimposeonthe
typesofrisksthatthepresent
as in Figure1.
future,

CATASTROPHE

INCONVENIENCE

Extinction Biological Culturalor Severe


Varying
Degree
ofHigherReal
Economic
Impoverish-Political
ResourceCosts
ment
Impoverish-Dislocation
ment
fromResource
Scarcity
FIGURE 1.
TypologyofRiskSeverities

betweenactivitiessuchas
This scale recognizestheapparentdifference
in
riskthat
which
include
considerable
fuel
fossil
may
burning
greatquantities,
humans
at
one
andless
future
theplanetwillbecomeuninhabitable
extreme;
by
force
as
waste
which
such
all
available
results,
might
cataclysmic
filling
dumps,
to
old-fashioned
and
return
the
future
to
generations giveupdisposablediapers
practiceof washingdiapers. Because one of theapparentweaknessesof the
suchas
modelis thatitdoes notdeal well withirreversibilities
incrementalist
scale
of
we
can
this
weakness
a
extinctions,
by introducing
species
remedy
If
make
of
some
decisions
we
decisions.
today
reversibilitypresent
comparative
thencapitalorknow-bow
areeasilyreversible,
maybe a reasonablesubstitute
forsome formsof environmental
majorcataclysms
protection.Conversely,
scaleoftypesoffuture
wecanplotourintuitive
wouldbeirreversible.
Therefore,
in
a decisiongridas represented
risksagainsta scale ofreversibility,
creating
2.
Figure

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BRYAN NORTON

102
IRREVERSIBLE
CATASTROPHE
-^iIlllllMlllilll^
Extinction
Biological
Impoverish
ment

HIGH COST BUT


REVERSIBLE

EconomicImpactsof
HigherReal Resource
Costs*Varying
Degrees
ofSeverity
and
Reversibility

IRREVERSIBLE
INCONVENIENCE

REVERSIBLE
INCONVENIENCE

FIGURE 2.
RiskTypology:Severity
andReversibility
willinclude,inthefareast,thesoutheast,
and
Thedecisionspaceheredefined
thefarsouthportion
ofthespace,decisionsthatwe willconsidersimpletraderesultonlyineasily
on thefuture
offs.Ifthenegativeimpactsofouractivities
wecan
reversible
resultonlyinminorinconveniences,
changes,oriftheimpacts
thatwe havebeen'fair*tothefuture
figure
providedwe makeavailablecapital
thoseeffects.Decisions
andtechniques
sufficient
toreverseorcounterbalance
thathave possiblycataclysmicimpactsor irreversible
consequences,on the
Decisionsthatfallin thenorthwest
otherhand,willnotbe opento trade-offs.
A
ofthedecisionspacewillbe governed
constraints.
portion
bynon-negotiable
lessconstraining
decisionrule,theSafeMinimum
Standard
ofconserslightly
the
vation(SMS), might
be appliedinthis'red'area. Thisruleadvises:Protect
resource(naturalprocess,species,etc.)providedthecostsarebearable.13
inthe
I am hypothesizing,
willbe leastnegotiable
then,thatourobligations
NW corner
willdeclinealongall
ofthedecisionspaceandthattheseobligations
theabove-mentioned
vectorsawayfromthatcorner.Figure2 also represents
in
ofresources
the
to
which
one
believes
that
intersubstitutability
insight
degree
willdetermine
therelative
sizeofthedecisionspacegoverned
bynon-negotiable
In thelimiting
constraints.
case ofa beliefinPII, thedecisionspacegoverned
with
willbe null- all risksare recompensable
constraints
by non-negotiable
in
As
one's
faith
and
adequate capital
technological development.
will
the
northwestern
decreases,
intersubstitutability
space
expand,representing
moreandmoredecisionsas governedbynon-negotiable
constraints.

