Donnerstag, 20. Januar 2011

Return to Sustainability – Who’s making first move?

(Translation of my former blogpost by Paul Morland)

Thiess Petersen/Ole Wintermann

Over the past twenty years the term “sustainability” has been so extensively used that by now we can say that the original definition of the word has been somewhat watered down. In his book "Collapse“  on the ecological factors underpinning the demise of various civilizations, Jared Diamond explicitly refers to the origins of the concept of sustainability in Japan and Germany. The term achieved its current popularity through the work of the Brundlandt Report (full CV in Bokmål Norsk) and the Club of Rome studies ("Limits to Growth") of the 1970s.

While the original meaning of the term mainly referred to ecological sustainability (in the sense that present generations should take care to conserve nature and leave a largely intact planet to their descendants), sustainability is now increasingly stretched to cover both social and economic sustainability. 

In the field of ecological sustainability, the central challenges spring from the fact that mankind’s present lifestyle is overtaxing nature. If the growing world population with its increasing per capita level of prosperity and its ever greater consumption of resources continues to consume the natural resources of the planet at the same rate as in the past, global overuse of these resources will increase until it reaches an as yet unspecified tipping point. This pillaging and plundering of the earth will leave coming generations to pick up a huge bill for dealing with the consequences while also destroying the very conditions on which our lives are based.

When it comes to social sustainability, given the worldwide development of income over the past twenty to thirty years, we may well expect the income gap to go on widening in the future. And the room for government intervention to balance out these disparities through transfer payments, is steadily becoming more and more limited under the combined pressure of demographic change and its immense follow-on effects and the costs of maintaining the public infrastructure. The rocketing level of government debt we are now seeing as a result of the financial and economic crises and the ageing of society will reinforce the limitations on governments’ powers to act and decide for future generations. All this gives reason to fear that citizens’ future ability to take part in social processes will develop in very different ways while the danger of society polarizing and drifting apart continues to grow.

In the field of the production of material prosperity too there are numerous global trends which seem to indicate that economic sustainability is an unobtainable goal. Relentless pressure to lower production costs endangers long-term availability of the assets on which production is based (natural resources, labor and capital assets) while ever higher public debt in most economies threatens to tip into a permanent state of recession, the increasing global imbalance poses a threat to international security and the markets’ lack of moral scruples endangers the functionality of the social market economy.

A comprehensive sustainability strategy should include at the very least the following packets of measures:

Ecological sustainability can be consolidated through the use of environmental and resource-saving technologies. If they are to be put to a good practical use, technical possibilities need to be backed by economic strategies (such as higher taxes on consumption of resources). However, if this particular approach is only deployed by individual countries, it will have a negative effect on their respective national economies.

Realization of these possible solutions requires political decision-making. However, here we find the danger that such decision-making - which will undoubtedly be of benefit to society as a whole – will be blocked by particular interest groups in the short term and that the long-term negative impact of such intervention will only be much worse. What we need to ask is how such undue influence on government decision-making can be stopped or at least toned down.

Ecological sustainability means that each person can use fewer resources. So that this is not seen as a loss of quality of life by those who use fewer resources, we need to promote alternative lifestyles whose greatest satisfaction is not derived from consumption of resource-intensive goods. Yet nobody yet knows just how such a change in the values needed to achieve this can be brought about nor indeed if we first need to change the regulatory state framework to achieve it.

Reduction in government budget deficits which is now so urgently needed can only be achieved by less expenditure and/or more income. But how can government budgets be consolidated without restricting either social or economic sustainability? The same goes for the financing of systems of social security in an ageing society. No solution has yet been found to this dilemma which seems built into the system itself.

What has been problematic about all the proposed solutions so far is that they generally concentrate on one particular issue of sustainability and fail to take account of the impact of a particular measure on other aspects of an all-inclusive concept of sustainability. The challenge for governments is to come up with an all-encompassing solution that respects the interdependencies between various aspects of sustainability, and to develop a strategy in which solutions to individual issues of sustainability are not arrived at to the detriment of other sustainability aspects. At the same time we also need to raise the question of whether governments really do have the political will to drive forward a return to sustainable thinking.

In short, in our view there are three main questions that need to be asked:

1. How can we – either as a society or as single individuals – break out of the self-stabilizing process of non-sustainable economic development?
2. Do we first need to change regulations before we break out or do we need to adjust market mechanisms once we have done so?
3. In which social area will a change in mindset first take root – government, manufacturers or consumers?