Understanding Coevolution

Such a system of institutions for sustainability is sustainable in itself, that is, it delivers a sustained contribution to the institutional objectives (e.g., as set out in Agenda 21; core institutional criterion), and it creates the opportunity space and favorable conditions for the economic, social, and environmental development processes to be sustainable (interlinkage criterion). Thus, as a result of the coevolution of the subsystems, in order to be sustainable the institutional system must not only deliver on the institutional objectives but also meet economic, social, and environmental demands. In other words, it must be socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable as well. Although this may look confusing at first glance, the idea behind it is simple: For each of the four subsystems to be sustainable, it is not enough to serve itself; it must also meet the sustainability demands of the other dimensions.

For instance, one key element of sustainable development as defined by Agenda 21 is the right to a dignified standard of living for all citizens. Whereas such a right is part of the system of rules governing human interaction and thus an institutional criterion, the dignified life and the well-being of the population as such are essentially social phenomena. Obviously, realizing this objective is dependent on and influenced by the prevailing institutions, and if they support the realization of the social objective, they can be considered socially sustainable institutions. For example, a thriving economy may be economically sustainable, but as long as it is based on overexploitation of the environment and salaries below the poverty line, it must be considered socially and environmentally unsustainable.

So in more general terms, we have to distinguish the dimension and the objectives, and to evaluate its sustainability we must subject each dimension to a multicriterion assessment. In this context, it is necessary not only to focus on the institutions as such but also to ask what the institutional criteria are for the sustainability of the economic, social, and environmental system.4 For instance, because institutions such as public organizations depend on a functioning economic system that provides resources such as tax income, an economy not providing such resources must be judged as institutionally unsustainable. Similarly, because public trust is an essential institution for any democratic state, an economic system permitting mechanisms such as tax evasion and corruption beyond a minimum accepted by society are institutionally unsustainable. Human cultures (including the political cultures) are institutions providing orientations, structured by mechanisms, and facilitated by organizations, but they are not possible without the active and often voluntary work of skillful and dedicated individuals, a social dimension phenomenon. Similarly, social cohesion and peaceful conflict solution depend on such people. To be considered institutionally sustainable, the social subsystem must deliver on these institutional demands.5 These examples illustrate that the relationship between the dimensions is not one of delivery based on demand and supply but a system in coevolution.

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