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THRIVE Framework: Strong Sustainability



Strong sustainability is a central part of the THRIVE Framework. A key component of it is recognising what is finite, and therefore emphasising the need for a holistic, systems-based, regenerative approach to tackle the issues affecting global ecosystems.

In today’s world, sustainability is a big topic. This is because it is widely understood that if we are to protect the future of humanity, living sustainably is non-negotiable. However, people often misunderstand how this intersects with our ability to thrive. The aim is not just to sustain life but to allow people to flourish. This difference is significant. It is, therefore, useful to talk about sustainability as something that enables humans to go beyond mere survival. This is where strong sustainability comes into play.

Strong sustainability is crucial to preventing biodiversity loss.
Strong sustainability is crucial to preventing biodiversity loss.
Source: Pexels

What Is Strong Sustainability?

Strong sustainability, in contrast to weak sustainability, is not about mitigating the worst impacts of climate change to ensure our survival. It is about allowing nature to regenerate, thus enabling ecosystems to bounce back, and ultimately, flourish. It also means recognising that if we want prosperity, it needs to fall within the boundaries of what is compatible with the earth’s ecosystems. Allowing the regeneration of carbon sinks, allowing forests to flourish, and allowing oceans to thrive, will ensure not just decreased greenhouse gas emissions in the future but will also mitigate the impact of existing greenhouse gas emissions (Khulman et al., 2010). It’s about ensuring that industries, agricultural practices, energy use, and business practices do not infringe upon the natural world, including all aspects of the biosphere. In essence, resource use cannot exceed regeneration levels. This is an essential component of Strong Sustainability.

Strong sustainability means maintaining the integrity of all ecosystems within the world’s biosphere, with the capacity for complete natural regeneration, and where social and economic domains exist within the parameters of this (Pelenc et al., 2015) (Ecosystems United, 2015). One way to characterise the difference between weak and strong sustainability is that strong sustainability does not view natural capital as substitutable with manufactured capital (Pelenc et al., 2015). The idea that natural capital can be exploited if it can be replaced by manufactured capital, is an obvious flaw. Some natural capital cannot be replaced (Ecosystems United).

Strong Sustainability principles

Strong Sustainability is rooted in the following principles:

  • The scale of human activity must fall within the limits of what the natural world can sustain.
  • Technological development should prioritise resourcefulness and efficiency, not increase the flow of goods and services from natural to human systems.
  • Harvesting rates of natural capital should not exceed regeneration rates.
  • We should avoid exploiting non-renewable natural resources more quickly than renewable substitutes (Ecosystems United, 2015).

One study demonstrated that the weak sustainability viewpoint is the dominant viewpoint in the corporate sector (Landrum et al., 2017). The irreversibility of the destruction of natural capital is what separates natural from manufactured capital. This further negates the assertion that the two can be used interchangeably (Pelenc et al, 2015). Additionally, manufactured capital needs natural capital for its production, so it can never be a complete substitution (Ekins et al., 2003).

Strong Sustainability and Human Well-being

Strong sustainability’s importance is furthered by the multitude of ways in which it intersects with human well-being. (Brand, 2009). Ecosystem conservation and conservation of natural areas innately benefiting human health facilitate mental well-being and positive social relations. As such, this is a key factor that makes natural capital use non-substitutable in addressing human well-being. Manufactured capital relies on finite natural resources (Pelenc et al., 2015), therefore requiring regeneration and recycling. Conserving natural areas is essential and a circular economy with such material use is a vital as part of strong sustainability.

A trans-disciplinary approach is necessary to identify and conserve critical natural capital (Pelenc, et al, 2015). Perceiving natural capital through different lenses within the sciences, and linking it to a holistic and informed viewpoint, points to the significance and value of natural capital. This significance relates to the influence on human well-being and economics, as well as holistically in regard to planetary boundaries and doughnut economics (Steffan, 2015), (Raworth, 2012). 

