The Environment in the Capabilities Approach: Why and how its constitutive role for capabilities matters

Brock, Antje (2014). 'The Environment in the Capabilities Approach: Why and how its constitutive role for capabilities matters' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Even though the importance of environmental issues is clearly recognized in the CA, Nussbaum's, Sen's and other's understandings of capabilities express a detachment from material-environmental elements: According to Nussbaum, capabilities themselves are 'created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social and economic environment'(Nussbaum 2011:20). In a similar vein, Sen states in the context of a critique on Rawls, where the environment is considered as primary goods, that 'primary goods are not constitutive of freedom as such, but are best seen as means to freedom' (ibid 1995: 80). The problem with these notions is the detachment of capabilities or freedoms from material-environmental elements. These are considered only in terms of external factors: as resources, conversion factors and in Nussbaum's capability Nr. 8, which is, however, too limited.

The reason for this reductionism is somewhat paradox and points to the core argument of the CA.  While the metric of human well-being and social justice is redefined as capabilities and effectively prevents the reductionism on mere means like (access to) resources, at the same time a new reductionism is being created because the environment is excluded from the constituents of capabilities.

As important as the swing away from the erroneous concentration on goods as a metric for human well-being is, it should not go as far as to a 'dematerialized' notion of freedoms. Looking at their real world manifestations, there is no such state where capabilities and functionings can exist as environment-free phenomena and be adequately described as such. Instead, human capabilities and functionings are inevitably and constantly co-produced and shaped by social processes in their necessary and constitutive interplay with environmental processes. Therefore, I suggest to conceive of capabilities as emerging from and consisting of constant, irreducible inter-relations between environmental and social elements, RES. This (re)locates the metric of social justice from an unexplicated respectively 'dematerialized' social sphere into these system of relations, RES. While other authors already made insightful contributions to the role of the environment in the CA such as Holland (2008), Schultz et al (2013), Polishchuk/ Rauschmayer (2012), and others, I will focus on the relational and processual character of capabilities and its consequences. Here, I will refer to the concept of 'relational values' by Muraca (2011). I will thereby deepen some of the ontological, axiological, conceptual and empirical implications of integrating the environment into the constituents of social justice.


Conceiving environmental elements as co-constituents of capabilities and functionings, rather than - admittedly essential, but only external - influencing factors, is consequential. It expresses that environmental components do cause direct, internal changes to human freedoms and do not only affect them in a mediated way. Conceptually, the specification of capabilities as being composed of the RES prevents the danger of a consequential misconception: It suggests a hierarchy of importance if ultimately valuable objects are defined solely in terms of social aspects while environmental-material components are considered only as external to them. This can cause an unequal consideration and weighting of social and environmental components of capabilities from the outset. An explicit integration of environmental elements in the constituents of capabilities as per se equally valuable to social components at the same time reprioritizes the environment's theoretical status in the CA.


On the empirical level, the suggested RES-perspective indicates a reversal of the underlying rationale of how to consider the environment when evaluating social justice. The current mainstream way of analyzing social justice accounts for environmental elements in a rather reactive and narrow way, mostly after they became salient and/or problematic in their roles as resources or conversion factors. In contrast to that, the suggested default mode is to proactively and systematically looking for, and integrating environmental components. They should be considered in a wide range of cases where they are de facto or potentially involved in a significant way in co-creating, maintaining, influencing, ending and preventing people's valuable capabilities. The RES-perspective aims at maximizing the congruence between the real-world-manifestations of issues of social (in)justice and the design of the theoretical metric by which they are conceived. Without differentiating and explicating the environment's roles for social justice and also explicating its role as co-constituents of capabilities, this characteristically high congruence in the CA would remain fundamentally challenged.


The reprioritization of the environment's theoretical status is especially important in times where high attention is - rightly so - given to the economic dimension of human life. It has to be avoided that the environmental crisis dwarfs the attention drawn to the global crisis of the interactions between physical-environmental and social aspects, of which economic issues are only a sub-category. 

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