Re-evaluating and Re-conceptualising the Capability Approach (CA): Sustainable Human Development Panel Session I

Crabtree, Andrew (2014). 'Re-evaluating and Re-conceptualising the Capability Approach (CA): Sustainable Human Development Panel Session I' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

In Relating Capability and Strong Sustainability: The Role of Critical Natural Capital in Sustainable Human Development, Jérôme Pelenc and Jean-Luc Dubois argue thatSen's CA has radically re-oriented the vision of development, from the obsession of an aggregate, ill-defined level of wealth towards a rigorously defined notion of freedom that builds on the ideals of social justice and human dignity. However, Sen's work on SD is ambiguous concerning whether he supports weak sustainability (WS) which assumes that the various forms of capital whether financial, natural, social, etc., are substitutable or strong sustainability (SS) rejects this substitutability holding that there are dimensions of natural capital, critical natural capital (CNC), for which their depletion cannot be compensated, therefore jeopardizing development. This paper offers a definition of SS by integrating CNC into CA. Deciding what is critical relates to standards of living. Therefore, what is felt to be an intolerable loss of capital has to be decided through social and political consensus. Thus, the CA could provide an innovative framework for CNC.


This paper discusses four points. First, capabilities can be considered the hybrid result of nature and society. The use of relevant conversion factors plays a role in balancing co-evolution between human dimensions and nature. Second, CNC determines those ecosystem services which are essential for the people's functionings. Therefore, it has to be considered when addressing the range of human freedoms required for human development. Third, people impact habitats. Non-sustainable outcomes jeopardize natural capital, thus thresholds have to be established to delineate the critical range of natural capital. If not there is a risk of a socio-ecological crisis that will generate harmful consequences on the people's freedoms. Fourth, the CA, can help to better delineate for whom and for what use natural capital would be critical. Together this provides us with a CA definition of strong sustainability.


Development can be sustainable or not on different levels (from the local to the global) and along different dimensions (eg climate change or noise pollution). In Sustainability and Unsustainability, Andrew Crabtree examines attempts to draw lines between sustainability and unsustainability. Whilst the CA has been strong on measuring development it has been weak on combining development with environmental sustainability measures. After rejecting the World Bank's adjusted net savings approach (because of Sen's conversion problem), the paper discusses attempts to combine capability measures with environmental sustainability indicators (Ecological Footprint and Planetary Boundaries), and the proposed Sustainable Development Goals. It argues that all of these measures fall short on salience (relevance to decision makers), credibility (scientific and technical adequacy) and legitimacy (justifiable to stakeholders). The paper takes an in depth look at three planetary life support systems – climate change, biodiversity and the nutrition cycle - which have passed their planetary boundaries and hence could lead to irreversible and abrupt environmental change (Rockström et al). It argues that while the use of the notion of planetary boundaries is now widespread in political circles including the United Nations and NGOs, the boundaries lack a degree of scientific credibility as there are serious doubts about where, if at all, the boundaries should be drawn leading to a problem of salience.


The problem is further complicated when we turn to legitimacy.  As Jérôme Pelenc and Jean-Luc Dubois argue in their paper, deciding  what natural capital is critical and what is not relates to the question of for whom or for what. This is problematic if decisions concerning global problems are to be made on democratic principles not just because of practical difficulties but also because of people's lack of knowledge of the problems involved. This can be both due to not having heard of the problems, or because of a lack of understanding of the problems. This is further complicated because future people who will be affected by current decisions cannot take part in any contemporary decision making processes. A way is sought out of this problem through the use of the Scanlon/Rainer Forst concept of reasonable rejection.

In Sustaining human well-being across time and space: sustainable development, justice and the capability approach, Gutwald, Lessmann, Masson and Rauschmayer argue that development subsumes a number of  inter-related but not necessarily compatible societal goals including environmental protection, economic growth and social justice. Although reference is frequently made to SD by various actors, its conceptual core remains unclear leading some to dismiss the notion completely or to turn to more procedurally oriented definitions. Yet, the ideas and ambitions behind SD are far too important to ignore. Conceptual reflections about SD can relate to normative or strategic levels. The scientific (and not least the political) discourse has put much emphasis on strategic SD issues (e.g. substitution potentials of natural and man-made capital), but tends to neglect the normative question of what should be sustained. This is connected to the ethical grounding of SD. Although definitions of SD refer to both intra and intergenerational justice, the ethical principles underlying SD remain rather unspecific, if considered from the perspective of normative justice theory. The capability approach (CA) may provide an answer to both, the question of what to sustain, and the related need to conceptualise the ethical SD underpinnings.


This paper asks whether SD can be described by means of substantial freedoms (capabilities), as opposed to natural capital, economic growth or needs satisfaction, and concerns the CA's potential as a full-fledged theory of social justice and to overcome the specific problems posed by the intergenerational perspective.

More specifically, the paper seeks to answer two central questions: I) Does the CA qualify as a theory of intergenerational justice? II) How can the CA help to concretise ethical principles underpinning SD? The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 discusses the concept of SD. Section 3 discusses capabilities and the question of what to sustain and its relation to justice issues. Section 4 analyses the CA and its developments based on four concerns that a full account of (intra- and intergenerational) justice should address and the non-identity problem. Section 5 concludes.



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