Thursday, 10 January 2008

The pursuit of sustainability

The Search for Sustainability

There are famously as many definitions as there are people discussing this concept. I will try my best to be precise and practical.

First, sustainability in general means maintaining equilibrium, or more broadly maintaining a system within elastic limits, so that its characteristics ‘orbit’ about one or more ‘attractors’ in ‘state-space’.

Next, what is being sustained? Options include ecosystems, biodiversity, our ‘way of life’, or our ‘standard of living’. None of these are precisely defined at present. I note that the most important meaning of sustainability attempts to address ecological and socio-economic systems simultaneously, in the context of possible conflict between them.

Borrowing from Economics, I use the axiom that utility is the property that best summarises our standard of living and more generally, quality of life, and invoke the concept of substitutability from classical economic theory. I add the further axiom that utility aggregated over the human population positively relates to ecological ‘health’ (referring, for example, to our dependence on ecological services such as provision of atmospheric oxygen, clean water and food), since it is well known that these services decline with decreasing ecosystem health. Then we can seek to sustain aggregate utility, which implies maintaining ecological health, or finding long term economically efficient substitutions for the loss of this health.

Short term substitutions for small and local losses of ecosystem health are abundant, but long term large scale solutions to major losses are unknown. Therefore sustainability is the requirement to maintain aggregate utility, in part by maintaining the health - form and function - of ecological communities globally. Ecological science provides some evidence that this includes maintaining biodiversity.

To obtain a proper definition of utility, we would have to venture into political theory, since different doctrines emphasise their own contribution to human welfare: capitalism counts property, measured by money, socialism emphasises egalitarian virtues of self-worth and green political doctrine emphasises our relationship with the natural world. The truth seems to be a combination of all these is needed to maximise aggregate utility, but the mix is a matter of individual taste.

Policy makers might best be advised to ensure adequate opportunities for individuals to enjoy all three categories and especially to ensure that none of these elements is seriously compromised by human activity, by which I mean that their sources must be preserved. In specific relation to ecosystems, this obviously means maintaining them within elastic limits by controlling direct exploitation and the effect of ‘externalities’.

Capitalism counts utility in terms of property, equivalent to wealth, measured in money. Erich Fromm* notes that we now tend to define ourselves by what we have rather than what we are. Thus our self-worth, or self-valuation appears to be rooted in money value rather than the intrinsic value of ourselves. More generally, it is hard for the modern western mind to think of intrinsic value, but easy to think of market-exchange value, as Oscar Wilde quipped “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Suppose instead, we took seriously the notion of objective intrinsic value, based on unique organised information content (see earlier post on information and value). Then when asked how much a person was worth, we would readily answer that it was an enormous, practically uncountable amount and that the difference among individuals, although real was so small in comparison with the totals, that it was effectively unmeasurable.

If our way of life is harming ecosystems to the point that diminishes their long-term ability to provide necessary services, then we need to make substitutions - replacing harming behaviours for harmless means of gaining utility. Since the harming behaviours are those of exploitation and consumption of nature in the pursuit of utility from manufactured goods, we clearly need either to produce the goods from lighter resource use, or replace a proportion of capitalistic utility with one of the other two kinds. Social psychologists such as Fromm, go further to say that capitalistic utility is a con - it does not bring happiness, but has the character of an addiction and is alienating and destructive of human self-worth. In this case, it is evident that a substitution with socialistic or green utility will be beneficial, one might even say that for every unit of material wealth exchanged for a unit of social or green wealth, we gain in utility. Therefore there is a theoretical underpinning to the notion that sustainability is best sought by changing not merely our lifestyles, but our understanding of what makes us happy by changing the way we value things.

* ‘To have or to be’ Erich Fromm (1976). Abacus. ISBN 0 349 11343 2

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