What does a “sustainable society” look like? How does it function? How far away from the ideal is the UK? What should we be doing – politically, economically, socially – to become more sustainable?
When we talk about “sustainability” we tend to think in environmental terms – looking at renewable energy, re-cycling, reducing waste, looking after our green spaces, growing and cooking our own food.
Managing our non-renewable natural resources better is essential to the long-term survival and well-being of the human race. But the way we interact with each other has huge significance for our ability to reduce our negative impact on the planet that supports our existence, and the other living things that make up its global ecosystem. Changing attitudes towards the natural environment can only be done by persuasion and consensus, and “Green” platitudes uttered by the wealthy and well-fed from the security of their homes will tend only to anger people struggling to survive day to day. People in abject poverty or even those simply pre-occupied with making ends meet, worried about finding or keeping a job, or even a home, have little time for subtle and long-term changes to the planet. People who feel isolated, threatened, or disenfranchised, cling to what they know and view with hostility anything that tries to force them to change their behaviour.
That set me thinking about what “social sustainability” means, and what the political implications of the idea are. Below are my thoughts on this subject; but I would really like to start a debate about what sustainability truly means and why it should matter to every man, woman and child regardless of their wealth, influence or political persuasion.
“There is no such thing as society”
Societies are made up of individuals persuing individual dreams and ambitions. But humans are social animals, and we achieve these dreams and ambitions by interacting with other humans – starting from birth, with the interactions between mother and baby, parents and children, brothers and sisters. When groups of unrelated people share a geographic space, an intellectual space, a workplace or any other kind of space, we call the collective interactions “society”.
Wikipedia: “A human society is a group of people involved in persistent interpersonal relationships, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or social territory, typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships (social relations)…”
Q1. What patterns of relationships pertain to sustainable societies?
I believe all the traits listed below are inevitable and normal features of interactions between human beings, but those in the left hand column tend more towards creating sustainable communities than those in the right hand column.
Co-operation over competition
Compassion over blame
Encouragement over criticism
Education over condemnation
Understanding over obedience
It certainly feels to me that current UK society emphasises the divisive and negative and denigrates the constructive and positive
Q2 What is the role of Government in a sustainable society?
Premise 1: Government should act at all times in the best interests of the society as a whole, and not for the benefit of one faction in particular.
Party politics tends to run directly counter to this concept and encourage divisive, negative attitudes. I therefore put forward the idea that party politics is not conducive to a sustainable society, and we need to develop new ways of representing the disparate views of individuals to achieve democratic consensus.
Government’s role is to:
– Determine the laws that support and sustain society
– Enforce society’s laws equitably and impartially
– Organise/maintain the defence of the society against outside threats
– Organise/maintain the essential infrastructure of the society
– Ensure individuals in the society have the means to live a sustainable lifestyle
– Ensure individuals understand and deliver their responsibilities to society
– Ensure the society protects and supports individuals who are less able to live independently (whatever the cause or nature of their loss of capability)
Those elected to Government have a duty of care to respect the individual worth of every member of society and to manage the capital flows of society to the benefit of all members of the society:
- Effective economic management that allows all individuals in society to live sustainable lifestyles.
- Effective social management that ensures individuals are safe, healthy, and well informed, and deliver their social responsibilities
- Effective stewardship of knowledge and delivery of an effective and comprehensive education system
- Effective and constructive management of infrastructure, industrial and architectural heritage
- Effective environmental stewardship
- Effective nurturing of the spiritual wellbeing of individuals in society, recognising the role of the arts in maintaining a sustainable society
Premise 2: “Sustainable societies are made up of individuals who live sustainable lifestyles.”
I’ve tried to brain-dump what I consider constitutes “a sustainable lifestyle”. Do you agree with my list? What have I missed ?
A “sustainable lifestyle” means individuals:
- have adequate food, shelter and warmth
- are free to determine their own destiny
- do not live in fear of physical, mental, emotional or sexual abuse
- do not live in fear of losing their means of survival
- have fair terms and conditions of employment
- can access professional support for their physical and mental wellbeing
- are free to explore/realize their potential (in whatever field)
- are fairly rewarded for labour and talents expended in the context of business, philanthropic or social activities.
- are able to generate and retain personal wealth
- are able to bequeath personal wealth to their children, friends or family
- accept and are able to discharge the responsibilities of being a member of society
- are encouraged and supported to pursue life-long learning
- are encouraged to develop creativity
- individuals who are unable to look after themselves or are in any way less able to live independently are fully supported by society to live as full a life as they are able to live.
