Capability thresholds in the context of planetary boundaries: insights from an environmental justice approach

Edwards, Gareth A S (1); Day, Rosie (2); Holland, Breena (3); Schlosberg, David (4); Llopis, Jorge (5); Martin, Adrian (1); Tebboth, Mark (1) (2019). 'Capability thresholds in the context of planetary boundaries: insights from an environmental justice approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


The ‘capabilities approach’ to justice has become a prominent alternative to traditional economic-based assessments of development, and has been proposed as a useful framework through which to theorize and understand justice more broadly (Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). More recently, it has been enthusiastically adopted by scholars working on a variety of fields at the intersection of environment and development, including by scholars who have proposed various capabilities-based ideas as a theoretical edifice within which to understand and frame environmental justice (EJ) demands (Holland, 2008a, 2008b, 2014; Day et al., 2016; Day, 2018; Schlosberg and Carruthers, 2010; Schlosberg, 2012; Ballet et al., 2013).

While there is a considerable debate within the capabilities literature concerned with how to define and theorise capability thresholds at the minimum end, which might be termed ‘capability floors’ (Nussbaum, 1997, 2011; Sen, 2009; Jaggar, 2006), much less attention has been devoted to thresholds at the maximum end, which Breena Holland has labelled ‘capability ceilings’ (Holland, 2008a; Hannis, 2015; Peeters et al., 2015a; Robeyns, 2016). This is surprising, particularly given the traction gained by the idea that social justice foundations must be achieved within limits established by planetary boundaries, driven in many senses by the impending climate crisis (Rockström et al., 2009; Raworth, 2012; e.g. O’Neill et al., 2018), not to mention recent work by Ingrid Robeyns and others on limitarianism. The lack of attention to ceilings is particularly problematic in the context of the environment, because the most fundamental justice dilemmas of our age revolve around perceived trade-offs between human well-being and planetary health or even survival, and these have been strongly mobilised in recent years by the environmental and climate justice movement.

If capabilities theory at its core provides a comparative account of human well-being (O’Neill, 2006, 2008; Arneson, 2013; Edwards et al., 2016) does it and indeed can it accommodate or promote a shift to more sustainable conceptions of well-being (Deneulin and McGregor, 2010; Pelenc et al., 2013; Pelenc and Ballet, 2015; Lessmann and Rauschmayer, 2013)? And can a modified capabilities theory which pays more explicit attention to capability ceilings help to navigate complex justice trade-offs over both time and space, such as those associated with the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel energy to limit dangerous climate change? One potential way to do this would be for global environmental impacts to be used to establish local or individual capability ceilings. The necessity of thinking across scales however raises issues for capabilities theory which generally contextualises in local conditions: how are locally appropriate limits decided upon, and by whom? How are they enforced? Indeed, it might be that as a freedom-oriented body of theory, capabilities theory is simply ill-suited to provide guidance of this kind. It also raises questions about how to operationalise capabilities theory at the minimal end, where resourcist measures often end up acting as a proxy for capabilities simply because of data availability, which conflicts with the emphasis of capabilities on what people can do rather than the amount of resources they have.

This paper draws on EJ theory to argue that capabilities theory can overcome both of these challenges. At the level of theory, it draws on a conception of freedom as non-domination (Fragnière, 2017) to argue that capabilities ceilings be used to limit actions having harmful environmental effects, without posing unacceptable limits on human freedom. With respect to specifying capability thresholds, it examines whether ideas such as ecosystem thresholds and resilience (e.g. Peeters et al., 2015b; Armitage et al., 2012) can help to overcome the dangers of applying capabilities theory in a way that reverts to a resourcist account of justice. Indeed, in an environmental sense decoupling capabilities and resources encourages the creative exploration of means of supporting capabilities that are less ecologically intensive.

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