The varieties of sustainability

Agriculture and Human Values 9 (3):11-19 (1992)
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Each of four sections in this paper sketches the philosophical problems associated with a different dimension of sustainability. The untitled introductory section surveys the oft-noted discrepancies between different notions of sustainability, and notes that one element of the ambiguity relates to the different points of view taken by a participant in a system and a detached observer of the system. The second section, “Sustainability as a System Describing Concept,” examines epistemological puzzles that arise when one attempts to assess the truth or falsity of claims that attribute sustainability or non-sustainability. In particular, such claims generally presume bounded systems, but boundary conditions are value-laden. The third section, “Sustainability as a Goal Prescribing Concept,” examines puzzles that arise in attempting to define sustainability in normative terms. In particular, the question of whether sustainability is an intrinsic or instrumental value is examined. The final section, “Sustainability and Bliss,” offers an analysis of the moral responsibilities that human beings have, given the fact that knowledge of conditions for achieving sustainability can never be complete



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Paul B. Thompson
Michigan State University