The heart of the sustainability debate is not philosophical but scientific. There is a massive body of evidence about climate change, pollution, resource depletion and other negative effects that stem directly and indirectly from human activity – more specifically, from much of conventional economic activity. (See, for example, New Scientist’s basic introduction).
It is impossible to develop a policy response to this evidence on the basis of trying to ‘sustain’ current economic activity – including the Western levels of resource consumption that this economic activity is built on. Questions such as how much do we need to change and how fast are open to being answered by empirical evidence. However, there is no doubt that we do need to make deep changes to our economies.
At the global climate change negotiations in Durban, the world’s richest countries are resisting attempts to curtail their polluting activity. For as long as the current recession lasts, many governments are willing to postpone change in favour of short-term GDP growth and employment growth – even if that means dirty forms of resource extraction (e.g. oil from tar sands and gas from ‘fracking’). The problem is that potentially irreversible changes to the planet’s climate cannot be so easily postponed. The jobs that might be created are, at best, temporary. And the loss of life and livelihoods in developing countries as a direct result of climate change is happening now.
These problems are a clear reminder of the dilemma posed for social democrats.
In brief, it is worth considering three ‘sacred cows’ of traditional social democratic economic policy that may need to be genetically modified to become sustainable:
1. Achieving full employment through GDP growth is probably impossible in a resource-constrained world. Therefore, new mechanisms must be explored to make this possible, including properly rewarding work in the home by parents and carers, and using the voluntary sector as a source of meaningful, socially useful activity for people who are currently unemployed.
2. The role of trade unions in protecting workers and their jobs is vital, but they too need to accept that some forms of unsustainable employment have to come to an end. It will be very challenging for trade unions to explain this to their members; who are also often social democratic voters. Strong social welfare systems and state intervention to foster alternative sources of employment will be essential for this transition to occur.
3. The post-second world war consensus of a high level of material consumption by everyone in society is probably impossible in a resource-constrained world. Therefore promoting more efficient forms of consumption (e.g. digital goods versus material goods; collective consumption) should be a priority in a reorganised economy.
On this last point about consumption, there is a risk of ‘sustainability’ being caricatured as ecologically-imposed frugality, with most people being reduced to material poverty in order to avoid excess use of the world’s resources. While avoiding a blasé optimism that technology will solve the crisis and permit everyone to live in luxury, it is nonetheless possible to advocate continuing improvement in most people’s material wellbeing, using less resources.
For the sake of a simple analysis, one can suggest that there are three levels of material wellbeing. The bottom layer is composed of basic human needs such as shelter, education, health care, etc. The top layer is composed of luxuries, such as (at an extreme) shopping weekends to cities on far continents. In the middle is a layer of comfort that makes a very significant contribution to quality of life for most people in the modern world. We should focus on the middle layer.
As we take difficult steps to change our economies, we should also ensure that we win the argument that a radically transformed economy can maintain and enhance most people’s level of material comfort. That is, the increased cost (if not elimination) of unsustainable luxuries need not automatically result in frugality for all.
Many of the comforts of the modern age can be enjoyed without necessitating the inefficient mass ownership (or production) of material goods. For example, music, television, cinema and literature can all be enjoyed in digital formats that take a fraction of the resources required for the production and distribution of the same goods in pre-digital formats, complete with packaging. As well as material comforts, the middle layer includes personal development, appreciation of culture, access to knowledge to get control over personal health and fitness, etc. These things go beyond the basics layer, but do not have to require a high level of resource consumption to provide.
People’s access to such material comforts could be greatly increased if the mechanism for their distribution and the remuneration of their creators were changed from the current market mechanisms (often dominated by major corporations). For example, rather than fighting a losing battle against the illegal downloading of music, an alternative mechanism could be developed to combine free access to music with more collective forms of remuneration for artists and recording studios based on actual consumption (e.g. repeated listening) to their music – similar to the mechanisms that exist to pay them each time a song is played on the radio. That would give everyone in society equal access to a digital cornucopia of music, cinema and literature to enjoy; while still providing the creators with fair reward for their work.
Moving to more collective forms of consumption generally can provide higher quality of life to more people – for example, cinemas, public parks and libraries are more resource-efficient than countless home entertainment systems, private lawns and the online purchase of books shipped halfway across the planet.
We perhaps take for granted the collective consumption of education and care in our schools and hospitals. Yet, the collective consumption of education is particularly important to our personal and cultural development. Local collective consumption of shared DIY tools, laundrette facilities and other communal resources can also build communities through increased interpersonal interaction.
The more egalitarian human relationships that collective consumption implies should strike a chord with deep social democratic principles and be at the heart of moving towards sustainable economics.