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Recherche et développement régional durable

Corinne Larrue

Session 5. La mesure du développement régional durable / Measuring Sustainable regional development

Sustainability: A global concept for a European program and the Baden-Württemberg state report on sustainable development 2000

Ortwin Renn, Rainer Carius et Christian Leon

Texte intégral

  • 1 Center for Technology Assessment in Baden-Württemberg - Stuttgart, Germany.

1Note portant sur l’auteur1


2Many textbooks state that sustainable development characterizes an economy in which humans can live on the interest of the natural capital without depleting the capital itself. This highly attractive requirement is an illusion regarding today's population density. To supply six billion people with energy on the basis of solar radiation alone, to abolish the use of all non-renewable raw materials, to reverse the process of transforming nature into productive environments and further measures of returning to a more natural world would cause a social disaster which would go beyond any catastrophe in history of humankind until today and could not be justified by any benefits reserved for future generations.

3Our future does not depend on the preservation of original nature, but on the preservation of anthropogenic ecosystems. An intact and productive environment is an indispensable requirement for human existence and culture. The anthropogenic ecosystems we live on need a constant supply of energy and constant constructive interventions, otherwise they will not provide the services and goods that humans expect from them. Nothing in today's world regulates itself to serve the benefit of humankind. Humans are forced to intervene constantly to make the environment a productive resource. Therefore, reliable knowledge about the ecological basics of our life is so important, and the creative application of this knowledge is a requirement for further existence of the human species.

4The carrying capacity of the environment for human purposes is flexible within limits that are set by natural constraints. The degree to which economies can grow within those limits, depends on the production conditions, i.e. the quality of the resources and the technology and organizational skills to use them efficiently. Twelve thousand years ago, about five million people lived on this planet and the maximum carrying capacity under those production conditions - gatherers and hunters - had been reached according to our knowledge. The agrarian-preindustrial culture, too, suffered the limits of expansion around the year 1750 with approximately 750 million people on the globe. The new era of industrial production conditions expanded the carrying capacity to another high of several billion global inhabitants. Promoters for these advances of human culture are the five "Promethean innovations": control of fire, invention of agriculture, transformation of fossil heat into mechanical energy, industrial production, and substitution of matter for information.

5The success of the human race to amplify its population and its share of natural resources over its brief history may lead us to believe that new innovations and production conditions will evolve over time that will enable us to continue on the road of economic growth and to ensure a constant increase of welfare. However, such optimism about the ingenuity of the human mind to provide new conditions for ever lasting economic growth may not be justified. Today's population density in connection with the present consumption level of the rich required already the complete transformation of nature into a productive environment. About 95 per cent of fertile land worldwide are used for human purposes, such as agriculture, forestry, settlements, and infrastructure facilities. There is not much room for further expansion. Furthermore, the present generation relies on the strictly limited fossil resources of energy and raw materials, and on the exploitation of renewable resources beyond their regenerative capability. Humans deplete the natural capital faster than potential substitutes can be generated. Although living from the interests of the natural capital alone will not suffice to feed 6 billion people, the rate by which we deplete this capital is alarming and destroys the potential for future generations to use the environment for their needs. We may not be able to perpetuate the natural resource base, but at least we can stretch them.

6From an economic point of view, stretching of resources may buy us enough time to steadily increase the productivity of natural resources and to develop and introduce substitutes when natural resources become scarce. This implies that substitutes from artificial capital stock can partly (that is, within limits) help satisfy needs which would have otherwise demanded utilization of elements from the natural capital. The main focus of a sustainable economy is therefore to increase and enhance the efficiency of using natural resources. At the same time, however, the carrying capacity and hence the degree to which the environment can be used more efficiently are limited. In areas where these limits are met or even overstepped, decrease of human consumption is the only viable response.


7The term "sustainable development" is a prophetic combination of two terms which unites both aspects - economic progress and environmental quality - in one vision. This vision of an economic structure that meets all demands of this generation without restricting the demands of future generations is highly attractive, as it interlocks the terms "economy" and "ecology" - often seen as opposites - and postulates a generally acceptable distribution rule between the generations. The attraction of this concept is, of course, compensated by the fuzziness of the meaning associated with this concept and its implications for practical action. Although it is hard to classify these differences in meaning, two main factors, according to our literature review, seem to determine the perspective of the authors who have written about sustainable development: first, the way the authors associate specific images with "nature", and second, their home discipline or research tradition. Concerning the images of nature, one can distinguish the following kinds of ideas:

1. Utilitarian perspectives

  • Nature as cornucopia for resource utilization: nature offers the resource basis for satisfying all human needs. Sustainability means to preserve this resource basis for future generations.
  • Nature as modeling clay for the creation of cultivated land (gardens, agriculture, forestery, material cycles): sustainability means to transform unproductive nature into cultivated land that can bear crops for human consumption and that societies can utilize economically and preserve permanently. Nature is only of use for humankind when transformed into cultivated land. But this transformation depends on natural contingencies and is limited by the preservation of the fundamental natural material cycles.

