This paper begins with the question “What is special about those institutions that bring about sustainability”? In an attempt to answer this, I use the Institutions of Sustainability (IoS) framework, which structures sustainability analytically according to four main categories, namely: transactions, actors, institutions and governance structures. I then argue that sustainability has to do with balancing two sorts of costs an actor may face while being constrained by institutions. One is the costs from the integrative effects of institutions on his individual decision making. The other is the costs from the segregative effect of institutions. In this way, sustainability can be understood as societies’ compromise between institutions that integrate individual actors’ decisions in a wider system, holding them fully responsible for more or less all of the effects of their choices and those institutions that partly free individual decision makers from parts of such responsibilities. If a governance problem is characterized by a high degree of “decomposability”, segregative rules may be sufficient. The more a governance problem is characterized by complexity due to low modularity and high functional interdependencies, the more accurate integrative rules may be. The paper concludes by identifying “sustainability area of institutional embedding” as a regulative idea in understanding sustainability.
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