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SUSTAINABILITY AND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

103

We can refertoapproachesto sustainability


thatrecognizesomedecisions
withfutureimpactsas governedby non-negotiable
constraints
and some
as 'hybrid
theories'oras 'two-tier
decisionsgoverned
bytrade-offs
systems'.14
atleasttwomeasures
ofvaluethatcannotbeaggregated
Theyrecognize
together
- onesetofobligations
another.
Two-tier
therefore
differ
maytrump
approaches
fromthesingle-tier
and of otherutilitarian
apsystemsof micro-economics
unitsof welfareas themeasureof
proaches,whichsee onlyinterchangeable
someconstraints
thatcannotbe tradedoff.The
sustainability,
byrecognizing
infavouroflexicallyordered
two-tiered
approacheschewssimpleaggregation
rules.
intheNW corneris,of
Themoralstatusofthesenon-negotiable
obligations
ethics
course,opentomuchdebate.Some ofmycolleaguesinenvironmental
values'intrinsic'
wouldinsistthattheseobligations
be formulated
as protecting
innature,
or 'inherent'
Otherswould
valuesindependent
ofhumans.15
positing
positbasic rightsof futurepersons,whichwouldtrumpmereconsumptive
interests
ofnon-negotiable
ofpresent
Another
obligapersons.16
understanding
butbasedin a
tions,theone to be explainedhere,is morallyanthropocentric,
holisticconception
ofthenatural
on whichhumansdepend.Ifitturns
systems
canbe specified
orrights
ofthenot-yet-existent
outthatnonhuman
later,
rights
thealreadystrongobligations
theycouldbe added on, further
strengthening
ism. ThepointI wishtostresshereis thatthelogicoftwoinvolvedincontextual
is similar,
andthissetsthemapartfromthesinglescale
tiered,hybrid
systems
ofvaluesapproachofmanysocialscientists.
PART III: SCIENTIFIC CONTEXTUALISM
ofthepresent
thatrecognizes
Consideranapproachtosustainability
obligations
- as not
views
these
to
future
but
holistically
obligations
generation
generations,
areof
Theseobligations
orpreferences.17
reducibleto individual
satisfactions
a
s
of
Edmund
Burke'
thetypethatwouldbe suggested
understanding society
by
as "a partnership
notonlybetweenthosewhoareliving,butbetweenthosewho
andtheseobliareliving,thosewhoaredeadandthosewhoaretobe born",18
of
the
human
that
the
continuance
would
be
based
on
a
belief
speciesis
gations
a good thing.
notdefeasible
obligations
Havingpositedsucha valueandcross-generational
if
have
such
letmenowarguethat, we
intoindividual
satisfactions,
obligations
- andI think
we do - we cannowpositanalternative
approachtounderstanding
Thisapproachrecognizesthattherearenon-negotiable
obligasustainability.
tionsregarding
ouruseofresources
(theNW cornerofthedecisionspaceis not
as theobligationsthe
empty),and thatthoseobligationscan be understood
of the
theconditions
necessaryforthecontinuation
presenthas to perpetuate
mustbe
humanspeciesandofitsculture.Theexactnatureoftheseobligations

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104

BRYAN NORTON

determined
as weunderstand
theimpactshumanactivities
haveon
scientifically,
AldoLeopold'slandethic,we insistthatthis
theirlargercontext.If,following
context
canonlybeunderstood
as a complexecologicalsystem,
sustainable
larger
areactivities
thelarge-scale,
activities
thatdonotdestabilize
bioticand
dynamic,
will
onwhichfuture
Scientific
abioticsystems
contextualism
generations depend.
ofmoralrules,placingpriority
on different
valuesindifferent
appliesa variety
Ifplausiblescientific
ifnotnecessarily
thata realistic,
situations.
modelsindicate
in
of
chain
could
result
weareinthe'red
effects,
probable,
processes
cataclysmic
zone9,andtheSMS standard
applies.
inthissensewould
theinformation
toactsustainably
Admittedly,
necessary
be veryhardtoobtain.Butourconcernhereis mainlyconceptual.Assume,for
example,thatmodelsshowing
rapidandaccelerating
wanningoftheatmosphere
in responsetoa build-upof greenhouse
were
andthat
verified,
gases
strongly
thesemodels showedincreases,50-100 yearsin the future,too rapidfor
civilization
tosurvive.I believethatmostpeoplewouldsay,oncemostscientific
was removed,thatsucha scenariowouldtrigger
uncertainty
non-negotiable
constraints
current
behaviour.Examplessuchas thisare important,
limiting
becausetheyhelpto shifttheburdenofprooffromthosewhowouldinstitute
on economicgrowthto thosewho would flirtwithcataclysmic
constraints
in
Ifthereareclearexamplesinwhich
the
context
ofhumanadaptation.
changes
constraints
would
enthusiasts
mustshowthattheir
exist,
non-negotiable
growth
no
activities
violate
constraints.
such
proposed
We knowthatundisturbed
naturalsystems
areable tomaintain
themselves
acrosstime,thattheywillkeeptheirenergypathways
and
that
open,
theywill
maintain
their
Once
a
is
effects
cascade
disturbed,
productivity.
system
through
thesystem;ifthoseeffects
are of thesortthatthesystemis used to,and can
itdoes so. If,on theotherhand,thedisturbance
is so pervasiveorso
assimilate,
newthatthesystemhasno meansbywhichtodampoutitseffects,
thesystem
crossesa threshold;
andhumans,
as wellas members
ofotherspecies,whoare
witha givensetofcharacteristics,
adaptedtosystems
maybe unabletoadaptto
andcascadingchangesintheirhabitat.Forexample,humanswith
accelerating
a traitwhichevolvedin a timeof relativelysmall
lightskinpigmentation,
climates,
exposurestoultraviolet
lightintemperate
maybe unabletoadapttoan
earthwithless upper-atmosphere
ozone.
In a contextual
analysis,individualbehavioursare notthemainfocusof
environmental
ethics- itis trendsin thosebehaviours
thatdetermine
whether
will
have
if
For
one
farmer
cuts
and
they
intergenerational
impacts. example,
clearshiswoodlottoplantwheat,thisis notwrong,
as longas hislandis noton
a highlyerodibleslope and providedhis actionis notcopied by all of his
Themoralstatusofthisactivity
but
neighbours.
dependsnotonlyonthecontent,
alsoonthecontext,
oftheaction.IfFarmer
JonesplantswheatandFarmer
Smith
letshiswheatfieldgo fallow,notrendis instituted,
andthereis littlelikelihood
thattheactionwilltrigger
Ifmostfarmers
constraints.
follow
non-negotiable

