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Further Definitions of Sustainability Issues in Environmental Management

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn


Goal: Ideal or desirable value or state of environmental quality, identified by scientists and policy makers.

Target: Value or state of environmental quality considered to be attainable in the short or medium term (in the interest of long-term environmental management goals).

From this perspective, the goal of environmental management is to promote national development in the various sectors, in an economically viable and socially acceptable manner, without causing environmental degradation. This long-term goal may be approached by establishing targets, to be attained in the short to medium-term. In the context of environmental management, the primary target of all proposed developments, is to promote a favourable cost-benefit ratio, by undertaking tangible accounting of goods, services and attributes of the natural resource capital.

One of the major challenges to implementation of sustainable development legislation in developing countries is that frequently, where feasible engineering solutions (or other techniques) exist for ecological compatibility, concern of a loss of economic efficiency are cited as a perceived outcome (e.g., the so-called “environment vs jobs” trade-off). There are also frequent socio-cultural barriers to effective implementation.

These factors may directly affect the functional application of environmental laws, by hindering the establishment of progressive trade-offs among the three main objectives of sustainable development . Consequently, they may also complicated attempts to integrate environmental concerns into conventional economic decision-making.




(I – III; based on Munasinghe, 1993)

I: Economic Objective

The economic approach to sustainability is based on the Hicks–Lindahl concept of the maximum flow of income that could be generated while at least maintaining a stock of assets (or capital) which can yield these benefits. There is an underlying concept of optimality and economic efficiency applied to the use of scarce resources. Problems of interpretation arise in identifying the kinds of capital that need to be maintained (e.g., manufactured, natural and human capital) and their substitutability, as well as in valuing these assets, particularly ecological resources. The issues of uncertainty, irreversibility and catastrophic collapse pose additional difficulties.

II: Social Objective

The social (or socio-cultural) concept of sustainability seeks to maintain the stability of social and cultural systems, including the reduction of destructive conflicts. Both intragenerational equity (especially elimination of poverty) and intergenerational equity (involving the rights of future generations) are important aspects of this approach. This approach attempts the preservation of cultural diversity across the globe, and better use of knowledge concerning sustainable practices embedded in less dominant cultures. Modern society would need to encourage and harness pluralism and grass-roots participation into a more effective decision-making framework for sustainable development.

III: Ecological Objective

The ecological view of sustainable development focuses on the stability of biological and physical systems. Of particular importance is the viability of biological and physical systems that are critical to the overall ecosystem. Protection of biodiversity is a key aspect. Furthermore, “natural” ecosystems may be interpreted to include all aspects of the biosphere including man-made environments like cities and industrial estates. The emphasis is on preserving the resilience and dynamic ability of such systems to adapt to change, rather than conservation of some “ideal” static state of the environment.


Evaluation of these objectives using direct monetary comparisons may not always provide adequate accounting of the natural resource capital in relation to environmental degradation. In this context, the efficient application of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process may require the implementation of multi-criteria analysis (Munasinghe, 1993). Subsequent posts will discuss inter alia the use of indicators of environmental quality in providing a scientific basis for assessing costs and benefits, to assist in addressing the economic, social and ecological concerns associated with the implementation of sustainable land use and enforcement of impact control legislation.


Munasinghe, Mohan. 1993. Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development. World Bank Environmental Paper No. 3. The World Bank, Washington DC, USA.

Ramjohn, Karl. 1999. Sustainable Solutions to Land Degradation (Saline Intrusion) in the Lower South Oropouche Floodplain: Community-based Management Strategy. Tropical Environment Research & Management Center, Trinidad & Tobago. May 1999; 22 pp.

Ramjohn, Karl. 2000. Development of Methodology for Impact Detection and Monitoring in Accordance with The Certificate of Environmental Clearace Rules, Rule 10. M.Sc. Thesis, Science and Management of Tropical Environments. Faculty of Agriculture & Natural Sciences, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. September 2000; 117 pp.

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