jeudi 20 mars 2008


10 Distribution, sustainability and environmental policy

1. Introduction1
The purpose of environmental policy is to change consumption and production patterns in ways that enhance welfare, broadly interpreted. Policy
change will, inevitably, create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ among the economy’s
households and firms. Indeed, the daily drama of environmental policy
typically involves making hard choices rather than implementing ‘win–win’
policies. In any realistic setting environmental policy imposes both gains
and losses. How to weigh together such gains and losses in practice remains
a subtle and difficult issue that has been handled rather cavalierly in the
modern environmental economics literature. Or so we will argue.
Nevertheless, interest in distributional issues is re-appearing in our field
for several reasons. A direct reason for being concerned with environmen-
tal policy and distribution is that an understanding of distributional
impacts allows the shaping of policy packages that are more likely to be
accepted by the public. Policy makers may also be more likely to accept, for
example, incentive-based instruments if distributional issues are given
serious attention. Hourcade (2001, p. 1) discusses the practical difficulties
of implementing the Kyoto protocol, observing that
finishing the ‘Kyoto business’ reveals additional fundamental difficulties stem-
ming from the fact that the ‘cap and trade’ approach was too often interpreted
as an ‘open sesame’ solution. This would be the case if the world was an
homogenous ‘tabula rasa’ as in the simple models for first year economics stu-
dents. But it is increasingly clear that the real world is full of complexities in the
form of sectoral heterogeneities and country specifics.
Thus, if we shed light on how environmental policy maps into conse-
quences for different households, firms, sectors, countries and even
different generations, we obtain a richer basis for making decisions.
But perhaps the most pertinent reasons for an economist to give more
attention to equity issues are to be found at the conceptual level. Econ-
omists have routinely relied on the possibility of separating efficiency and
equity. This separation rests on assumptions that are likely to be violate
when market failures such as externalities, information asymmetries and
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public goods enter the analysis. McGuire and Aaron (1969) argued that the
separation is often not possible when dealing with publicly funded public
goods. Stiglitz’s (1995) analysis of information failures and Brown and
Heal’s (1979) paper on increasing returns to scale are contributions with the
same basic message; the separation between efficiency and equity rests on
assumptions that need to be scrutinized. An important lesson from modern
economic theory on market failures is that we really need to study efficiency
and equity together.
When the separation theorem does not hold, who wins and who loses
from a certain policy change becomes important, if not critical, in applied
welfare analysis. The Kaldor–Hicks criterion, widely used in cost–benefit
analysis, is based on sums of benefits and costs. A positive net sum of bene-
fits and costs suggests that potential compensation is possible and that the
change makes the total cake bigger. In a sense this criterion holds the
essence of the separation idea; the cake is made larger and compensations
potentially exist to take care of any distributional problem. We will discuss
this idea in more detail below.
There are also a number of interesting other developments in economics
and econometrics that highlight the need for careful scrutiny of equity
issues. For example, endogenous growth theory sheds light on why eco-
nomic growth may depend on the distribution of income under certain
market failures, see for example Perotti (1996). Because there are complex
connections between sustainability and economic growth, a scrutiny of dis-
tributional issues is not without interest for environmental economists. An
extension of recent work on the environment–growth nexus adds the dis-
tribution of power; are environmental problems less severe in more equal
and more democratic countries? See for example Boyce (2002) for a
summary of this work.
Furthermore, in the literature on assessing the benefits and costs of
public programs, distributional information has been given a more pro-
minent place. Carneiro, Hansen and Heckman (2002, p. 1) observe that
‘modern welfare economics emphasizes the importance of accounting for
the impact of public policy on distribution of outcomes’.
There may well be other reasons to explain why distributional issues are
now returning to the frontlines of research in environmental economics
(and in other areas of economics as well, see for example Atkinson and
Bourguignon, 1998). Suffice it to note here that a recent OECD volume
edited by Serret and Johnstone (2006) contains a useful summary of
recent relevant work. To be sure, there is a very substantial amount of lit-
erature on environmental equity, involving for example siting issues, but
because this literature is mainly outside economics we shall sidestep it here
(see Chapter 11).

If we accept the position that it is of interest to study equity per se in
environmental economics, the natural next step is to ask what economics
has to offer in this regard. While economics provides a crisp and useful
working definition of an efficient environmental policy, it cannot claim to
offer a final resolution to just what a ‘fair’ environmental policy entails.
Rather, it offers a structured way of thinking about distributional issues
and suggests ways of disentangling them empirically. Our goal, as well as
our space here, is limited and we shall be content with beginning a discus-
sion of a conceptual framework for thinking about sustainability and dis-
tribution.2 We will also try to summarize some salient insights from the
empirical literature.
Section 2 discusses the intergenerational dimension of the problem in
terms of sustainable welfare measurement. We then turn to the intragener-
ational issues in section 3. We use a three-layer perspective (individual agent,
individual market, sector/general equilibrium). Section 4 gives a brief over-
view of empirics. Section 5 concludes.
2. Inter-generational equity
The current literature on dynamic welfare measurement is mainly based on
representative agent models, to permit sharp focus on the intergenerational
issues. It also provides a useful starting point for pinning down the sus-
tainability concept.3 If we want to shed empirical light on distributional
issues in an intertemporal world, the question is: what should we measure?
The answer to this question is not independent of social objectives; what
should we maximize? In turn, this boils down to pinning down a particular
view about how resources should be distributed among different gener-
ations. Mostly, the results have been obtained within a utilitarian frame-
work, where a weighted sum of utilities is maximized.
A key concept is the state valuation function which measures the present
value of all future welfare on an optimal path. We can think of this as a
kind of generalized (but not observable) measure of wealth. It provides a
natural candidate for a sustainability index; if the sum of welfare is non-
decreasing over time on an efficient but not necessarily optimal path, devel-
opment can be defined as sustainable.
One important forerunner to this literature was Samuelson (1961), who
suggested that wealth-like measures were more useful than income mea-
sures, in assessing the (long-run) prosperity of the economy. As is well-
known the discussion about the merits of wealth as a measure of prosperity
dates back to contributions by Fisher, Lindahl and Hicks.
There are two alternative measures of wealth, the value of capital
stocks at shadow prices and the present value of all future consumption.
Samuelson (1961) discussed the latter but found no way of operationalizing
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this idea. Recently, Heal and Kriström (2005a) showed that this wealth
measure is closely linked to the sum of welfare and its change over time.
Furthermore, the change of the sum of all future utilities over time can be
measured by (comprehensive) net investment. This is the genuine savings
concept that the World Bank has promoted over the last years (see Chapters
3 and 18 for more discussion). It is impossible here to go into any detail
about the properties of these measures, let alone the underlying assump-
tions. Asheim (forthcoming) provides a detailed taxonomy of assumptions
and results, to which the interested reader is referred for a concise summary.
Heal and Kriström (2005b) presents a literature review.
In short, by looking at comprehensive measures of how our capital
stocks are changing over time, we obtain potentially useful information
about the long-run prosperity of the economy and its sustainability. Such
measures shed some light on intergenerational equity and tell us something
about whether or not we are currently ‘over-using’ our resource base. At
present, empirical studies have mostly focused on aggregate data and there-
fore only address the question of whether the economy as a whole is ‘over-
using’ its resource base. We next add the intragenerational dimension of the
3. Intra-generational equity
Because, as noted, the literature on dynamic welfare measurement is pri-
marily based on the representative agent framework it has little to say about
intragenerational distribution. One way of extending the standard Ramsey
model is to introduce a social welfare function, as in Aronsson and Löfgren
(1999). If social welfare is optimally distributed within each generation at
each point in time, we are back to the standard results of the representative
agent model. The reason is that society is indifferent to a small redistribu-
tion of individual utilities in the vicinity of the social optimum.
Whether a policy is regressive or progressive, affects a certain ethnic group
disproportionally or hampers children in other ways than adults, is of little
interest in an idealized society at the global optimum. Costless transfers are,
in a sense, available, so that ‘winners’ can compensate ‘losers’ across and
within generations. Loosely speaking, this is why an increase of a compre-
hensive income measure, such as ‘green NNP’, may be a sign-preserving
measure of social welfare change, even when taking distributional issues
into account.
However, Aronsson and Löfgren (1999) shows that if the economy is far
away from the social welfare optimum, ‘green NNP’ is not a sign-preserving
measure of welfare. From the static case we know that a policy is welfare-
improving if the weighted sum of compensating (equivalent) variation is
positive, see for example Johansson (1993). The weights are social weights
Distribution, sustainability and environmental policy 159
indicating the relative social value of giving one unit of welfare to a particu-
lar household or household group. The Kaldor–Hicks compensation
criteria provide sign-preserving measures of social welfare only when the
weights are assumed to be equal or, in other words, when income is
distributed optimally. An excellent account of the debate around social
weights in cost–benefit analysis and the connection to the Kaldor–Hicks cri-
terion can be found in Persky (2001).
The upshot of all this is that it is useful to have a framework within which
we can shed light on the impacts of environmental policy at a detailed level.
We describe such a framework in what follows.
We begin by examining impacts of environmental policy at the house-
hold/firm level. We then examine how a subset of households and firms
interact in one particular market and proceed to analyse the interaction of
a subset of markets in a given sector. Finally, we end at the level of the
economy, in which all markets interact. This framework, developed in more
detail in Kriström (2006) and followed closely below, focuses mostly on an
increasingly complex interaction between markets and agents. We shall end
by sketching one possible way of including connections between ecological
and economic systems in a dynamic general equilibrium setting.
The individual household and firm
We begin with the household and first look at costs and very briefly comment
on the benefits of environmental policy. We focus on environmental policy,
even though it is clear that the distributional impacts of natural resources
policy may be very important. A useful framework for analysing the distribu-
tional impacts of resource policy is developed in Rose et al. (1998).
To a first-order approximation, one could define the cost of, for example,
an environmental tax by looking at the price change only; one multiplies
the gross price change with the current consumption level or with the post-
change level. This first is an upper bound, because households invariably
are price-responsive and cut their consumption. A lower bound on the cost
can be obtained by taking the consumption level after adjustment and
multiplying this with the price change. This is an underestimate of the true
economic cost, because it assumes that the household attaches no value to
the consumption that gets lost in the adjustment. The upper and lower
bound calculated in the way suggested will always bound the true economic
cost, which is the loss in consumer surplus.