2. Protectionistic perspectives

  • Nature as wilderness worth preserving: nature means the preservation of unspoiled land as a response to the immediate need of humans to enjoy and learn from nature. Preservation is independent from the possible utilization of the resources to be found there. Sustainability includes not only the preservation of a resource basis but, moreover, the acceptance of nature's intrinsic value the way it presents itself without human intervention.
  • Nature as a fragile object to be protected against human intervention: sustainability in this concept includes more than preservation of nature (or the environment we live in today), it means setting up an absolute limit against the intervention of humans into natural systems beyond serving basic needs for survival and decent living. Every further expansion of human interventions in the environment and every intensive utilization of the environment are to be avoided.

3. Physiocentric perspectives

  • Nature forming a unity of all creation: all creatures have, in principle, the right to occupy their niche in nature. But humankind is in a position to expand its natural habitat beyond the extent that nature has planned for humans in an undisturbed environment. Therefore, humans have the special responsibility to restrict their demands on the natural environment by cultural means and to acknowledge the right of their fellow creatures to live and to use common resources. Humans should limit their consumption of natural resources only to the extent that they are enabled to survive in a close-to-nature coexistence of humans, animals, and plants. This demand, however, does not put in question the priority of human interests if conflicting goals between human and other competitors for identical resources are involved.
  • Nature as a place for equal beings: all creatures do not only have a right to an undisturbed biosphere, they also have the same right as humans to develop then-lives within the limits set by the rules of nature. In the conflict over the use of resources, all creatures, in principle, should receive the same opportunities and experience the same constraints. Only in the case of a vitally significant threat to their own life, humans are in a prior position to meet their demands on the expense of their fellow creatures.

8Of course, those five prototypes of image of nature are seldom to be found in pure form and occur in different mixtures. This list is meant to provide a rough classification for explaining the conceptual differences in the literature and for stimulating the process for a consensual effort of operationalizing the term "sustainability". In addition to the images that authors associate with nature, the basic discipline or research tradition to which they adhere plays a major role in their attempt to define the concept of sustainability. These differences come from:

  • Economics: sustainability describes an economic system in which future generations will enjoy at least the same level of welfare as the present generation. Welfare can include non-marketable (public) goods such as social and political stability, social harmony, resilience, or the immaterial conditions for subjective well-being. Such a broad definition of welfare could also captured by the term "quality of life" (individual and collective). Central tenet in the economic view is that the welfare level is determined by some aggregate measure of individual utilities, no matter what elements individuals include in such a utility assessment. Consequently, economists assume that manifold substitution possibilities exist between the variety of elements stemming from the natural capital (resources for production and the environment as repository for waste) and those of artificial capital (like machines, production processes). If such substitution mechanisms are taken for granted, sustainability implies the necessity of preserving the natural capital only within the limits of available substitutes, i.e. if elements of the natural capital stock cannot be exchanged for elements of the other. The main evaluative criteria for assessing sustainability is the level of aggregate social utility over time. This aggregate level should not decrease over time assuming that non-renewable resources can be substituted by artificial capital, at least in principle and to a certain degree.
  • Ecology: sustainability means the use of natural resources for human purposes to the extent that the carrying capacity of the corresponding ecosystem is not endangered. It is essential for the ecological perspective not to focus on a single resource as a production input or waste repository, but to include the interaction of related resources within one ecosystem. The system may be disturbed by human interventions as long as the functionality and regenerative capability of the system is not jeopardized. Within the field of ecology, there are different methods to measure the degree of anthropogenic influence on ecosystems. Especially meaningful is the degree to which the net primary production is used for human purposes.
  • Physics (and other natural sciences): sustainability is the ability of biological systems to create permanent order (negentropy) using solar energy. The potential and time scale to sustain a well-ordered world is only limited by the sun's life cycle. As any transformation of energy increases entropy (which is disorder), all physical processes are accompanied by an increase in disorder and diffusion. Biological systems, however, have the ability to create order on a limited scale by using solar energy and to keep the necessarily produced entropy outside of their system. The practice of human societies to transform more energy than the sun offers on a continuous basis by using fossil fuel, and to produce order by shaping and transforming anthropogenic ecosystems for increased production and consumption decreases the biological systems' ability for survival and regeneration. Central issue in connection with sustainable development is therefore the permanent preservation of the biological systems' potential to create negentropy.
  • Chemistry: sustainability means closing anthropogenic material cycles. All resources used by humans (as production factors or waste repositories) have to be integrated in a closed material cycle. Waste should provide useful residues for oneself or others (humans, plants, animals) within the limits of the second law of thermodynamics. Applied to human economies, production has to be organized in a way that all wastes can be reused as energy carriers or useful material for new products or services. If that is not possible, it should biologically degrade into non-toxic substances.
  • Social sciences: sustainability means compatibility of human interventions with the dominant images and concepts of nature (and or environment) that are socially and culturally constructed by different groups within societies. It does not matter whether the environmental crisis is real in the sense of facts proven by the natural sciences. The social science perspective starts with the observation of social perceptions of nature and the social evaluation of scientific expertise by different individuals and groups. Such a perception and evaluation process is always selective and suggests certain (culturally shaped) assessment patterns. How people perceive and evaluate sustainability is therefore this generation's expression of preferences with respect to the perceived quality of environment and life that people want to grant to themselves and to future generations. Mental constructions of distributional equity and social justice dominate the social visions of sutainability rather than ecological findings or physical laws.

