Sustainability - The One Way forward?

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At a Future Workshop in Prague, organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, 19 participants identified more than 230 distinct problems in the context of our current resource-use and management. Coming from ten different European countries and from a range of different backgrounds including law, engineering, natural and social science, reaching from economics to sociology, we all agreed that change has to occur, but in the end and after much deliberation, we had to admit that there was no perfect recipe for sustainability, no one tool to be used, no fairy with her magic wand, as it were.

Where is it that change has to be made to make our world more equitable and responsible for further generations? How do we generate that kind of change without forcing people to live in a totalitarian system where each aspect of their life is controlled while enforcing change both among the public and institutions (governments, companies, etc.)? Drawing on discussions that took place during these days in Prague, this essay elaborates on the problems, visions and realisations to achieve a more equitable and responsible way of resource-use and living.

What follows is an overview of some of the different problems we tried to address during the workshop (in formal and informal discussions), and of the possible practical solutions we came up with.

1. Problems and Conflicts

We live in a world with a population of more than six billion people, more than half of them living in urban areas. Among these six billion, one out of seven is starving. The world's most important resources (food, land, water etc.) are largely controlled by a minority of the population. It seems impossible to address any of the issues of (un)sustainability and positive change without taking into consideration the conflicts that are likely to arise.

These conflicts will arise on multiple levels, between various groups and will manifest themselves in various ways; from people rioting against high food prices, unable to grow food themselves, to disgruntled corporations protesting against limitations on import and production possibilities.

Countries and international institutions tend to vote in favour of large corporations, holding neo-liberalism and free-market capitalism as universal values. They promise prosperity and development for all - even at the cost of civil liberties and social policies - while the main measure of value is economic growth. But a finite world growth will always have limitations; the resources that define growth will always become scarce.

1.1. The Problem of Economic Growth and GDP

Despite coming from different backgrounds, we had no doubt that the current fixation on growth and the way of measuring countries' progress by their GDP are misleading and destructive. In a world where deforestation, sales of antidepressants or weapon manufacturing all contribute to the magic number of the GDP, how could we say anything about the welfare of a country based on this one number? GDP masks the poverty of masses by the extreme wealth of a few.

This inequality of wealth and power generates a feedback loop. The profiteering of a handful of corporations perpetuates a system leading to injustice towards present and future generations. As soon as we take GDP and growth out of the development equation, we are left with other, more realistic and ultimately much more important factors, such as education, housing, health and food quality, and probably the most important one, overall happiness. These factors can be measured; they have true impact on human lives and they are beyond the calculation frames of GDP, though they’re not coupled to growth either. Focusing on such issues we are choosing to develop ourselves not by economic growth but by improving our quality of life.

1.2. Growth versus Degrowth

Degrowth is quite a taboo concept in the neoliberal world, since it speaks against the fundamental concept that drives its philosophy. However since we are quickly reaching the limits of what our planet can provide without destroying itself, we must consider this concept as a possibility to a sustainable (economic) existence.

The problem with this discussion is that people have various opinions of what degrowth would actually look like. Some think of it as limiting growth beyond what it is today and using technology and education to reduce the need for resources. Others think of it as forcing a reduction in consumption, resource exploitation and/or even population. Also, there seems to be much deliberation over what the way to de-growth would be. For some it is to retreat into smaller communities which would be completely or almost self-sufficient, possibly leading to isolationism and a breakdown in the global, cosmopolitan society we have built where cultures are becoming less foreign to each other. For others, the answer lies in top-down state enforcement, giving the state near-ultimate power to dictate how many children we can have, how we live, what we eat and drink, leading to some Orwellian totalitarian nightmare. It is hard not to go into extremes while discussing degrowth, however it is also hard to find excuses to carry on as usual.

The idea of green growth enters this picture. Green growth seems difficult to work when aiming for intra- and inter-generational distributive justice. It tries to apply the concept of sustainability to the current economic system, serving as another excuse to continue down our current path, but gives us false peace of mind, that at least we are trying. It is a dead-end, as under the guise of being "green" the same concept of limitless growth in a finite world is pursued.