To fix ideas, consider the many ways in which a household may be
affected by changes of aspiration levels in environmental policy.

The price of a ‘directly linked’ good is affected. For example, a carbon
tax will raise the price of fossil fuels. Thus, transportation and
Handbook of sustainable development
heating costs are directly affected. These will, in turn, vary across
households in several dimensions, including preferences, income, the
prices of other goods, regionally and so on.
Prices of other goods change. The household will also be affected as
the relative prices of other goods are affected, following market
Income from work. Increased stringency of environmental policy may
lead to significant losses of income, at least in the short-run, as some
firms are shut down.
Other income may be affected. Because households are owners of all
firms, profits affect household income. In addition, income from
certain natural assets may also be affected by natural resource pol-
icies, for example changes in forestry laws or zoning restrictions.
Households may be compensated. Household net income depends on
the structure of the prevailing tax system. Revenues from environ-
mental taxes and permit auctions must, in one way or another, be
returned to the economy. Several options have been scrutinized, for
example reduced payroll taxes, reduced VAT and lump-sum returns.
Each choice maps into different distributional consequences. A
quantitative regulation provides no income and therefore no way of
returning to the economy what is basically a scarcity rent.
Environmental benefits. These are valued differently by different
households, depending on preferences, income and prices of various
goods and services.

In a complete study, the benefits and the costs would be analyzed in an
integrated way and the incidence of net benefits would be the focal point.
There seems to exist a fairly widespread belief that environmental policy is
regressive, in the sense that lower income households shoulder a dispro-
portionate share of the burden. Whether or not this regressivity is ampli-
fied if we allow for market repercussions will be discussed below.
Even if the question of regressivity appears straightforward, we must pin
down an answer to the question of just what we should measure. As noted,
we can study consumer surplus measures as well as more general wealth-
based measures (although they are typically aggregated to the economy as
a whole). Alternatively, one could focus on how environmental quality per
se is distributed, an intensive line of inquiry in the literature on environ-
mental equity (see Martinez-Alier, 2002).
But suppose that we are interested in whether or not the costs of envir-
onmental policy are regressively distributed across the income dimension.
We then need to decide upon a measure of income, a remarkably subtle
issue, the reason being that there are many concepts of income, including,
Distribution, sustainability and environmental policy 161
but not limited to: full income (wage plus value of leisure), Hicksian
income, gross or net wage income, lifetime vs ‘instantaneous’ income and
so on and so forth. In so far as the results are independent of the concept
of income chosen, there is not much to be said.
However, there is some empirical evidence suggesting that a policy
measure is regressive if we use ‘instantaneous’ income (say, yearly income),
but neutral if we use lifetime income. Poterba (1991) shows that taxes on
gasoline appear much less regressive when taken as a percentage of total
consumption expenditures (this is the proxy for lifetime income).4 However,
Smith (1992, p. 250) finds that the distinction between annual income and
lifetime income makes little difference for UK data, in distributional analy-
sis of energy and carbon taxation.5 In short, conclusions about the distribu-
tional impacts of environmental policy are not necessarily robust towards
the concept of income used. This conclusion is borne out by experience
from the literature on the burden of taxation which suggests that ‘The
choice of income measure clearly affects both the estimated distribution of
taxes by income class and the effect of reform proposals.’6
Furthermore, a comprehensive appraisal of regressivity/progressivity
necessitates that we also take into account repercussions at various degrees
of complexity, from the single market up to the whole economy, ideally
within a framework that includes ecology–economy interactions. We shall
take these up in turn, but let us first discuss impacts at the level of the firm
in this first stage of our triple-stage analysis.
Individual firms
Environmental policy affects the firm through prices on inputs and outputs,
but may also affect technology, depending on the specifics of regulation. In
some cases, environmental regulations include the level of production.
From a distributional perspective there is a difference between a regulatory
measure and an incentive-based instrument at the level of the firm. Without
environmental policy, the firm will expand emissions until the marginal
benefit is zero; the firm is provided one input for free. A regulation of emis-
sions is a constraint on the use of this free input.
One can take the view that the tax cum regulation discussion is simply a
debate about how the scarcity rent should be distributed. The rent can be
distributed to households via the tax or remain with the firm’s owners
under a regulation. Intuitively, there could be a difference between these
two cases over the long run. If the rent is captured by firms rather than
taxed away, this will attract resources to the regulated sector (relative to the
tax case), such that one can expect a larger number of firms in the long run
under a regulatory scheme, see Spulber (1985). Some have therefore argued
that consumers benefit from regulation since one expects relatively higher
Handbook of sustainable development
output and therefore lower prices; see Hochman and Zilberman (1978) and
Dewees (1983).7 Note, however, that these resources are ‘stolen away’ from
other parts of the economy. If the argument is true, it could mean that there
is ‘overproduction’ in the regulated sector relative to the optimal level of
resource utilization in the economy.
Consider now emission permits from the point of view of the firm. The
conventional analysis is as follows. If the permits are grandfathered to the
firm, the scarcity rent stays with the firm. Alternatively, if the permits are
auctioned, the rent will be captured by the seller of permits. Thus, from a
distributional point of view, auctioned permits are equivalent to taxes.
From the firm’s perspective it also follows that a regulatory measure is
equivalent to a transferable permit. Of course, the firm can sell the permits,
which will have a market value equal to the scarcity rent. This, however,
forces the firm to reduce production, and the net value of this lost produc-
tion will again be exactly equal to the scarcity rent.
It is convenient to think about permits in terms of separating efficiency
and equity. The conventional analysis of permits rests on this assumption;
the initial allocation of permits is considered to be an equity issue, the market
guarantees efficiency. Because there is a ceiling on emissions, one might well
argue that the separation issue is moot, as long as the market is competitive.
Yet, it is for example unclear in the European system if its current shaping
induces firms to re-locate their investment plans, depending on the specific
allocation rules chosen in each country; see Boehringer and Lange (2005).
Individual markets
A subset of firms and households interact at a given market. A more strin-
gent environmental policy will affect the cost of production/consumption
and therefore the price households pay for the good or service they buy
from the firms. At the level of a market, we need to estimate both consumer
and producer surplus measures. In the conventional analysis, we typically
disentangle the distribution of cost between buyers and sellers. Because
firms are owned by households this distinction is somewhat peculiar, yet
not without pedagogical merit.
There is some empirical evidence regarding the incidence difference
between environmental policy instruments at this second stage of our
analysis. Markandya (1998), in his survey of distributional issues in envir-
onmental policy, argues that permit markets in the US are beneficial for
households in lower income brackets. Thus, grandfathering may well have
progressive impacts. He does not make explicit the incidence assumptions
made in those studies, that is how costs are shifted across markets.
In the standard analysis of environmental policy, as well as in our analy-
sis above, markets are typically assumed to be competitive. We therefore
Distribution, sustainability and environmental policy 163
close this section by commenting briefly on other kinds of market struc-
tures. The case is certainly empirically relevant (consider water regulation
and district heating plants, both containing many examples of mono-
polies). If we allow the ownership structure to include publicly-owned
companies, impacts of environmental policy depend on the assumed objec-
tive of the public company: profit maximization, cost minimization or
some other objective (like covering average variable cost). From an
efficiency perspective, prices should be set at marginal (not average) cost.
When average costs are declining in the relevant market interval, marginal
cost pricing means that the company makes a loss. Conversely, rising
average costs imply that the company makes a profit using marginal cost
pricing. Either way, the company may not be allowed to make profits and
must set price to average cost. Consequently, depending on the cost struc-
ture, average cost pricing implies either lower or higher prices, compared to
efficient pricing. In turn, this will have distributional consequences. It is
possible to invoke a pricing rule that takes on any efficiency-equity trade-
off directly, as in Feldstein (1972). His idea implies different pricing rules
for necessary and luxury services.
Interrelated markets at the sector level
Environmental policy may have indirect impacts in several markets not
directly affected by a policy measure. When markets adjust and the impacts
cascade throughout the economy, any policy measure may generate
‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in ways not always transparent initially. Given the fact
that a market economy can include millions of decision-makers and thou-
sands of related markets, it is useful to approach the issue of connected
markets by beginning at the sector level. Indeed, if it can be assumed that
repercussions mostly stay within the sector, there are a number of advan-
tages to not estimating a full general equilibrium model.
Consider augmenting the partial equilibrium analysis of the cost of an
environmental policy measure at the market level, as in the previous section.
To the output market, add a labor market and a market for housing and con-
sider the question as to how the policy will affect house owners. For sim-
plicity, assume that supply of labor and housing is given. The policy
measure will decrease the demand for labor and therefore the wage. Because
the labor input will be less expensive ex post, firms will increase their
demand for making more emissions. If the wage level remains constant, as
in a partial equilibrium analysis, this indirect impact does not materialize.
Finally, assuming that the demand for housing depends on wages and envir-
onmental quality, we find an ambiguous effect on the price of a house from
the policy. It will tend to decrease because of the income effect, but increase
if consumers are willing to pay for the increase in environmental quality.
Handbook of sustainable development
Consequently, when we analyze the distributional impact of the envir-
onmental tax, market repercussions complicate the analysis. For further
discussions and empirical implementation, see for example Roback (1982).
For further examples of how repercussions within a sector complicate
environmental policy analysis, see for example Brännlund and Kriström
(1993, 1996). A comprehensive analysis of welfare measurement in sector
models is given in Just et al. (1982).
Interrelated sectors – economy-wide models
The final step of the analysis is to allow all markets of the economy to inter-
act. In a general equilibrium model, the economy is interpreted as a system
of mutually dependent markets. A change which at a first glance only seems
to affect one market, can in practice affect all markets in the economy. This
perspective has several advantages. Experience shows that many indirect
and complex relationships are revealed that otherwise can be difficult to
disentangle with alternative approaches. For example, the literature on the
existence of ‘double dividends’ from tax swaps tells us that the partial
equilibrium intuition can lead us astray (Bovenberg and de Mooijj, 1994).
General reviews of the application of CGE models in environmental policy
analysis are contained in Bergman (2003) and Conrad (2002).
What can we then learn from these models in a distributional analysis? To
be specific, consider introducing a carbon tax along with a battery of tax
recycling options in line with the literature on double dividends. While it is
very difficult to represent non-linear tax-schedules correctly in a computable
general equilibrium model (see Bergman, 2003), insights from the literature
include the fact that recycling matters from a distributional point of view.
