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Critical Thinking about Sustainability

by David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM

The point here is not to figure out what sustainability is and then decide on the one right definition. The point is to clarify the issues, complexities, and problems.


What are/should be the basic components?

  • ecological/environmental of course
  • economic?
  • political?
  • social?
  • demographic?
  • cultural?
  • ethical?
  • spiritual?


What is/should be the basic approach?

  • Anthropocentric? Ecocentric?
  • Principal control: International? National? Local?
  • Market-based? State socialist? Locally based?
  • Emphasizing trade? Emphasizing local subsistence?


What level of organization is/should be included?

  • personal, local, regional, national, international?


What specific dimensions should be included? (Usually not included in a “definition”)

  • use of renewable and non-polluting energy


Who benefits economically, and who doesn’t? Who gains power, and who doesn’t?

  • see also “Bases”



  • Different & conflicting definitions, components, approaches.
  • Different bases: definitions, assumptions, etc.
  • Ambiguity in terms.
  • Differential impact on different social groups, countries, continents, etc.

Ø  see also “Bases”



Implicit social philosophy

  • are we autonomous beings or members of community responsible for each other
  • are we creatures of desire that must be satisfied, or can we find true contentment in simplicity & frugality?
  • what responsibilities (if any) do we have to future generations?
  • is goal freedom or harmony or what?

Implicit economic philosophy

  • where is economic well-being and sustainability found?
    • material affluence and assumption of economic growth?
    • contentment with simple life and acceptance of limits?
  • what economic system(s) create(s) sustainability?
  • what are the rights and responsibilities of private property? (also philosophy of nature)

Implicit political philosophy

  • what are the primarily roles, responsibilities, and limits of government?
    • protect negative freedom & ensure justice?
    • ensure positive freedoms (education, health, etc.)
  • should politics be largely international, national, local?

Implicit philosophy of nature

  • what does nature consist of, how does nature relate to itself and work?
    • individual objects or communion of subjects?
    • static or processual?
    • balance or chaos?
  • what is the value of nature?
  • what is our essential relationship to nature?
  • what are our responsibilities to nature?
  • should we take an anthropocentric, biocentric, ecocentric, or other view?


  • “develop,” “quality of life,” “security,” “economic opportunity,” “meets needs,” “freedom,” “democracy,” “free market,” “free trade,”


  • developed world and developing/underdeveloped world

Cultural frameworks and worldviews



  • What makes a practice or approach sustainable?
  • How do we decide what “real needs” are?
  • etc.


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by David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM