Academic journal article Environmental Values

The Capabilities Approach and Environmental Sustainability: The Case for Functioning Constraints

Academic journal article Environmental Values

The Capabilities Approach and Environmental Sustainability: The Case for Functioning Constraints

Article excerpt


The capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum has become an influential viewpoint for addressing issues of social justice and human development. It has not yet, however, given adequate theoretical consideration to the requirements of environmental sustainability. Sen has focussed on the instrumental importance of human development for achieving sustainability, but has failed to consider the limits of this account, especially with respect to consumption-reduction. Nussbaum has criticised constraining material consumption for its paternalistic prescription of one particular conception of the good life, without considering it as an imperative of justice. We discuss two possible extensions of the capabilities approach. First, the concept of capability ceilings contains several attractive elements, but it also suffers from some shortcomings. Therefore, second, we advocate constraining people's combinations of functionings in accordance with a personal budget which consists of a fair share of environmental resources.


Capabilities approach environmental sustainability, political liberalism, sustainable consumption


Over the last few decades, the capabilities approach has become an influential viewpoint for addressing issues of social justice. It has been theoretically developed by, in particular, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, and has provided the core principles of the human development paradigm adopted by the Human Development Reports (United Nations Development Programme--UNDP, 1990: 10-11; Robeyns, 2005: 94).

Central to the capabilities approach are the two related concepts of functioning and capability. The concept oi functioning refers to the various things a person may value doing or being: for example, being adequately nourished or taking part in the political life of a community (Sen, 1999: 75; Nussbaum, 2006: 70). Capability represents the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations or lifestyles, reflecting both instrumental opportunity and the intrinsic freedom of choice (Sen, 1988: 270; 1999: 75; 2009: 238; Nussbaum, 2011: 20).' The approach focuses on the concept of capability, because taking functioning itself as the policy goal would disrespect intrinsic freedom and preclude many choices that people may make in accordance with their comprehensive conception of the good life (e.g. Nussbaum, 1998: 321; 2011: 25-26; Sen, 2009: 238). The importance attached to the intrinsic freedom of choice, and the neutrality adopted towards different conceptions of the good life, characterises the capabilities approach as a distinctly liberal account of social justice (see Robeyns, 2005: 95).

The capabilities approach arguably offers analytical advantages over resourcist or utilitarian accounts of social justice, since it captures well-being directly in terms of freedom, rather than concentrating on commodities as the means of achieving well-being, or people's subjective preference satisfaction. Moreover, its theoretical development is closely connected with the analysis of contemporary issues of justice, such as poverty alleviation and gender equality, and nas provided the foundations of the influential human development paradigm. Despite these strengths, however, the intertemporal application of the capabilities approach remains a matter for further deliberation, and is increasingly discussed in recent literature (see, for example, Rauschmayer et al., 2011; Schlosberg, 2012; Lessmann and Rauschmayer, 2013; Peeters et al., 2013, 2014; Schultz et al., 2013).

Central to intertemporal equity are concerns of environmental sustainability regarding the maintenance of those environmental goods and services that are essential preconditions for human flourishing, both now and in the future. As we will argue more fully below, to achieve environmental sustainability requires humanity to refrain from transgressing the biophysical constraints of the ecosphere (Goodland and Daly, 1996: 1003; Ross, 2009: 38; Rockstrom et al. …

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