Strong sustainability means that natural capital must not be treated as an infinite resource.
Strong sustainability means that natural capital must not be treated as an infinite resource.
Source: Pexels

Strong Sustainability and Types of Capital

Sustainable development has the capacity to provide utility through four different forms of capital. These are natural, produced, human and social capital. Natural capital refers to different types of functions the natural environment provides for humans and for itself (Ekins et al.,2003). Experts define it as a collection of intricate systems comprising evolving biotic and abiotic elements. These elements interact to determine the ecosystem’s capacity to directly and/or indirectly provide human society with a wide array of functions and services (Noël and O’Connor, 1998; Ekins et al., 2003; De Groot et al., 2003; Brand, 2009).

Produced capital consists of physical assets generated by applying productive human activities to natural capital. These assets provide the flow of goods or services. Human capital refers to the productive capacities of an individual, both inherited and acquired through education and training. Social capital consists of a stock of trust, mutual understanding, shared values, and socially held knowledge (Goodwin, 2003).

The Place of natural capital in sustainable development

Discussions about the role of natural capital in sustainability have focused on whether it should be afforded special protection or replaced by other forms of capital, particularly produced capital. Two schools of thought have emerged from this discussion: proponents of weak sustainability and advocates of strong sustainability. The weak sustainability approach assumes that natural capital and produced capital are interchangeable. It does not acknowledge any fundamental differences between the kinds of well-being they produce (Ekins et al., 2003; Neumayer, 2003,). Weak sustainability emphasises the maintenance of the total value of the aggregate stock of capital, specifically for the sake of future generations (Solow, 1993; Neumayer, 2003).

Weak sustainability implies that today’s society need not pay attention to the environmental impact of its actions, and how such impacts will compromise the living standards and survivability of future generations. It implies we can pollute the environment, burn fossil fuels, increase global warming, deplete forests, the ozone layer and non-renewable resources, and so on. It assumes all is well if we manufacture produced capital to compensate for the loss of natural capital. The myth is that we just need to ensure that total capital stock is not depleted.

The flaws of weak sustainability

The fundamental flaw in weak sustainability is that it assumes that natural and produced capital can be used interchangeably without any drawbacks.

To validate the weak sustainability paradigm, it must be true that either:

  • Natural resources are super-abundant;
  • The substitution elasticity between natural and produced capital is greater than or equal to unity, even in extremely high output-resource ratio limits (Neumayer, 2003);
  • Or, technological progress can enhance the productivity of the natural capital stock at a rate quicker than its depletion.

The strength of strong sustainability

In contrast to weak sustainability, a second school of thought exists, supporting strong sustainability. This approach believes argues that natural capital is non-substitutable (Barbier, 1994). It considers the functions of natural capital. These include the provision of raw materials for production and consumption, assimilation of waste products for production and consumption, provision of amenity services, and provision of life-supporting functions. Strong sustainability argues that completely substituting natural capital may be impossible for the following reasons.

The Irreversibility of Natural Capital:

Natural capital could become irreversible due to the threshold phenomenon. In other words, natural capital can disappear if its excessive deterioration and continued destruction don’t allow it to replenish itself. If it can’t replenish itself, it can’t supply essential services for human well-being (Ekins et al., 2003). Beyond a certain threshold, altering the depletion of natural capital could become impossible. For example, failure to manage endangered flora and fauna species well could see them go extinct. Unchecked deforestation could lead to a cascade of other ecological issues, including soil erosion, desertification, flooding, increase in CO₂ emissions, and climate change. High concentrations of pollutants in the environment could lead to ecosystem disruption. This characteristic of natural capital, therefore, differs from produced capital, which could be increased or decreased at will without any effect on its future existence.

The Manufacture of Produced Capital:

Poor management of manufacturing produced capital from natural capital will affect the produced capital’s availability. This demonstrates an inherent flaw within the concept of weak sustainability. The disregard for natural capital will ultimately lead to the depletion of produced capital and the overall goal of sustainability. This is due to the qualitative difference between produced capital and natural capital (Ekins et al., 2003).

