The Dimensions
of Sustainable Development

A not-anthropocentric holistic approach offering direction for Education and Development


The ‘Dimensions of Sustainable Development’ were proposed in the course of the Dutch ‘Interdepartmental Program Education for Sustainable Development’ as more orderly concept informing sequences to learn (Rikers, Hermans, & Eussen, 2010). The simple embedded model builds on the notion that within a maintainable ecology a fair spread of existential means, well-being, is the only base for accepting differences in welfare (Eussen, 2007).
We therewith sought to prioritize phenomena following their natural chronological sequence and from there their causal relations and inter-dependencies to achieve a better understanding of values.
Earth’s ecology is respected as conditio sine qua non while welfare is positioned as a human-inherent strive for the accumulation of values beyond the realm of well-being. Worded otherwise, when a human activity preserves the Earth’s natural capital and does not diminish the well-being of people living today or in the future, then it is sustainable (Remington-Doucette, Hiller Connell, Armstrong, & Musgrove, 2013). The Dimensions of Sustainable Development therewith present an initially not-anthropocentric worldview.

The Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Envisioning a logic instead of an unreachable balance

The Dimensions

a nested concept replacing the People, Planet, Profit mantra


first respecting Earth's life giving value


then seeing we all secure always enough for everybody


and consider the acceptance of abundance in stead off excesses.

Replacing the anthropocentric
People, Planet, Profit mantra

Eponymous models that presented planetary boundaries and society in an embedded way, such as ‘The Doughnut Economy’ (Raworth, 2013, 2017), in our view, remain fundamentally anthropocentric and reason within the limits and limitations of present-day structures and institutes.
Next to the idea of chronological perspective, the likely prioritizing of phenomena, not anthropocentric worldview and value-orientation, the Dimensions of Sustainable Development also invite to reason outside the present box and consider contemporary structures, institutes, common organisation and behaviour no longer given but subject to transition.
Following this, we propose the Dimensions of Sustainable Development to provide a framework for more logical reasoning as it unclutters the discourse(s), provides initial direction and has the capacity to synthesize education into a coherent framework.

You are either at the Table or on the Menu

An holistic integrative sustainability approach

The Dimensions appear close to other holistic integrative sustainability approaches (Griggs et al., 2013; Tilbury & Wortman, 2004), which however mention both ‘society’ and ‘economy’; we regard economy as the articulation of how society interprets and transfers values, both for well-being as well as for welfare. We, therefore, need a more distinct delineation to provide for a foothold to name and weigh values that underpin our decision making. Hence, we proposed a value- and not an actor-based approach, encompassing values regarding Earth and Well-being but also acknowledging that Welfare comprises not only tangible elements but also values such as those in the realm of the Arts, a persons’ sense of achievement and longer-term resilience.

The Dimensions call for and lead to a de-growth perspective by ways of (a critical pathway of) learning-processes reasoned through more naturally and less anthropocentric. 

Understanding Where we Are

Presenting Earth as encompassing dimension builds on its regenerative life-granting capacity, respecting ecology as a perpetual source, not as a resource to balance our behaviour. In contrast to the neo-classical idea man-made capital can in principle replace it and other notions of ‘weak sustainability’ (Hartwick, 1978; Solow, 1974) human and natural capital are seen complementary, not interchangeable. A thinking partly in line with ‘Planetary Boundaries’ (Rockström et al., 2009), although I regard the calculus of earth’s carrying capacity less relevant. Human expansion will eventually lead to the use of not replenishable sources to such an extent it is more relevant to question if development seen as growth can ever be sustainable (Tijmes & Luijf, 1995). Taking distance from the idea our ecology is only valuable through the lens of human interest, the Dimensions represent a quite strict manifestation of non-anthropocentrism. Each of us from youngest age on deserves a chance to understand Earth’s life-granting capacity as a universal value, one to internalise for reason of personal development and to relate to when considering Wellbeing and Welfare. This to sense, understand and form an opinion about for example ‘Ecological Modernisation’, postulating that technical and managerial approaches could solve the environmental crisis and lessen the need for radical changes (Baker, 2007), ponder if the challenge is not more about human life in harmony with the natural environment (Towell, 2016) or even adhere an ecocentric orientation and stand up for the environment independent of its value to humans (Kortenkamp & Moore, 2001; Thompson & Barton, 1994).
For the effectuation of ESD it is essential the learner is not derived from her own study and experiences, is allowed choice of value, position and action. Believing a human can care about something that is entirely beyond his use (McCauley, 2006),
I chose deep over shallow ecology (Naess, 1973), seeking to have all contemplate in a profound way instead of accepting nature to be dominated by science, technology and capitalist production (C. Merchant, 1981). If not, we would derive the learner from her own choice and pre-set a rather poor learning pathway, bypassing the essence of personal(ity) development. Moreover, it should not be taken for granted we have adequate understanding of Earth already, a substantial body of knowledge is still out there waiting for discovery. As we find ourselves to have learned too little form the little we know, new findings, insights, a better understanding and true advocacy are called for to begin with. 

