Sustainability, the systems approach and the sustainable development goals

Barbier, E.B. and J.C. Burgess. 2021 “Sustainability, the systems approach and the sustainable development goals”.  Special issue “Economics and the environment since the 1950s”, Cahiers d’économie  politique/Papers in political economy 79(1):31-59. 

One of the earliest attempts in economics to operationalize sustainable development was the systems approach, which characterizes sustainability as the maximization of goals across environmental, economic and social systems. This paper explores the link between the systems approach to sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were formally adopted by the UN in 2015. Both emerged from concerns that development based solely on economic progress is insufficient to meet additional social priorities and environmental objectives. The systems approach to sustainability was influenced by development thinking in the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized meeting the «basic needs» of the poor and conservationist concerns over the state of the global environment. Equally, the SDGs were developed in recognition that the decline in environmental goals may undermine long term development, even with improvements in economic and social goals. Recent studies have explored the link between the systems approach and the SDGs, and analyzed possible tradeoffs and complementarities in attaining the different environmental, economic and social goals with the objective of operationalizing sustainability.

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