In the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, we are constantly told that we need to return to economic growth in order to help the UK climb out of recession, and to reduce the national deficit in order not to burden future generations with a ‘mountain of debt’. But in this climate, other ways of thinking about what the future needs to look like, which until a few years ago were increasing in visibility, have become more or less invisible – at least to listen to politicians and the mainstream media. ‘Sustainability’, the first of the keywords to be discussed as part of Cardiff Philosophy Cafe’s Future for Wales events in 2013, stands for one such way of thinking.

Cover of "The Limits to growth: A report ...
Cover via Amazon

At last night’s Cafe, Professor Robin Attfield (Philosophy, Cardiff University) introduced an energetic and wide-ranging discussion on the meaning, history and political implications of the idea of sustainability, and the potential that might exist in a devolved Wales to move towards sustainable development.

In the 1970s, Robin pointed out, the origins of the idea of sustainability lay in the Limits to Growth (1972) report by the Club of Rome thinktank. Here, population growth, pollution and other externalities of industrial societies were seen as impinging on the ecological health of the planet to such an extent that it was though necessary to press for a curtailment of economic growth to help save civilisation. This meant, however, that the global South (or Third World, in the parlance of the time) would suffer, as the historically uneven pattern of economic development that favoured richer countries could not be rebalanced by encouraging growth in poorer countries.

In 1987, the UN’s Our Common Future (OCF) report introduced the idea of sustainable development (SD), defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This, as Robin noted, is not quite the same as saying that present generations need to provide for future generations (through saving, investment or some other form of transfer). This reflected the conclusions of an earlier report in 1986, which affirmed the ‘right to development’ as a way of securing the economic, social and cultural wellbeing of people across the globe. OCF therefore cut against the conclusions of Limits to Growth, noting also that non-human entities had intrinsic value, and that this would require a degree of protection for nature even in the face of sustainable development – a proviso which was then ignored at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

If SD makes room for continuing development, what should be sustained or preserved within it, in order to protect future generations? In the philosophical and economic literature relating to SD, two rival concepts can be found. On the one hand, weak sustainability prescribes that natural capital (raw materials, waste sinks, ecosystems and other features of the natural world that support human life) and human capital (infrastructure, the means of economic production, technology, social institutions, community, culture, knowledge) are to some extent substitutable for each other. In practice, this tends to mean that it is assumed that technological or financial means can generally be found to substitute for natural resources in the service of a general goal of maximising benefits across generations, as when exploitation of some natural resource is used to fund capital investment.  Strong sustainability, on the other hand, suggests that there are strong constraints on how far human capital can be substituted for natural capital. Indeed, much of our natural capital will simply need to be preserved. This may accompany a view of nature which attributes to it intrinsic value of the sort affirmed in OCF.

Other key debates, Robin added, drawing on the work of Michael Jacobs, concerned several issues. These included:

  • whether sustainable development could only be effectively realised through the participation of people affected by development issues;
  • whether it should promote the wellbeing of the poor, or focus on the environment;
  • and whether it should be motivated by a restructuring of lifestyles as well as a desire to preserve capital for future generations.

In addition, SD has been seen as coming into conflict with other values, such as justice. A genuinely sustainable society might, at the same time, have to be one that tramples on the individual rights of its citizens through the stringent regulation of their lifestyles. Considering how to implement it is also complicated by the question of timescales: over what timescale should we aim to preserve natural or social capital? Over what timescale, for example, should we expect individual welfare states to endure?

Robin next covered some of the implications of these debates. One of SD’s most pressing implications concerns climate change, the effects of which may already be being felt in flood-prone areas from Bangladesh to the USA. Scientific projections suggest that increases in average global temperatures of >2 degrees Celsius may have extremely serious consequences for vulnerable populations, and more widely.

English: Sustainability chart
English: Sustainability chart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
To avoid this level of temperature change, it is necessary to adhere to a strict global carbon budget, which needs to ensure that the total carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution began (c. 1750) does not exceed 1 trillion tons – of which around 55% has already been emitted. To ensure that the capacity of the climate system to absorb CO2 is not exceeded (this capacity being one of our most significant forms of ‘natural capital’), it is necessary to begin a radical decarbonisation of our societies in the interests of sustaining the climate system in something like the state it which it currently exists. This implication evidently counts in favour of strong sustainability.

But how to do it? Large-scale shifts to renewable energy would be needed, driven by global agreements. Decarbonisation should also be supported by choosing to constrain growth, in one of four ways suggested by Konrad Ott [PDF].

  1. Instead of economic growth, governments should promote quality of life (aka more happiness with less income).
  2. Degrowth should be pursued by reducing economic activity (though this would affect the global South’s right to development).
  3. Individual consumption should be discouraged through lifestyle choices (cycle, consume less, don’t fly).
  4. or the unsustainability of capitalism itself should be affirmed, and an alternative system developed.

Only the first three, Robin suggested, offer more than a ‘counsel of despair’, with option 2 having serious problems associated with it. So what can be done along these lines here in Wales to decarbonise the economy in the interests of sustainable development for future generations? Robin noted that the Sustainable Development White Paper currently being consulted on by the Welsh Assembly Government sets out a need to give ‘consideration’ to SD as something that policy should promote. But (as with the Government of Wales Act 2006), this only implies that WAG has the power to act in certain ways. There is no binding duty upon it to act to decarbonise, constrain growth or anything else.

In discussion, members of the audience asked to what extent psychological motivation was the key, and how this could be addressed. Whatever governments do, we might expect acquisitiveness to continue being a feature of how human beings behave. Would trying to change this inevitably result in a society in which we wouldn’t want to live, given the restrictions on individual freedom it might entail. Others suggested that attempting to redefine the purposes of living together in societies was key, with ‘growth’ being too blunt an instrument to measure ‘the good’.

‘What social system might achieve a balance between environmental, social and economic sustainability?’
‘How does culture define happiness and wellbeing?’
‘We need to redefine growth’
‘Wellbeing is the goal, SD the process’

From the audience…

Such redefinition would most likely not be possible through individual efforts, and probably not through government efforts either. But changes in what is considered ‘normal’ for people to want and desire might make a difference – and changes like this have to come about through collective efforts in response to challenges like decarbonisation and the choices with which they present us. Such changes have to be seen as desirable in themselves. Wales might be in the advantageous position of having access to renewable energy sources (wind, waves and tides), and if communities can gain benefits from developing these resources, then a Welsh experiment with new ways of sustainable living that increase well-being might be possible. But changes like this are not ones which governments, even well-intentioned ones, can bring about.

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