My Vision of Sustainable Society and How to Deliver It
There are plentiful examples of sustainable societies and the Australian Aboriginals are the first to spring to mind. It is a society that evolved and maintained the longest known tradition on Earth reaching back approximately 45,000 years, despite climatic changes and the invasion of Europeans. The key to such long-spanning existence of the Aboriginals has undoubtedly to do with how they related to their environment, how they preserved their resources, how they organized their society, and how they maintained their culture. And yet, even the Aboriginals stand little chance of survival in the face of the upcoming environment Armageddon, although I must confess this is very speculative on my part. While drawing on the example of the Aboriginals, and how they lived in a sustainable manner throughout thousands of years, could be instructive and purposeful, I think it would do a far greater service if one looked at a vision of sustainable societies in the global scale. After all, our Planet has become an inter-connected and totally integrated place and it is no longer possible to live in isolated systems and place.
I see the sustainable society as the one where the society and its individual members can prosper without compromising the ability of future generations to prosper, in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society, but also in harmony with its surroundings, and ecological limits in particular.
The idea of prosperity is central in my view to a sustainable society, for it extends well beyond the simple meeting of our human basic needs and embraces such important concepts as our quest for meaning and our desire to flourish. Of course, all this within ecological limits.
It is paradoxical that prosperity in today’s world is completely misunderstood, and is seen almost exclusively in its material dimension. I believe this extremely limited view of prosperity is dysfunctional and is the very reason why most of our societies are unsustainable in the long-run, and hence are doomed to “collapse” sooner or later.
Undeniably and as implied above, the vision of prosperity has a material dimension and it would be completely perverse to talk about humans flourishing when there is inadequate food and shelter, which is the case for billions in the developing world. But it is also easy to see that the simple equation of quantity with quality, of more with better, is false in general. Stuff on its own doesn’t help us flourish. And sometimes it can even impede flourishing.
To do well is in part about our ability, as individual human beings, to give and receive love, to enjoy the respect of our peers, to contribute usefully to society, to have a sense of belonging and trust in the community, to help create the social world and find a credible place in it. In short, an important component of prosperity is the ability to participate meaningfully in the life of society.
The difficulty is that consumer society we live in today in the West has appropriated a whole range of material goods and processes in their service. We’re certainly not the first society to endow mere stuff with symbolic meaning. But we are the first to hand over so much of our social and psychological functioning to materialistic pursuits. And what scares me the most is that there are are billions of us lined up in the waiting room across Asia and other parts of the World, ready to join this affluent consumer society, ready to hand over their minds to these materialistic pursuits.
The sad fact remains that in today’s consumer society our sense of identity, our expressions of love, our search for meaning and purpose; even our dreams and desires are articulated through the language of goods. The most fundamental questions we ask about the world and our place in it are played out through consumerism. Unlimited access to material goods stands in for our hopes of freedom. And sometimes even for immortality.
Yes, material possessions offer novelty. Yes, they comfort us and offer us hope. Yes, they connect us to those we love and seek to emulate. But these connections are fickle at best. They are as likely to impede as to facilitate. They fade and distort over time. Their promise is ultimately groundless. And it is here that the delusion thrives. We’ve lost ability to distinguish what matters from what glitters. We’re trapped in a labyrinth of affluence, destined to remain there until the spell is broken. When it is all lost, we will be lost with it.
The first signs of the emerging crises are easy to spot. Our economies depend on growth, to keep the nonsensical consumerism well oiled, and yet the growth is no longer there or more difficult to find at best. And without growth there isn’t enough work for all us, which is why so many in the West start to experience financial hardship, one that is heightened in our incredibly unequal world. But beyond this, the millions of unemployed across the West experience grief and crisis of confidence that threatens our social world.
Climate change and resource scarcity are other signs. Rainforests destruction may be a long way from here, as is extreme poverty across developing world, but it is happening, here and now.
To make our society sustainable we must start the reconstruction process: individual, social and institutional. Rebuilding prosperity, the new prosperity, from the bottom up is what is required.
Beyond the provision of nutrition and shelter, prosperity consists in our ability to participate in the life of society, in our sense of shared meaning and purpose and in our capacity to dream. We’ve become accustomed to pursuing these goals through material means. Freeing ourselves from that constraint is the very basis for change. This won’t happen by allowing the market free rein. Nor will it happen simply by exhortation, because we don’t want to give up our social and psychological freedoms.
Progress relies crucially on the construction of credible alternatives. The task is to create real capabilities for people to flourish in less materialistic ways, and to live their lives frugally. At a societal scale, this means re-investing in those capabilities: physically, financially and emotionally.
In particular, we need to revitalize the notion of public goods and also start moving away from enclosing property, resources and knowledge to the sharing of it through “Collaborative Commons”.
The former is about renewing our sense of public space, of public institutions, of common purpose. It is about investing money and time in shared goals, assets and infrastructures. Green space, parks, recreation centres, sports facilities, libraries, museums, public transportation, local markets, retreats and ‘quiet centres’, festivals: these are some of the building blocks for a new vision of social participation.
The latter is about creating a new economic order whereby marginal cost of everything, or nearly everything, becomes close to zero and where we move from an economy of scarcity to an economy of sustainable abundance. This sounds utopian, and yet it is within our reach as technological innovation drives the cost of energy, communication and transportation down while eliminating unsustainable resource-usage. It is because of this drive that more and more companies are finding it hard to sustain their margins and profits, and why corporate growth is so hard to find. Put differently, companies have been so good at cutting costs that slowly, but surely, there will be nothing left to cut, and nothing left to appropriate.
While corporate, vertically integrated corporate giants are losing their grip on energy, communication and transportation monopolies, the same energy, communication and transportation are becoming universally and democratically available to all of us in the West. This explains why the “Collaborative Commons “are possible in the first place and how the necessary social change can happen. More specifically, the democratization of energy, communication and transportation will release a new SOCIAL entrepreneurial spirit, one that is less autonomous and more interactive; less concerned with the pursuit of pecuniary interests and more committed to promoting quality of life; less consumed with accumulating market capital and more with accumulating social capital; less preoccupied with owning and having and more desirous of accessing and sharing; less exploitative of nature and more dedicated to sustainability and stewardship of the Earth’s ecology; less driven by the invisible hand and more by the helpful hand; less utilitarian and far more emphatically engaged.
But new economic order is only possible if we can meet indispensable condition for new economy, such as social and economic equality, universal access to work, and the very obvious respect for ecological limits.
We know that unequal societies drive unproductive status competition and undermine well-being, not only directly but also by eroding our sense of shared citizenship. This explains why unequal societies just cannot flourish in the long-term. But equality has intra-societal dimension, especially when it comes to the unequal distribution of wealth between the developed and the developing world (better known under the term “poverty”). It matters because if misery and frustration are allowed to have their way, and anger and violence take over, it is quite clear that the spark will arrive, and that the poor will strike out because they feel that they have nothing to lose.
Work also matters, for all sorts of reasons. Apart from the obvious contribution of paid employment to people’s livelihoods, work is a part of our participation in the life of society. And it is for this reason that access to work and fair remuneration for it should be a basic and universal human right. Of course, in the world of abundance it is not desirable for us to work 40 or 80 hours per week (as incredibly is often the case), and this typically for a meagre wage. Perhaps 20 hours will do for a fair and liveable wage, leaving us with enough time and energy to care for our families, to congregate with other members of our society, to flourish and to contribute at all levels of our own choice.
Lastly, we know too that the economy must remain within ecological limits. The limits on economic activity are established in part by the ecology of the planet and in part by the scale of the global population. Together these factors determine equitable levels of resource use and ecological space per person. And within any given economy, these levels indicate the limits of sustainable economic activity. Such limits need to be coded directly into the organization and working principles of the economy. The identification and valuation of ecosystem services, the greening of the national accounts, the identification of an ecologically-bounded production function: all of these are likely to be essential to the development of a sustainable economic framework. Crucially, all productive activities in such an economy must satisfy three clear operational principles: positive contribution to flourishing; provision of decent livelihoods; and low material and energy throughput. These operational principles require a completely new perspective, one where every economic organization works with the grain of community and the long-term social good, rather than against it.
Let’s repeat what sustainable societies should deliver! It is capabilities for flourishing, means to a livelihood (perhaps through paid employment), participation in the life of society, a degree of security, a sense of belonging, the ability to share in a common endeavour and yet to pursue our potential as individual human beings.
Delivering all this is a huge challenge, and not a single human society has achieved it yet. Throughout thousands of years of human existence, we humans had to struggle for the most basic of our needs. The advent of modern capitalism brought unrivalled material prosperity to us in the West, but at the expense of our Planet and of our ability to flourish. I am convinced that we are at an unprecedented point of our human history, when prosperity of every human is within our reach, and when there is a chance for us to preserve the ability of future generation to prosper as well. This is how I want to see the future, and how I believe it will unfold. How else could I ever make sense out of it all?
Sources of Inspiration
1. “Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet”, by Tim Jackson, 2009
2. “The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism”, by Jeremy Rifkin, 2015
3. “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, 2009
4. “Sustainable Societies: The Australian Aboriginal Example”, http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/sustainable-societies/