Impressions from Sustainability Science Congress 2014: Equitable sustainability

I got to attend the Sustainability Science Congress 2014 in Copenhagen the other week, and write a blog post based on a quote that inspired me, which turned out to be “We want to have our planet, and eat it too” Andrew Simms, Chief analyst on the environment at Global Witness at parallel session “Social equity, development and global environment”.

It got me thinking that us children of the eighties often heard the catchphrase, ‘change not charity’. We believed that everyone given the right opportunities has the potential to work our way out of poverty, one of the fundamental aspects of social equality. A good livelihood leads to a society where everyone has a sense of purpose; schools are populated with teachers, hospitals have doctors, everyone has a job and enough money to pay for life’s necessities.

The social equity session delved deeply into the factoids surrounding social equity, and it’s close collaborator ‘green growth’ and many of the presenters showed that it is not such a simple story.

The vision of green growth is often evoked by economists, who argue that if we only grow the economy people will become empowered, engaged in sustainability and climate change will be addressed from the grass roots. Green-growth is a political darling, the panacea to the wicked problem of social equity. We can decrease poverty and increase sustainability at the same time. But how can we promote equity while trying to prevent irreversible climate change?

Despite dematerialisation attempts, economic growth is dependent on resource use, resources that are finite.  It’s well established that if everyone had an American lifestyle we would need more than 3 planets.  We do not have another three planets, so any attempts to grow our way out of inequality is doomed. Furthermore, aside from Merton discrediting the social mobility myth in the 50s, the burgeoning cleft between rich and poor sees us on the wrong side of this increasingly marginalised, with less say in decision-making, let alone say in environment issues.

The premises of capitalism

But what tools do we have to tackle inequality and sustainability? Modern societies are premised strongly on capitalism. Most of our systems: food, health, education are built using a market mentality. Efficient use of inputs, competitive evaluation, profits. This is evident in the hospital system where doctors compete for ‘lucrative’ diseases and try to send less lucrative diseases to other hospitals. The capitalistic system confuses us as to our real purpose, whether that be curing diseases, teaching classes or preparing food. We perversely see everything in financial terms. And we only want to see charts that go upwards.

“We cannot convince capitalism to stop growing, just as we cannot convince a human to stop breathing. All attempts to make capitalism ‚green’ or ‚ecological’ are bound to be futile because the essence of this system is permanent growth“ Murray Bookchiniv

Growth is the answer to poverty, yes, but growth is also the epitome of unsustainability. We simply do not have enough resources for everyone alive today to live western lifestyles, let alone unborn generations.

Western lifestyle equals the good life?

For me this is a really clear call to think about what we actually want from life. Does everyone want to live a western lifestyle with accompanying stress, isolation, and resource intensity, or do we want to have more fulfilling lives? Where happiness, quality of life and our natural environment take the centre stage.

Social equity is not necessarily about bringing everyone to the level of the west. Social equity is about renegotiating what is important to living a good life. The answer lies in talking, engaging everyone who will be effected in creating long lasting and conscious social and environmental sustainability.  In the words of Torsten Krause “Without ethical deliberations no social equity and no long-term sustainability”.

This post was originally published on Sustainability Science Congress 2014.

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