Thus, if in the carbon tax example we use the labor tax as a replacement
option, several studies suggest that the policy is regressive, even when taking
into account all the market repercussions; see for example Harrison and
Kriström (1999). If, instead, the tax proceeds are returned lump-sum, the
policy may well be progressive, although more costly, because a distortionary
tax is not being simultaneously reduced. Such numerical experiments high-
light the equity–efficiency trade-off starkly; if we use the more efficient
replacement option, the policy turns out regressive and vice versa. In
Sweden, this kind of result might well explain why the government is now
using lump-sum return, rather than the previously favored labor tax decrease.
Finally, Whalley (1984) shows how alternative incidence assumptions,
that is how the tax burden is shifted backwards and forwards across
markets ‘can determine whether the tax structure appears to be progressive
or regressive’ (Atrostic and Nunns, 1990, p. 377).
At this point, one piece of the puzzle is surely missing, namely the links
between the ecological and economic systems. For example, Dasgupta
Distribution, sustainability and environmental policy 165
(2001, p. 201), in a developing country context, discusses how forest con-
cessions in the uplands of a watershed could result in damages on low-
income farmers downstream (via siltation, increased incidence of flooding,
and so on). If the forest merchant is not charged for the externality
inflicted, one effectively subsidizes forest cutting at the expense of the
potentially poor farmers and fishermen. This, and many more examples,
suggests that we would like to incorporate non-market interactions in our
There is yet to be developed a consensus how eco–eco interactions are to
be empirically included in an intertemporal general equilibrium approach.
There are, of course, many examples of how non-market values are
included in models where the economy and ecological systems interact, but
they typically lack distributional information. Furthermore, not many
general equilibrium models include the environmental benefits in a consis-
tent manner. One exception is Sieg et al. (2001), who study the benefits of
environmental improvement in a general equilibrium framework.
A particularly attractive way forward is to use the insights from the lit-
erature on green accounting. The UN’s system of environmental and
resource accounting is one often implemented approach, based on social
accounting matrices (SAM). In principle, such a matrix contains all rele-
vant stocks and flows and can easily be extended to include distributional
information. Yet, the UN’s system is based on a Keynesian framework with
welfare properties that are not completely understood; does an increase of
the UN’s version of ‘green national product’ signal a welfare change? The
answer to this question is not known (Heal and Kriström, 2005b).
Mäler’s (1991) SAM is explicitly based on a dynamic general equilibrium
model with detailed representation of ecology–economy interactions.
However, its quintessential statistic, Mäler’s (1991) green NNP, has been
severely critized later on by the author himself, see for example Dasgupta
and Mäler (2001). For further thoughts on how to include distributional
information in a SAM in our context, see Horan et al. (2003).
4. Empirics
The economic literature on the distribution of benefits and costs up to about
1985 has been summarized by Zimmerman (1986) roughly as follows:

Environmental damage is regressively distributed.
Environmental benefits are progressively distributed, in particular
regarding recreation and natural parks.
Indirect impacts through market repercussions tend to strengthen the
regressivity of environmental policy.
The net cost of environmental policy is regressively distributed.
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While the post-1985 environmental economics literature on distributional
issues is not overwhelmingly large, we might still comment on these find-
ings. First, whether or not environmental damage is regressively distributed
is a subtle issue, particularly when studying siting problems. The reason is
that one must handle the ‘chicken–egg’ problem; see Hite (2000). Under
one hypothesis, the poorer part of the population moves to a more haz-
ardous location because the land prices are lower there. See Hamilton
(2006) for further discussion.
Post-1985 literature on distribution and the environment challenges, to
some extent, the earlier result that benefits are progressively distributed.
Indeed, surveys on the income elasticity of the demand for environmental
improvements report that this elasticity is less than one more often than not
(see for example Kriström and Riera, 1996; Hökby and Söderquist, 2003;
and the survey by Pearce, 2006). Given the fact that it is difficult to measure
environmental benefits with any precision, it might well be that current
methods underestimate this income elasticity. Or so some economists have
argued. Yet, McFadden and Leonard’s (1992, p. 22) proposition that envir-
onmental goods ‘should be luxury goods’ is not strongly supported by
current evidence.
On the cost side, much of the available literature tends to support the pre-
1985 contention that environmental policy is regressive. This is possibly so
because energy issues have often been studied. In many developed coun-
tries, expenditure shares on energy increase with lower income, and the
regressivity result is then almost immediate. Whether or not indirect
impacts strengthen regressivity is somewhat unclear. As noted earlier, there
is empirical evidence that goes either way. Yet, it is not easy to find exam-
ples where the net costs are distributed progressively, although there are
policy packages that can work this way; see, for example, Bovenberg and
Goulder (2001) on giving away permits.
Another more recent insight regards the regressivity of regulatory
systems. It is often much more difficult to disentangle the distributional
effects of regulations; after all, there are no direct payments of taxes or
permits. Yet, the evidence that we do have points to regressivity and that
energy support programs may well benefit the well-to-do much more than
the less well-off. The empirical evidence on this issue is, we must warn,
scarce. See Sutherland (1994).
5. Discussion
Economists, not least environmental economists, are increasingly return-
ing to a scrutiny of distributional issues. We have listed a number of chal-
lenges from the conceptual angle that will whet the appetite of many
economists. While we find those conceptual issues most demanding and
Distribution, sustainability and environmental policy 167
perhaps most interesting from a professional point of view, it may well be
that the practical work of consistently shedding light on the fact that
environmental policy inevitably creates winners and losers is most import-
ant in practice.
The outrage that a World Bank memo on the efficiency of exporting
waste from rich to poor countries created suggests that, while an environ-
mental policy can be logical from an efficiency point of view, this does not
guarantee its acceptance.8 There may be a lesson to learn from the calamity
this memo created, if only the simple one that many of us care about who
wins and who loses from any policy; there is, at any rate, a legitimate
demand for detailed information.
While efficiency may well be ‘first in logical order’ (to paraphrase
J.B. Clark) within the field of economics, it is increasingly clear that there is
much to be gained from studying efficiency and equity together. This is a
lesson that we have learned from recent developments in several fields of
economics. We can trace the difficulties of separating efficiency and equity,
in almost all cases, to underlying market failures. This should be sufficient
motivation for environmental economists to pay more attention to distribu-
tional issues.
1. This chapter builds on Kriström (2006) and Heal and Kriström (2005b).
2. For example,we skip issues such as policy options to confront distributional problems
arising from policy and refer to Serret and Johnstone (2006) for detailed empirical reviews.
3. Discussed for example in Heal (1998).
4. Fullerton and Rogers (1993, p. 19) suggest that the regressive impacts of taxes, in general,
appear ‘muted’ in a lifetime context.
5. A survey of studies using lifetime income measures is in Metcalf (1999).
6. Atrostic and Nunns (1990, p. 382).
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in Environmental Resource Policy, Wissenschaftzentrum, Berlin: WZB Publications 11 Environmental justice and sustainability
Julian Agyeman
In writing a chapter such as this, in which two essentially different political
projects, paradigms and movements are to be compared and examined for
their potential for rapprochement, I am reminded of two incidents, one in
2002, and the other in 2005, which showed me that although I, and increas-
ing numbers of others see the (need for greater) linkages between environ-
mental justice and sustainability, conceptually, movement-wise and public
policy- and planning-wise, many people do not.
Before being accepted for publication by New York University Press as
Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice, from
which much of this chapter is drawn, I sent the proposal to the MIT Press.
In 2002, two reviewers, both very well published senior academics in envir-
onmental and sustainability policy in the US looked at my manuscript and
told me in no uncertain terms ‘instructors will probably want to adopt
books that cover either solely environmental justice or sustainable devel-
opment, and not both’.
The short-sightedness and weaknesses of this ‘silo’ approach to public
policy and planning were cruelly and starkly exposed in August 2005, as
Hurricane Katrina came ashore. For those of us in the public policy and
planning world, many questions have been raised: was this the leading edge
of climate change and an example of what’s in store for us if we don’t take
action on greenhouse gases? Why were the clear warnings about the vul-
nerability of New Orleans not listened to? Were race and class factors in the
level and speed of the response by public officials? Have the government’s
expenditures on wars compromised our ability to safeguard against so-
called ‘natural’ disasters? These and countless other questions are unfortu-
nate reminders of the desperate need for ‘joined up’ thinking, to look
broadly across urban, social and environmental issues, and to develop just
and sustainable approaches to resolve them.
1. Introduction
This chapter will briefly describe the characteristics of environmental justice
and sustainability as both concepts and social movements. It will then high-
light an emergent paradigm, the ‘just sustainability paradigm’ (JSP), which
increasingly links both environmental justice and sustainability. In order to
Handbook of sustainable development
The Just Sustainability Index
Table 11.1
0 – No mention of equity or justice in core mission statement or in prominent,
contemporary textual or programmatic material.
1 – No mention of equity or justice in core mission statement. Limited mention
(once or twice) in prominent, contemporary textual or programmatic material.
2 – Equity and justice mentioned, but focused on inter-generational equity in core
mission statement. Limited mention (once or twice) in prominent,
contemporary textual or programmatic material.
3 – Core mission statement relates to intra- and inter-generational equity and
justice and/or justice and equity occur in same sentence in prominent,
contemporary textual or programmatic material.
assess US environmental organizations’ commitment (or lack of) to the JSP,
a ‘just sustainability index’ (JSI) on a scale of 0–3 was developed (see Table
11.1). A range of leading US environmental and sustainability membership
organizations were assigned JSIs (see Table 11.2). Following this, some
examples of organizations operating within the JSP in US cities will be
shown. Finally, routes for further research will be suggested.
2. Environmental justice
Agyeman and Evans (2004, pp. 155/156) have argued that,
environmental justice may be viewed as having two distinct but inter-related
dimensions. It is, predominantly at the local and activist level, a vocabulary for
political opportunity, mobilization and action. At the same time, at the govern-
ment level, it is a policy principle that no public action will disproportionately
disadvantage any particular social group.
