Policy Framework

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Policy Framework for achieving a sustainable society

There are many definitions of sustainability and sustainable development and they emphasize different elements, including the following:

  •  A multi-generational focus by ensuring the needs of current and future generations are met;
  • A multi-dimensional focus including social, economic and environmental objectives;
  • An acknowledgement of competing needs and trade-offs and the challenge of balancing them;
  • A maintenance of natural and human-made processes of productivity indefinitely by replacing resources used with resources of equal or greater value without degrading or endangering natural biotic systems;
  • A systems approach to growth and development that manages natural, produced and social capital for the welfare of current and future generations;
  •  An acknowledgement of the finite carrying capacity of natural systems and the need to meet human needs within those limits.
  • A qualitative improvement in the ability to satisfy wants without a quantitative increase in throughput beyond environmental carrying capacity.
    By way of fleshing out these definitional elements, the “Common Values of the Manitoba Greens” statement in the Constitution of the Green Party of Manitoba provides the following description of what constitutes a sustainable society:
  • Interdependence of society, economy and environment
    Society, the economy and the environment are fundamentally and
    inextricably interdependent. Policies addressing one sphere can only
    be effective if they address all three spheres at the same
    time. In an ecological society, policies are sustainable which means
    they are capable of being maintained indefinitely into the future.
  • Society
    Society is sustainable only if it is democratic, egalitarian, compassionate, co-operative and peaceful, both within itself and in relation to other societies. People are secure about their personal safety and health care. Social development respects and values diversity, including physical, ethnic, sexual, cultural, political and religious.
  • Economy
    The economy is sustainable only if it is able to maintain full employment without harming the environment. Jobs in a sustainable economy are sufficiently productive to meet society’s needs and are meaningful to satisfy its members’ human needs. People are not exploited or economically insecure and small economic enterprises dominate. Such an economy serves the people and not vice versa.
  • Environment
    The environment is sustainable only if human activity does not harm natural ecosystems. The environment of this finite planet cannot sustain infinite material growth nor absorb infinite pollution. In a sustainable environment, society lives in harmony with nature, is guided by ecological insights, limits its consumption and acknowledges its finiteness.
  • Democracy
    In a sustainable society, democracy is grassroots and local. People are empowered to participate directly in society’s political institutions rather than only through elected representatives. They participate in economic decisions directly as owners of local businesses and farms, as trades people and professionals and as members of co-operatives, credit unions and trade unions. They participate in environmental policy directly through local community responsibility for natural resources. In all three spheres, local grassroots control ensures institutions stay truly democratic.


Building on the above definitional elements, values and principles, sustainable development involves the following dimensions and an understanding of what sustainability implies and requires for each dimension:

Environmental Sustainability

At its core, environmental sustainability means not exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment to absorb and process wastes, not exceeding the regenerative capacity of renewable resources and not depleting nonrenewable resources at a rate faster than human invention can produce renewable substitutes.

See, Goodland, R. and H. Daly. 1995. Universal environmental sustainability and the principle of integtrity. In L. Westra and J. Lemons, eds. Perspectives on Ecological Integrity. Kluwer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Regarding the latter, it is important to understand whether natural and human-made capital are substitutes or complements. If human-made capital can replace natural capital, then non-renewable resources can be used up. However, if natural capital cannot be replaced by produced capital then the stock of natural capital has to be maintained. In addition, environmental sustainability means reducing wastes and restoring ecosystems to a healthy state, where the carrying capacity of natural systems has been exceeded.

Economic Sustainability

To be supportive of environmental sustainability, the thrust of economic policy has to be on increasing the efficiency with which goods and services are produced so that waste and pollution are minimized and on emphasizing development rather than growth, particularly where the size of the economy has exceeded the carrying capacity of natural systems. Building an economy based on non-polluting energy sources and on the production and sale of non-material services are ways of achieving needed limits to growth.
Key to such a transition is the creation of ‘green’ jobs which can be defined as jobs which focus on increasing the health of ecosystems and of aiding the economy to live within the finite carrying capacity of natural systems. Thus, jobs which restore ecosystems to health, which help to regenerate natural capital, which increase the energy and material resource efficiency of production processes, which minimize waste products and convert them into useable products are all examples of green jobs.

As well, to be supportive of social and fiscal sustainability, economic policy also has to ensure employment for all who want it and a level of income that ensures adequate government revenues. To achieve such a balancing act, a number of economists have pointed out that there is a need for a macro-economics for sustainability that takes into account resource constraints, the need for high public sector expenditure and investment, lowered levels of consumption and yet an adequate level of demand to ensure employment for those who want it.

See, Jackson, Tim. 2011. Prosperity without growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Routledge, London.

Governance Sustainability
This type of sustainability encompasses three elements: fiscal management, effective policy making and public participation.
Fiscal management is concerned with achieving a balance between revenues and expenditures and avoiding the accumulation of public debt. Key to achieving this balance is having an understanding of the longer-run potential size of the economy and the revenues it can produce so that expenditures can be scaled accordingly and structural deficits avoided.
Effective policy making requires that governments commit to evidence-based policy making and to implementing programs in such a way that they can be evaluated. Only in so doing can the most effective policies be implemented.
Finally, sustainable governance requires that citizens are involved in the political process through voter turnout in elections, participation in feedback to government discussion papers and lobbying for required changes. It also
means that people are empowered to participate directly in society’s political institutions rather than only through elected representatives.

Social Sustainability
With social sustainability, the core focus is on developing the capacity of individuals to be healthy, contributing members of society so that their happiness/life satisfaction is maximized, that they possess the resiliency to optimally cope with disruptive changes in their lives and that they make minimal demands on those publicly-funded health, education, justice and social services focused on rehabilitation. Key to achieving this objective is the strengthening of core social institutions such as the family which play a strong preventive role.


Key to developing a sustainable society is the selection of those policies for each of these domains that contribute to achieving sustainability in the other domains so that the policies are mutually reinforcing and produce a virtuous circle. For example, sustainable economic policies must both protect and strengthen the carrying capacities of the natural ecosystems while, at the same time, generate sufficient government revenues to avoid structural deficits. Similarly, sustainable social policies must avoid incurring large government expenditures that do not support economic development in order to ensure fiscal sustainability.
For governments, this means that policy making must take into account impacts across program areas and seek those policies which provide positive spill-over effects and which minimize negative impacts on other areas.