9These differences in disciplines are not only semantic. The economic understanding of sustainability, for example, places sustainability in the context of scarcity. The goal of sustainable development is to express the relative scarcity of the resource "environment" compared to other goods. According to the natural science perspectives, societies have the obligations to make sure that the absolute limits of the carrying capacity are not trespassed and that such environmental products are taken from the market rather than integrated into the market system. The social scientists, on the other hand, emphasize the constructive character of the concept "sustainability" and focus on equity conflicts, which can be solved neither by incentives nor by regulations, but demand specific political measures of redistribution or communication (legitimation).


10a) Acknowledgment of absolute limits with respect to the carrying capacity of the earth: the carrying capacity of the environment for human purposes is flexible within limits that are set by natural constraints. The degree to which economies can grow within those limits, depends on the conditions of production.

11However, the carrying capacity cannot be increased to our liking, neither regionally nor globally. The reasons are biological: as we do not know any method to increase global photosynthesis and thus net primary production, carrying capacity finds its objective limits. The Net Primary Production (NPP) per year is defined as the amount of energy left after subtracting the respiration of primary producers (mostly plants) from the total amount of solar energy that is fixed biologically. The NPP is clearly limited in absolute terms. All consumers of natural goods or services depend on the NPP for their living. The human race of today demands - or influences in its favor - already 40 per cent of the potential NPP of all land. Even though the biophysical carrying capacity could be extended beyond the 40 percent, such a strategy would experience its strict limits, as humans do not maximize production at any costs. Since an expansion of the human share of the NPP would lead to further environmental damage and irreversible consequences, future development should be focused on the increase of efficiency of the present use of the NPP. The use of natural resources needs to be linked to an increasing return of benefits. A given set of goods and services should be produced with less and less natural resources.

12b) Limits of substitution between natural and artificial capital: traditional economic theory treats the monetary value of a good as its exchange value for other goods. Many transactions, however, are associated with high external costs (disutilities for others or society as a whole without being reflected in the price of the good) so that their monetary value does not match the real exchange rate with other goods and services. If the use of natural resources leads to irreversible damage of the productive capacity, the price of this resource should be close to infinite since future generations will be deprived of the possibility to produce goods or services from the depleted resource for ever. As the market fails to incorporate future productive use of natural resources (for a variety of reasons), external criteria are needed to set the limits of exchange between artificial and natural capital.

13c) Focus on resilience of anthropogenic ecosystems: renewable resources appear to be self-sustaining over time since they regenerate themselves. The regeneration capacity depends, however, on the resilience of the system to cope with unexpected events and external constraints. Monocultures or ecosystems that are designed to produce a maximum yield demonstrate a high degree of vulnerability vis-a-vis natural or human induced constraints.

14d) Incorporation of social and cultural values into environmental policies: in addition to the ecological and economic consequences associated with the human use of the environment, societies link social and cultural values to nature and its inhabitants. The protection of animals and plants beyond the economic use and the aesthetic pleasure derived from preserving biodiversity (even if it is done far away from one's own region) are typical examples. Any concept of sustainability needs to acknowledge the intrinsic value and benefits provided by nature and design policies that are in line with the social preferences for environmental changes.


15The term "sustainable development" is a prophetic combination of two words which unites both aspects - economic progress and avoiding environmental damages - in one vision. This vision of an economic structure that meets all demands of this generation without restricting the demands of future generations is highly attractive, as it interlocks the terms "economy" and "ecology" - often seen as opposites - and postulates a generally acceptable distribution rule between the generations. It is unclear, however, whether the combination of sustainability and economic development is redeemable even in principle. At least the possibility of conflict exists between the two goals making tradeoffs necessary that are often disguised by the euphemistic use of the term. If such conflict exists, it is left to the users which component "development or sustainability" they prefer to consider their priority.

16Given this confusion, we decided to define sustainability strictly as an external constraint for human action that is neither a part of the economic nor the ecological concept. It is rather an ethical norm that is imposed on human activities for assuring inter-generational equity. Both, ecological reasoning and economic activities to increase the efficiency of the production and distribution of goods and services have their own rationale for dealing with natural resources. There is no benefit by imposing an alien element to either of them. Sustainability should be a condition or constraint under which economic development can occur in its own rights. Likewise, ecological thinking may provide many more insights than providing enlightenment for sustainability, but it should at least provide this service by developing the necessary knowledge for meeting the external constraint of sustainability.

17According to this understanding, we define sustainable development as a process by which the natural resources are preserved to the extent that the quality of life for future generations is not inferior to the quality of life of the present generation. A continuous supply of natural resources and the preservation of the biosphere's reception capacity need to be maintained so that future generations will enjoy a similar level of welfare as today's generation.

18Some terms in this definition have to be explained. At first, we suppose that natural resources can only be stretched, if only to try and preserve their function for the production of welfare. We will reach this aim only if the functions desired by humans (the immaterial functions too) can be fulfilled by natural capital and be guaranteed to continue in the future. The same goes for all needs of future generations, which can be fulfilled by a mixture of natural and artificial elements of the capital, while limited substitutions are possible. But what kinds of needs will future generations have? It would be too easy to transfer our needs of today into the future. Instead we have taken refuge in the somewhat vague term of quality of life. Future generations should at least receive as much quality of life as we grant today's generation. The focus on the populations of industrial societies saves us the problem of defining a reference point for just and fair distribution: due to a quite small mean variation of income (compared to the world population), the average level of aspiration can be used as reference for comparisons. This is a lot more difficult in international projects, because of the great differences between the incomes of the rich and the poor.