What we Need

Whereas the survival of an animal depends on how well it adapts to the natural environment in which it lives, humans evolved to change and adapt it to provide for their fundamental needs. Doing so respectfully meets the essence of sustainable development, providing for the needs of humankind in an equitable way without doing violence to the natural systems of life on earth (Kemp & Martens, 2017). Having preluded on this informed idea when positioning Wellbeing as the inner dimension, the term still seeks to be understood. It is obviously most challenging, if doable at all, to define what wellbeing is to whom, when and under which circumstances. Let alone one can easily quantify the various qualifications and weigh them, finding persons and groups in endlessly definable modus vivendi. If we however reason from ‘mens sana in corpere sano’, there might be a certain harmony and consensus to start out from. Contemplating this and looking through the lens of ESD, 3 components of Wellbeing can be discerned:
- Fundamental needs i.e., minimal living conditions.
- The ability to live a full life, including mental, social and cultural aspects.
- The interdependency of both with Earth.

Discussing the Dimensions of Sustainable Development with a variety of people from early on, they regardless of nationality, gender, age, culture, expertise, profession, belief, age group or any other thinkable divide between them, qualified alike aspects as most relevant when asked ‘what do you need?’. From the individual perspective it always concerned basic needs ‘water’, ‘food’ and ‘shelter’ (cross-referring each to ‘health’), then ‘not living alone’ (social aspects such as family, group, interaction), followed by elements as ‘understanding’ and ‘expression’. ‘Happiness’ was largely conceived as the combination of multiple values. When contemplating ongoing thematic learning pathways, I found near perfect agreement youngsters should have fundamental and growing understanding of water, food, construction and energy.
It was as insightful as it is logic to find mental, social and cultural aspects came down to exchanging the ‘I’ (‘What do you need?’) for the ‘We’ (‘Are you alone needing, generating and using such?’), togetherness following out of joint achievement and use. From there we could register a series of silently remarked complementary values such as ‘company’, ‘fellow’, ‘partner’, ‘sharing stories’, ‘being together’.
Acknowledging there are those who adhere to (even) more subjective and less material manifestations of Wellbeing, it is essential for ESD to start out from a stricter formulation. Otherwise, this so essential inner Dimension will underly the more exact, objective elements of the outer and inner Dimensions Earth and Welfare, become subject to borderless and eventually fruitless debates that lead to ill-informed action or none. Not allowing Wellbeing a well-defined Dimension of its own leads to skipping essential values or leave them in the nimble middle where they dwindle. What divides Wellbeing from Welfare can be addressed by distinguishing between ‘in need of to be(come)’ and ‘desire’. Acknowledging Maslow’s classification regarding physiological needs that deal with survival and higher needs related to the use of our full potential, ‘Western’ civilisation tends to align self-actualization with Welfare (‘the more, the better’). Our understanding of Wellbeing ought not to be interwoven with Welfare (Marks, Simms, Thompson, & Abdallah, 2006) as it holds qualitative aspects such as autonomy, freedom, achievement and the development of deep interpersonal relationships’ (Kahneman & Sugden, 2005) as well as further mens sana aspects like self-fulfilment and love (Chuengsatiansup, 2003; Holden & Linnerud, 2007). All these justify the Wellbeing Dimension as holder of values to be respected for all.
For good order, despite the many positive associations also Wellbeing carries the conflict of unsustainable development within it, especially since it touches on our (over-)population in relation to earth’s carrying capacity. Although the speed and intensity of problems arising might be less dramatic compared to a welfare-driven consummation of our planet, earths’ capacity to support human life is limited even when considering most modest interpretations of wellbeing.  

What we Desire

The divide between Wellbeing and Welfare is marked most simply by pointing to all we desire to make, have, use and be when having achieved Wellbeing. Since the economy also substantially delivers on Wellbeing, the Dimensions-concept therewith diverges from a more polarising academic discourse in ESD that postulates
‘the economy’ as the cause and manifestation of (unsustainable) welfare. In contrast, in the entire OPEDUCA-concept economy is seen as a manifestation of human behaviour, the mere materialisation of our value-exchanges. The Welfare Dimension is positioned to mark overconsumption and excessive ownership of goods and materials (coal provides warmth in the realm of wellbeing, solar cell powered outside heaters on a winters’ terrace manifest welfare). Where such exchange of values and resources, whether or not explainable from a possibly deeply rooted human instinct to collect, own and use for own benefit, touches on other people’s wellbeing and earth’s life-giving capacity, it marks the demarcation line where value-transfer becomes value-abuse (coal to outside heater; the point is not to merely ponder the alternative of a nylon oil-based ski-jacket or the ecological justness of a sheep wool cushion and chunky-knit, but to question the heated outside seating to begin with).

