A key issue about the transition to a sustainable economy is the debate around so-called 'soft' (or weak) and 'hard' (or strong) sustainability transition models. Essentially, soft sustainability pundits believe the current western model of economic competition, with free market as a desirable driving factor, can be made sufficiently environmentally compatible as to provide a future path that guarantees long-term survival. The hard sustainability crowd are more pessimistic, and see only a radical change and central governance can bring about the levels of efficiency, moderation of consumption and inter- and intra-generational equity needed.
Sustainability or development?
In the term 'sustainable development' there is an inherent contradiction. Whether or not this is irresolvable depends largely on how the two concepts 'sustainable' and 'development' are defined and delimited. Certainly, in strictly neo-classical economic terms, there seems at first glance to be no possibility of achieving true sustainability.
The term 'sustainable development' was first proposed in the World Conservation Strategy in 1980. This was an enormously influential report which redefined the role of the IUCN, amongst other things. But 'sustainable development' gained its standing and widespread use through its adoption by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1983-7), whose report 'Our Common Future' (1987), referred to as the Brundtland Report, set forth the foundations for the Earth Summit (Rio, 1992) and its five international treaties and agreements, all of which deal with sustainability.
There are two main schools of thought concerning how sustainability can be made a reality. One proposes continuing economic growth much as it is, but with greater environmental sensitivity. The other calls for far more radical changes to the economic system, with a drastic reduction in resource consumption. Both groups recognise the need for greater equality in the distribution of resources, both inter-generationally and intra-generationally.
The first group (soft sustainability) suggests retaining the basic organisation of the economic-political order, but with large investments in seeking less-damaging technological solutions and substitutions for depleting resources. For example, we seek to moderate energy use through efficiency, and develop renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.
The second group (hard sustainability) is more pessimistic about the first group's plan ever achieving the levels of reduction needed to prevent the planet from entering a devastating spiral of breakdown. If the world economy continues to be based on competitive production and market dominance, there is little hope that the initiative for the kinds of changes required will come from the powerful players who are doing very well out of the current state of things.
Currently, the UNO, international organisations, and national governments, have failed quite miserably in the task of curbing trends of excessive consumption. This is primarily due to the business models which arise from neo-classical economic thought. Democracy has lost its integrity due to the power of lobby groups, whose stated aim is inequality, thereby undermining an objective of sustainable development: inter- and intra-generational equality.
However, the hope is that more rational thinking may yet prevail.
Ernst von Weizsäcker wrote about Factor Four (Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, 1995), an update of the Club of Rome's famous report 'Limits to Growth'. If his calculations prove correct, the degree of adjustment needed may fall within the capabilities of a moderate adaptation of the current political-economic order.
Green Paper "EU Development Policies for the promotion of broad growth and a sustainable development" (November 2010)