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Climate change and sustainable welfare: the centrality of human needs

Gough, Ian (2015) Climate change and sustainable welfare: the centrality of human needs. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 39 (5). pp. 1191-1214. ISSN 0309-166X

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Identification Number: 10.1093/cje/bev039


Since climate change threatens human well-being across the globe and into the future, we require a concept of well-being that encompasses an equivalent ambit. This article argues that only a concept of human need can do the work required. It compares need theory with three alternative approaches. Preference satisfaction theory is criticised on the grounds of subjectivity, epistemic irrationality, endogenous and adaptive preferences, the limitlessness of wants, the absence of moral evaluation and the non-specificity of future preferences. The happiness approach is found equally wanting. The main section shows how these deficiencies can be addressed by a coherent theory of need. Human needs are necessary pre-conditions to avoid serious harm and are universalisable, objective, empirically grounded, non-substitutable and satiable. They are broader than ‘material’ needs since a need for personal autonomy figures in all theoretical accounts. Whilst needs are universal, need satisfiers are most often contextual and relative to institutions and cultures. The satiability and non-substitutability of needs is critical for understanding sustainability. Finally, it is argued that human needs provide an indispensable foundation for many current ethical arguments for global and inter-generational justice in the face of threats from climate change. An appendix compares this theory with the capability approaches of Sen and Nussbaum and argues it to be more fundamental.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2015 The Author
Divisions: Grantham Research Institute
Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GE Environmental Sciences
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Date Deposited: 29 Jun 2015 09:17
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2021 02:17

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