1.3. Individualism versus Collectivism

Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the individual? Some of the most heated arguments during our workshop came from this conflict. We all want to be free, respected as individuals, celebrated for our diversity, but what happens when our diversity and individuality makes us incapable of adapting to a social standard which is necessary to ensure sustainability? And what happens when society forces everyone to conform to its standard, creating uniformity? Probably, as many of us were from countries with a communist past, the utopistic, egalitarian approaches towards sustainability raised some alarms. We felt that the solution lies somewhere in the middle ground; the individual accepting his or her part in society while society embracing the value of the individual. Easier said than done!

1.4. Consumption and Production

What came first, supply or demand? It is hard to answer this question. Had we wished to consume products first, encouraging corporations to produce goods to fulfill our needs, or had corporations produced goods and then persuaded us that we wanted and needed them? Uncontrolled production has resulted in enormous amounts of resources being wasted on items that have either been sold cheaply, have been used for a short time and discarded or become outdated and replaced.

The actual economic and social costs of our goods are not reflected in their price while the economic system builds on sustaining and increasing consumption. If we can afford it, we like to go for holidays to a warm island or buy a new smartphone. In the end, we have all become accustomed to a certain "standard of life" in the developed world. It is hard to imagine that one day we would have to conserve water, not when it suits us, but because if we aren't careful, we will run out of it.

1.5. Corporate Power and Globalization

Separate discussions during the workshop on mining, food, large-scale land acquisition, growth and energy independently came to the conclusion that uncontrolled profit-seeking, investment and corporate power are some of the primary reasons for the mismanagement of natural resources and the violations of human rights. There is a huge gap between the rights and the duties of corporations. Regulations are not sufficiently securing people's access to land, preventing agro-businesses from exploiting water and soil and restraining destructive mining investments.

Due to the lack of transparency in political processes, it is not always easy to expose the influence of big business on government decisions. It is even more difficult for citizens to prevent it. It is apparent in many countries that laws and regulations often serve to secure the current economic order and power relations instead of protecting human rights and the well-being of citizens. It can lead to the criminalisation of people fighting for their human rights in the context of mining or make it more difficult for renewable energy agendas to be established due to the political bargaining power (for e.g. nuclear energy companies). Here criteria of distributive justice are systematically left out.

1.6. Resource Exploitation

As demand for goods rises (or is artificially created), so does the need to exploit resources rise. And as technology seeks to improve efficiency of resource exploitation, we are faced with the Jevons Paradox phenomenon, where because technology is more efficient in getting what we need from raw resources, the demand for that resource rises even further.

Uncontrolled extraction of raw materials will lead to the depletion of our most crucial resources, such as clean water, fertile land, breathable air, not to mention wood, metals and the like - sooner than we might think. The current system of "throw-away culture" is simply not sustainable.

2. Possible solutions

After we carefully and thoroughly discussed the problems we faced, we tried to envision the solutions that could solve them like a miracle, implemented in an ideal way and time frame. Having gone through the vision, it became clear to us what the possibilities are to address the problems and conflicts we face. But, unfortunately, there are no magical solutions, so we were forced to think realistically. These are some of the solutions that the group came up with.

2.1. Education and Legislation

During our discussion we realized that there was a general disagreement concerning the methods of implementation for preventing or at least reducing the problems related to corporate power, which in our opinion is still beyond any control. There were two major approaches to the problem - a legislative and a social one. Several ideas were presented - such as the enactment of an international binding treaty that would regulate corporate investments regulations at the national level.

Others claimed that by limiting the actions to the enactment of new regulations is not going to be sufficient - political process takes time, furthermore, currently there is no international consensus concerning the issue and current power relations hamper strong regulations. Moreover, participants pointed out the lack of procedure that could safeguard the effective implementation of the regulations as the real obstacle. On the other hand, education - not only at the elementary but also at the higher level - is believed to play the crucial role in the process of changing certain consumption patterns. In the end, some of the participants claimed, corporations should be made to change their policy.

It seems that in general we agreed that both of the actions - enactment of the legal framework, as well as the educational (including awareness-raising) campaigns are important. The major disagreement concerned the potential of such actions, as well as setting priorities. Perhaps we need not choose between the two approaches, but to strive for both. In such a way - by enforcing regulation and environmental education - we can tackle both ends; supply and demand.