19The quality of life for an average inhabitant of modern western societies results from objective indicators assessing development chances and from subjective factors assessing one's own situation. How these factors are determined in particular is one of the tasks that the Center of Technology Assessment in Stuttgart has been working on for almost an decade. We assumed, as a concept, that all physical, economic and social foundations leading to a certain level of quality of life will be valid for future generations as well, no matter whether they will need or value them at all. There is no other measure for sustainability as preservation of actual requirements for quality of life. At the same time we are aware of the fact that today's preferences for certain goods are not permanent and therefore cannot be simply transferred into the future. It is therefore advisable to distinguish between environmental goods, which are vital for the preservation of quality of life and those, which are fashion and reflect permanently changing preferences.

20Central to our understanding of sustainability are three elements: increase of resource productivity, preservation of the natural basis of living, and preservation of the quality of life for future generations. Those three elements are of course connected with each other; an intact environment is not only a sign of economical housekeeping with nature's resources but also a prerequisite for the subjective well-being of humans. But there may also be contradictions between the elements: higher resource productivity can lead to more intensive utilization and therefore to a long term risk for the preservation of the concerning ecosystem.


21Although many economists and theorists of sustainable development prefer the word development over growth, the semantics may be deceiving. If indeed the economies must substitute the natural capital through other (non-degrading) goods and develop better technologies to use natural resources more efficiently, such changes demand an increase in the (artificial) capital stock, which means economic growth. The major change required is probably not to give up economic growth altogether, but to quit consuming the fruits of economic growth by the present generation. We are in desperate need for structural changes that guarantee technological change and a growing capital stock and at the same time ensures that we carry through the principles of sustainability.

22The special attraction of the term "sustainable development", as already mentioned, of course lies in the way it unites two apparently contradictory demands; non-destructive exploitation of the environment on one hand, and further economic development on the other. A number of authors have repeatedly emphasized that the term "development" covers only structural change but not growth in the economic sense. In our considerations we did not want to dismiss the idea that a zero-growth economy is possible in theory and is certainly more in harmony with the concept of sustainable development than a growth-oriented economic order. However, we must continue to regard this solution as problematic as long as there is no convincing example of a structural change in market economic systems without growth (or, to be exact, without the prospect of growth). Therefore we consider it more "honest" to accept the mechanism of growth, which has without doubt been one of the causes for negative effects on the environment, as an integral part of the market economy. At the same time we also have to infuse it with new life in such a way that it no longer stands in contradiction to the second requirement, namely for sustained development. For this type of growth we have, in line with modern usage, chosen the term "qualitative growth".

23Qualitative growth in our context means that resource productivity is constantly increased in this value-creation process. The increase in the performance of a national economy for reasons of growth have to be realized by decreasing preliminary work for non-renewable resources and environmental damage. At the same time it has to be taken care of that all renewable resources are only used as much as they can regenerate themselves under the conditions of cultivated land and productive land or as much as can be substituted by equivalent use of artificial capital. Every unit of nature should become more productive in such a way that we need less of nature in total. The objective would be to create a parallel event to the historic achievement of the enormous increase in working productivity per hour, and to initiate a new era of rising natural productivity (per unit of energy or raw materials). Qualitative growth is characterized by a further increase in gross national product, although use of resources and environmental damages decrease. This is possible because material resources and manual work is substituted by intellectual work: structured work and software substitute raw materials, energy and time. We can make a distinction between three stages:

  • In phase I qualitative growth means a permanent decrease in the intensity of resources per unit of gross national product. Every product shall be less intensive in resources than the one before. This also goes for utilizing the environment as waste repository for waste no longer needed. Most industrialized countries have reached his first phase of qualitative growth for most industrial goods.
  • In phase II qualitative growth means the permanent decrease of resource intensity per capita. Here we also have to take into consideration that saving effects by better use of the environment have to be higher than the additional use of resources according to increase in production and consumption. Only branches promising an over-proportional net product along with a little use of environment will grow in phase II. This second phase of qualitative growth has been fulfilled only in some product branches so far.
  • In phase III qualitative growth means decrease of resource intensity per national economy and therefore indirectly global. This third phase has been especially designed for countries with population growth. There the economic structural changes need not only compensate the higher consumption demands of every single individual but the collective demands caused by population growth as well. This third phase of qualitative growth therefore is a part of the future and will be the hardest part to realize. Success will only be possible, if measures for controlling the population growth are enforced in parallel to structural changes.

24Qualitative growth is no illusion. We have learned a long time ago to get out more of little input by using structured knowledge. Net product by software and know-how opens a new dimension of qualitative growth. With these innovations we have to lay the foundation so the requirements for the realization of phase II of qualitative growth will adjust in all areas.


25How can this range of possibilities for stretching resources be transferred to be used in practice? Recommendations for transfers have to be differentiated of course, depending on whom they are aimed at and whom they are meant for. Here, too, we want to restrict ourselves to the area of western industrial countries (since this a youth congress for Europe). The following rules for transfers are in line with the modular concept of "sustainability". On certain parts of the problem we use the natural science concept, on other parts more economic or social scientific concepts. For some applications we can regard natural resources as raw materials in the utilitarian sense, for others as cultural goods and for again others as fellow creatures. The reason is that these concepts do not exclude each other. More important is to identify the specific applications for which the perspective of the concerning discipline and the basis of relation to nature and environment applies best to the overall aim of sustainability. To mix concepts within applications, however, is problematic and often leads to inconsistency. Thus we should keep one perspective within one application all the time. The following basic rules have been set up in line with this principle:

261. Non-renewable energy resources can be used as long as the sum of exploited reserves still exceeds the sum of reserves additionally found or gained with enhancements by know-how. In such a case we should aim at substitution by taxing or by other price mechanisms. We find this today, for example, for the fossil energy resources oil and gas. Usually we would assume that the market price reflects the scarcity relation and initiates the according substitutions. But many indicators suggest that the price fixing on the raw material market is distorted. Despite permanent demand for these goods and a foreseeable absolute scarcity (more consumption than new resources found) prices are falling. Obviously it is not attractive for raw material exporting countries to spare their own resources and to raise credits for their economic development instead. It is being very unrealistic to believe that this situation will change within the next few years. Furthermore, because of the essential importance of energy resources, an assessment usually used in economy (in principle, everything is redeemable) cannot be justified reasonably as long as there are objective scarcities. A substitution for elements of artificial capital, too, is unrealistic. Therefore we need government interventions for non-renewable energy resources to ensure a minimum of energy resources for the up keeping of existence. The state, or even better the international union of states, can use the price of these raw materials as a measure of control. To initiate these necessary but slowly starting substitution processes, Ernst von Weizäcker, for example, has suggested to introduce an energy tax, which could be increased by the same percentage (about 5 per cent) every year. This way economy and consumers would slowly become used to the idea that they have to find substitutions for these energy resources running out, that they have to use energy saving measures in full and that they have to develop new energy carriers. It needs to be controlled whether this suggestion is bearable economically and socially and whether it can also be extended to energy resources at our disposal to a larger extent. But this suggestion is in line with the basic postulate that state actions are necessary for non-renewable energy resources, if more substance is irrevocably used than can be found or produced otherwise.

272. Non-renewable raw materials, not used for conversion into energy, can be used as long as they can be recycled under reasonable economic expenditure. Or, to put it in other words, we will be able to introduce raw materials to an at least partly closed cycle of utilization. Of course we cannot expect too much here as well. Aluminum, for example, cannot be recycled as often as we like. A repeated processing of raw materials is subject to the law of entropy and needs more energy the more often one wants to recycle. A re-use forever is therefore out of the question. But this has never been the aim of qualitative growth. The real aim is the stretching of our stocks and not eternal recycling. To put the demand for more cycle economy to practice, two things are needed: first, a consequent internalization of external costs of raw material use by including external savings through recycling in the product price at the same time. Second, creation and maintenance of a horizontal economic organization in industry, craft and trade to be able to develop organizational prerequisites for a cycle economy in parallel.

283. Renewable raw materials should be used to a degree which allows a balance between consumption and regeneration by aimed interventions into the ecosystem concerned (with resources growing again) or by energy input. The limit for these interventions depends on the regeneration capability of the ecosystems concerned (for example, exhaustion of earth or extermination of natural competitors or food competitors). At first this complicated rule seems not to be very reasonable. Why should renewable resources not be used to the degree they are regenerating themselves? We can fell as many trees as we plant new ones. The problem are the different intensities of intervention. On a long term basis, the risk of steady harvest increases, if, for example, mixed woodland is substituted for a monoculture of poplars or pine trees, or if all natural enemies of a favored edible fish are taken out of a fish pond so even more fish can be caught. Beside all necessary interventions in the environment, our aim should be to preserve the function of earth, water and ecosystems in such a way that we will be able to gather long term harvests even under unfavorable conditions.

29In such a case economists distinguish between maximum and optimum use of renewable resources (optimal sustainable yield). A too intensive intervention in the ecosystem may increase the average harvest, but also increases the ecosystem's vulnerability for surprises (like diseases, weather damage, breakdowns of the system). Like shown above, it would be clinging to an illusion, believing that we could do without any interventions at all (without directed agriculture and forestry, for example). But these interventions have to keep the balance between the understandable desire for rich harvests and the necessity for stability and long term preservation of natural regulation systems and cycle processes, not to forget the additional human work as order factor for the maintenance of the ecosystem. Putting this balance in practice is very difficult. Often the market rewards the one offering maximum harvest on short terms, even if this leads to long-term destruction of regeneration potential for oneself or neighbors. The increase in desertification and devastation gives eloquent evidence for this short breath thinking. Even the practice in industrialized countries, to buy agricultural goods at fixed prices, is working against the aim, as with personal interests the yield is maximized with fixed prices. This often has negative effects on the environment and other producers, effects, which are accepted (like polluting ground water with nitrates). Subsidies in agriculture should therefore (if found necessary at all) be hooked on the aim of maintaining the ecosystem.

