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Scarcity and sustainability

We have seen above how scarcity is a problem that we are all faced with, all the time. Our needs and wants continue to grow and we demand more and more resources to satisfy those wants. The infographic below shows how global freshwater use has increased over time. Data on the use of other resources also paint a similar picture.

In addition, there is the negative impact of production activities on the environment. What does this mean for the future of our planet? What kind of life will the future generations be able to lead if we continue to consume non-renewable resources indiscriminately and ignore environmental issues such as climate change? The concept of sustainability seeks to address this issue of inter-generational equity. Our current patterns of production and consumption cannot be maintained in the long run. This may compromise the ability of future generations to survive and something must be done to redress this unfairness. 

We have a choice between the following options:

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Sustainability, literally, implies the ability to carry on for a longer period of time. The green box above indicates the practices that will enable us to maintain our consumption and lifestyles over the longer run and across generations.


The term sustainability was used explicitly for the first time in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. The commission reported its findings and recommendations in the report formally titled Our Common Future (known more popularly as Brundtland Report):  


"Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."(Section 3.27)


This report gave us the most commonly accepted definition of sustainable development as development that meets the  needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs

We can view sustainability as the goal of sustainable development and sustainable development as the kind of development that ensures sustainability. However, economists frequently use the two terms interchangeably.


The concept of sustainability shows how a focus on allocating resources efficiently as we saw above is not enough. We also need to allocate resources equitably across generations. Our experience, particularly in the last 50 years, has shown that technological advances to replenish resources as we consume them is not enough. We also need to use them judiciously and preserve our natural environment.


Sustainability necessitates that the economy, society and the environment are in harmony with each other. Some of the requirements of sustainability include:


  • Conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity

  • Streamlined and efficient production processes

  • Investment in clean technologies

  • Population control

  • Focus on ensuring healthy and educated populations

  • People's participation in economic decision-making

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