The core requirement of sustainability is that current economic activities should not result in an excessive burden on future generations. This criterion is general enough to imply different decision rules for the preservation of environmental assets. Neoclassical economics does not have a sustainability criterion for environmental assets independent of the intertemporal efficiency criterion, which allocates environmental and man-made capital based on projected monetary benefits and costs. This criterion is examined in terms of the feasibility of valuing the benefits of environmental assets, the substitution possibilities between natural and man-made capital, and the ethical grounds for using efficiency as the sole determinant of the allocation of environmental assets. An alternative ecological sustainability criterion is the preservation of safe minimum levels of environmental assets in physical terms rather than the dollar value of a composite of natural and man-made capital. Safe minimum standards for environmental assets constrain the efficiency criterion in order to ensure the sustainability of economic systems. It is argued that the ecological approach to sustainability should limit the economic approach for decisions involving the allocation of environmental assets.
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Foy, G. Economic sustainability and the preservation of environmental assets. Environmental Management 14, 771–778 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02394171