Downscaling the measurement of sustainability

Feb. 11, 2021

 The theory of sustainability was developed with a global framework in mind.      

“The earth is a shared system with many interacting parts, so it isn't possible to consider any action to address sustainability in isolation," said Elena Irwin, distinguished professor of food, agricultural and environmental sciences in economics and sustainability and faculty director at Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute (SI).

The long-term goal of sustainability is to ensure that our actions today are in balance with the needs of the future, Irwin said. Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.        

“It’s impossible to draw a boundary around any one state or region that would separate it from other regions. We have to somehow account for this fundamental interdependence when applying the theory of sustainability at a regional scale.”

To determine how to classify regional efforts, Irwin and Sathya Gopalakrishnan, associate professor, and Alan Randall, professor, and SI resident scholar, started with two different existing sustainability theories, that lie at different ends of the spectrum. The strong sustainability approach emphasizes the notion that sustainability is defined by development that does not exceed certain biophysical limits or agreed upon pollution limits. This suggests that the preservation of earth’s natural resources and capital stocks is the primary goal regardless of the economic or other social costs.  

Weak sustainability accounts for multiple forms of capital: natural capital, such as land and other natural resources, as well as manufactured capital, human and health capitals. This approach recognizes that innovations in one type of capital can often substitute for losses in other types of capital. For example, advances in technology that improve resource efficiency can offset losses in natural capital.  Weak sustainability emphasizes the importance of sustaining the aggregate value of all capitals, called inclusive wealth, over time.      

"Weak sustainability makes sense as a basic framework for regional sustainability," said Irwin. “Regions are open economies with trade and migration flows of financial capital, goods and services, and people across space."      

The distribution of capital and wealth can be very uneven across regions and cities are extreme concentrations of built and human capital. If a region lacks a resource, they rely on trade with other regions to fill the need. But what if the resource is water, and it cannot be traded or bought? To acknowledge the constraints of essential or critical resources, Irwin, Gopalakrishnan, and Randall came up with the term weak sustainability plus. This includes the weak sustainability framework of non-declining inclusive wealth, with the addition of strong stability constraints, as needed.

This means if a resource like water is limited and cannot be obtained through trade, other strategies must be developed.      

A strong sustainability policy example is the State of Ohio’s efforts to reduce total phosphorus loads in Lake Erie by 40%, based on 2008 levels, by 2025. Lake Erie is a unique resource and it is not possible to replace it with other types of capital.

Another way to downscale regional sustainability efforts is to focus on the things that make one place different than another, which means place-specific or place-bound capitals that are not mobile. Irwin and Randall are pursuing this work in collaboration with other Ohio State researchers through a grant from the National Science Foundation that is supporting this work in the Great Lakes region.

For Irwin, downscaling global sustainability and theory approaches to a regional scale is a worthy cause.

“At the end of the day, the decisions that are being made are being made at these local and regional scales.”,,