30Moreover, it has to be controlled whether the users of renewable resources should not be obliged to insure the stability of their resources in case of damage from overuse. Insurance companies could reward with premiums those users who take care of their ecosystem's stability, and punish those who damage the regeneration potential too much in favor of short-term profits. A government obligation for insurance seems necessary as all experience with insurance for natural disasters in the USA up to now has shown that the state pays disaster aid even if the individual user has intentionally abandoned such an insurance. No politician can openly refuse help in such a disaster. Therefore it is cheaper for the individual user not to sign an insurance policy and to rely on the solidarity of the social community. A compulsory insurance for all ecosystem users would be free of competition and, too, be a measure in agreement with the market for the internalization of stability risks.

314. Environmental damages are to be evaded anywhere, where they will definitely impair human health or endanger the preservation of natural regulation systems (continuity of vital cycles like water, carbon, nitrogen, etc.). Most constitutions in the Western world already include the first possibility: Every human has the right to intactness. Such a basic right cannot be withheld from the individuals of future generations. In simple terms: all measures, which have a high probability of resulting in lethal or other heavy injuries to future generations, have to be prohibited already now. The question of course arises, which extent and probability make it necessary to have such a prohibition come into effect. To completely relinquish any risk would mean to relinquish any intervention in nature. Nobody can demand this in earnest. But it may also be problematic to relinquish great risk potentials, even if our basic needs can also be fulfilled without such great risks. Social systems are in permanent need of carrying out adaptation processes by innovative performances in interplay with changes of the natural environment and demands of their members. Turning to a zero-risk social development on the other hand means an increasing inflexibility for the social system, which cannot adapt to permanently changing conditions of one's own existence anymore.

32But where can we draw the line? This is a limit we cannot determine in principle. Society is still asked to fix such a limit. There is even a social and moral duty. But whether we can draw an abstract borderline between acceptable and not acceptable risks, remains an open question. At the same time, the economic solution to cover such risks with higher prices (like insurance) is unsatisfactory, because economic instruments do not keep up the categorical refusal of not acceptable risks but instead leave these risks as accountable. This leaves only a discursive solution, for which the representatives of today's generation fix the limits in the interest of future generations, which are not to be violated even for high economic profits.

33We find this even more problematic when looking at the functionability of ecosystems. While most humans agree quickly to refuse interventions in nature with lethal consequences for members of their community later, we can hardly answer the intersubjectively valid question: what is so much worth protecting in nature that it should remain untouched for human interventions independent of utility considerations? For such a far reaching and universally valid taboo of natural systems, only such interventions are therefore to be considered in which disturbances in function or even destruction in function of vitally important cycles can put the survival abilities of humans and their economic existence at stake. This criteria would obviously be fulfilled if air would become so scarce or polluted that it attacked respiratory tracts, or if water would become so scarce or polluted that the distribution of potable water broke down, or if the earth would be so polluted that renewable resources could not grow on it any longer. But here, too, the limit still remains diffuse, especially in connection with risky consequences. This limit has to be thought over again and again in the light of findings and observed consequences.

34After deciding on prohibition of such interventions, it has to be carried through by regulations and/or cultural (e.g. religious) self-ties. Cultural self-ties (like taboos) have the functional advantage that they are very efficient and effective after successful internalization into the social value order. Therefore they create a high conformity level at relatively low cost. Cultural anthropologists have convincingly proved that tabooing the environment has brought great advantages for the cultural evolution of human societies. How successful we are to tie in generally compulsory cultural standards of nature preservation to our pluralistic value and world order, is another question. But we should nevertheless give it a try, especially because all surveys document a high sensibility of almost all humans for an intact environment.

355. All other interventions in nature, not especially mentioned in the rules 1 - 4, should either be subjected to market events or steered into the right direction with the help of strategies of price or quantity regulation in alignment with the market. Otherwise environment utilization lacks exclusiveness (lack of ruling out of consumption and the existence of external effects) be it by definition of new property laws (e.g. certificates for the right to pollute the environment) or by taxes (environmental taxes). Much has already been written about those two instruments, so we can do without further explanation now. What really matters is the insight that all interventions within the limits of rules 1 - 4 base on the balance between probable use and damage, even with given high risks.

36Such a market strategy nevertheless needs the internalization of external effects of the according production and consumption. Among the already visible prerequisites for the implementation of qualitative growth, internalization of external costs plays an important part. (Social) external effects cover the monetary losses associated with any damage and reflection on nature and humans. Reflections arising directly or indirectly from production or consumption of third persons, society or the environment, without being included in the calculations of causes. The pollution of the environment is a classic example of uncovered external costs. Environmental protection, of course, has to stay affordable, but sustainable growth depends heavily on the failure of consumers and producers to externalize their costs, which is to pass them on to general public, on the environment or future generations. The economic prices have to speak the ecologic truth, otherwise economy and ecology cannot find an agreement.

37Besides internalization, a marketable solution for environmental problems would also mean the use of discounts for future environmental damages, which is the negative interest of environmental consequences in the future. Whether such a discount matches the aim of sustainable development in the course of time, is widely discussed in literature. Nevertheless, we would like to keep hold on a variable discount of environmental damage for three reasons. One, a zero-discount of non-renewable resources would lead to the necessity of eternal prices. Because if the nth generation would come to an end with the use of the resource concerned because of resource exhaustion and it had the same right to this resource as our generation, the potential use (and therefore the price) would increase infinitely. This is no mathematical hairsplitting but implies important consequences. A zero discount rate would be ideal, if we could really live on the interests of nature. If this, as suggested earlier, is impossible in principle, we cannot use non-renewable resources anymore when taking on the idea of an intergenerational justice postulate. Neither could future generations do this as they, in turn, have to show consideration for their future generations. This in consequence leads to a misallocation of resources. Two, our aim is not perpetuation of natural resources but their stretching over time. The lower the discount rate, the larger ceteris paribus the obligation for enhanced resource production for this generation. Variable discount rates could therefore be used as instruments for flexible enhancement of resource productivity. The flexibility of discount allows the fixing of different deduction rates for the different interventions in nature. This frees us from the duty to determine all interventions within a fixed period of responsibility, the way it is expressed partly by philosophic discourses on long term responsibility. There, of course, we take for granted that the discount rates are planning aims and do not necessarily reflect the actual market interest rates.

38This brings us to item three: the interlocking of capital market and nature market. Low discount rates of nature versus capital force economy subjects to clarify their own preferences of future investments versus present consumption and to recognize the logical connections between private and state debts, saving tendency and resource consumption. Whoever gets in debt to finance present consumption, acts egoistically and misuses the generation contract. Whoever funds projects instead, which are sustainable and of use for future generations, may pass a share of the costs on to the next generation. The idea of discount is exactly to "reward" saving and to "punish" indirect consumption. To push environmental pollution ahead of us into the future is always better than doing it now. Discount rates and interest rates are therefore indicators for the preferences of today's generation concerning the desired distribution of consumption possibilities between the generations. They are thus not at all arbitrary but reflect the duty accepted by general public to take care of future generations. But often economy subjects do not realize this consciously. They would like to live on credit but want to preserve the environment at the same time. This discrepancy shows when looking at the difference between capital interest rate and discount rate for resources. An ideal national economy would balance capital money and capital nature through the actual rate limit of substitution to receive an optimum market balance. For many reasons this balance today is so much distorted that an automatic acceptance of the interest rate set up on the capital market as a discount rate is not believed to be reasonable anymore, not even by the World Bank. Discount is therefore an instrument for allocation and distribution of resources between the generations. The discount rate expresses the interdependencies between the different production factors.

396. Although damage and benefit are accounted for interventions in the environment, every society or even the association of states should be free to attach an immanent value to things in nature, in line with all involved, even if this leads to a negative cost-benefit-ratio. For ethic reasons, e. g. agreements on the protection of animals or rules for owning of working animals suitable for the according species can be agreed upon, which are non-profitable but are justified out of respect for creation. But such a divergence of the cost-benefit-principle is based on a transparency of costs for such measures. They are in principle legitimate against future generations, even if they will not be able to follow our ethic reasoning. The reason that our ancestors did not want to eat horsemeat did surely not harm us, even if we do only abstain from horsemeat for traditional reasons.

40Even if all countries in Europe would regard all these six items, this would not mean that a sustainable economic structure will follow suit automatically. Regarding these items is a necessary requirement but offers no guarantees. While the rules 1 - 4 require rules for political behavior and regulations, because the according aims do not automatically come from the market, and rule 6 stresses the independence of cultural values, rule 5 demands a further application of the market's rationality principle on most economic decisions which have influence on nature and posterity. Background is the idea that steady enhancement of efficient nature utilization is the prerequisite for a just distribution of resources to future generations. But this is only the case if a society fixes the discount rate about zero, which means it renounces its own consumption in favor of future generations and at the same time aligns the limits of acceptance demanded in rule 4 to rationally reasonable and comprehensible criteria. This readiness and understanding cannot be brought about "artificially" either by the market or by another directing system. It has to grow within humanity of today.


41The one who wants to follow the course to the achievement of a Sustainable Development should not only make sure that he has pursued the right course but also has to know how far he has advanced. Therefore a transparent and comprehensible proceeding is imperative. Indicators may be a guideline as their measurement provides an opportunity for the definition of one's position. Only then an answer to the question, which steps should follow with regard to effectiveness and efficiency, i.e. which steps one would have to take next, may be found.

42This is the guiding idea behind the studies of the Center of Technology Assessment in order to develop regional indicators for a Sustainable Development, especially with the following three features:

  • Planning: to identify the most urgent needs for action (aiming at effectiveness and efficiency)
  • Monitoring: to point out the impacts and to identify the necessity for further actions
  • Communication: to make Sustainable Development understandable to decision makers in administration and media as well as interested lay people

43As the Center's work has to be discursive by law, communication is of special importance. The function of the indicators is to represent, as specifically as possible, complex circumstances and facts that are to some extent complex by using representative measurement categories. In order to utilize indicators as an instrument for communication in public most effectively, in politics and administration, they should at the same time be intuitively plausible and not exceed a certain number altogether.

44Notwithstanding the blurredness of the term "Sustainable Development" there is unanimity that we have to be careful with our inheritance of resources and nature's goods so that future generations will have the same opportunities to fulfill their needs as we have had.

45Even though people throughout the world agree that Sustainable Development has to be striven for, the opinions differ considerably when it comes to judging the state of sustainability in different regions. Therefore an inventory which is as accurate as possible is in great demand in order to specify the state of sustainability as objectively as possible and impart it in a plausible way.