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SUSTAINABILITY AND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

105

Jones,conditions
ripefora dustbowlordesertification
maybe created.Scale
whena red-zonedecisionis faced.
is crucialindetermining
- thebiotaisa living
contextualism
is organicism
Expressedmetaphorically,
- butorganicism
self-perpetuating
organization
systemwhichhasan internal,
minusteleology.Contextualism
need notposita metaphysical
value in the
valueof wholes.19But
supraorganism,
just as it neednotpositindependent
contextualism
doesrecognize
theimportance
ofprotecting
theprocesses
sustaining
understood
time.Forexample,
onceLeopoldfully
self-organizing
systems
through
theimplications
ofa systems-oriented
approach,he fellbackupontherecommedicine.20
mendation
thatwe practicesomething
akintopreventive
envisioned
of
sustainable
hierarchically
Leopold's theory
management
but
withhumanactivities
them,notindividually,
organizedsystems,
impacting
inlargertrends.21
cultures
have
human
and
growth given
Technology population
theabilityto alterlargerand normally
systemsof ecology,
slowly-changing
in these
climateand atmosphere,
and to initiateoscillationsand fluctuations
Since
we
have
that
evolved
to
live
within
systems.
systems changeslowly,such
activities
Russian
Roulette
with
the
play
optionsofthefuture.Ourgeneration
toadapt
couldcauseirreversible
much
too
generations
changes
rapidforfuture
orculturally.
to,eitherphysiologically
modelstohelp
Scientific
contextualism
placesa heavyburdenon scientific
butpotentially
cataus determine
whichactivitiesmay have long-delayed,
manstrophic,
consequences.The contextualist
paradigmof environmental
thelargersystemsunderimpactfromhumanactivitiesin
agementinterprets
Anessentialelementofthecontextualist
terms.
approachto
mainlyecological
the
will
to
be
a
commitment
constraints)
protect
management
(non-negotiable
is
ofecologicalsystems.The contextualist
healthandintegrity
not,
paradigm
however,simplyan ecologicalparadigm- as humanimpactsgrow,biotic
and climatologicalsystems,are inexorably
systems,and also atmospheric
affected
bytheaggregated
impactsofhumaneconomicandotheractivities.
WhileI agreewithLeopoldthattheselargerimpactsshouldbe understood
ecology,becausehumansare,afterall,evolvedanimalswhorelateas
through
also
abioticsystems,
contextualism
bothtothebiotaandtolarger,
livingthings
sciencesin definingthelimitsof our
recognizestherole of non-biological
Forthatreason,I calltheapproachtosustainability
context.
onourlarger
impacts
sketched
here'scientific'
contextualism.
PART IV: HEALTH, INTEGRITY,AND SUSTAINABILITY
ofecological
is anobligation
toprotect
thehealth
andintegrity
Theideathatthere
in
are
the
that
natural
rests
systems self-organizing
systems firmly
upon premise
must
be
and
it
animportant
sense.Thisisa difficult
carefully
explained
concept,
thatnatural
andqualified- a taskthatcan onlybe begunhere.22Recognizing