As a vocabulary for political opportunity, mobilization and action,
nowhere has environmental justice developed more ‘traction’ than in the
USA. Here, environmental justice organizations emerged from grass-
roots activism in the Civil Rights movement. Whether neighborhood-,
community-, university- or regionally based, and whether they are staffed or
unstaffed, they have expanded the dominant traditional environmental dis-
course based around environmental stewardship to include social justice and
equity considerations. In doing this, they have redefined the term ‘envir-
onment’ so that the dominant wilderness, greening and natural resource
focus now includes urban disinvestment, racism, homes, jobs, neighbor-
hoods and communities. The ‘environment’ became discursively different; it
became ‘where we live, where we work and where we play’ (Alston, 1991). The
US environmental justice movement has been, and continues to be, very
Environmental justice and sustainability
Table 11.2 Just Sustainability Indices for US national environmental and
sustainability organizations requiring membership
Handbook of sustainable development
by later research (Adeola, 1994; Bryant and Mohai, 1992; Bullard, 1990a,
1990b; Mohai and Bryant, 1992; Goldman, 1993). It also led to the coining
of a term by Benjamin Chavis which became the rallying cry of many: envir-
onmental racism. This, combined with the conclusion of Lavelle and Coyle
(1992) in the National Law Journal that there is unequal protection and
enforcement of environmental law by the EPA, has ensured that there is now
a fully-fledged environmental justice movement made up of tenants’ associ-
ations, religious groups, civil rights groups, farm workers, professional not-
for-profits, university centers and academics and labor unions, among others.
As such, according to Pulido (1996), in the USA it is a multiracial move-
ment which is organizing around LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses)
such as waste facility siting, transfer storage and disposal facilities (TSDFs)
and other issues such as lead contamination, pesticides, water and air pol-
lution, workplace safety, and transportation. More recently, issues such as
sprawl and smart growth (Bullard et al., 2000), sustainability (Agyeman
et al., 2003) and climate change (International Climate Justice Network,
2002; Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, 2004) have become targets
for the environmental justice critique.
However, in many other countries without the peculiarities of racial
dynamics typical of the USA, socio-economic factors often trump race as
determinants of environmental justice discourses and activism. These
‘movements’ for environmental justice (if they can strictly be called that),
are springing up worldwide, including Eastern Europe (Costi, 1998, 2003),
Canada (Jerrett et al., 1997; Buzzelli and Jerrett, 2004; Gosine, 2003), the
UK (Agyeman, 2000, 2002; Agyeman and Evans, 2004; Boardman et al.,
1999; FoE Scotland, 1999, 2000; Dunion and Scandrett, 2003), South
Africa (McDonald, 2002; Roberts, 2003), Nigeria (Agbola and Alabi,
2003), South Asia (Wickramasinghe, 2003), New Zealand (Rixecker and
Tipene-Matua, 2003) and the ‘developing world’ (Adeola, 2000; Guha and
Martinez-Alier, 1997).
In addition, because of its increasingly broad usage, especially outside
the USA, environmental justice will be used in this chapter to include poor
and disadvantaged groups as well. As Cutter (1995, p. 113) notes, ‘envi-
ronmental justice . . . moves beyond racism to include others (regardless of
race or ethnicity) who are deprived of their environmental rights, such as
women, children and the poor’. While there is not the space here to go
into it, Agyeman (2002) has argued that access to the English countryside
(‘an exclusive, ecological or white space, which invokes a sense of fear, of
dread’, p. 38) amongst minority ethnic groups is an environmental right.
This brings issues such as countryside access and ‘rural racism’ into the
environmental justice debate in Britain (see also Bell, 2004, for a fuller dis-
cussion on rights and a ‘Rawlsian conception of environmental justice’).
Environmental justice and sustainability
As a policy principle that no public action will disproportionately disad-
vantage any particular racial or social group, President Clinton’s Executive
Order 12898 (1994) set the standard:
each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its
mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high
and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and
activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United
States (1994, pp. 1–101)
In addition, at the sub-national level, ‘more than 30 states have expressly
addressed environmental justice’ according to the American Bar Association
(2004, p. 4). One such state is Massachusetts:
Environmental justice is based on the principle that all people have a right to be
protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and
healthful environment. Environmental Justice is the equal protection and mean-
ingful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implemen-
tation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies and
the equitable distribution of environmental benefits. (Commonwealth of
Massachusetts, 2002, p. 2)
This definition has procedural justice aspects (‘meaningful involvement of
all people’), substantive justice aspects (‘right to live in and enjoy a clean
and healthful environment’) and distributive justice aspects (‘equitable dis-
tribution of environmental benefits’). It also makes the case that environ-
mental justice should not only be reactive to environmental ‘bads’,
important though this is, but that it should also be proactive in the distribu-
tion and achievement of environmental ‘goods’: for instance, in relation to
this chapter, a sustainable community with a higher quality of life.
In order to implement the policy, the state’s Executive Office of Environ-
mental Affairs (EOEA) arrived at the following definition of what it called
‘Environmental Justice Populations’:
EJ Populations are those segments of the population that EOEA has determined
to be most at risk of being unaware of or unable to participate in environmen-
tal decision-making or to gain access to state environmental resources. They are
defined as neighborhoods (US Census Bureau census block groups) that meet
one or more of the following criteria:

The median annual household income is at or below 65 percent of the
statewide median income for Massachusetts; or
25 percent of the residents are minority; or
25 percent of the residents are foreign born, or
25 percent of the residents are lacking English language proficiency.
(Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2002, p. 5)
Handbook of sustainable development
While imperfect, these criteria are a base around which to implement and
evaluate the EJ policy. MASSGIS, the state’s GIS service, has now mapped
all EJ Populations based on currently available 2000 US Census data.
The policy acknowledges that Environmental Justice Populations make
up 5 per cent of the Commonwealth’s land area and take in about 29 per
cent of its population. Location wise and unsurprisingly ‘many of these
Environmental Justice Populations are located in densely populated urban
neighborhoods, in and around the state’s oldest industrial sites, while some
are located in suburban and rural communities’. (Commonwealth of
Massachusetts, 2002, p. 5)
What does the State intend to do about the environmental injustices in
it is the policy of the EOEA that environmental justice shall be an integral con-
sideration to the extent applicable and allowable by law in the implementation
of all EOEA programs, including but not limited to, the grant of financial
resources, the promulgation, implementation and enforcement of laws, regula-
tions and policies, and the provision of access to both active and passive open
space. (Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2002, p. 4)
In real terms, this means that the State intends to increase public partici-
pation and outreach through the development of strategies, training, fact
sheets and regional environmental justice teams; minimize risk to
Environmental Justice Populations through targeted compliance, enforce-
ment and technical assistance; encourage investment and economic growth
particularly around contaminated sites; infuse state resources by develop-
ing an inventory of underutilized commercial/industrial properties; incor-
porate an environmental justice criterion in the awarding of technical
assistance, grants and audits in Massachusetts General Law 21E (haz-
ardous waste and brownfield) sites in Environmental Justice Populations
and promote cleaner production and the creation, restoration and mainten-
ance of open spaces.
The final piece of the policy principle jigsaw is that, at the federal level,
there is an Office of Environmental Justice in the Environmental Protection
Agency and a National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC)
together with an inter-agency working group developed as a result of
Executive Order 12898.
Taken as a whole, this ‘jigsaw’ of a Presidential Executive Order and its
implications for federal agencies – an Office of Environmental Justice in the
EPA; the NEJAC; and state-based strategies with their spatial designations
of ‘environmental justice populations’ together with the power of the US
environmental justice movement(s) – is what Agyeman and Bickerstaff
Environmental justice and sustainability
(forthcoming) call the ‘environmental justice infrastructure’. Taking the
cue of authors such as Latour (2005), who have argued that the world is a
hybrid assemblage of objects, people and ideas, Agyeman and Bickerstaff
(forthcoming) build a picture of the actors, resources, relations, tactics and
strategies that are (being) collectively assembled to constitute different
environmental justice infrastructures.
3. Sustainability
In the late 1980s, around the same time as environmental justice was devel-
oping as a public policy issue, the ideas of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable
development’ were achieving prominence among local, national and inter-
national policy makers and politicians, together with policy entrepreneurs
in NGOs. Since then, there has been a massive increase in published and
online material dealing with sustainability and sustainable development.
This has led to competing and conflicting views over what the terms mean,
what is to be sustained, by whom, for whom, and what is the most desirable
means of achieving this goal.
One thing that seems increasingly certain is that the ‘science’ of sustain-
ability is not our greatest challenge. In almost all ‘areas’ of sustainability,
we know scientifically and technically what we need to do and how to do it;
but we’re just not doing it. An advertisement in the New York Times, paid
for by, said the same: ‘It’s time to free ourselves from foreign
oil, and create millions of new jobs in the process. This is no pipe dream.
The research and technology exist. We have the national wealth. Do we
have the will?’ (New York Times, 2004, p. A9).
As Brulle (2000, p. 191) argues:
with the exception of Commoner, the vast majority of ecological scientists have
not examined the social and political causes of ecological degradation (Taylor,
1992, pp. 133–51). While the natural scientists may have great competence in
their specific areas of expertise, their social and political thinking is ‘marred by
blindness and naivete’ (Enzensberger, 1979, p. 389).
Similarly, Agyeman et al. (2002, p. 78) have argued elsewhere that:
sustainability . . . cannot be simply a ‘green’, or ‘environmental’ concern, impor-
tant though ‘environmental’ aspects of sustainability are. A truly sustainable
society is one where wider questions of social needs and welfare, and economic
opportunity are integrally related to environmental limits imposed by support-
ing ecosystems.
Building on this socio-political, or ‘just’ approach to sustainability are
Polese and Stren (2000, p. 15) who argue simply that, ‘to be environmen-
tally sustainable, cities must also be socially sustainable’. Second, that of
Handbook of sustainable development
Middleton and O’Keefe (2001, p. 16): ‘unless analyses of development
[local, national, or international]. . .begin not with the symptoms, environ-
mental or economic instability, but with the cause, social injustice, then no
development can be sustainable’. Third, that of Hempel (1999, p. 43): ‘the
emerging sustainability ethic may be more interesting for what it implies
about politics than for what it promises about ecology’. Fourth, Buhrs
(2004, p. 434) is perhaps most direct: ‘addressing environmental justice
issues is important, if not a precondition, for the achievement of global sus-
tainability’. Finally that of Adger (2002, p. 1716), who notes:
I would argue that inequality in its economic, environmental, and geographical
manifestations is among the most significant barriers to sustainable develop-
ment. It is a barrier because of its interaction with individuals’ lifestyles and
because it prevents socially acceptable implementation of collective planning for
A global example of this tension between scientific and socio-political
approaches is the difference between the ‘green’ agenda of environmental
protection, biodiversity and the protection of the ozone layer typical of
countries in the North, and the ‘brown’ agenda of poverty alleviation,
infrastructural development, health and education typical of countries in
the South. Guha and Martinez-Alier (1997, p. 21), academics from the
South and North respectively, have argued ‘ “No Humanity without
Nature!” the epitaph of the Northern environmentalist, is here answered by
the equally compelling slogan “No Nature without Social Justice!” ’
(Kothari and Parajuli, 1993).
