torsdag 4 april 2013

My problem with "social sustainability"

This text can be seen as a follow-up to a previously published (Aug 2012) blog post about the connection between ecological and social sustainability. The impetuous to write this text comes from participating in a seminar called "What is social sustainability?". I did wait for quite some time after the seminar to get access to the speakers' slides, but I now realize that the seminar was actually held almost two months ago! What can I say - time flies.

I went to the seminar in the hope of finding out 1) what social sustainability is and 2) what the connection is between social and ecological sustainability. I unfortunately can't say that I'm much closer to an answer to any of those two questions after having attended the seminar.

My basic problem with the concept "social sustainability" is that it feels like an edifice built on quagmire. I still don't know the difference between "social sustainability" and the all-inclusive and more general category "stuff we like". "Stuff we like" could potentially be a very long list of stuff that we (liberal modern democracies) like - stuff like (taken from the seminar slides) social mix, social capital, community, safety, life quality, service, identity, cohesion, influence, democracy, cooperation, inclusion, health, security, local resources, well-being, neighborliness, place identity, solidarity, tolerance, order, justice, inclusion, security, just distribution, equality (gender etc.), level of education, (public) health data, crime level, accessibility, housing costs and standards, degree of resettlement, participation and local democracy, active community organization, participation in local networks/community organizations - and probably a whole bunch of other things...

If social sustainability constitutes any and every criteria on that list, what analytical use can we have of that concept? How can people (researchers) who are interested in, but who emphasize different aspects of social sustainability even talk to each other? How is it possible to "measure" or compare the social sustainability of different societies? It seems to me that "social sustainability" is a pretty useless concept. I can be wrong and if so, I would very like someone to convince me of the opposite...

If you happen to be a researcher who is interested in, and would like to promote a "just society", you "only" have to define exactly what a just society means and then go out and "measure" (or interview etc.) people. Fine, but why then not just state that you are doing research on what constitutes a just society, or that you measure and compare the justness of different societies? Why dress it up as "social sustainability"? That was in fact my question before the seminar and it is (still) my question after the seminar.

I personally think that sustainability has to do with that which can be sustained over time. Unfortunately I can't really see that any of the criteria in the long list above has anything in particular to do with sustaining (a just or indeed any kind of) society over time. It might be the case that a just or a democratic society can be better sustained over time, but then again it might very well be that case that the opposite is true. We just don't know enough about that (yet). Many unjust and/or autocratic societies in history for sure were around a lot longer than democracy has been around yet... In my previous blog post, I wrote:

"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"

I asked one of the two seminar speakers if ancient Egypt can be considered to have been a socially sustainable society. She couldn't really answer the question, but professor and vice-president Göran Finnveden jumped in and answered that "Ancient Egypt did not live up to the Brundtland commission's definitions of sustainability as it did not fulfill the basic needs [of those who lived in that society]", e.g. sustainable development is supposed to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

I thought it sounded good at the time, but as I have thought about it some more afterwards it really makes no sense to me for several reasons:

1) By which standard do you measure if needs are fulfilled? If dirt-poor ancient Egyptian peasants were happy (for example of the fact that they were peasants instead of pyramid-building slaves), who then are we to state that their needs were unfulfilled? What about most of the people who lived in premodern times or as as hunter-gatherers for millions of years before modern civilizations came to be - were they happy? Happy according to who? Happy by their standards (whatever they were) or happy by our modern standards? If by our standards, which exactly and whose standards? More specifically, which exact needs needs to be fulfilled and how? Are the needs of current-day Haitians fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Greeks fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Cubans fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Swedes fulfilled? Are the needs of "the 1%" (the richest people in society) fulfilled? At what material level do you need to live in order to have your "needs fulfilled" and be regarded as socially sustainable? Or is fulfilling the needs of the present primarily about other things than material needs? If so, what is the connections between material and other needs on the one hand and the act of fulfilling them on the other hand?

2) Let us assume that the needs of ancient Egyptian peasants were not fulfilled. Still, their environmental footprint was so small that they for sure made sure that they did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their corresponding-but-unmet needs. Let us assume that the needs of current-day Swedes are fulfilled, but that it also is patently obvious that we nowadays fulfill our needs by "stealing" the ability of future generations to meet their needs (since we consume non-renewable resources at an unsustainable pace). It is thus obvious that future generations will not be able to enjoy the same standard of living that we have today. The conclusion would then be that neither ancient Egypt nor current-day Sweden lives up to the Brundtland definition of sustainability. Which society is then "best" at being (partially) sustainable, or which society is worst at being unsustainable? Isn't "social sustainability" (the long list above) defined in such a way that present-day societies nominally (arguably) live up to such a definitions, while all other/previous societies don't? But isn't that some sort of "presentism" equal to a discrimination of sorts of both the past and the future?

