Joachim H Spangenberg

Sustainable development is a complex concept, as several chapters in this volume illustrate. It is essentially a normative concept calling for a decent quality of life for all the earth's citizens now and in future, to be provided within the limits of the environment's carrying capacity. Its strategic core approach is the delimitation of responsibilities in space and time and the integration of policy domains for coherent strategies. This includes environmental objectives (respecting ecological limits), social standards (dignified life), economic conditions (competitiveness, often also growth), and institutional desiderata (e.g., participation, empowerment of communities and women, peace and justice). All four domains are addressed in the key documents such as the Brundt-land Report, Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration, or the Johannesburg plan of implementation, and monitoring all four dimensions has been a sine qua non ever since the United Nations published its first set of sustainable development indicators (UNDPCSD 1996). At least in principle, the same applies to the results of other major UN conferences (e.g., the Beijing summit on gender issues, the Cairo one on population, Istanbul for community development, and Copenhagen for social development).

Because the description as a combination of separate dimensions misses the inte-grative character of sustainability as much as the dynamics of the development process, a better basis for understanding may be the description as a metasystem, based on the coevolution of four independent but permanently interacting subsystems. For each of them, the internal conditions for permanent reproduction must be secured for development to be sustainable, and their mutual influence must not undermine this reproductive capability. Besides its specific mechanisms and structures, the institutional system in a sustainable development concept has its own set of normative objectives, frequently discussed in all reference documents.

Unfortunately, some key elements of the concept have been underemphasized or even lost in the current framing of the political debate by antietatism, free markets, deregulation, and economic relativism, according to which by definition every scarcity is relative. Elements lost include the existence of environmental (and social) limits (ignoring the full text of the Brundtland Commission's definition including them and leading to a definition of sustainability as an "organizing principle of discourses" with no restrictions on the possible outcomes), the need for integration (resulting in the metaphor of three pillars separate from each other), and the character of institutions as a fourth dimension in its own right. It is often doubted or ignored; institutions are considered as an element supporting sustainable development but not part of it (particularly in governance discourse), or they are subsumed in the social dimension.

The complexity of the concept of four coevolving systems and their delimitation and integration as categorical imperatives exceeds the limits of the steering capacity of current (increasingly deregulated) institutional settings. Good governance programs find the task challenging and are tempted to "pragmatically simplify" the concept (e.g., by ignoring imperatives and by merging or externalizing certain dimensions). As in system analysis, the analyst is free to define the system boundaries ("this can be done, but should it?").

This chapter explains why the institutional system should be singled out as a separate dimension of sustainable development, describes the incoherent use of the terminology so far, presents a refined definition of this dimension, and finally suggests a procedure for deriving institutional sustainability indicators.

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