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The Concept of Sustainable Development:

Aspects and their consequences from a social-philosophical perspective

During our YES course in Japan we will, among many other issues, be dealing with social questions
with regard to sustainable development. In preparation for this, I would like to ask the course
participants to read the following reflections and to write down any questions, comments, or
thoughts that come to mind.

This introductory reading brings in 8 basic statements on sustainable development and their
consequences when looking at them from a social perspective. Contrary to content found in
scientific readings, this text consists of social-philosophical reflections on the potential, practical
implications that can be derived from simple, basic statements. In the author’s opinion, the
concept of sustainable development is a purely anthropogenic, and thus social, concept which is
why social aspects and sciences need to be given a central weight in the discussion and planning of
sustainable development for the future.

The reading imparts the critical view and reflections of the author and is intended to inspire much
thought and discussion. As a result, full citations and footnotes that would support the formulated
statements have deliberately been left away.

Dr. Roger Baud


Executive Director
ETHsustainability

January, 2008
Social Issues – Introduction YES Course / Dr. Baud
ASPECTS OF THE SOCIAL DIMENSION OF SUSTAINABILITY
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Out of the many definitions of SD (Ulrich Jüdes counted 77 in an article published already some
time ago in 2003) a large number of them include the three pillars ECOLOGY, ECONOMY and
SOCIETY, often adding the fourth one, which is TECHNOLOGY. Based on this model I would like
to explore the position of the SOCIAL pillar relative to the others by stating a few basic and
radical conditions from an ethical, socio-psychological perspective.

1 The 1st of these radical statements puts the ECOLOGICAL dimension prior to all other
dimensions. Without healthy natural systems around us, without the ecological basis,
so to speak, all other dimensions - social, economic or technological - are meaningless.
When the basic conditions for human life on earth no longer exist (and we are presently
truly doing our best to destroy them), we no longer need to consider the other
dimensions. It is one of modern science’s biggest mistakes of the past centuries to have
separated man from nature as an object. This means denying the fact that man is a part
of and dependent on the mechanisms of the natural systems around him. However,
because of this we have been successful in establishing the materialistic lifestyle
predominant in much of the world. In return, this has also created many of the huge
problems we are facing now, such as our dependency on an extremely high material
flow and its disastrous effects on all natural systems. It is the aim of a new upcoming
paradigm in science to return to a more holistic view that gives value to and leads to
increased qualitative growth rather that the current focus on quantitative growth.
Social sciences play a pivotal role in this new approach, based on systems thinking,
which could be the driving force to what we really mean by “sustainable development”.
To talk about a balance between the 3 basic pillars (as it is often done) seems absurd to
me. I hope we can discuss this further during our course when we talk and think about
"the role of technology".

2 Human beings have heavily influenced the dynamism of all natural systems and their
inherent lifecycles. It is fundamental - and this forms the 2nd radical statement, that we
do not further influence the mechanisms and chemical composition of the atmosphere
and that we stop the destruction of biodiversity. If we continue to disturb the relative
stability and pace of evolutionary development of these 2 systems, we will revoke the
basis of our existence.

As we learn out of systems and chaos theory, any natural system has a certain inherent
flexibility and ability to adapt without removing the ability to further develop. But at a
certain point - and we just don't know when and where this happens - a system can tip
over into a completely new stage of equilibrium. This mechanism is true for any cell in
our body, as well as for bigger systems like the water or the atmospheric cycle.
(examples: our body, cancer, forests, etc.) The only difference is that such large systems
have a much longer lifecycle. It might not be a problem to further fill our oceans with all
our garbage, but we do not know when too much will be too much that the system no
longer functions in the way that we rely on it to. So it is certainly wiser not to continue
with such bad habits. Our problem basically is that we have to deal with questions that
do not really influence the luxurious lifestyles of the industrialized world as of yet. Our
problem is that we are called upon in the concept of SD to plan a future reality that can
by no means be anything like our way of functioning today. We have to go through a
learning process that is based on rationality, knowledge and thinking, involving
situations we cannot feel nor physically experience. Learning theories in psychology
teach us that it is almost impossible to cause real value and behavior change in this
way. Besides rational understanding we need the practical experience, the feeling

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component. This presents a huge task for psychology and psychologists, as current
learning processes require restructuring. (We will hear more about this during our
course).