46In contrast to other projects carried out by the Center of Technology Assessment in this field so far, on the one hand the ecological indicators were extended and on the other hand indicators for human resources have been added to the State Report 2000. Furthermore, indicators from the sectors "economy", "inequity of living conditions", as well as "population and health" have been established in order to understand the basic conditions for a policy of sustainability.

47The State Report, which is presented by the Center every year, characterizes the current status of Baden-Württemberg on its way to a Sustainable Development, by using carefully selected indicators. For the evaluation the simple concept of a traffic-light is used: "red" means that the development goes off in the wrong direction and that there is an instant need for action; "yellow" signals that, even though there is constant development, the utmost caution is advised; in case of "green" there is a positive development and for the time being no call for action.

48The measurements of each indicator enable decision-makers as well as interested laypersons to visualize in a sophisticated way the state of sustainability in their region. Evaluation by using the traffic light system helps to communicate effectively and clarify the priorities.


49Has Baden-Württemberg moved forward on its way to a Sustainable Development, or not? Where do we find an urgent call for action, where does the development referring to this go in the right direction and where does it go wrong? The following table represents the results:

50List of signs:

red (traffic) light:yellow (traffic) light:green (traffic) light:


51It is possible to infer 17 red, 16 yellow and 8 green traffic lights from the overall view on the two pages.

52In the following table the evaluations of the several indicators (red, yellow, green) are assigned to the respective thematic fields of sustainability which enables a comprising overall view of the sustainability categories.

53From this comparison an overall trend for the respective category may be established:

54A first glance at the table clearly shows that here again the red and yellow traffic lights prevail in the overall trend (6 red, 7 yellow, 1 green traffic light). When looking closer at the separate fields, it is possible to set up the correct order for the acting priorities in a relatively explicit way:

  • Stability of the climate and energy use;
  • Noise pollution;
  • Biodiversity and soil.

55There is an urgent call for action in order to ameliorate sustainability in these fields. From a global point of view the threat to the ozone layer, that is also a nominee for the top flight, is in no way banned. Baden-Württemberg cannot do much here to enhance the international situation, the more so as there are no noteworthy emissions of substances that destroy the ozone layer anymore in Baden-Württemberg. In the middle of the scale there is the environmental pollution through waste, as well as air quality and water quality. In the field of acidification and eutrophication the situation is a little bit better, although there are still sporadic problems. The balance that can be drawn regarding the forest is also miscellaneous. Even though the damage to forests has not increased, the problems can in no way be regarded as solved.

56Regarding the development of the human resources (knowledge and education), it is to be expected that they will be even more central to political action in the future. The support of the human resources is probably more important and of more importance for the intergenerational equity than the supply inventory of all sorts of natural resources. Therefore, we cannot be content with a yellow traffic light in this field. There is a special call for action in this field, as for the indicators that aim at the future potential, the traffic lights are red.

57Call for action


58Political action in Baden-Württemberg can by no means solve the problem of the threat to the climate, but without a precursor within those regions that do not only have resources but also the possibilities to avoid climatically relevant gases, there will be no global changes. Therefore the state government should give a high priority to its climate-protection-policy in order to contribute properly to the national aim. Especially in the sectors "private households" and "transportation" further measures to improve the efficiency of energy should be taken.


59Regarding the question of biodiversity the main problem is not so much the total usage of spaces by settlements (which, in fact, steadily grows, but at the moment only comprises 13 % of the states area), but the landscape fragmentation of vacant areas by roads, streets, tracks, settlements and other obstacles. The extreme spread of settlements in the landscape leads to traffic increase and a higher demand of new streets. But gathering the problems is not all that has to be done. Here again, a bundle of measures would be sensible in order to conserve the biodiversity in the long run. These emanate from the protection of valuable ecosystems and their networking by measures of recycling of spaces and renaturation of settlement spaces that are no longer used.


60The noise problem is particularly difficult to approach because the biggest noise pollution is caused by city traffic, which does not decrease in spite of great efforts to promote public transportation and the subsidization of ecologically nonpolluting means of transport. It is true that protective barriers along streets with a high volume of traffic can reflect part of the noise but this is no durable solution, the more so as already developed areas in the city centers seldom allow for a supplementary installation of protective barriers. To solve this problem the “car-friendly” state of Baden-Württemberg could found an initiative that could act on the development and advancement of energy-saving-vehicles with reduced noise-output. In addition to these measures for the three problem-fields with the highest priority, there are of course the continuing endeavors to reduce the classical environmental pollution of soil, water and air. As illustrated in the first state report, the reduction of nitrogen compounds is of special significance, as they have a negative impact on each one of the three environmental media and cause ecological damage in multiple ways.

The detailed results have been published in:

61Ortwin Renn, Christian D. Leon, Günter Gar: Nachhaltige Entwicklung in Baden-Württemberg - Statusbericht 2000. Summary (Präsentation, ca. 80 Seiten) und Long Version (Arbeitsbericht Nr. 173, ca. 110 Seiten). Edited by Center of Technology Assessment, Stuttgart, Germany. Phone (++49 (711) 9063-221.


1 Center for Technology Assessment in Baden-Württemberg - Stuttgart, Germany.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2002

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