Multifunctional Nature of Natural Capital:

Natural capital can simultaneously provide several functions or services. The forest, as an example, provides many functions. It acts as a home for biodiversity, a sink for CO₂, controls erosion, reduces wind speed (windbreak), creates a microclimate, produces lumber, has recreational and aesthetic benefits, and more. Similarly, an ocean performs multiple ecological, economic and recreational functions. These manifest through the sequestration of CO₂, its role in transportation, and the recreational benefits enabled by beaches. Conversely, produced capital is not multifunctional in this manner. Therefore, substituting natural capital with produced capital is insufficient.

Better to be Cautious:

Given that it is not clear exactly how the destruction of natural capital will affect life on Earth in the future (Dietz and Neumayer, 2007), the reasonable thing to do is to be cautious and manage it sustainably.

Intergenerational Justice:

The present generation has a responsibility to preserve natural capital for the good of future generations, and the answer is to minimise harm to the environment. Climate change and biodiversity loss risk causing irreversible damage to the natural world. Bequeathing these problems to future generations in exchange for a short-term increase in goods and services would not only be a gross disservice to them, but an arrogant display of greed.

When is substitutability possible?

Simply investing in produced capital or other forms of capital cannot stop natural capital depletion (Neumayer, 2003). Substitutability between natural capital and other forms of capital, should be limited to when use of natural capital does not lead to irreversible ecological damage. The strong sustainability approach holds that certain aspects of natural capital are “critical” due to their unique contribution to human well-being (Ekins et al., 2003; Dedeurwaerdere, 2014). We must strongly protect these aspects.

Moving Forward

In some instances, we cannot replace or replenish natural capital when consumption levels exceed regeneration. In order for our world to truly be sustainable, let alone Thrivable, strong sustainability is essential. The world is already facing the requirement of adaptation and mitigation, and weak sustainability is not a feasible solution.

Why Is It Essential That We Focus On Strong Sustainability?

Strong Sustainability underpins a core aspect of the THRIVE Framework. Like systems thinking, it is essential to tackling the climate crisis. Furthermore, it is crucial to solve biodiversity issues caused by this crisis, as well as the exploitation of the natural world. Whether this be plundering the oceans or deforestation, strong sustainability should be a benchmark for how industries, governments and corporations should operate. To live in a world that enables the regeneration of nature and facilitates progress within the parameters of planetary boundaries is the true meaning of sustainability.

Achieving The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) And How They Link To Strong Sustainability

Both Life on Land and Life Below Water, SDGs 15 &14, as well as Climate Action, SDG 13, are closely linked to strong sustainability. Adoption of strong sustainability by all parties will help to achieve these United Nations SDG’s. Addressing these SDGs is simply not possible without adhering to strong sustainability as a central focus and guiding parameter.

A Thrivable Framework

Strong Sustainability is vital to combatting the climate crisis, and other environmental issues. It is paramount to THRIVE’s mission. THRIVE intimately promotes that environmental, ecological, and social needs can be met simultaneously without compromising one another. By researching, educating, and advocating on this issue, we can make the changes required.

At its core, sustainability simply means the ability to continue to survive. ‘Thrivability‘, by contrast, is the next step, beyond sustainability. THRIVE believes that humanity can do better with the knowledge currently available to us. We want to instil the idea that sustainable solutions not only prevent disaster, but offer the potential for societies that flourish.

THRIVE Framework examines issues and evaluates potential solutions – making predictive analyses, that support environmental and social sustainability transformations. We recognise that the pursuit of human happiness can sometimes compete with environmental wellbeing. Therefore, THRIVE utilises our ciambella chart to illustrate the concept of the ‘thrivable zone‘. Overlaid on these thrivable zones are visual measurements that show the impact. It shows whether something is inside the thrivable zone or exactly where it falls short. 

To learn more about how The THRIVE Project is researching, educating, and advocating for a future beyond sustainability, visit our website. You can follow our informative blog and podcast series and learn about our regular live webinars featuring expert guests in the field. Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates.