torsdag 16 augusti 2012

Socio-technical practices & social sustainability

We have different "teams" at my department. The teams are an attempt to create if not tight research groups, then at least critical mass + an umbrella for people with similar (research) interests. Besides the sustainability team, I also try to participate in the Socio-Technical Practices (STP) team activities.

The STP team had an excursion/kick-off that I partook in and it was a great opportunity to socialize and get to know other team members better. We were supposed to prepare by thinking about persons we wanted to nominate to the STP team "hall of fame". Who had inspired us in terms of "understanding how different stakeholders make sense of and appropriate [predominantly-but-not-exclusively computer] technology".

I've been inspired by many, but in limiting my choises, I tried to think about what Socio-technical practices means to me. I'd say STP is where Science and Technology Studies (STS) meets computers/IT/the web/social media/human-computer interaction/usability/interaction design. Something like that. Persons that have inspired me in this area are Sherry Turkle, Batya Friedman and Susan Leigh Star. I think I could have added Paul Dourish to the list if I had read more of his texts. I might come back to these persons and explain why and in what way they have inspired me in a later blog post.

What I unfortunately couldn't come up with was a STP-relevant person who had inspired me and who also knew and had written good stuff about (environmental) sustainability. That is a little worrying, because it means that if I can't bridge the STP - sustainability gap, there is a chance that I will retreat from STP activities if I get choked up with stuff I care even more about. I don't want to split my attention if I can't unite these two approaches.

A possible "bridge" between STP and (ecological) sustainability could be the concept of "social sustainability"; STP - social sustainability - ecological sustainability. That could work, but until now I haven't really been convinced that social sustainability has very much to do with ecological sustainability at all, rather than just denoting "shit we like" - values we cherish here-and-now in the western world at this point of time - stuff like democracy, transparency, legitimacy etc. I haven't been able to find a good definition or list of criteria of what social sustainability really means, so the concept is sort of a floating ephemeral term which seems to be able to mean pretty much anything. My hope is that local ph.d. student Henrik who focuses on social sustainability in his work can clear things up for me after he comes back from his paternity leave. Meanwhile, I'll just have to do with the draft article he just sent over to me.

As to a definition of what ecological sustainability is, I very much like Richard Heinberg's short text "What is sustainability?" (pdf). He states that sustainability is all about "that which can be sustained over time" and proposes five axioms that a sustainable society must live up to. Axiom number three is for example: "To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment".

I would like to see (a proposal for) the corresponding axioms as regards to social sustainability. In fact, Heinberg partly disparages social sustainability and not so subtly says it is not relevant to and does not have that much to do with "real", i.e. ecological sustainability:

"The purpose of the axioms set forth here is not to describe conditions that would lead to a good or just society, merely to a society able to be maintained over time. It is not clear that perfect economic equality or a perfectly egalitarian system of decision-making is necessary to avert societal collapse."

Even worse is that I can spot a potential conflict between ecological and social sustainability. If social sustainability means "stuff that makes people happy" and people translate "stuff" and "living in a good society" with actual physical gadgets and consumption and CO2-emitting activities and material wealth, then social sustainability would in fact seem to be bad for the environment (environmental sustainability). It's not a long stretch to imagine that it would thus be good for the environment if almost all people are (stay or become) poor - despite the human misery such a statement implies. For example, the only "coordinated" large-scale reduction in global CO2 emissions this far came about in the wake of the 2008 financial crises and the global recession that followed it. Bad for the economy, a source of human misery - but good for the environment!

If social sustainability instead means stuff that doesn't cost money but that makes life better (harmony, justice, transparency, economic (and gender etc.) equality, low societal discontent, tensions and conflicts), then I don't see a direct tension between social and ecological sustainability. I unfortunately think that immaterial values ("justice") are so mixed-up with material wealth in our discussions that it's difficult to budge them apart at this point in time. Also and in line with Heinberg's statement above, I'm not sure why a stable social system by definition would not be "socially sustainable" even if we find that social system distasteful from our current "enlightened" position. I would thus like to propose the ancient-Egypt-test:

In ancient Egypt, 95% of the population worked in the "agricultural sector" and they managed to (only) generate of surplus of food that was sufficient for feeding the remaining 5% of the population who were slaves and who were busy building the pyramids (beyond of course the minuscule ruling elite). The ancient Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC and was around for more than 3000 years. Do note that it came to an end not because of environmental degradation, but as an effect of military conquest - it became a Roman province 30 BC and was a veritable granary for Rome.

A civilization that lasts for 3000+ years seems to fulfill any possible requirements as to sustainability ("that which can be sustained over time"). Ancient Egypt with is ruling elite and with its peasants and slaves thus ought to be regarded as being a society that was "socially sustainable", right? If not, I'd like someone to please tell me why (do leave a comment if you can contribute anything to this admittedly detailed-oriented technical discussion about the concept of social sustainabiliyt).

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