Is Sustainable Development Sustainable? Thoughts On Sustainability Part 2
- I finished Part 1 of these Thoughts advocating for “profound structural changes” brought about collectively by an organised citizenship, but we must take into consideration that those changes will have to be designed once our goals are well defined. This statement may seem obvious and unnecessary, and in fact it is obvious. But sometimes, when planning collective actions, there’s a need to bring the obvious matter of goals to light so that we can realise the ambiguities, disagreements and misconceptions that live among us.
As I see it, the right framework to address the climate and environmental emergency must start from the recognition that, if we take as a reference a human timescale of interests, some environmental change processes are already irreversible, and we will see their consequences in the years to come. The temperature rise of our waters is a good example. Chemical properties of the oceans are already changing and, with them, marine ecosystems. Some fish species are migrating to the poles in search for better temperatures, and they are also variating morphologically. This may have consequences in human health. Furthermore, water warming can generate extreme, destructive weather and climate events. Apart, of course, from the loss of land surface.
So I guess that part of our efforts must be directed, in many cases, not to revert specific situations, but to avoid their getting worse. And let’s keep in mind that, although some damages can indeed be reverted, that won’t make climate and environmental change disappear. That is why we must also undertake the design of strategies that help us adapt to the new conditions in our planet. This is no longer a matter of reversion, but of adaption. Climate change is here and isn’t going to stop. Thinking otherwise is a grave mistake.
- Frankly, our notions of sustainability are not always adequately attuned to reality. For decades now, there’s been much talk of sustainable development, under the consensus that it was the appropriate way to address that which wasn’t still a crisis or emergency, but “only” climate change. But things are different now, and the mainstream meaning of sustainable development has been receiving sharp criticisms, with many people abandoning the expression.
The model of sustainable development has predominantly involved the belief in the possibility of constant capital growth. Or, to put it in other words, sustainability has been understood as a source of business opportunities in a capitalist economy.
Now, to speak of growth in the usual capitalist sense is to speak of accumulation based on expansion and non-stop intensive material exploitation for non-stop intensive material production for non-stop consumption. All this at the cost of non-stop pollution and waste accumulation due to the adoption of cheap production mechanisms to maximise profit and due to the fact that, to ensure non-stop consumption, items and services must be designed for disposability and built-in obsolescence (you may check Part 1 for more on this dynamic).
But in a context of resource exhaustion, global overpopulation, and a practically indigestible accumulation of residues, keeping capitalist growth, even if reduced, as the organising principle in economy (and, therefore, society), doesn’t seem very sustainable. In fact, it is quite the opposite. If we don’t stop ourselves, the planet will stop us. And it won’t be merciful.
It turns out then that, if understood according to mainstream discourses, development is the opposite of sustainability.
- Point 5 reproduces in many paragraphs the diagnose of degrowth theorists: It is unfettered capital accumulation, the systemic pursuit of growth at any cost, what has been devastating lands, exhausting resources, destroying ecosystems, emitting greenhouse gases and also creating inequalities. In other words, it is unfettered capital accumulation what has pushed us into a context of limitations to which we now have to adapt. We are no longer almighty. And transferring the good old logic of accumulation to “green business” is not a viable adaptation. It’s just “greenwashing” that logic.
Degrowth theories urge us to assume the situation of material limitation and make responsible choices that will imply a continued decrease in consumption and production. Instead of big fortunes continuing with their regular logic until the planet forces everybody to degrowth, we could degrowth in planned, rational ways, saving humanity from a great deal of suffering (which is already happening, mostly to poor communities who have had little to do in the creation of this situation).
Fundamental in this planned degrowth would be, as I see it, the control of natality by women. Degrowth also needs to be demographic. Despite worries about population ageing in Western countries, the world population hasn’t stopped increasing, and this, for obvious reasons, isn’t good news for sustainability. Feminism has a lot of work to do in many social sectors and Global South countries. And Western societies need to admit that immigration is not really a problem, but a solution to their demographic problems.
- Despite the fact that I agree with degrowth diagnoses, I wouldn’t classify myself as an unconditional supporter of such theories. Some streams in degrowth can bring us to ideals of frugality and retirement to enclosed communities that scare me. But I wouldn’t be so reticent to classify myself as a supporter of what has been called the capabilities approach.
While many, as stated in Point 5, have abandoned the expression “sustainable development” due to the capitalist underpinnings of the general approach to its second half, an alternative understanding of development pioneered by Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen and Philosopher Queen Martha Nussbaum has been spreading, with the United Nations adopting parts of it for Human Development Index Reports. Here’s a possibility for bringing sustainable development to a new life.
To Sen and Nussbaum, as, by the way, to degrowth theorists, money must be conceived as just a means for human development.
In industrial and financial capitalism, humans serve capital and not the opposite, a situation that leads to low-quality lives for many people. That is why these thinkers, who start from strong moral convictions, place the word “human” before “development”.
Human development is the capacity of human beings to live fulfilling lives, and this entails the unacceptability of GDP as an indicator of development. The total amount of wealth in a country doesn’t specify how that wealth is distributed, nor the opportunities for citizens to live fulfilling lives.
What Sen and Nussbaum suggest as a substitute system for measuring development is the aforementioned capabilities approach, the goal of which is determining if citizens have reached the right degree of capability in those areas considered fundamental for human flourishing. So, apart from the distribution of wealth, it will be necessary to know about the degrees of education, social abilities, emotional well-being, self-worth, access to information, choice possibilities and equality of opportunity (this is not an exhaustive list) which are guaranteed by the state to each citizen. According to this approach, not even an equal distribution of wealth is enough to ensure fulfilling lives. Humans need to be able to do certain things of capital importance with that wealth.
To this I’ll add with Nussbaum that, instead of growth, the leading value of every society should be that of creating the conditions for good lives. As a matter of fact, I think that, when wealth surpasses certain threshold, accumulation can’t rise levels of happiness or well-being in any way (I always use this argument to support higher taxes for the most well-off).
Sen and Nussbaum’s theories, then, provide us with an ethical model of development that doesn’t focus on growth. A model that, in its emphasis on the conditions for good life will unavoidably lead us in the direction of sustainability.
Within this theory, development and sustainability are made compatible. But not only that. Within this theory, development cannot exist without sustainability, and a non-discriminatory sustainability cannot exist without development. What a great starting point for the different bills, programmes and manifestos resulting from the recent Green New Deal fever, don’t you think? It’s even possible that some have already drawn inspiration from this approach.
That’s an issue we can discuss in Part 3 of this series if you like.
Anyway, for the moment: Welcome back, (human) development. We really need your guidance.