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106

BRYAN NORTON

stabilityis conceivedas a scalar


systemschangeconstantly,
intertemporal
context.
relationbetweenhumanactivitiesand theirlargerenvironmental
is essentialto
oflargesystems
Contextualism
assumesthattheself-organization
to
future
andthattheabilityofthoselarge,self-organizing
systems
generations
assimilatehumanimpactsis large,butnotinfinite.Thesesystems
providethe
context
within
whichwe haveevolved.Becausetheychangemoreslowlythan
theselargesystems
setthe"stage9
forhumanactivities.Theytherefore
culture,
is unquestionably
givemeaningtohumanculture.Atthesametime,thesystem
scalesoftime;we mightsay
dynamic.Stability
onlyexistsrelativetodiffering
thatstability
is a well-founded
illusion.
is thecharacteristic
of
Autonomous
autonomy
systemsovercomeentropy;
Given thisoperationaldefinition
of
systemsthatallows self-organization.
we can definesustainability
as follows. Sustainability
is a relaautonomy,
betweendynamichumaneconomicsystems
andlarger,dynamic,
but
tionship
normally
slower-changing
ecologicalsystems,suchthat:(a) humanlifecan
continue
canflourish;
can
(b) humanindividuals
(c) humancultures
indefinitely;
ofhumanactivities
remainwithin
boundsso as
develop;butinwhich(d) effects
not to destroythe health/integrity
of the environmental
contextof human
activities.
I doubtthatone can
But how are we to define"health9
and "integrity9?
of sustainability
understand
a definition
without
thesystemof
understanding
and
that
surround
it.
when
understood
within
Sustainability,
concepts principles
the atomistic,incrementalist
paradigmof welfareeconomics,reducesto a
unitsofwelfare
acrosstime.If,as weare
questionofbalancinginterchangeable
constraints
thatmandate
here,therearenon-negotiable
hypothesizing
protection
oflargeautonomous
ofnature,
thoseconstraints
mustbe expressedin
systems
a richerandmorecomplexparadigm.23
So thegoal of specifying
of
practicalguidelineswillrequirea "paradigm9
a set of conceptsand principlesthatcan
ecological/contextual
management,
toprotect
andrestore
guideattempts
ecologicalsystems.Letmebeginbyciting
andagreeing
withthedefinition
ofFaber,Manstetten,
andProops,whonotethat
theGreekideasof 'house9withtheiridea
combines,
"ecology9
etymologically,
of 'logos9,whichtheytranslate
as concept/structure,
anddefineecologyas "the
scienceoftheprinciples
oftheself-organization
it
ofnature99.24
Thusdefined,
is partofthespecification
ofthefieldofecologicalmanagement
thatitssubject
isself-organizing.
matter
Thisdefinition
thatecology,noteconomics,
alsoensures
willbe thenew 'fusionpoint9ofthesciences,becauseeconomicactivities
are
understood
as one typeof ecologicalactivity,
one thattakesplace withinthe
economicsystemofone (howeverdominant)
species.25
Ourcurrent
taskis tobuilduponthisapproachtomanagement
byproviding
moreelementsoftheecologicalparadigmofenvironmental
managementTo
thatend,I suggestfiveAxiomsofecologicalmanagement:

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SUSTAINABILITY AND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