2.2. Conscious Consumption

Conscious consumption means that we become more aware of the true cost of the goods we buy in markets and supermarkets (the cost of transport, the cost of maintaining food quality, the price of production and processing, the rights violations of big companies buying from small producers, etc.), including the waste generated by goods (organic waste, e-waste etc.) where materials that can be used again are thrown away, things that can be reprocessed are left rotting, where things that could have been built to last are built to fall apart, become obsolete and be replaced. Therefore, the main step we could take to mitigate these problems is to raise awareness by educating people. Not just by means of lectures, pamphlets and public campaigns, but by integrating such information into the formal educational system from an early age. By educating children and young people as well as creating an environment that reflects what we "preach", we can effectively raise individuals who are conscious of the true costs of the goods they purchase while making them able to distinguish between want and need, so that they can make smart decisions on how and what to consume. In such a way, the demand for poor quality, environmentally damaging goods would diminish.

2.3. Sustainable Production

Creating a more sustainable system of production is not just a technical question but also a legislative one. We need new (and to rediscover old) technologies as well as new standards that producers and consumers need to adhere to in order to guarantee a sustainable future. These should be technical (technology, science) and social (personal, human, economic rights and liberties) philosophies. This means that there should be standards for electronic goods' environmental impact and also the sustainability of the product after it is no longer usable (recycling, disposal). There should be a minimum price at which a farmers' produce is bought by distributors (companies, markets, resellers, etc.) to ensure a sufficient income for them to make a living. At the same time a maximum price should also be set at which food can be sold to consumers to ensure they can afford it. There should also be a standard for how much of a certain resource can be exploited per year, taking into consideration how much of that resource can be reused through different processes and how much can be regenerated by or extracted from nature.

The crucial thing in this change is to allow for adjustment periods, both in consumption and production. Radically reducing just one or the other could mean chaos and conflict. The educational and legislative steps should be implemented with a progressive plan.

2.4. Localized Production

Most of the things we use and consume are not produced locally (including regional, national, continental) and often travel half-way across the world. And the prices we pay do not reflect externalities such as environmental impact of production, pollution caused during production and by waste, not to mention the true value and cost of resource exploitation; they only account for market prices which are much lower than the true costs. We need to strive for more localised production (including food and other durable and consumable goods) in order to minimize these externalities.

This means that we have to consider the impact of production, transportation and trade of the goods. It would mean that we might not have bananas every day, as their distribution includes a lot of food miles, and that we might have to decide to go for holidays in our own country, instead of flying to a tropical island to enjoy the sun, as flying has a huge impact on our environment. But not everyone finds this acceptable, since we have grown accustomed to living like we do today. The price of goods must have a more objective value. This would not mean that bananas and rice could not be purchased in Europe, but that their price would reflect their true cost and their import would have to be more restricted. They would in fact become the luxury items they are - not everyday products.

2.5. Resources – Built to be Reused

Waste is often the resource that everyone overlooks. We throw away millions of tons of useful resources in our trash, simply because we are not aware that many things do have value to be reused or reprocessed.

Goods must be produced with more long-term thinking in mind. For food, we should consider how its waste will be handled and what can be done with it. Recycling packaging and composting food waste are the way forward. As for electronic products, which contain many metals and plastic that can be reprocessed or recycled; we have to think about the long-term potential and impact of the product. Electronic products should have a much longer life span and should have a system ready to extract what is still usable and use it again. Ideally, we should only use materials which can be used again or reprocessed into something else that is useful. Products have to be designed in a way that they can be more easily recycled. The scarcity of resources on the planet has come to the point where we should not allow more resources to be exploited apart from the small quantity that is lost during recycling and reprocessing.

3. Conclusion

While our discussions could get quite heated, and sometimes it would be difficult to agree on some of the specific things we need to do, we agreed on most of the principles. Localized production of goods and energy, waste as a resource, corporate power as a threat – overconsumption and overproduction as symptoms of this power, a more democratic and sustainable dialogue on resource-use and exploitation on a decentralised, but also on an international level, and maintaining basic human rights and civil liberties are all crucial in our pursuit of sustainability.

Our conclusions and ideas are hardly revolutionary and rather abstract than concrete, but discussing these subjects so intensely in such a short time gave us a new perspective on the global environmental challenges, of how all the problems are actually interlinked, at the same time also that many of the possible solutions we have at our disposal address many of the problems we face at the same time.

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