We should realise more profoundly it is not ‘the economy’, nor industry in its lap, but all of us, as the consumers we are, who hold the key to sustainable development by way of controlling our consumerism (Dolan et al., 2006; Marks, Thompson, Eckersley, Jackson, & Kassar, 2006). It is thereto essential to be aware of the fact Earth has no cash-register, does not hold account of the natural resources it provides us. Consequently, our understanding of the value-chain is principally false as it starts off with free commodities from which towers of progress and wealth are built. Although I do not seek to quantify the price of one ounce of fresh air, obviously the pricing and margins throughout the system are likely to change considerably if we do. We would then be confronted with a new sensation of value, informing us where and in what degree we wrongly applaud products and services due to an unjust valuation of values. As amongst others reported in ‘Les instruments économiques au service du développement durable’ (Bourke & Vallejos, 2014), economic instruments can, by changing prices and market signals, discourage certain modes of production and consumption and encourage others Expanding on the analogy used above, when understanding the price of the outside heating (including production, logistics, energy-use, etc.), the relevant question we face is to what use we bring it. And having waived the outside heating for comfortable seating, what about mounting it on the side of an ambulance in cases of emergency-treatment in the cold?

There should be understanding the individual can gain Welfare over Wellbeing because of achievements resulting from (more, harder) work, talent, luck and intellect, from efforts adding to the Wellbeing of others. Is the comedian who grants millions a good laugh or the heart-surgeon expanding lives not entitled to a larger living room or a Rolex? But then how to value the Welfare of the computer-game developer who collects substantial margins from youngsters’ time of life and budget? Can we come to reason with ourselves when applauding a salary of 650.000 euro’s
a week for a soccer player and at the same time feel good about granting nurses a 1.000 euro one-off bonus for exceptional efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic? Judging the essence and value of Welfare in relation to Wellbeing rests on a profound understanding of phenomena and requires a deeper look at and within ourselves – there the challenge lies.

If we do not clearly demarcate between Wellbeing and Welfare, the larger mass of people, when having achieved the first, will run for the latter without giving it conscious thought. Will, driven by extrinsic, materialistic and self-imposed needs, follow others’ excessive consumption and self-inflict a deterioration of Earth and Wellbeing just achieved. As to the excessive part of welfare, Worldwatch President Flavin stated: “The drive to acquire and consume now dominates many peoples’ psyches, filling the space once occupied by religion, family, and community” (Starke, 2004). We seem to grasp around desperately, accepting illusions of happiness when seeing the soccer player on his private beach during a season-break and miss out on the air-purifying plant we just trampled on.

It is our choice, and I gather it within our ability, to steer ourselves to fulfil Wellbeing for all, ‘filling out’ that Dimension second to Earth. If we then have resources left to generate and uphold a Welfare Dimension, such might be most legitimate. Whether or not and in which degree Welfare as an excess over Wellbeing can be realized then depends on a fuller understanding of how products and services for both Dimensions are generated and brought to use. Re-calibrating our economy should result from a coming to our senses, follow a re-consideration of what we want to produce, to then change the means and systems we use for it. If not, present measures ill-informed might delude us more than we realise, be most temporary in effect and less sustainable than stubbornly preached.

Not looking in the eye what drives us to gather and consume makes cowards of us all in the light of sustainable development. Makes us turn of the shower half a minute earlier and feel good about it, to then dress in new trousers on the production of which a thousand-fold of the water ‘saved’ was spend, dressing up for it makes us feel good. If a not-replenishable resource like Yttrium is spend on the production of a cell phone combined with energy derived from fossil fuels to play a game, I will not judge that good or wrong, for one can regard the joy of playing a great fulfilment,
but consider the gamer entitled to an informed choice of value, based on insight and understanding how the same resources could be used to combat malaria and purify drinking water for the Wellbeing of many.

Endlessly discussing our system’s dependencies and dynamics, overstressing the complexity and uncertainly of it all, will not help but prevent us from looking at the larger picture made up out of quite clear strokes. Inundated with rules, programs and regulations we masquerade and falsify our positions and arguments, forget we can stop consuming meat this very moment, no longer change our closet of fine wearable cloths because somebody called a new fashion-season and switch of the mobile for an hour of paper-based reading. We can at any moment take most simple decisions that will instantly alter the gluttony of our global machinery because we are many. The thought that the deteriorating capacity of the masses can be turned to immense positive effect without even scratching Wellbeing achieved, should give as pause.
It feels as if we forgot we are still capable of action, as if too much reasoning not merely puzzles our will but deludes our mind and ability to act. Solace may come if we see to re-frame the message of ‘lower consumption’ as ‘psychological lightness’ towards the sensation of shedding of unnecessary heaviness, not afraid of losing out on illusionary values (Newton, 2007).

The acknowledgement of an understandable and justifiable Welfare dimension is critical for the inclusive and problem-solving character of the sustainability-debate as it more profoundly and from a constructive perspective invites all to the table.
It will also allow us to put the ‘inevitability’ of amorph economic growth under more scrutiny (Norgaard, 1992) and recalibrate the ‘politically powerful’ idea of progress towards a more realistic development paradigm (Barry, 1999). 

© Copyright 2004-2022 KidsLive! Foundation - All Rights Reserved