107

Natureis moreprofoundly
a setofprocessesthan
(1) TheAxiomofDynamism:
a collectionofobjects;all is in flux.
(2) The AxiomofRelatedness:All processesarerelatedtoall otherprocesses.
Processesare notrelatedequally,butunfoldin
(3) The Axiomof Hierarchy:
whichdiffer
thetemporal
and
systemswithinsystems,
mainlyregarding
spatialscale on whichtheyareorganized.
The autonomous
(4) The AxiomofCreativity:
processesofnaturearecreative
andrepresent
thebasisforall biologically
basedproductivity.
The vehicle
ofthatcreativity
is energy
whichinturnfindstable
flowing
through
systems
in largersystems,
contexts
whichprovidesufficient
toallowselfstability
within
and
them,through
organization
repetition duplication.
whichformthe
(5) The Axiomof Differential
Fragility:
Ecologicalsystems,
contextofall humanactivities,
varyintheextenttowhichtheycan absorb
andassimilatehuman-caused
intheirautonomous
disruptions
processes.
TheseAxiomsfunction,
inpractice,
inconjunction
witha normative
definitionofecosystem
I
a
definition
of
health/integrity.
beginbyproposing
integrity.
An ecologicalsystemhasmaintained
ifitretains:
itsintegrity
ofthesystem,
thesumtotalofthespeciesandassociations
(a) thetotaldiversity
thathaveheldsway,historically;26
and
thatmaintainthat
(b) the autonomousprocesses(systematic
organization)
diversity,
including,
especially,themultiplelayersof complexity
through
time.27
Itis usefultohavetwo,relatedconceptstodescribeecosystem
as
wellbeing,
ofsuccessionafter
theploughinKentucky
and
Leopoldnotedinhiscomparison
in theAmericanSouthwest.28
In bothcases, theintegrity
of thesystemwas
- including
loss of totaldiversity
and invasionbyexotics. The
compromised
a newstablepoint,
/difference,
Leopoldnoted,was thatbluegrassrepresented
itselfacrosstime. Thissystemlackedtheintegrity
of
capableofmaintaining
their'aboriginalhealth*
systemslikeRio Gavilan,thatmaintained
(including
mixofspecies),butmaintained
theirhistorical
a 'healthy'equilibrium
nonetheless.
I amsuggesting
thatwe usethetermintegrity*
as thestronger
term- though
it certainly
can admitof degrees whilewe use 'health*to designatethe
somewhatweakerconceptthatdescribesthe Kentuckybluegrasssystem.
in otherwords,emphasizesbothclause (a) and (b). SystemSI
Integrity,
maintainsgreaterintegrity
thansystemS2 if SI retainsnot only enough
to
maintain
autonomous
butalso maintains
moreofits
complexity
functioning,
A
and
of
interaction.
micro-habitats,
originalspecies,populations,
processes
if
is
it
maintains
its
and
system healthy
complexity autonomy/self-organization.

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BRYAN NORTON

108

Withinthisdynamic,
contextualist
we canunderstand
thecentralparadigm
is
related
ityofthegoalofprotecting
biologicalcomplexity.
Complexitydirectly
to self-organization,
and self-organization
is an essentialpartof ecosystem
healthandintegrity.
Andthuswe understand
thenon-negotiable
to
obligation
it is an obligationto futuregenerations
to protectthe
protectbiodiversity:
thecomplexity
ofself-organizing
and,evenmoreimportant,
diversity
systems.
Thisobligationrequiresprotection
ofcomplexprocessesofecosystems.
CONCLUSION
I havesketched
twobroadapproaches
tounderstanding
,recognizing
sustainability
thatthiskeystoneconceptof modernenvironmentalism
can onlybe given
ofconceptsandmethods- a paradigm,
as
meaningas a partofa constellation
somewouldsay. The socialscientific
which
sees
as
approach,
sustainability a
in
between
of
levels
welfare
the
and
the
defines
future,
relationship
present
within
an
incrementalist
in a
that
all
values
sustainability
paradigm interprets
commonmeasure,
suchas dollarsorpresent
satisfactions.
Theadvantage
ofthis
is thatthisapproach
paradigm,and its proposedapproachto sustainability,
in
the
relation
units;
expresses sustainability
interchangeable judgements
regarding
fairnesscan therefore
be understood
as a balancebetween
intergenerational
commensurable
valuesacrosstime.Thisincrementalist
has
however,
approach,
theattendant
that
it
does
not
deal
well
with
discontinuities
and
disadvantage
very
- and thosewho worryaboutglobalenvironmental
irreversibilities
problems
suchas thegreenhouse
effect
andlossofspeciesdiversity
emphasizeconcerns
ofpreciselythosekinds.
I havetherefore
sketchedan alternative
framework
forunderstanding
susbased on a two-tiered
tainability,
systemof values,someof whichare interchangeableand able to be tradedoff,and someof whichare non-negotiable.
Scientificcontextualism
relieson information
and modelsfromthenatural
sciencestodetermine
whichdecisionscarrysignificant
riskofcataclysmic
and
irreversible
moralconstraints
results;and,hence,whennon-negotiable
trump
measuresofindividual
welfare.Thisapproachbalancesshortinterchangeable
termeconomicandlong-term
butdoesnotreducethemto
ecologicalconcerns,
a commonmetric.Environmental
is
constrained
policy
bybothecologicaland
economiclimits;
economicconcerns
when
risks
arenotcatastrophic
predominate
orirreversible
andwhentheareasaffected
arerelatively
small.Non-negotiable,
whendecisionscarry
riskofirreversible
intergenerational
obligations
predominate
orcatastrophic
in
those
on
which
the
humanspecies
change
large-scale
systems
depends.

