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Theory of Sustainability

Lecture 3: Operationalising Sustainability

Lecture 3: Operationalising Sustainability

Kartei Details

Karten 8
Sprache English
Kategorie Soziales
Stufe Universität
Erstellt / Aktualisiert 17.01.2022 / 17.01.2022
Lizenzierung Keine Angabe    (Leipzig University)
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Describe the scientific route towards sustainability. 

1. Scientific Route: Sustainability is preservation.

  • Tries to define the problem: requires distinction between defining sustainability and operationalizing sustainability
    • What system and more exactly what parts and characteristics of the system should be preserved?

    • For how long should it/they be preserved?

    • When do we assess whether it has/they have been preserved?

  • Sustainability is seen as an observable property of a system.
  • Consists of
    • The economic route: Focus on the possibility of future generations to produce and to meet their needs / weak sustainability / bent towards economy 
    • The natural science route: Biophysical sustainability means maintaining or improving the integrity of the life support system of the Earth (planetary boundaries) / bent towards environment
    • The ecological-economic route: a direction towards desirable social objectives; that is, it is a list of attributes which society seeks to achieve or maximize / economy is one aspect of the environment. 


Describe the 3 difficulties of the scientific route towards sustainability. 


1. The scientific-technical-economic problem of operationalization: Non-knowledge, uncertainty and complexity

  • The circumstances of the ecosystems, the atmosphere, the economy etc. as well as interrelations between these systems must be known in order to conclude limits for all relevant emissions and waste disposal as well as limits for the extraction of natural resources.

  • However, the complex interrelations of the environment and the economy are only partly known.

  • Sustainability cannot be operationalized in the form of an 'if-then-relationship': 'If we do this, then it will lead to sustainable or un-sustainable development.

2. The social problem of agreement

  • members of society must accept the knowledge and agree upon the necessary measures
  • even if we know what needs to be done, this is no guarantee that the members of a democratically organized society really will agree upon the necessary measures

3. The social problem of implementation

  • Members of a society must accept and obey the instructions and laws
  • It is necessary that the laws be voluntarily obeyed by the vast majority

Describe the Ethical Route Towards Sustainability. 

1. The Ethical Route: Sustainability is justice and responsibility

  • Refers to the action and behaviour of humans
  • Asks for fairness, justice and responsibility
  • Complimentary to the scientific-technical-economic route towards sustainability
    • It assumes the determined will of society to strive for the ideal of sustainability

    • this ideal is a source of guidance on how to act fairly towards our descendants, our fellow-citizens and nature

    • Considers sustainability as an ideal

How the ethical route becomes effective

  • Long-run this can change human norms and behavioral patterns

  • voluntary setting and obeying of rules and limits is an essential component

However, as it cannot be forced/planned for all time, there is nor guarantee that the ethical approach will result in sustainability.


What is operationalizing sustainability? What does it mean?

  • Translate the abstract sustainability norms in concrete, empirically testable sustainability targets

  • The degree of achievement of the targets needs to be empirically measurable by a system of indicators

  • Formulating management rules: normative rules of thumb that give hints at what actions are necessary to approach sustainability

  • Approaches to operationalization: environmental standards (e.g., the EU Water Framework Directives) and UN SDGs


Describe Environmental Standards. 

Definition of Environmental Standard: Legal prescriptions, administrative regulations or private regulations that substantiate indefinite legal concepts in environmental law by operationalizing and standardizing of measurable values in concrete proscriptions, precepts, permissions. 


  • Describe status by measurable indicators and set targets for sustainability

  • Deficit analysis: compare status quo and target status

  • Derive need for action from the deficit analysis

EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) - example of environmental standard 

Overview: the directives take an ecological perspective 

  • Became effective in Dec 2000
  • What should be preserved? i.e., environmental objective / target?: All groundwater, surface and coastal waters should reach a “good status” by 2015
  • Deficit analysis/need for action: A concept for monitoring the water status is to be developed and implemented until 2005
  • How should it be preserved?: A management plan (including a programme of measures) explaining how the environmental objectives will be reached has to be set up in each river basin district until 2009

Summary of Objectives

1) All water bodies: prevent detoriation / Reduction of priority substances (phasing out hazardous substances)

2) Surface Water: Natural water body and artificial/heavily modified water body: good chemical and good ecological status and potential

3) Groundwater: Good chemical and good quantitative status


  • Considerate effect on water management in the EU

  • Water status is measurable, testable, specific, litigable

  • The implementation progress can be observed


  • The 'good to high' assessment statuses does not provide appropriate guidance for the resolution of use conflicts
  • Intersectoral coordination (e.g., with agriculture) is difficult



Describe the Sustainable Development Goals (2015). 


  • 17 goals / 169 targets
  • Agreed by UN General Assembly in 2015 (Valid from 2016 to 2030)

  • Applies to all countries

  • Measured by a catalogue of indicators - using only existing data (what has been criticized)


  • Good overview over development in many sustainability-relevant fields

  • Monitoring of status development and target achievement is possible

  • Sets concrete political goals


  • Data-basis for monitoring is too weak
  • Goals are not legally binding
  • Impact on day-by-day politics is limited

What are the 4 central aspects of sustainability?

1. Intra- and intergenerational justice

  • Unbalanced distribution of chances to develop in the different parts of the world

  • Most consequences of degradation of the environment and consumption of non-renewable resources will be born by future generations

2. Long-run perspective

  • From the claim of intergenerational justice follows that long-term effects of today’s actions need to be taken into account

3. Comprehensiveness

  • A holistic and integrative approach is necessary to grasp all the different aspects of sustainability problems

4. Preservation of nature

  • All sustainability concepts (maybe with exception of the concept of weak sustainability) claim that nature has certain characteristics that need to be preserved so that future generations will benefit from the respective ecosystem services
  • Some sustainability concepts claim the preservation of nature because of nature’s intrinsic value