Premise 3: “An extreme divide between richest and poorest members of society is unsustainable”
If the rules governing society prevent the poorest from living sustainable lifestyles, the society will implode. The acquisition of personal wealth must therefore be counter-balanced by the responsibility of being a member of society. It is the role of Government to achieve this balance.
Q3 What is the role of markets in a sustainable society?
Premise 4: “Markets are an essential component of a sustainable society.”
Trading for profit is a long-established and fundamental trait of human societies. The activities associated with business and trade develop innovative technology, create & distribute goods and services and provide models for organizing groups of people in a joint enterprise. Crucially, these activities generate financial capital which provides the means of exchange for all the other critical capitals of a balanced society.
However, of their nature markets tend towards competitive models rather than co-operative ones, and therefore in a sustainable society ‘market forces’ must be subject to the best interests of society, as determined by the society’s government. Once again, those elected to government have a duty to get the balance right, basing decisions on evidence and fact rather than prejudice and vested interests.
It is not a “right-left” divide – it is far more complicated than that!!
Premise 5: “The essential services which support a sustainable society are co-operative ventures not competitive ventures.”
Competition is only constructive where there is sufficient profit to be had to support a number of competing enterprises, providing a genuine choice to the customer. Public services are not competing enterprises, but rather need to work together to deliver a comprehensive service to the society which sponsors them and benefits from them.
While the organisations which deliver public services can learn from how commercial businesses do things, the purpose of the organization should not be subverted to the purposes of commercial enterprise. The objectives of a business are to run a profitable business; the objectives of a public service are to make best use of the funds society makes available to provide effective integrated services to that society.
I suggest that the ‘essential services which support a sustainable society’ comprise:
- health care (physical, mental & spiritual)
- care and support (of children, the elderly, the sick, those with disabilities)
- scientific research
- essential infrastructure (roads, transport, telecommunications)
- defence, diplomacy, international development
These services should be delivered without:
- exploiting individuals or compromising their ability to live a sustainable lifestyle
- wasting money, skills or resources
- discriminating against any sector of society
- subverting the aim of the service to commercial gain
I am conscious that this list does not include support for the unemployed. Dealing with unemployment falls under the key Government role of enabling ALL members of society to live sustainable lifestyles. If capable adults cannot earn the means of survival and contribute to society through paid employment, the individual and society have a joint responsibility to work out how else that individual can contribute to society and live a sustainable lifestyle.
The dysfunctional emphasis UK society (among most others) places on financial capital creates the concept of “unemployment” by failing to value what individuals contribute in other capitals. These attitudes create disenfranchised communities and individuals who neither know nor care how they can contribute to society. While it is probably not possible to eradicate such disengagement completely, that should not prevent us from aiming for Utopia.
Premise 6: “An extreme divide between richest and poorest members of society is unsustainable”
Sustainable societies are created by engaged and responsible participants. Individuals accept the responsibilities of being a member of society and understand how they contribute. Individuals respect and value the contributions made by others, and are valued for contributions other than financial – for example, providing care for other individuals, by developing or nurturing artistic, creative or sporting talents, by acquiring or enhancing knowledge and skills, by working to improve environmental stewardship, by conducting scientific research, etc.
If the rules governing society prevent the poorest from living sustainable lifestyles, the society will implode. The acquisition of personal wealth must therefore be counter-balanced by the responsibility of being a member of society.
So, having prefaced these musings by stating that this is a subject that should command attention from everyone regardless of their wealth, influence or political persuasion, I reach the unavoidable conclusion that the quest for sustainable societies takes us to something that looks remarkably like socialism. If someone can argue a logical case for the right-wing alternative, I’m happy to hear it.
However, it seems to me that the divide between “right-wing” politics and “left-wing” politics belongs to another age when the Tory party represented the interests of the land-owning gentry and the Labour party the interests of the newly-enfranchised working man. This is thinking born of a class-based society and breed politics designed to shape society for the benefit of one faction, not for the society as a whole.
Today’s society, shaped by universal franchise, is a much more complex mix. Working men and women own property. Power has moved out of the hands of the landed gentry into the hands of corporate tycoons and oil barons, often people far divorced from the rest of society. This kind of society demands more sophisticated political debate. How can we break through the ‘right-left’ smokescreen which distracts most of the electorate and figure out how – or even, if – we can move forward to a more sustainable society?