That we are fully dependent on the 2 above-mentioned natural systems is a fact, and
nobody so far can be made responsible for the extensive destruction both have already
undergone. The history of humankind has followed its own path and development into
the present dominance of Western Europe and North America. Now we recognize that
this dominant culture has created hurdles which today seem to be impossible to
overcome. We are somehow captured in a self-created relatively closed system and
cycle where any output reinforces the input in the wrong direction, creating a positive
feedback loop for a process that has negative impacts. We need to stop making the
same mistakes again and again, however, before we are personally touched and really
feel the harm, it is difficult to learn and change accordingly. Humankind is very robust
in adapting to new situations and realities when really forced to change because the
actual situation leaves no choice (i.e. a do or die situation).

Earlier reigning cultures destroyed nature as well, although on a much smaller scale.
(Think of the Romans, the age of the conquerors, etc.). Many ancient cultures also
collapsed from overusing the environmental base of their existence and then having no
other living area to easily move to (see “Collapse” by Jared Diamond (2005) for an
interesting enviro-socio analysis of why ancient civilizations collapsed, and how this can
be compared to today’s societies). Often in the past, the impact of humans on their
environment was, comparatively, small and the earth systems as a whole were able to
absorb and tolerate the disturbance. In these times, people did not know what they did
to nature. In fact, we did not know until recently. Today we know very well that we
destroy the basis of our life in a magnitude and at a speed that have never been seen
before. Moreover, we know now, that if we continue on this track of wasteful,
materialistic lifestyles, we might disappear as species or in the best-case scenario find
our population heavily decimated. To know but not to act makes us guilty with regard
to future generations. This is an absolutely new problem that has never existed before
in human history and is a huge challenge for our and all forthcoming generations. What
makes this situation more problematic is the condition that we to a large extent have
given up our spiritual beliefs which formed the unquestioned framework of human
activities and cultural developments in earlier societies. The wish to free ourselves from
any boundaries, the philosophy of self-ruling and self-determination, has left us in an
enormous vacuum of disorientation.
In this observation lies one of the fundamental questions of ethics and religion which
are confronted with a completely new situation. For the first time in the world, the
dominating civilization should think, feel, and plan for someone who is not even born
yet. An invisible YOU. Someone who does not belong to our reality, with whom we have
no means of communication. In addition, we do not know, how that YOU once will be,
think, and act. Who shall take responsibility for this future planning for future
generations? Nations, Politicians, Corporations, Science? What are the driving forces
behind these mega-organizations, and who guides them responsibly? Groups,
stakeholders, shareholders, individuals? And finally: What is the responsibility for
individuals, for each one of us? Basic ethics are directed to the individual: " YOU
SHOULD NOT...... (Kill, etc.). But what ethic shall we apply for these impersonal, self-
driven giants that are corporations and organizations? This is another big challenge for
the social sciences that certainly we will further discuss during our course.

There is also another important social issue which derives from this 2nd radical
requirement. It is absolutely impossible that all nations and areas on earth adapt to
today’s western lifestyle. This is a tough but rational fact we have to face. Either we
accept that half of the world’s population will go on living in relative misery, or we
fundamentally change our economic system. This issue will be further explored in a

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session on economics and political institutions. The key here lies on the question of
setting priorities in development strategies that allow us to cover the basic needs of
existence to all members of the earth.

3 For nature as a whole it doesn't matter if we as mankind exist on earth or not. Nature
doesn't care about our influence on her – does not care if we kill our own basis of life
which we are in the progress of doing – or if we follow ways along natural laws that
allow us to survive. Our destiny lies in our own hands. Like any living creature on earth,
man has a certain flexibility range. But this range is quiet narrow, compared with some
other species. Small deviations are enough to bring us out of balance, to pull us off from
our basis of existence. As the future lies in our hands, and we only are interested in our
own future, the 3rd radical condition when talking about SD is, that the ecological aspect
of SD is a purely anthropogenic concept. The other aspect, the social dimension, in our
complex world is our materialistic lifestyle dependent on continual technological
advancement. The more we have the more we depend on. We are growing increasingly
vulnerable, and this vulnerability is purely our own making. For all these reasons, talking
about SD doesn't mean talking primarily about nature but about the survival of
humankind and our lifestyle within the natural environment. Any solution lies within
us. We are the cause of our current problems. We are concerned about our own survival
in the future - as for the future of nature we often feel this is the responsibility of some
force bigger than ourselves (who or what this is varies greatly depending on one’s
religions and spiritual beliefs).

4 The conclusion out of this forms the 4th radical requirement for SD (a plan for future
living of human beings): SD is a social question and concept. Technology and economy
have to be reintegrated into and subordinated to the real social dimension. Our top
priority when accepting the radical theses 2 + 3 is our existence now and in the future,
not if we invent a faster car or airplane, work on a faster computer system, transport
more goods to a far corner of the world, eat exotic fruits in wintertime in Central
Europe, or increase the profitability of multinational companies. Neither materialism
nor quantitative growth will save our future. We need new forms of self-fulfillment,
new ways of living, working, spending leisure time, etc. We have to rearrange the social
organization as such and aim for a new meaning of life.

5 This leads us to the next basic statement. If we want to find a way to adjust our lives to
that of the earth’s - and I believe we should - the change has to start within ourselves, in
our behavior, our lifestyles, value systems and our ethical basis. Humankind itself has
to change before we can even think of further technological developments which are
aimed at correcting damage already done. New technological innovations in a specific
field, aiming to solve a specific problem, should not be realized, before it is sure that
they don’t produce an unsustainable situation in another field. We as a species have
great potential within ourselves which we have not yet touched and which does not
cost additional energy and material flux. Our only alterations of behavior, lifestyle, etc.
so far occurred through external forces in situations of stress - war, natural
catastrophes, etc. But what about change based on insight? It would be the cheapest
way - so to speak – to change ourselves instead of what is around us. Let’s reduce our
impact on nature. The 5th radical demand therefore reads: Predominant to anything else
is for humankind to change its habits and behavior, its consumer patterns, its social
and political organization, and its attitudes towards democratic decision-making
processes - even if this reduces overall materialistic welfare. In other words: Human
lifestyles shall be adapted in such a way that further technological impact is not
necessary. We have to work on the cause not on the symptoms which means we have
to change our way of life.

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(Synonym Health care: We struggle against symptoms instead of dealing with the
cause).

"Sufficiency" does not mean going back to so-called simple lifestyles or losing any of our
quality of life. On the contrary, it means getting more quality with less quantity, getting
less dependent from all the very often disturbing commodities around us, and finding a
way back to a more relaxed social life. Let us use our imagination and work more on the
quality of life than on further dependencies on materialistic goods and commodities. I
can think of hundreds of ways to influence attitudes and behavior change in this
direction. We should rearrange the social structures in a way that allows people to
experience new lifestyles without losing their economic ground. We can use our well-
established propaganda machinery for promoting new, and more sustainable, lifestyle
trends. It is just a pure question of will and serious acceptance of the danger we are
living in. We have to change, individually, socially, politically and through a new future-
oriented set of wise ethical rules. We have to believe, although it is difficult and
unpleasant, that we need lifestyle revolutions. And at the same time we should
conserve the cultural and social diversity since it is the social equivalent to the
ecological prerequisite of biodiversity.

6 This last remark brings us directly to another basic impact, which seems obvious like the
other basic statements I have already made. But what sounds so simple seems to be
quite difficult, as I cannot see consequent actions for change today. I am talking about
our ways of production and consumption. The 6th radical requirement for SD states that
only closed loops of our way of life, way of economy and material flow (technology) are
sustainable. You will hear much more on this during this course which is why I do not
want to talk about this subject in depth. But I will say this: A change from our current
habits which make us - so to say - captives in our own prison of course cannot be
realized in a short period of time. We need long-term strategies, and there is no doubt
that technology will play an important role in these strategies. We need goals in the
distance that direct our further actions. There is no way back. What we live on today is
humankind’s creation over the last centuries of technological development. Our lifestyle
became part of and depends on this development. The real problem is that we are no
longer in control of it. Technology and its connected economy are de-coupled from
basic social needs and focused on quantitative growth. Production has long ago
developed its own self-drive; it somehow creates its own children again and again, in
always increasing numbers and with greater speed. Before a new product is on the
market, the next one is already in planning or in the production pipeline. We find before
us a foolishly constructed piece of machinery that we do not know how to stop,
although we understand that it no longer makes sense. The basic reason is our fear of
losing (our standard of living, material possessions, status, etc.) as we don't believe
strongly enough in unfamiliar alternatives. And with all this accelerated activity we
actually do the opposite of what is stated in the 6th radical thesis. Rising material flow,
rising energy use, rising dependency. On the scientific side we have passed the stage of
curiosity which has driven scientists over centuries. Today’s research is directly aimed at
practical realization, very often with no connection to real human life and needs.
Furthermore, the public has become the laboratory rat, as new inventions are tested in
real life before any ethical, moral, and questions about needs are asked, before any
possible rebound effects are known. Again one must ask the question of who takes on
this responsibility. Where are the framing norms?