Sustainability is at least as much about politics, injustice and inequality,
as it is about science, technology or the environment. If this is so, then as
Prugh et al. (2000, p. 5) argue, ‘sustainability will be achieved, if at all, not
by engineers, agronomists, economists and biotechnicians but by citizens’.
While there is not the space to examine citizenship and sustainability
debates here, there is a fast-growing amount of literature in this direction
(see, for example, Environmental Politics, Volume 14, number 4).
Sustainability is interpreted in this chapter as meaning ‘the need to
ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and
equitable manner, while living within the limits of supporting ecosystems’
(Agyeman et al., 2003, p. 5). It represents an attempt to look holistically
at the human condition, at human ecology, and to foster joined up or
connected – rather than piecemeal – policy solutions to humanity’s great-
est problems. The definition focuses on four main areas of concern
that are the foundations of the JSP: quality of life, present and future
generations, justice and equity in resource allocation, and living within
ecological limits.
Environmental justice and sustainability
4. The just sustainability paradigm in theory and practice
Despite the admonitions of MIT Press reviewers and the real historical and
geographical differences in origin between environmental justice and sus-
tainability, together with the different languages, vocabularies, resources,
repertoires, educations and social locations of environmental justice and
sustainability activists, there does exist an area of theoretical, conceptual
and practical compatibility between them. Each concept has its own par-
ticular discursive frame and paradigm that can be seen as being at opposite
ends of a continuum.
At one end is the Environmental Justice Paradigm (EJP) of Taylor (2000).
It is a framework for integrating class, race, gender, environment and social
justice concerns. Based around the Principles of Environmental Justice
developed at the 1991 National People of Color Environmental Leadership
Summit in Washington, DC, it represents the theoretical underpinning of
the environmental justice project and activism. At the other end is the New
Environmental Paradigm (NEP) of Catton and Dunlap (1978). It sets out
an environmental stewardship and sustainability agenda which currently
influences the work of most US and environmental and sustainability
organizations in the North but, unlike the EJP, has little to say about intra-
generational equity or justice (although it is better on intergenerational
issues). This is the ‘equity deficit’ of environmental sustainability.
Agyeman (2005a, p. 6) notes that
the JSP is an emerging discursive frame and paradigm. It is not, however rigid,
single and universal, but links to both the EJP and NEP. In this sense, it can be
seen as being both flexible and contingent, composed of overlapping discourses,
which come from recognition of the validity of a variety of issues, problems and
framings. . .. It prioritizes justice and equity, but does not downplay the envir-
onment, our life support system. In essence, it is malleable, acting as a ‘bridge’
spanning the continuum between the EJP and the NEP.
Notwithstanding the differences between the NEP and EJP, which are
primarily around the issues of race and class, justice and equity, not about
the need for greater environmental protection, there is a rich and critical
nexus where facets of each paradigm are realized as ‘cooperative endeav-
ors’ (Schlosberg, 1999) around common issues such as toxics use reduction
and transportation. Yet such co-operation has so far largely been based
around what Gould et al. (2004, p. 90) call ‘short-term marriages of con-
venience’ rather than ‘longer-term coalitions’. In this respect it currently
falls well short of Cole and Foster’s (2001, p. 164) concept of ‘movement
fusion’: ‘the coming together of two (or more) social movements in a way
that expands the base of support for both movements by developing a
common agenda’.
Handbook of sustainable development
This ‘just’ perspective on sustainability is a view shared by most thinkers
in the environmental justice movement. Typical is Edwards, former
Executive Director of the Panos Institute in Washington, DC, who wrote
an influential paper in the Environmental Protection Agency Journal,
called ‘Sustainability and People of Color’, at around the time of the 1992
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. In it, he
argued that people of color do embrace sustainable development because it
will lead to a US ‘transformed by the guiding principles of freedom, justice
and equality’ (Edwards, 1992, p. 51).
However, crucially, the JSP does not supplant the EJP, but is operative
alongside it, with their discourses overlapping. They are complementary.
The JSP represents, in many ways, a bridge between the EJP and NEP. As
such, the JSP is an acknowledgement of both the successes of the EJ
movement in getting justice on the environmental agenda and the failures
of the NEP to develop a realistic, justice-based political project. At this
stage it is worth making two points clear. First, that the interpretive
differences (that is, in core values and beliefs, environmental philosophy,
political ideology, diagnostic attribution and repertoire of action)
between the JSP and NEP (especially the technocentric wing) are greater
than those between the JSP and the EJP. Second, and although a gener-
alization, the intimate and visceral experience of socio-economic and
race-based injustices visited upon activists in the environmental justice
movement and their communities is largely not shared by those in groups
representative of the JSP whose ‘experience’ of it is more likely to be at
arm’s length.
However, irrespective of whether we experience injustice first-hand, or
empathize deeply with those who do, or if we take a global, US-wide or
more local focus, or a moral or practical approach, inequity and injustice
resulting from, among other things, racism and classism are bad for the
environment and bad for sustainability. What is more, the environmental
sustainability movement, typified in the USA by The National Audubon
Society, WWF and Nature Conservancy, does not have an analysis or
theory of change with strategies for dealing with these issues. For instance,
Shellenberger and Nordhaus (2004, p. 12), in their stinging indictment of
the US environmental movement, ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ ask:
‘Why, for instance, is a human-made phenomenon like global warming –
which may kill hundreds of millions of human beings over the next
century – considered “environmental”? Why are poverty and war not
considered environmental problems while global warming is?’
Gelobter et al. (2005:10), in their riposte to ‘The Death of Envir-
onmentalism’, ‘The Soul of Environmentalism’ argue that: ‘many envir-
onmentalists of color admire the mainstream movement’s goals, but they
Environmental justice and sustainability
also know firsthand that social justice is routinely ignored in the main-
stream movement’s decision making.’
Indeed, such issues are not even on the radar. Another example, from the
early 1990s, happened when a member of Greenpeace UK’s human rela-
tions staff was asked if she felt that her organization’s employees reflected
multicultural Britain. She replied calmly, ‘No, but it’s not an issue for us.
We’re here to save the world’.
Yet research has shown how, globally, nations with a greater commit-
ment to equity and a correspondingly more equitable society tend also to
have a greater commitment to environmental quality (Torras and Boyce,
1998). Good examples here are the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark,
Norway and Finland. In a survey of the 50 US states, Boyce et al. (1999)
found that those with greater inequalities in power distribution (measured
by voter participation, tax fairness, Medicaid access and educational
attainment levels) had less stringent environmental policies, greater levels
of environmental stress and higher rates of infant mortality and premature
deaths. At a more local level, a study by Morello-Frosch (1997) of counties
in California showed that highly segregated counties, in terms of income,
class and race, had higher levels of hazardous air pollutants. If sustain-
ability is to become a process with the power to transform, as opposed to
its current environmental, stewardship or reform focus, justice and equity
issues need to be incorporated to its very core.
In short, characterizing the JSP involves taking a broader frame than
that on which the traditional and globally dominant US and Northern
environmental sustainability agendas are predicated. It involves under-
standing and supporting both Northern environment-based and Southern
equity-based agendas, equally. As Jacobs (1999, p. 33) argues:
in Southern debate about sustainable development the notion of equity remains
central, particularly in the demand not just that national but that global
resources should be distributed in favor of poor countries and people. . .. In the
North, by stark contrast, equity is much the least emphasized of the core ideas,
and is often ignored altogether.
How do US environmental and sustainability organizations measure up to
the JSP? Using organizational websites and the search terms ‘equity’,
‘justice’ and ‘sustainability’, a search of both organizational mission state-
ments and prominent, contemporary textual or programmatic material was
undertaken. Derivations of equity, justice and sustainability, such as ‘equi-
table’, ‘just’ or ‘sustainable’, were also used if the original terms yielded no
results. In addition, and to fully ensure no organization was potentially
excluded, sentiments such as ‘the fundamental right of all people to have a
voice in decisions’, ‘disproportionate environmental burdens’ or mention of
Handbook of sustainable development
‘environment’ instead of ‘sustainability’ (only if associated with ‘justice’ or
‘just’) were counted as having fulfilled the search terms. This Index comes
with some caveats and limitations, however. If organizational ‘mission’ only
was examined, an argument could be made that ‘aspiration’ and not ‘behav-
ior’ was being studied. That is why both ‘mission’ and ‘program’ issues form
the JSI on the basis that most organizational websites have a wealth of up-
to-date programmatic information. This, in combination with mission
information, provides a relatively accurate picture of an organization’s
commitment to the JSP.
The list of organizations, it could be argued, is somewhat arbitrary.
However, no ‘official’ list of national environmental and sustainability
organizations exists. Many of the organizations in Table 11.2 were derived
from, a collaborative effort of the US’s most
influential environmental advocacy organizations. From these groups, a
‘snowball’ technique was applied to gain yet more. Depressingly but not
surprisingly, there are three conclusions that can be drawn.
First, among the 30 national environmental and sustainability member-
ship organizations shown, over 30 per cent had a JSI of 0. This means that
in such organizations there is ‘No mention of equity or justice in core mission
statement or in prominent, contemporary textual or programmatic material’.
Second, the average JSI was 1.06. While not statistically significant, this
suggests that the majority of US national environmental and sustainability
membership organizations make ‘no mention of equity or justice in [their]
core mission statement [and] limited mention (once or twice) in prominent,
contemporary textual or programmatic material’. This backs up Taylor’s
(2000) point about the lack of social justice concerns (or intra-generational
equity) within the NEP.
Third, only organizations with a JSI of 3 could be considered to be operat-
ing within the JSP. In other words, their ‘core mission statement relates to intra
and intergenerational equity and justice and/or justice and equity occur in same
sentence in prominent, contemporary textual or programmatic material’. These
organizations are Center for Health and Environmental Justice, Center for a
New American Dream, Environmental Defense, and Redefining Progress.
