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Sustainable Society

Whereas environmental concerns began to develop in the 1960s, concepts associated with sustainability have come into more common use only recently. Resource depletion was the main concern of the Club of Rome when their research identified the serious challenges we face in terms of long-term economic growth, societal prosperity, and environmental stewardship. Since 1979 humanity has consumed more from the natural capital of the Earth that can be reproduced. Strategic metals, elements and energy resources will run into scarcity in the near future under the present paradigm of use.

The unfair share of global environmental, social, and economic wealth has been first conceptualised by the 1987 report entitled Our Common Future, which also defined sustainable development as a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This was the first time that poverty and the state of the environment were linked. The concept also implied limits to growth and intergenerational justice. Any progress on solutions to global environmental problems and the beginning of a transition towards sustainability must first address issues of socioeconomic equity.

By definition a sustainable society requires a complex and multidisciplinary concept which implies the ability to maintain a balance between economic, social and ecological processes, in order to meet, current as well as future needs of the population. Sustainability has never been meant to be treated merely as an environmental issue, a green concern. Indeed policy for sustainability has from the very beginning included wider questions of social needs, economic opportunities, and biophysical limits. The complexity and uncertainty surrounding sustainability and sustainability policies has been frequently addressed by participatory instruments to foster the culture of stakeholder participation and deliberative techniques.

Ten years ago the International Law Association issued the ”New Delhi Declaration of Principles of International Law Relating to Sustainable Development” which explicitly listed participation as one of the seven Sustainable Development principles.

The Agenda 21 also promoted participation as a pre-requisite for any SD initiatives to empower people to make sustainable choices. The UN European Committee for Economy (UNECE) created the Aarhus Convention with the special aim to enable public participation in environmental issues. The Rio Declaration also clearly acknowledged that participation is a key in environmental matters. Participation and governance have from the very beginning been regarded as main cultural principles of sustainability supported by several international treaties.

Sustainable Development is an overused term since the 1992 United Nations-sponsored Earth Summit in Rio. Twenty years after the Earth summit in Rio much evidence reflects that environmental degradation is one of the main ways in which socioeconomic inequality is manifested, while socioeconomic inequality is one of the primary drivers of environmental degradation. Socioeconomic inequality not only intensifies pressures of consumption, status competition but also blocks sustainable development, reproduces poor economic growth, economic instability. In a sustainable world, consumption would be more equally distributed around the world and particular segments of human, plant, and animals would not have to assume a greater amount of environmental risk than wealthier individuals.

The science of sustainability - as Ecological Economics is often referred to - have been based on the insight that societies cannot be environmentally sustainable if they are not also socially sustainable. Sustainability Science calls for ‘Equity within Planetary Boundaries’ and tells that a sustainable society is just and equitable and provides human beings with the opportunity to develop in freedom and in harmony with its surroundings. As the next international conference of Ecological Economics (ISEE 2014) points out:

The intellectual and policy challenges seem insurmountable against the backdrop of established interests and thinking. Yet, in these times of rapid social, economic and environmental change new opportunities are opened up to bring together insights from the many academic disciplines that already address these challenges, and to build bridges between the science and practitioner communities.

The main challenge remains how participatory culture and techniques will be useful within sustainable development frameworks or projects. Evidently, the quality of development and environment would be much better and more sustainable if those who are using it or benefiting from it were engaged in a meaningful dialogue about them. In a complex policymaking process the mobilisation and engagement of a heterogeneous set of actors is often regarded a key success factor. Although in practice, participation is always much easier said than done, it is also true, that with careful methodological planning of participatory processes several pitfalls (such as for example stakeholder exploitation) could be avoided.

See also:
Nörgård J.S., Peet J. and Ragnarsdottir K.V. (2010) The history of limits to growth. Solutions, 1(2), 59-63, Feb-March.

Sverdrup, H.A., Koca D., Ragnarsdóttir, K.D. (2012) Peak Metals, Minerals, Energy, Wealth, Food and Population; Urgent Policy Considerations for A Sustainable Society. Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering B 1 (2012) 5:499-533.

Park, Mi (2013) Imagining a Just and Sustainable Society: A Critique of Alternative Economic Models in the Global Justice Movement, Critical Sociology. Volume 39 Issue 1. 65-85.

Enough Is Enough – a film on an economy where the goal is enough, not more:
ISEE 2014 conference Wellbeing and equity within planetary boundaries:

DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population, a one-hour long documentary:

Solutions For a sustainable and desirable future: