This text can be seen as a follow-up to a previously published (Aug 2012) blog post about the connection between ecological and social sustainability. The impetuous to write this text comes from participating in a seminar called "What is social sustainability?". I did wait for quite some time after the seminar to get access to the speakers' slides, but I now realize that the seminar was actually held almost two months ago! What can I say - time flies.
I went to the seminar in the hope of finding out 1) what social sustainability is and 2) what the connection is between social and ecological sustainability. I unfortunately can't say that I'm much closer to an answer to any of those two questions after having attended the seminar.
My basic problem with the concept "social sustainability" is that it feels like an edifice built on quagmire. I still don't know the difference between "social sustainability" and the all-inclusive and more general category "stuff we like". "Stuff we like" could potentially be a very long list of stuff that we (liberal modern democracies) like - stuff like (taken from the seminar slides) social mix, social capital, community, safety, life quality, service, identity, cohesion, influence, democracy, cooperation, inclusion, health, security, local resources, well-being, neighborliness, place identity, solidarity, tolerance, order, justice, inclusion, security, just distribution, equality (gender etc.), level of education, (public) health data, crime level, accessibility, housing costs and standards, degree of resettlement, participation and local democracy, active community organization, participation in local networks/community organizations - and probably a whole bunch of other things...
If social sustainability constitutes any and every criteria on that list, what analytical use can we have of that concept? How can people (researchers) who are interested in, but who emphasize different aspects of social sustainability even talk to each other? How is it possible to "measure" or compare the social sustainability of different societies? It seems to me that "social sustainability" is a pretty useless concept. I can be wrong and if so, I would very like someone to convince me of the opposite...
If you happen to be a researcher who is interested in, and would like to promote a "just society", you "only" have to define exactly what a just society means and then go out and "measure" (or interview etc.) people. Fine, but why then not just state that you are doing research on what constitutes a just society, or that you measure and compare the justness of different societies? Why dress it up as "social sustainability"? That was in fact my question before the seminar and it is (still) my question after the seminar.
I personally think that sustainability has to do with that which can be sustained over time. Unfortunately I can't really see that any of the criteria in the long list above has anything in particular to do with sustaining (a just or indeed any kind of) society over time. It might be the case that a just or a democratic society can be better sustained over time, but then again it might very well be that case that the opposite is true. We just don't know enough about that (yet). Many unjust and/or autocratic societies in history for sure were around a lot longer than democracy has been around yet... In my previous blog post, I wrote:
"In ancient Egypt, 95% of the population worked in the "agricultural sector" and they managed to (only) generate of surplus of food that was sufficient for feeding the remaining 5% of the population who were slaves and who were busy building the pyramids (beyond of course the minuscule ruling elite). The ancient Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC and was around for more than 3000 years. Do note that it came to an end not because of environmental degradation, but as an effect of military conquest - it became a Roman province 30 BC and was a veritable granary for Rome.
A civilization that lasts for 3000+ years seems to fulfill any possible requirements as to sustainability ("that which can be sustained over time"). Ancient Egypt with is ruling elite and with its peasants and slaves thus ought to be regarded as being a society that was "socially sustainable", right? If not, I'd like someone to please tell me why"
I asked one of the two seminar speakers if ancient Egypt can be considered to have been a socially sustainable society. She couldn't really answer the question, but professor and vice-president Göran Finnveden jumped in and answered that "Ancient Egypt did not live up to the Brundtland commission's definitions of sustainability as it did not fulfill the basic needs [of those who lived in that society]", e.g. sustainable development is supposed to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
I thought it sounded good at the time, but as I have thought about it some more afterwards it really makes no sense to me for several reasons:
1) By which standard do you measure if needs are fulfilled? If dirt-poor ancient Egyptian peasants were happy (for example of the fact that they were peasants instead of pyramid-building slaves), who then are we to state that their needs were unfulfilled? What about most of the people who lived in premodern times or as as hunter-gatherers for millions of years before modern civilizations came to be - were they happy? Happy according to who? Happy by their standards (whatever they were) or happy by our modern standards? If by our standards, which exactly and whose standards? More specifically, which exact needs needs to be fulfilled and how? Are the needs of current-day Haitians fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Greeks fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Cubans fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Swedes fulfilled? Are the needs of "the 1%" (the richest people in society) fulfilled? At what material level do you need to live in order to have your "needs fulfilled" and be regarded as socially sustainable? Or is fulfilling the needs of the present primarily about other things than material needs? If so, what is the connections between material and other needs on the one hand and the act of fulfilling them on the other hand?
2) Let us assume that the needs of ancient Egyptian peasants were not fulfilled. Still, their environmental footprint was so small that they for sure made sure that they did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their corresponding-but-unmet needs. Let us assume that the needs of current-day Swedes are fulfilled, but that it also is patently obvious that we nowadays fulfill our needs by "stealing" the ability of future generations to meet their needs (since we consume non-renewable resources at an unsustainable pace). It is thus obvious that future generations will not be able to enjoy the same standard of living that we have today. The conclusion would then be that neither ancient Egypt nor current-day Sweden lives up to the Brundtland definition of sustainability. Which society is then "best" at being (partially) sustainable, or which society is worst at being unsustainable? Isn't "social sustainability" (the long list above) defined in such a way that present-day societies nominally (arguably) live up to such a definitions, while all other/previous societies don't? But isn't that some sort of "presentism" equal to a discrimination of sorts of both the past and the future?
I'm a great fan of Richard Heinberg's text "What is sustainability?" (pdf file). It's (only) about ecological sustainability and it is a lucid text that clearly and logically outlines a definition (with five axioms) of what constitutes a sustainable society. It doesn't say anything about abstract stuff like "needs" or about weighing the future against the present. It instead says things like: Axiom three; "To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment". The meaning of such a statement is very clear, the statement is further explained in the two following paragraphs and it would be easy to measure if we live up to that challenge or not (we of course don't).
I would like to read a similar text about social sustainability, but I'm afraid I will never see it because I suspect it will never be written. I in fact suspect it can't be written since social sustainability seems to be an unagreed-upon hodge-podge of "stuff we like". Stuff some of us like, that is. Other people like other stuff more, and the chances of agreeing on a definition, let alone clearly outlining the implications in a logical manner seems to be an innately elusive goal.
Hopefully someone can contradict me and bring some light to this issue...?
Hopefully someone can contradict me and bring some light to this issue...?