If the picture as regards big membership organizations is depressing, the
JSP is being implemented today, in US cities, primarily by small, local, com-
munity responsive organizations often with multiracial staff who can use the
overlapping discourses of the JSP (see Agyeman, 2005a and 2005b, for
details of Boston’s Alternatives for Community and Environment). Two such
organizations are Urban Ecology in Oakland, California, and Bethel New
Life, in Chicago, Illinois. Both are working on land use planning issues in
low-income and minority neighborhoods and both espouse the principles of
just sustainability.
Environmental justice and sustainability
Urban Ecology, Oakland, CA
Urban Ecology in Oakland, California, is an organization founded in 1975.
As the website says:
Urban Ecology has not focused on the traditional environmental priorities of
preserving land, air and water. Neither have we had a traditional community
development focus aimed at, for example, generating affordable housing. Rather,
our work has integrated elements of these disciplines and others, with healthy
‘human habitats’ as the common denominator. We have sought to advance sus-
tainability in the Bay Area using three main strategies – alternative visioning,
education and policy advocacy, with all of our work grounded in the three Es of
environment, economy and social equity. (
It is engaged in two primary avenues towards promoting just sustain-
ability principles in land use planning within the San Francisco Bay Area.
First, its Community Design Program provides planning and design services
to low-income urban neighborhoods, such as the Weeks Neighborhood in
East Palo Alto, to assist them with community development. They have
developed a process to bring the services of city planners into communities
to engage in local needs assessments and community visioning. Urban
Ecology helps organizations facilitate the drafting of a community plan
that addresses the immediate and long-term needs of the area, and assists
the local community organizations with implementation strategies.
Although the needs of the community are given first priority, Urban
Ecology staff promote ideas such as transit access, pedestrian-friendly
streetscapes and affordable infill housing to help revitalize neighborhoods
with sustainability principles in mind.
Second, Urban Ecology’s Sustainable Cities Program approaches
municipal governments such as Berkeley, Fremont, Oakland and San
Francisco and works with community groups such as San Jose’s Tamien
Neighborhood Association to promote more sustainable development pat-
terns. The suburbs at the frontiers of urban sprawl are encouraged to adopt
Smart Growth principles that allow for diverse housing options and alter-
native transportation infrastructure. Urban Ecology advocates for infill
development, affordable housing, transit oriented development, reduced
parking requirements and mixed-use projects. They provide information to
municipalities and citizen groups about private developers who have
applied these principles in their projects. Urban Ecology also runs work-
shops for the public on how to review new projects and advocate for sus-
tainable land development. In the Bay Area, the issues of urban sprawl,
environmental preservation and social justice are deeply linked together,
and groups such as Urban Ecology are working with many communities in
pursuit of more local and regional just sustainability.
Handbook of sustainable development
Bethel New Life, Inc., Chicago, IL
Rioting and disinvestment in the late 1960s and early 1970s left this West
Garfield Park community in Chicago in deep trouble. Bethel Lutheran
Church members pledged to fight the despair and in 1979, they bought a
three-flat apartment building which became Bethel New Life, Inc. Now with
318 employees, 893 volunteers, over 1100 affordable housing units, 7000
people in living wage jobs and $100 million invested in the community, this
faith-based organization has gained, like the Dudley Street Neighborhood
Initiative (DSNI) in Boston, a national reputation for cutting edge just
sustainability initiatives.
The organization is a Community Development Corporation (CDC)
whose strapline, ‘Weaving together a healthier, sustainable community’,
reflects their wide-ranging asset-based community development interests
through programs such as cultural arts, employment, housing and eco-
nomic development, family support, seniors and community development.
As their website states: ‘all programs & initiatives at Bethel New Life, Inc.
are conceived with sustainability in mind, and must be: wanted by the com-
munity, financially viable and mission appropriate’.
In terms of land use planning, their current major project is the Lake
Pulaski Commercial Center. The Bethel New Life project team includes
Farr Associates (architects), Phoenix Construction (contractor), Piper &
Marbury (law firm), Matanky Realty (commercial leasing/operations),
and Argonne National Laboratory (energy model and monitoring). The
Center is a 23 000 square foot, two-story ‘smart, green’ building, a play on
its ‘smart growth’ and ‘green’ qualities. With a bridge to the Lake Street
El platform on the Green line, it is a Transit Oriented Development
(TOD) that will enable non-motorized users quick access. Using photo-
voltaic cells, a ‘living green roof’ that will enhance energy retention,
super-insulation and energy efficient windows, as well as other energy
efficiencies that combine to cut energy operating costs in half, it will
house a child and infant daycare center, employment services and five
Major funding for this $4.5 million project comes from the City of
Chicago Empowerment Zone, State of Illinois Department of Commerce
and Economic Opportunity, City of Chicago Department of Environment,
US Bank, and Commonwealth Edison. A majority of the construction
contracts are with Minority Business Enterprise/Women’s Business Enter-
prise companies, which will create much-needed jobs in the community. In
addition, almost 70 new permanent jobs will be created in food services,
childcare and retail. Another of the CDC’s programs, Bethel Employment
Services, will be housed in the Center and will try to favor local community
members in its recruitment drive.
Environmental justice and sustainability
5. Next steps
The identification and characterization of the JSP is in its infancy. It is
more fully developed in Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of
Environmental Justice (Agyeman, 2005a). However, further research is
needed both to assess the extent of equity and justice inputs to traditional,
reform or environmental sustainability agendas in other countries, and
worldwide, and to identify and help shape future scenarios. For example,
the Stockholm Environment Institute (2002, p. 16) has, through its Global
Scenario Group’s ‘Great Transition’ project, begun to map four possible
scenarios for the future of the planet: Conventional Worlds, Barbarism,
Great Transitions and Muddling Through. Their preferred scenario, Great
Transitions, has two variants: Eco-Communalism, and the preferred
variant, the New Sustainability Paradigm, which ‘validates global solidar-
ity, cultural cross-fertilization and economic connectedness while seeking a
liberatory, humanistic and ecological transition’. This Great Transition,
through the New Sustainability Paradigm, is the only one of the four
scenarios that sees an increase in equity as essential (Gallopin et al., 1997).
In this, the New Sustainability Paradigm moves very close to the JSP.
The emergent JSP is a far bigger tent than could be filled solely by
just sustainability and most environmental justice organizations. Future
research could look more broadly towards initiatives such as the ‘Just
Transition Alliance’, ‘a voluntary coalition of labor, economic and envir-
onmental justice activists, Indigenous people and working-class people
of color [which] has created a dialogue in local, national, and inter-
national arenas’ ( Another
example is the ‘Apollo Alliance’ which aims ‘to create three million good
jobs, free ourselves from imported oil, and clean up the environment’
( These, and many other alliances are forming
around the world which could unite under the JSP to create more just and
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12 Vulnerability, poverty and sustaining well-being W. Neil Adger and Alexandra Winke

1. Introduction
A key tenet of sustainable development is that resources and opportunities
should be widely shared in society. Where this fails to occur, individuals,
communities and the ecosystems on which they depend are made vulner-
able to external perturbations, to failures in governance, and to social crises.
Thus development, if it is to be sustainable in the broadest sense, needs to
address underlying vulnerabilities in society and vulnerabilities that are
created by unsustainable resource use and exploitation.
The recognition that reducing vulnerability is a legitimate normative goal
of sustainable development has become apparent in the context of global
change. Vulnerability is an important characteristic of individuals, social
groups and of natural systems. It is a state in which the ability of people in
society to cope with environmental and other stresses is in question. The
vulnerability of a group or individual depends on the capacity to respond
to external stresses that may come from environmental variability and
change, or from social upheaval and change. Vulnerability is made up of a
number of components including exposure and sensitivity to hazard or
external stresses and the capacity to adapt. Thus, vulnerability does not exist
in isolation from the wider political economy of resource use. It is caused by
inadvertent or deliberate human action that reinforces self-interest and the
distribution of power.
In this chapter we argue that recognizing the interdependencies between
factors that create vulnerabilities is central to achieving sustainable deve-
lopment that ensures people’s well-being. The concept of vulnerability is
important in analysing, for example, the widely observed disparities
between the rich and poor regions of the world and between the vulnerable
on the one hand and those who are able to insulate themselves against
shocks on the other. To this end the first section examines interdependen-
cies of various social, economic and environmental processes that create
vulnerabilities. The chapter then takes a close look at the links between vul-
nerability and livelihoods, recognizing that, in order to achieve well-being
for most, the multi-dimensionality of people’s vulnerabilities needs to be
understood and confronted. Vulnerability is conceptualized in a variety of
Handbook of sustainable development
ways depending on disciplinary emphasis, ranging from the vulnerability of
social and ecological systems to the vulnerability of individual livelihoods.
One of the most important aspects of the influence of vulnerability on well-
being is its context specificity. While measuring vulnerability should be
based on commonly agreed-upon thresholds of risk, danger and harm,
different approaches are needed to assess people’s vulnerability in different
contexts. The final section reviews some of these measurement issues and
draws out future research trends.
2. The landscape of vulnerability
Vulnerability is common currency in debates on environmental risks and
human development. In the past decade vulnerability is a term used by
decision-makers in designing a response to both human-made and natural
disasters. In the climate change arena, for example, countries are vulnerable
to the impacts of climate change; some populations are exposed to risk
associated with the potential spread of vector-borne diseases; and ecosys-
tems and species are vulnerable to degradation or extinction. Many inter-
national development agencies now frame their development assistance
around concepts of sustainable livelihoods, which incorporate the assess-
ment of vulnerability (Cannon et al., 2002).
The popularity of the term has arisen in these contexts and is under-
pinned by insights into risk and hazards, institutions and governance, and
human well-being (Cutter, 1996; 2003; Blaikie et al., 1994; Turner et al.,
2003a). Vulnerability theory explains the processes that convert the distri-
bution of resources in a society into a state which leads to powerlessness,
and risk of unsustainable outcomes (both in material terms and in terms of
experience) for sections of society. A theory of vulnerability further seeks
to distinguish between environmental change as a human-induced element
of risk and as a natural element of perturbation, renewal and change
(Adger, 2006).
