• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Sustainability commandment #2

The ultimate goal of sustainability is not the environment.

October 23, 2014

Shape your community so that by its very structure and operation it affirms and enhances the lives of all its members and so that it will continue to provide such value for the indefinite future.

Social sustainability is hard to define and harder to measure, but achieving it determines success.  Ecological sustainability – we’ve only got one planet, and all that – is at the heart of the challenge we all face.  The concept of social sustainability addresses what it is we must achieve in the face of that challenge. 

The wisdom of the crowd, distilled and recorded by Wikipedia, notes that the social aspect of sustainability is less discussed, less defined and less understood than environmental (ecological) and economic aspects.  Indeed, social sustainability is often addressed as if it were merely a corollary of ecological sustainability in the sense that members of societies which don’t provide for them are ineluctably driven to despoil their surrounding environments to attain the needs of life.  And it’s sometimes treated as if it were a knock-on effect of economic sustainability on the theory that a healthy economy raises everyone’s standard of living and so is good for society as a whole.  While both of those observations (more the former than the latter) may be true, the goal of social sustainability goes much further.

The very term “sustainability” connotes the continuation, the maintenance, of some object.  The true object of the sustainability movement is society as we know it, or at least as we can imagine it.  The goal of environmental sustainability isn’t merely to sustain a natural environment; some sort of natural environment will continue regardless of whether we behave sustainably or not.  The goal of economic sustainability isn’t merely to maintain the economy; the economy changes from day to day even under circumstances we consider normal.  Indeed, for much of the time humanity has existed, no specifically economic activity (at least in the modern sense of that term) took place at all.  The real goal of both environmental and economic sustainability is to maintain their respective objects within a range amenable to the continuation of healthy human communities – of a healthy society or societies.

History has shown us that certain characteristics tend to make a society unsustainable over time.  Thus, while we can’t necessarily postulate some perfectly sustainable social system, we can certainly list a number of characteristics it won’t exhibit:

  • It won’t exhibit tremendous disparities in access to services such as education, health, housing, transport, and recreation.  Which isn’t to say that each member of the society will receive precisely the same levels of each such service, but rather that no member will suffer significantly for a lack thereof.  Suffering triggered by lack of services triggers both unrest and attempts to redress the need even if it requires socially unacceptable actions.  We don’t all need, for instance, to enjoy the same luxurious menu – if I’m able to provide my family with a sufficiency of healthy food, I may envy you your champagne and caviar, but I’m not going to break into your house to get some for myself; if my family is starving while yours enjoys gourmet fare, however, your house had best be very well guarded.
  • It won’t exhibit an unrealistic sense of its own strengths and weaknesses.  No community is perfect, so continuous processes of self-assessment, renewal and improvement are necessary.  A society which believes itself so advanced and powerful as to admit of no correction, or so weak and abased as to be capable of no correction, is inherently unhealthy and quite likely to become more so.
  • It won’t concentrate decision-making power permanently in only a few of its members.  Autocracies and oligarchies, as history has shown repeatedly, eventually come to maintain their power structures through liberal application of fear.  Fear eventually leads to resentment, and resentment eventually leads to upheaval.  Social upheaval is both a strong sign that the previous society wasn’t meeting the needs of a significant portion of its members and a poor predictor that the subsequent iteration will do much better.  Societies actively engaged in upheaval tend to make hurried, rash, reactive, and thus grossly suboptimal decisions about how to allocate resources and power. The cycle tends to repeat.
  • It won’t restrict important knowledge on some “need to know” basis.  Closeting of information destroys the general sense of membership, belonging, enfranchisement and community identity which is key to both voluntary maintenance of social order and reproducing that social order in succeeding generations. 

Assemble these and, I’m sure, a few similar observations, in a conceptual delineation of negative space, and what emerges is something like Tocqueville’s “happy mediocrity”.  The communities and societies that result will exhibit relatively low Gini coefficients, and probably a strong sense of national identity.  My take is that each of those is difficult to achieve in the multinational states (the USA, Canada, the UK, Spain, Iraq, etc.) so prevalent in today’s world.  The very fact of independence movements in Quebec, Scotland, Catalonia, Kurdistan, and even Veneto seems a possible predictor of more, smaller, more manageable nation-states as an emerging norm. 

While environmental/ecological sustainability has been presented as a global problem, the harsh reality for at least a third of people around the world has been that short- and medium-term local/regional/societal problems trump global challenges which have (at least, to date) been seen as operating only in the long term.  The bad news about social unsustainability is that it isn’t one syndrome, amenable to one sweeping solution; every unhappy society is unhappy in its own way.  The good news is that all happy societies are (in general terms) alike.  Focusing our efforts on achieving general social sustainability can significantly enable progress on the environmental and economic fronts.  Perhaps equally important, such a focus can depict an attractive alternative to business as usual.

When I try to communicate with undergraduate students around matters of social sustainability, I run into difficulty with all but the very few who are already radicalized.  There seems to be no middle ground between “an entirely different world is possible, desirable, even necessary” and “things as they are suit me just fine”.  Even communicating the idea of community is a challenge with students who are used to thinking of themselves (as nearly as I can determine) solely as individuals.  Who have been educated strictly as individual learners.  Who have been marketed to solely as individual consumers.  Who amuse and entertain themselves largely as individual technologists.  And who exhibit a level of passivity that correlates (at least in my mind) with constantly being educated, sold to, amused and entertained to the exclusion of individual engagement, responsibility, imagination, creativity and agency.  If the current crop of undergrads has any sense of community identity at all, it seems to be based primarily in generation (and even that is restricted to their generation within the “first world”).

As with ecological sustainability, social sustainability isn’t something higher education should strive to teach as dogma.  Given where most of our students seem to be, I’d think it far more important to convey a sense of possibility, of social change that’s happened profoundly and continually, of societal choices as something groups of people make (even when the choice is to abdicate choosing) in response to the circumstances within which they find themselves and the goals they set.  This knowledge can (must?) be developed across a number of disciplines, including:

  • History.  Particularly social history, up and down the socio-economic ladder.  Changes in mood and expectations to which anointed decision-makers respond, rather than any “great man” theory of what took place.
  • Sociology, social anthropology, social geography, social psychology.  Analysis of how and why groups of people converge and act together, from a somewhat abstract perspective.
  • Cultural and area studies.  Similar foci to sociology, etc., but from a narrower, more specific, more concrete perspective.
  • Languages, both modern and ancient.  Analysis not just of words but of logical structures and word origins and why one group of people found it necessary/advantageous to be able to express concepts/gradations while a neighboring group of seemingly similar people found no such compelling need.
  • Physical sciences and technology.  The history of when and why particular concepts emerged and particular advances occurred.  The laws of matter may or may not be influenced by the priorities of a human observer, but the focus of research is definitely influenced by the priorities (which are shaped by the circumstances and goals) of the human researcher.  Science and technology as social artifacts.

Some faculty members with whom I’ve discussed social sustainability react to suggestions like these by accusing me of trying to impose an agenda on their disciplines, almost as if those disciplines as traditionally taught were objects of a certain purity.  My take is that every discipline, every curriculum, every syllabus always embodies and evinces some agenda.  If that agenda doesn’t include some version of “change happens, has always happened, will continue to happen; if you don’t influence the direction of change, someone else will”, then by default the agenda becomes “here’s how it is, and how it will ever be”.  If we’re not teaching possibility, we’re teaching impossibility. 


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