danger to man and the result increasingly of humankind's own economic activities;
The flows-of-matter system (quantitative), a factor of planetary change (toward a reacidification) and thus a danger to human life on Earth; and
The system of societal and economic structures, factors contributing to quality of life.
The last item carries the idea of sustainable economy (Coomer, 1981). It encompasses the broader objective that includes, besides the natural resource problem, the question of the longevity and sustainability of our societal and economic structures.
This insight was at the basis of the movement that coined the English term "sustainability" in the early 1970s. The emergence of the "green" movement and its use of the term sustainability missed the wider perspective of a sustainable society. The broader perspective includes considerations such as full and meaningful employment and quality of life. That perspective is necessary for understanding the importance of the social, cultural, and organizational changes needed for a more sustainable economy.
Current human systems are the result of linear thinking. For example, the terms "added value," relating exclusively to production, and "waste" at the end of the first (and often only) use phase of goods, are notions of a linear industrial economy. Liability for waste stops at the point of sale, after production and resources are incorporated in goods. In contrast, cycles, circles, and loops have no beginning or end. In a true economy of loops there is no waste in the linear sense, and the economy is similar to natural systems, such as the water cycle.
Present national accounting systems and the use of the gross national product (GNP) measure of success is again an inheritance of the linear industrial economy. Adding income and expenses together is an indication of activity, not of wealth and well-being. Waste management, car accidents, pollution control, and remediation costs all constitute positive contributions to the GNP, at the same level as the manufacturing of goods. This shows a basic deficiency of national accounts. In this old frame of reference, waste prevention corresponds to a loss of income (i.e., it is economically undesirable). From a sustainability view, waste prevention is a reduction of costs that contributes to substantial national saving. For example, the waste management industry in Germany costs the economy (i.e., contributes to GNP) about US $45 billion per year. Waste prevention that reduces the need for this management would therefore contribute to national savings.
When discussing the benefits of moving toward a more sustainable society and metrics to gauge such change, it is important to keep the context of nonsustainable national accounting systems in mind.