SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT—promoting the well-being of people today without degrading the ability of future generations to better their own lives—has become a common ideal that is championed by many segments of society, including business, government, academia, and consumers. Yet despite wide acceptance of the goal, pursuing sustainability has proved challenging.
In response, Clark; Matson, of Stanford University; and Andersson, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, offer scholars and practitioners a guide for translating good intentions into practical action. They argue that the pursuit of sustainability is ultimately about managing the stock of “capital assets” on which societies now and in the future can draw to advance their well-being: natural resources, manufactured goods, human capital, social capital, and knowledge capital. Effective management requires understanding the complex and adaptive character of the production-consumption systems through which assets are mobilized, connected with one another, and converted into well-being. Governance processes are also key to pursuing sustainability, they write, as arrangements that determine who has access to assets and thus the capability to define and shape their own well-being.
To illustrate their points, the authors explore four detailed case studies: London through centuries of its history, including battles with disease and air pollution; irrigation initiatives in the difficult topography of Nepal; a research team attempting to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture in the Yaqui Valley, Mexico; and efforts to protect the ozone layer. The cases offer lessons for others who are pursuing sustainability, they write, showing people “struggling to deal with unintended consequences, and continuing to push for progress despite failures and setbacks.”