Human well-being is vulnerable to disease, war and natural disaster,
while economic structures promoting well-being are vulnerable to global-
ization, currency speculation and crises of confidence. But well-being
is made up of diverse components that have been articulated (by the
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2003, for example), as basic material
needs, health, good social relations, personal security and freedom and
choice. Many elements of vulnerability relate to the absence of well-being
and security as well as unsustainable resource use, but equally emphasize
the importance of empowerment and citizenship within well-being and
Vulnerability thus encapsulates the susceptibility to harm of groups or
individuals to stress as a result of social change and environmental hazard

and change. There are social dimensions to vulnerability and physical and
ecological dimensions to vulnerability related to exposure to hazards and
dimensions of risk. There are many conceptualizations of vulnerability (see
Alwang et al., 2001), but there is common agreement that vulnerability is
made up of a number of key components including exposure and sensiti-
vity to hazard and the capacity to adapt. For any given social and economic
system, the functional attributes are:
f(exposure, sensitivity, adaptive capacity)
The terms are elaborated in Table 12.1. Exposure encapsulates the likeli-
hood of occurrence and the impact of a discrete event whose influence
extends over a particular area with particular characteristics. The charac-
teristics of exposure include magnitude, frequency, duration and areal
extent of the hazard (Burton et al., 1993). Sensitivity is the extent to which
a human or natural system can absorb impacts without suffering long-term
harm or some significant state change. This concept of sensitivity, closely
related to resilience, can be observed in physical, ecological and social
systems. Adaptive capacity is the ability of a system to evolve in order to
accommodate environmental hazards or policy change and to expand the
range of variability with which it can cope.
Vulnerability is socially differentiated: virtually all natural hazards and
human causes of vulnerability impact differently on different groups in
Table 12.1 Attributes of vulnerability to environmental and social change
and perturbations
The nature and degree to which a system
experiences environmental or socio-political stress.
The extent to which a human or natural system
can absorb the impacts without suffering long-
term harm or some significant state change. This
concept of sensitivity, closely related to resilience,
can be observed in physical systems with impact-
response models, but requires greater
interpretation in ecological and social systems,
where harm and state change are more contested.
The ability of a system to evolve in order to
accommodate environmental perturbations or to
expand the range of variability with which it can
cope.Adaptive capacity

Handbook of sustainable development
society. Many comparative studies have noted that the poor and marginal-
ized have historically been most at risk from natural hazards (see Chapter
11). Poorer households are forced to live in higher risk areas, exposing them
to the impacts of earthquakes, landslides, flooding, tsunamis and poor air
and water quality. This has particularly been shown throughout the urban-
ized world (Mitchell, 1999; Pelling, 2003). Women are differentially at risk
from many elements of environmental hazards, including, for example, the
burden of work in recovery of home and livelihood after an event
(Fordham, 2003). In many studies of the impact of earthquakes (including
analysis of the Asian tsunami of 2004) women and other household depen-
dants have suffered much greater mortality. Even for volcanic eruptions,
which would appear to be indiscriminate in impact in terms of social status,
it is noted that significant social differentiation is important (Sidle et al.,
2004). Flooding in low-lying coastal areas associated with monsoon clim-
ates or hurricane impacts, for example, are seasonal and usually short-lived,
yet can have significant unexpected impacts for vulnerable sections of
society. Yet river flooding is an integral part of many farming systems as it
provides nutrients in fertile floodplain areas. Hence natural hazards are
often a disadvantageous aspect of a phenomenon at one point in time that
is predominantly, and usually beneficial. Impacts associated with geologi-
cal hazards often occur without much effective warning and with a speed
of onset of only a few minutes. By contrast, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a
long wave disaster with a slow onset but catastrophic impact (Barnett and
Blaikie, 1994).
Vulnerabilities are becoming connected to global change in environmen-
tal and economic systems. While there is little doubt that the connections
of globalization have brought about a revolution in knowledge, informa-
tion and ideas, the negative consequences of capital flows and of the ability
of both countries and transnational corporations to wield power at the
global scale are also enormous. There are three major mechanisms of inter-
dependence of vulnerabilities of ecosystems, people and places (see Adger
et al., 2007). These are the processes of global environmental change, eco-
nomic market linkages, and flows of resources, people and information.
The first of the mechanisms for interdependence is the set of physical and
biological processes that constitute global environmental change. Due to
the global nature of environmental change processes accelerating in par-
ticular during the past century, impacts of environmental change in one
locality have increased connection to regional and global systems. Second,
economic market linkages are not only linked to global environmental
change, but also can in and of themselves be drivers of interdependent vul-
nerabilities. The processes of global environmental change are indeed
amplified by the social, political and economic trends of globalization.
Vulnerability, poverty and sustaining well-being
Global environmental change is driven in part by widening disparities
between rich and poor both within and between countries. Liberalizing
trade and integrating economies into world markets (see also Chapter 25)
can make the incomes of the poor insecure, open to vagaries and price fluc-
tuations, and ultimately more vulnerable when other shocks and stresses
come along (O’Brien and Leichenko, 2000).
The third mechanism of interdependence of vulnerabilities across space
and time is the closer connection between places in the world which has
emerged through increased air travel and lower transport costs, and through
movements of people and resources around the world. This has several
dimensions, both positive and negative in terms of vulnerability.
Demographic changes and migrations (see Chapter 8) produce new forms of
sensitivity to risk, while providing some populations with new opportunities
or access to resources that enable them to mitigate uncertainty. Increasing
proportions of very old or very young people in a population, for example,
change the nature of susceptibility to emerging diseases and pathogens.
Further, the actual movement of resources for energy, food and primary pro-
duction have both direct and indirect consequences. The food eaten at dinner
tables across the industrialized world, for example, has increasing environ-
mental impact due to energy and fertilizer inputs, transport, and land use
changes associated with new production. Agricultural and economic policies
in one part of the world have direct consequences on producers in another
part of the world, and the globalization of consumer tastes is now driving
commodity production in agricultural regions. The consequences of the
movement of materials round the world are also increasingly apparent in
bio-invasive species, demand for habitats and over-exploitation of species,
and the emergence of new diseases (Adger et al., 2007).
One of the sustainability goals is to ensure a minimum level of well-being
which, among other things, depends on people’s ability to cope adequately
with shocks and stresses that may plunge them into poverty. Ensuring
people’s well-being relies therefore on finding ways to reduce vulnerability
by taking into account the interdependencies of global and local mecha-
nisms as described above that create these vulnerabilities. This is particu-
larly crucial for the poor and marginalized in many countries as they are
least able to insure themselves against the ill effects of global economic fluc-
tuations and environmental risks (Wood, 2003).
3. Livelihoods and well-being
Over the past 50 years there have been spectacular successes in raising living
standards in many parts of the world. Yet economic growth alone has not
eliminated poverty anywhere. Deprivation of opportunity is still wide-
spread, most obviously in the developing world where lack of absolute
Handbook of sustainable development
income for large numbers of people limits their health, material well-being
and their freedom (Sen, 1999). Policies to promote livelihoods and well-
being of populations in the developing world have been subject to various
ideological fashions and beliefs. The focus on economic growth in the 1950s
and 1960s was superseded by a focus on poverty elimination through basic
need strategies in the 1970s. Poor economic performance in many develop-
ing countries in the 1980s resulting from structural adjustments policies (see
Chapter 14) and a sharp rise in poverty during that period led to a renewed
interest in poverty and the poor themselves (Gardner and Lewis, 1996).
The Millennium Development Goals demonstrate that the livelihoods
and well-being of the world’s poor are now conceptualized in terms of
access to opportunity and absence of insecurity and vulnerability. The
goals include focus on inadequate incomes, hunger, gender inequality,
environmental deterioration and lack of education, health care, and clean
water (UNDP, 2003). Sen (1999) argues that the overarching goal of human
development should be the ability for all people to realize their potential
and that this is not fulfilled through economic means alone. In this context
it is important to emphasize that poverty and vulnerability are not the same
thing. Hence, while those who are poor are more likely to be vulnerable, the
non-poor may also be vulnerable to a deterioration in well-being as a result
of a shock.
Sustainable livelihoods and realized capabilities are the antithesis of
vulnerability and poverty. Sen (1981) developed the concept of human
capability to explain the causes and persistence of poverty even in times of
overall positive economic growth. Poverty is the lack of capability to live
a decent life (Sen, 1999). Entitlements and capabilities are the actual or
potential resources available to individuals based on their own production,
assets or reciprocal arrangements. Entitlements are sources of welfare or
income that are realized or are latent. They are ‘the set of alternative com-
modity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality
of rights and opportunities that he or she faces’ (Sen, 1984, p. 497).
Poverty, manifest for example through food insecurity, is a consequence of
human activity, which can be prevented by modified behaviour and by
political interventions. Thus, vulnerability is the result of processes in
which humans actively engage and which they can almost always prevent.
The theory of entitlements as an explanation for famine causes was deve-
loped in the early 1980s (Sen, 1981; 1984) and displaced prior notions that
shortfalls in food production through drought, flood or pest were the prin-
cipal cause of insecurity in agrarian societies. Essentially, vulnerability
occurs when people have insufficient real income and access to resources,
and when there is a breakdown in other previously-held endowments (see
Chapter 14 for examples).
Vulnerability, poverty and sustaining well-being
Analysis of entitlements, access to resources and welfare services in the
face of stress and crisis is therefore a cornerstone of vulnerability theory.
The need for livelihoods to be sustainable has been the focus of research
and action on resource-dependent societies and economies. A widely
accepted definition of so-called sustainable livelihoods is that by Robert
Chambers and Gordon Conway (1992), which highlights the need for
reducing vulnerability, coping with stress, and moving forward through
adaptation while securing well-being into the future:
A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and
social resources) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sus-
tainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and main-
tain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not
undermining the natural resource base. (Chambers and Conway, 1992)
The sustainable livelihood concept appears in many guises and is subject
to a continuing debate. Discussions focus on the operationalization of these
ideas and how to make both processes and outcomes relevant for policy and
development practice. The sustainable livelihoods approach provides a tool
for the assessment not only of micro-level conditions such as individual or
households capabilities, access to assets and individual aspirations, but
situates these attributes within their wider institutional, historical, envi-
ronmental and economic context.
