Weak sustainability vs. Strong sustainability: which is better?

By Asitha Jayawardena

The economy, people and the environment. How do they react?

There are two concepts: weak sustainability and strong sustainability.

From weak sustainability…

Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, is something that you know, especially in terms of business and how they impact sustainability. The model has three circles: the environment (Planet), society (People) and the economy (Profit). The terms given inside the brackets will add colour to this concept because they all start with P. Planet. People. Profit. It is called the Triple Bottom Line model.

But, here, there is a catch. The economy, society and the environment are circles bisecting each other and this causes a problem. For example, what makes the area where the economy and society are crossed to each other? Can the economy survive without society? Another thing is that the economy and the environment intersect. Where is society? In the absence of society, the economy will have nothing to do with the environment.

So this is not true, by the way. That’s why CSR is called ‘Weak Sustainability’.

To strong sustainability

Now, how do we turn ‘weak sustainability’ into ‘strong sustainability’ so that we have a stronger say?

At the beginning of earth over 4.5 billion years ago, there was no life. Earth without life is called the Natural Environment. The environment with life was formed gradually and hence formed a circle inside this.

The natural environment and the environment with life can be combined as Ecology. In other words, ecology is the interactions among organisms and their natural environment, which includes both biotic (living parts) and abiotic (non-living parts, such as chemical and physical parts of the environment) components.

Now only, human beings come! Between 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, humans appeared on earth and, towards the latter part of their existence, they conquered the earth. Soon after their appearance, they invented the early forms of the economy. The economy has now become more important than humans themselves.

So it’s ecology, people and the economy. It can be termed as the biosphere, sociosphere and econosphere loosely.

Which is better?

When validity is checked, we can realise that the weak sustainability is wrong. When society is removed from the diagram, the economy will stay on and that is incorrect.

With strong sustainability, when the smallest circle (i.e. economy) is removed, the other two circles (i.e. people and ecology) remain. In history, when people were not civilised enough, this condition was there. Then, when people were removed too, ecology would remain. This is the condition that was before people appeared on earth.

It’s clear now. Ecology was there. Then, people appeared so it was ecology and people. Finally, in ecology, people started the economy.

If you try the other way round, remove the outermost circle of ecology; then the whole circles within that (people and the economy) are removed too. This way, it points to the truth. Without ecology, people cannot be there. And without people, the economy cannot be there.

This way, strong sustainability has a cutting edge whereas weak sustainability has nowhere to go.


What is CSR? https://www.unido.org/our-focus/advancing-economic-competitiveness/competitive-trade-capacities-and-corporate-responsibility/corporate-social-responsibility-market-integration/what-csr

Ecology https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecology

WHAT IS STRONG SUSTAINABILITY? http://www.earthslimits.org/what-is-strong-sustainability

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