Of course the more trying question is what we can do to change this crazy trend that
produces results at a speed that we have more and more problems digesting and
controlling. I don’t think that we have an easy readymade answer. But we should
seriously work on new ways and solutions. From a social science perspective, I would say
that first of all, scientific research and further technological production should again be
directed to real needs - needs and human lifestyles that aim in the direction of SD. And

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this demands a much more substantial financial and thought input on psychological
and social research. Researchers should not be allowed to realize a certain technology,
as long as possible long-term and so-called rebound effects are basically unknown.
Developers of new products, and that includes the scientists behind these
developments, have to share responsibility on what they produce, as they are the most
knowledgeable parties to estimate possible dangers and risks. We should accept
limitations. Not everything that we are able to create has to be realized. It is by no
means mandatory that we get faster planes and cars, only because we know how to
make them faster. In addition, it is not really necessary to have an even more
elaborative information system that allows us to send more e-mails around the world
at a greater speed, etc. The constant small improvements on all these products that
don’t reduce the material flux but stimulate markets are disastrous with their current
frequency. Once a new product is out, of course everybody and the whole world wants it
– “New is better”. However, for the environment, material flow, and energy flow in this
respect it actually means new is bad. What we don't possess as materialistic goods or
commodities at a certain time, we just don't need. Further technological developments
that we cannot do without in a short-term perspective are mandatory. However,
researchers should concentrate on copying natural mechanisms on these needed
developments. We must find a way to go back to using solar and clean renewable
energy for all our activities. Furthermore, we should use the depleting water resources
primarily for our direct personal needs and food production, not for industrial processes.

Finally this brings me to another question that I can only touch on here. How do we deal
with knowledge flow and knowledge management in the future? Who is responsible for
the kind of knowledge that is produced and spread out through our communication
channels? Should we have rules on what is allowed and what not? What is important
for whom, what not? What does freedom mean in this respect and how do we learn to
deal with this freedom without getting lost in this ever-rising ocean of information?
Again here, we touch basic social, ethical and religious questions. Humans are not able
to survive without boundaries, guidelines, and beliefs. Rationality and cognitive
processes are one side of us, feeling and spirituality the other side. Both sides have to be
in relative balance and harmony for our destiny to be realizable. This is why any further
step in human development should incorporate both of these aspects, and we should
not allow future trends to continue, if we do not feel comfortable with them and if we
haven’t reached full social understanding of the impacts.

7 The 7th of the few basic conditions I would like to reflect on in this introduction relates
to the phenomenon of time: Nature and humankind as part of it are denominated by
time. Human life in the long run can only be successful if we give back the individual
lifecycle and pace of life to any object.
I will explore this subject in more depth when talking about the questions of growth in
the course. Let me at this point just give you a short comment on what is meant here.
Time is not only a very important element when talking about SD. Maybe it is the most
important factor we should consider when thinking about and planning our future. It
also gives a perfect example on how the ecological and social dimensions - including
technological aspects - are interlinked.

Ecology: Any natural system has its own inner watch which means its own lifespan and
lifecycle. Think of the water cycle, the atmospheric cycle, the cycle of a plant, and the
duration of life of any creature on earth. If such a system is disturbed in its own time
frame, it can reach a tipping point (as explained above). You can accelerate natural
processes in time only by doing harm to their own natural processes. It is a fact that
humans have strongly intervened in all these natural lifecycles and therefore destroyed
the natural development of these subsystems. There is so much we don’t know about
the complexity of all natural systems, on how they are interlinked on how they operate

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over long time periods, that we rather try not to put too much of human pressure on
them. As we are condemned to a certain magnitude of knowledge at a specific time, but
never can fully know what we harm when influencing ecological systems, we rather
should leave these systems at their own pace of development. And that means long-
term, as the evolution goes back to a much longer history that men can overlook and
plan for.