Within a particular vulnerability context (such as a combination of shift-
ing seasonal constraints, short-term economic shocks and longer-term
trends of change) individuals deploy different types of ‘livelihood assets’ or
capital in variable combinations (Bebbington, 1999; Reardon and Vosti,
1995; Scoones, 1998; Ellis, 2000). Understanding how institutions shape,
and are shaped by, livelihood processes is also important in livelihood
research (Ellis, 2000). Institutions, in this context, are the formal and infor-
mal rules, norms or procedures that govern relationships within and
between different organizations and between formal organizations and the
civic sphere. Vulnerable communities and individuals are excluded from
access and institutions to decision-making: so-called relational aspects of
deprivation (Kabeer, 2000).
Economic, social, demographic, political and psychological aspects of
human vulnerability gain different prominence in different disciplines
(shown in Table 12.2). In the context of disaster management human vul-
nerability is defined with respect to discrete events in nature or associated
with technological failures (such as pollution incidents). Vulnerability is
usually defined as an underlying condition, undermining people’s capabi-
lity to respond adequately to the disaster, thus precipitating a negative
outcome with respect to their well-being (Kreimer and Arnold, 2000).

There has been much work in the field of climate change that seeks to illu-
minate vulnerability, but this is often focused solely on a social system or
on the vulnerability of a species or ecosystem damage. Research that seeks
to understand the vulnerability of systems, which includes both social and
natural elements, is primarily concerned with the assessment of vulnerabil-
ity of that system in its various manifestations (Adger et al., 2001; Turner
et al., 2003a). Research in development economics perceives vulnerability
as an outcome of a process of household responses to risk. Since the mea-
surement of vulnerability at the individual level is extremely difficult, it is
often reduced to one single causal factor. Alternatively, vulnerability of
livelihoods and well-being is a condition that takes into account both expo-
sure to risks and a household’s defencelessness against deprivation, that is
the external and internal aspects of vulnerability (Chambers et al., 1989;
Kamanou and Morduch, 2004).
4. Vulnerability as a relative measure of deprivation and susceptibility
to harm
There is no straightforward way to measure vulnerability. Measurement of
vulnerability inevitably needs to reflect social processes, environmental per-
turbations and material outcomes: it is not easily reduced to a single metric.
While it is easy to recognize personally the feeling of vulnerability and
perhaps to grasp the outcome of vulnerability in others in a similar situ-
ation, the translation of this complex set of parameters into a quantitative
metric has been argued to reduce its impact and hide its complexity
(Alwang et al., 2001). There have been significant advances in methods in
vulnerability analysis towards measures that both incorporate human well-
being and recognize the relative and perceptual nature of vulnerability.
In the quantitative social sciences, particularly in economics, there have
been attempts to develop metrics for vulnerability that are comparable
across time and location to make them more tractable (Kamanou and
Morduch, 2004; Alwang et al., 2001). Much of the research is concerned
with vulnerability to poverty and, in the search for tractability, often
focuses on consumption as the key parameter. But since societies are vul-
nerable to multiple stresses and vulnerability is manifest in various out-
comes (not just material), there are, in effect, different thresholds on
vulnerability informed by values and social context (Alwang et al., 2001).
It is important nonetheless to provide consistent frameworks for measur-
ing vulnerability that provide complementary quantitative and qualitative
insights into outcomes and perceptions of vulnerability. While quantitative
measures allow comparison of relative vulnerability across circumstances,
these do not substitute for the narrative richness of stakeholder-led or qual-
itative assessments of vulnerability in different places and contexts.
Handbook of sustainable development
Households capable of deriving an adequate living from their assets or
the transient poor can all be vulnerable to poverty as a result of shocks to
those livelihoods. Households that already face capability constraints due
to structural factors such as landlessness or contextual factors such as the
lack of social welfare from government or community, are also vulnerable
to a further decline in welfare through the exposure to shocks such as
failing local markets or illness within the family. Vulnerability is, however,
also the outcome of a shock and social exclusion by limiting the capability
to deal with subsequent shocks. The degree to which a household is vul-
nerable, and continues to be so, is a function of the risk factors, both inter-
nal and external to the household, and their capability (determined by asset
portfolio) to respond to these risks (Alwang et al., 2001).
Livelihoods can be exposed to risks particular to the household (idio-
syncratic risks) as well as to those shared throughout the wider commu-
nity (covariate risks). On the one hand, the sources of risks can be related
to external shocks such as varying climatic conditions (for example floods
and droughts), commodity price fluctuations, or poorly functioning input
and output markets. While some droughts contribute to the development
of a famine crisis, not every drought results in a famine. Table 12.3 sum-
marizes the types of risk arising from changing environmental, social and
economic conditions and how these can affect access to assets and activi-
ties, which shape livelihoods. Risk sources can also be specific to house-
holds and are often related to illness and death, or changing social
In addition to the physical and social risks in Table 12.3, there are insti-
tutional and relational sources of risk (Wood, 2003). Chronic poverty, for
example, may give rise to a number of risks induced by inequality, class
relations, exploitation, and social exclusion from community structures.
Household vulnerability and social exclusion are therefore in themselves
risk factors because they re-enforce the deeper structures that lead to depri-
vation and chronic poverty (Wood, 2003). Those households who already
face deprivation of livelihood capability are less able to reallocate their
assets to overcome other risky events.
Methods for vulnerability assessment in the context of development
assistance and famine early warning systems have been developed and used
across the developing world (Cannon et al., 2002; Twigg, 2001; Stephen and
Downing, 2001). Local and national indicators have been developed,
seeking to overcome issues of validation and triangulation of data to derive
more robust measures for both policy analysis and intervention (Yohe and
Tol, 2002). A common critique of indicator research, particularly focused
on country-level analysis, is that it fails to account for sub-national spatial
and social differentiation of vulnerability, and local conditions mediate the
Handbook of sustainable development
capacity to adapt. Progress has been made, however, in the spatial mapping
of elements of vulnerability (for example O’Brien et al., 2004).
The implications of the relative nature of vulnerability and its manifes-
tations in perceptions of insecurity are that any generalized method to
measure vulnerability needs to incorporate an objective material measure
of vulnerability but also to capture relative vulnerability, inequality in its
distribution and social status. The vulnerability of any population is not
simply a matter of the number of people who are vulnerable through not
having entitlements to resources or not being exposed to stresses associated
with environmental change. Rather a generalized measure needs to account
for the severity of the vulnerability and the measure needs also to be sensi-
tive to redistribution of risk within vulnerable populations. Ideally a
measure of vulnerability, therefore, requires certain characteristics. These
necessary characteristics of a measure are familiar in micro-economics and
social statistics, for example in the measurement of poverty (building on
Foster et al., 1984), because they also deal with issues of well-being, rela-
tive versus absolute change and transient versus persistent states.
Luers and colleagues (2003) directly address many of the dilemmas of
measuring vulnerability. Their approach represents a state-of-the-art. In
recognizing many of the constraints they make a case for measuring the
vulnerability of specific variables: they argue that vulnerability should shift
away from quantifying critical areas or vulnerable places towards scale-
neutral systematic measures. They argue for assessing the vulnerability of
the most important variables in the causal chain of vulnerability to specific
sets of stressors. They develop generic metrics that attempt to assess the
relationship between a wide range of stressors and the outcome variables
of concern (Luers et al., 2003). In their most general form:
Vulnerability =
sensitivity to stress
state relative
to threshold
probability of
exposure to stress
The parameter under scrutiny here could be a physical or social para-
meter. In the case of Luers et al. (2003) they investigate the vulnerability of
farming systems in an irrigated area of Mexico through examining agri-
cultural yields. But the same generalized equation could examine disease
prevalence, mortality in human populations, or income of households – all
of which are legitimate potential measures within vulnerability analysis.
Whatever the generalized form of vulnerability measure there is an
inescapable need for a threshold of risk, danger or harm. The measures of
vulnerability severity discussed above involve a measure of well-being. But
this could be measured in a number of different ways. It could be objective
Vulnerability, poverty and sustaining well-being
material measures such as indicators of mortality, income, wealth or
freedom from crime or access to education, depending on the nature of the
vulnerability being measured. In addition vulnerability as experienced
could be measured directly through indicators of perception, as used in
social psychology.
The problem of course is that any meaningful threshold is likely to be
highly heterogeneous. As Watts and Bohle (1993) and Cutter (2003) argue,
vulnerability is manifest in specific places at specific times: hence the deter-
mination of the threshold level of well-being that constitutes the threshold
is not simply a proportional measure, the same for all sections of society.
In addition, the choice of thresholds is based on values and preferences and
hence is both institutionally and culturally determined. The measurement
of vulnerability inevitably requires external judgements and interpretations
of the thresholds of acceptable risk. This characteristic of the inescapabil-
ity of a vulnerability threshold needs to be both made explicit and
embraced in vulnerability methods.
5. Trends and prospects for future research
There are a number of linkages between livelihoods, sustainability and vul-
nerability. First, due to the complexity of the future (for example trends in
environmental change, technologies and other social and demographic
processes), individuals and social systems are always vulnerable to surprise
and susceptible to unforeseen consequences of action (Cutter, 2003;
Schneider et al., 1998). While policy makers always express surprise at
events, many of these are predictable or at least ‘imaginable’. Yet vulnera-
bility persists, due both to inherent unpredictability in some physical
systems, but also because of ideological blocks to perceiving certain risks.
Thus technological risks that create new vulnerabilities (from nuclear
power to genetically-modified agricultural crops) are ignored in the name
of progress. If a goal of sustainable development is to eliminate risks to the
most vulnerable, then this suggests that application of the precautionary
principle should be central to decision processes.
The second area of linkage between sustainability and vulnerability, and
the major focus of this chapter, has been the link between widespread
access to minimum levels of well-being as a sustainability goal and the
implementation of this goal through vulnerability reduction. We have
argued here that the distribution of income and access to resources repre-
sent fundamental determinants of capability and vulnerability. Evidence
that inequality plays a role in exacerbated environmental degradation is
compounded when wider conceptions of marginalization and resilience are
included (see Chapter 5). The changing nature of access to resources and
thus well-being and the impacts of global economic change potentially
Handbook of sustainable development
undermine social resilience and create circumstances to which the only
response of the vulnerable is resistance. Social resilience is enhanced or
undermined both by the formal institutions of the state and the legal frame-
work of property rights, and by the outcomes of democratic governance.
There is much rhetoric on the need to reduce vulnerability in the context of
global disasters and the threats of climate change. Yet the consequences of
actually implementing action that puts vulnerability centre stage are pro-
found, and, in our view, explain why sustainable development for the mar-
ginalized and vulnerable who bear the brunt of environmental degradation
is a moral and political imperative.
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