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The environmental-social interface of sustainable development: capabilities, social capital, institutions

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 23:28 authored by Markku Lehtonen
The social dimension has commonly been recognised as the weakest pillar of sustainable development, notably when it comes to its analytical and theoretical underpinnings. While increasing attention has lately been paid to social sustainability, the interaction between the environmental and the social still remains a largely uncharted terrain. Nevertheless, one can argue that the key challenges of sustainable development reside at the interfaces synergies and trade-offs between its various dimensions. This paper looks for preliminary ideas on frameworks for analysing the environmental social interface. It first discusses the concept of sustainable development and the relations of the three dimensions of sustainability on the basis of the fundamental premises of neoinstitutional and ecological economics, and briefly presents the bioeconomy model . Based on this conceptualisation of sustainable development, it then goes on to analyse two popular ways of addressing the social dimension of sustainability, namely, the capability approach of Amartya Sen, and the concept of social capital, and discusses the potential of these as bases for the analysis of the environment social interaction. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Environmental Performance Review (EPR) programme is presented as an example of attempts to analyse the environmental social interface in practice. The paper concludes by noting that a single framework for studying environmental social interface is neither feasible nor desirable. It questions the usefulness of analysing only two dimensions of sustainability at a time; and emphasises the need to situate the analysis in its context. In particular, it stresses the need to involve the potential users, as well as to take into account the planned use of the analysis and the interactions between different levels of analysis and decision-making. Capabilities and social capital can both be useful in structuring thoughts, but are not as such directly applicable as suitable analytical frameworks. In particular, they do not provide adequate tools for examining the social preconditions for institutional change needed for environmentally sustainable development.


Publication status

  • Published


Ecological Economics









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Department affiliated with

  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Publications


This paper has a strong analytical focus, in integrating the social dimension into sustainable development using Sens capability approach and theories of social capital. In keeping with (though independently of) SPRU systems perspectives, the author adopts a coevolution framework for the environment-social interface.

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