The question of sustainability has become an important economic, political, and social issue. Major international conferences have been held to discuss the issue of global sustainability. A President’s Council on Sustainable Development was formed to address sustainability questions confronting the United States. After nearly a decade of indecision, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has officially embraced sustainable agriculture as a priority issue for the future. Questions of sustainability has also become commonplace both in professional publications and in the popular media.

The Issue of Sustainability

Sustainability is a long run, people-centered concept. There have been many attempts to define sustainability, but most are rooted in the general concept of intergenerational equity. Sustainable development, as used in this paper, means meeting the needs and wants of people of the current generation while leaving equal or better opportunities for people of generations to follow. What is to be sustained? — development of resources: natural, human, and economic. What is the purpose of development? — positive change or human progress, not necessarily growth in numbers or size. Who is to benefit from such development? — people of the current generation and of generations to follow. For how many generations is development to be sustained? — for all future generations, forever. Thus, sustainability is about sustaining a desirable quality of life for people, forever.

Sustainability, as a consequence of its long-run nature, will remain a question with no definite answer, a direction without a precise destination, a process without a final product. We can never know with certainty whether any particular approach, method, or activity is sustainable or not sustainable. Just because something has been sustained until now, does not mean it can be sustained forever. Just because something has not been sustained up to now, does not mean that it could not have been sustained, until now and into the future. We cannot prove empirically that anything is or is not sustainable in the long run. The long run is forever

Inadequacies of the “old” economics

Economic theory does not exist in the absence of the term “ceteris paribus” — other things held constant. The most fundamental “law” of economics, diminishing marginal returns, is meaningless without the assumption of “ceteris paribus.

Economics of Sustainability

So where do we begin to develop the “new” economics?

Axioms. All theory is based on axioms. Webster defines an axiom as “a maxim widely accepted on its intrinsic merit, or a statement accepted as true as the basis for argument or inference”

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One thought on “Toward an Economics of Sustainability John E. Ikerd University of Missouri May, 1997

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