Technology: For the well-meant reason of bringing more comfort to our lives, we have
put barrages into rivers, exploited the stock of fishes in our oceans, turned cultural land
into landscapes of concrete, left megatons of all kinds of gases into the atmosphere,
and destroyed a large part of the planet’s biodiversity. We have ruined the lifecycles of
these natural systems and forced nature to follow our own timing. I don't know any
technology which would not have left destroying footprints. That's a fact. We cannot go
back in time and take another road. We also have to recognize our own human and
cultural history. We can only analyze this history and try to understand what went
wrong and what mistakes we made. And this understanding could give us a new
direction, if only we would be really consequent on what these analyses teach us. We of
course recognize the harm we do to a specific system which very often is harm to
ourselves in another sector. As a result, we correct that detected mistake by adding
another technology that again creates a problem in another field, etc. Such new
problems are then often only recognized in a later stage. Instead of fighting the cause
we regulate symptoms by creating new problems. As a matter of fact we remove more
and more from the basic cause and finally don’t even know anymore what the basic
problem is or was. To consider the time factor in our future technological development
means that we have to go about these development processes slowly, while observing
natural lifecycles and adapting our input to these ways. “Time is the essence” only
counts, if this means that we reduce the speed of development, which includes the
production of excessive consumer goods, in order to give ourselves again the time to
digest the advancements.

Social: As if it were a basic law of behavior, we act in the same manner as explained for
technological development when dealing with problems in our individual and social
lives. We solve recognized problems within the social frame by just reacting on the
existing situation. The only important question seems to be to find a quick answer and
a quick solution. If we discover a problem today, improvement has to be visible by the
next day. We do not give ourselves the time to find longer lasting solutions. The
opposite is the case. Because we do not take the necessary time to reflect, we run into
more problems and speed up adaptation processes to an extent that we lose
orientation. Our brain and body is no longer capable of following this acceleration and
in the end we lack the solutions to basic social questions. Why don't we have the
courage, just to say: STOP? Let's really reconsider what the basic problems are and
maybe find new solutions, although they might look less attractive at the present. The
social sciences work on such new plans and paradigms and show alternatives.
Unfortunately, they are rarely heard, as their lobby in an economy-driven world is too
weak.

8 All the 7 statements above include and touch on one very basic driving force that
dominates the concept towards a more sustainable human world. Throughout the
history of man the thinking and dealing in general economic terms always built an
important living element – consciously or more unconsciously. Today our west-
dominated world is based on a neo-liberal market economy, which has brought welfare
to many, while keeping others in a poverty trap. Originally thought as being the science
that creates happiness and easy life for all, this science became the engine for an
uncontrolled production machine. No longer is the basic question of what is good and
needed for giving a healthy and happy life to all people on earth. The economic sector is
almost fully decoupled from the basic human needs, runs on a self-driving circle with its

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own rules, with winners and losers. The backbone of the neo-liberal economy is
production and growth in a quantitative way and in monetary terms. The market
economy of today only works on growth in the frame of a growing population with
never ending growing materialistic needs. Even in an almost population stable country
like Switzerland, the increase in energy is predicted to be of about 25% over the next 30
years. For what? As we all know resources and raw material on earth are limited, why a
system based on continuous growth is a self-contradiction, an oxymoron as Herman E.
Daly (1993) calls it. The 8th radical requirement touched upon here therefore reads: The
economy of today needs a radical re-orientation, that takes into account the real cost of
all externalities, that is based on non-materialistic growth, and that is embedded in a
new set of ethical rules to better distribute gained wealth between all humans.

Herman E. Daly (1993) differentiates between growth and development as follows:

“When something grows, it gets bigger. When something develops it


gets different. The earth ecosystem develops (evolves), but doesn’t
grow. Its subsystem, the economy, must eventually stop growing, but
can continue to develop. The term “sustainable development” therefore
makes sense for the economy, but only if it is understood as
“development without growth”….and even “green growth” is not
sustainable” 1 .

In such a future economy development needs to be primarily of qualitative capacity,


and this means that some of the basic rules of a pure market economy have to be
changed and re-invented if we are to plan for a sustainable world society. The financial
mechanisms need to be put on a completely new base that reduces today’s wealth
disparities. Money must serve simply as an intermediate in exchanging goods without
its accumulation being a goal in itself, leading to envy, power and stress. Prices of goods
should include the full real cost elements, which means that prices would rise. Although
this would lead to a quantitative reduction in productivity, there would be a qualitative
improvement, and this would lead to consumers valuing the good more.

Meanwhile it is unchallenged that the rich societies of the North have to reduce their
ecological foot print by a factor of 4 or more, the question remains, how we can
alleviate poverty by a development without growth? How can we address the issues of
equity and distribution? And how much population and consumption growth is
possible in the developing world? The answers cannot easily be found, but can only lie
in a new economic paradigm.

1
Daly, H. and Townsend, K. (1993) Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem?, Valuing the
Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics (p. 267), MIT Press, available online:
http://dieoff.org/page37.htm
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