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date: 22 July 2019

Summary and Keywords

Environmental sustainability is most often discussed in the context of “sustainable development,” a goal-oriented, normative concept that emphasizes the need to reconcile the often conflicting goals of economic development, environmental protection, and social progress. Despite various efforts throughout human history to encourage responsible harvesting of renewable resources such as timber forests, fish, and game, at rates that do not exceed the so-called “sustainable yield,” there is a tendency toward the “tragedy of the commons”—the incentive to overexploit shared natural resources. The challenge of sustainability is how to develop or improve the capability of individuals and communities to foster a high quality of life, without undermining the ecological and natural resource foundations on which all development ultimately depends. This essay also outlines two contrasting energy paths that the United States might follow: the hard energy path, which included rapid growth in energy demand and expansion of large-scale, centralized coal, oil and gas, and nuclear electricity production facilities that were inherently wasteful; and the soft energy path, which relied on decentralized and diverse energy projects designed to meet specific local needs, and a technological and social commitment to conservation. It also discusses policies designed to improve welfare without increasing energy and material throughput—such as investing human resources into alternatives to consumption; for example, innovations in simple living, collective action, nonmaterial personal satisfaction, and needs prevention. These approaches draw from case studies that demonstrate how the logic of sufficiency can lead to improved human welfare at lower environmental costs.

Keywords: sustainable development, economic development, environmental protection, social progress, tragedy of the commons, sustainability, hard energy, soft energy, logic of sufficiency, human welfare

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