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SUSTAINABILITY AND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

109

NOTES
1See Caldwell,
1990,p. 177.
2It seemstomequestionable
thatanyone
holdsthisposition
initsmost
consistently
ofdeepecologists
seemto
extreme
eventhough
certain
form,
passagesinthewritings
a violation
ofitsintrinsic
value.Fora fuller
discussion
ofthe
consider
alluseofnature
ofdeepecology,
seeNorton,
12.
1991,chapter
policyimplications
3See,for
Kahn,1982.
example,
4Datafrom
all
thelate1970sshowed
advocating
onlyeight
percentofenvironmentalists
ofmorerecent
dataonthis
ofdeepecology
ofthetenets
1980).I amunaware
(Mitchell,
inTowardUnity
endofthespectrum,
I haveargued
Among
subjectAs fortheother
toprotect
environmental
thatadvocacy
ofsomemarket
constraints
Environmentalists
a minimal
ofallenvironmentalists.
valuesprovides
characteristic
defining
5WorldCommission
onEnvironment
andDevelopment,
1987,p. 43.
6Ibid.
andEhrlich,
7SeeEhrlich
1986,pp.8-10.
8See Woodwell,
ofthisdifficult
issue.
recent
discussion
1985,fora useful,
9See
of the
for
a
characterization
and
more
72-6,
Cobb,1989,pp.
positive
Daly
but
definition
as"vague",
Brundtland
definition.
theBrundtland
DalyandCobbdescribe
criteria.
so,andbelievethatitwillgiverisetomorespecifically
biological
artfully
10Fora careful
economic
anddetailed
ofhowthemainstream
paradigm
explanation
andhow
this
valuestoincrements
ofwillingness-to-pay,
reduces
environmental
paradigm
seeDalyandCobb,
ofthroughput,
ofscaleandmagnitude
problems
consequently
ignores
1989.
11Thisargument
is made,forexample,
byKneeseandSchulze(1985),whocanbe
micro-economic
ingeneral,
ofthemainstream
considered,
paradigm.
proponents
12Indeed, environmental
that
ofwaste
nowbelieve
andresource
problems
analysts
many
See
ofresource
thanwillproblems
willprovefarmoreintractable
availability.
disposal
Manstetten
andProops,
1990.
Faber,
1952.
13Ciriacy-Wantrup,
14
Fora classiceconomic
seePage,1977.AlsoseePage,1991,andToman
and
treatment,
1991.
Crosson,
15See,forexample,
1988.
1989,andRolston,
Callicott,
161 have
suffer
thatbothof theseapproaches
seriousconceptual
arguedelsewhere
1982aand1982b.
difficulties
andwillnotrepeat
thosearguments
here.See Norton,
17See Norton,
of a decisionmodelthatrelieson general
1989,foran explanation
- obligations
individuals.
tothefuture
thatareowedtonospecifiable
obligations
the
in
93-4.
on
Revolution
France,
"Burke,
Reflections
pp.
canbe
ofhowself-organization
wSeeUlanowicz,
1986,p.25,fora concise
explanation
ofteleology.
treated
independently
20SeeLeopold,1939,andHargrove,
1989.
21See Norton,
1990.
22See
andStengers,
1986,fora compre1984;Gleick,1987,andUlanowicz,
Prigogine
hensive
ofthisandrelated
examination
concepts.
23See
1990.
Carpenter,
24See Faber,Manstetten,
1990.
andProops,
25See
Leopold,1939.

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BRYAN NORTON

110

26Total
is defined
as a function
ofwithin-habitat
(Gamma
diversity
diversity)
diversity
Itisthediversity
andcross-habitat
character(Betadiversity).
(Alphadiversity)
diversity
isticofa landscape
ofmany
habitats
andmicro-habitats.
SeeNorton,
1987,pp.
composed
32-3.
27Theseaxiomswereintroduced
inNorton,
1991.
28
Leopold,1949,p. 206.

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