I'm a great fan of Richard Heinberg's text "What is sustainability?" (pdf file). It's (only) about ecological sustainability and it is a lucid text that clearly and logically outlines a definition (with five axioms) of what constitutes a sustainable society. It doesn't say anything about abstract stuff like "needs" or about weighing the future against the present. It instead says things like: Axiom three; "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". The meaning of such a statement is very clear, the statement is further explained in the two following paragraphs and it would be easy to measure if we live up to that challenge or not (we of course don't). 

I would like to read a similar text about social sustainability, but I'm afraid I will never see it because I suspect it will never be written. I in fact suspect it can't be written since social sustainability seems to be an unagreed-upon hodge-podge of "stuff we like". Stuff some of us like, that is. Other people like other stuff more, and the chances of agreeing on a definition, let alone clearly outlining the implications in a logical manner seems to be an innately elusive goal.

Hopefully someone can contradict me and bring some light to this issue...?

4 kommentarer:

  1. Hi Daniel,

    We have discussed this a couple of times before, but since I am one of those hodge-podge people I feel the need to comment on your text. I am sure my comments won’t convince you, but I'll keep trying :-)

    First, when discussing social sustainability, we need to acknowledge that social sustainability is still a concept “in the making”. I don’t think I have ever read an article where someone claims to have formulated the ultimate social sustainability definition and defined relevant measurements for the concept. This does not mean, however, that the concept itself is useless and that we should abandon it. It just means that the concept is under-theorized and at a stage where more work is needed in order to reach a higher level of conceptual clarity (not that a clear definition will ever be reached, but more about that later).

    Another important thing is that most of the social sustainability literature treats social sustainability as a composite, cross-disciplinary concept that entails both quantitative and qualitative aspects. This means that asking for clear-cut definitions or an easy overview of quantitative measurements is not very constructive. It is in fact a way of forcing the concept to answer questions that it doesn’t itself ask. Therefore, I agree with you when you say that you will probably never read a social sustainability definition like the one you find in Heinberg’s text, but I see this as a consequence of the fundamental character of the concept, not as an indication that the concept is useless. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that you are asking for a narrow definition and some quantitative measurements and if you can’t find those, you reject the concept as such. My suggestion would be to open up towards qualitative research methods and allow for a complex combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to handle this complex concept. Complex problems require complex interpretations and solutions. This also addresses your question: " Why dress it up as 'social sustainability'"? The answer is that we are not simply doing research on what constitutes a just society. We are considering a much broader agenda, and thus it isn’t a question of “dressing it up as social sustainability” but a question of “a just society” being a subset of a broader scope and it is that bigger picture that interests us.

    Another issue that is at the core of this discussion is obviously the term “sustainable”. As you mention, you define sustainability as something “which can be sustained over time.” This is, however (as you well know), not the only aspect of the historic growth of the sustainability concept. The Brundtland Commission is not only interested in extending the world’s existence in time as long as possible, but is also fundamentally interested in the qualities that will characterize this existence, however long it may be. Thus, sustainability is not only about time, but of qualities and values, which of course can be criticized for being a cultural product that “discriminates both history and the future”. However, if we should avoid doing research or trying to understand and work with issues like these based on the fact the we do it from a specific cultural or historic perspective, we might as well shut down most of science (not only social sciences and the humanities, but also natural sciences). Sure it’s difficult, but show me a serious research that isn’t...

    Lastly, just a comment on your question: “How can people (researchers) who are interested in but who emphasize different aspects of social sustainability even talk to each other?” I think that you seriously overestimate the problems that might occur as a result of different researchers emphasizing different aspects of the social sustainability concept. As in any good discussion, these differences often contribute to insights and I see these differences as very valuable in trying to conceptualize social sustainability further.


  2. I can agree that the concept social sustainability is under-defined and/or under-theorized. That is frustrating for me since so many talk about social sustainability as if is something "real". Also, the idea of "three pillars of sustainability" (ecological, social economical) has been around for quite some time and is used or even taken for granted by many. But if social sustainability is under-theoriezed, I guess that makes ecological sustainability the giant among these concepts and social/economical sustainability into dwarfs comparatively? Then perhaps they should be treated accordingly?

    One thing you have to understand btw is that this blog post is based on a lot of frustration that washed over me as I took a look at my notes from the seminar. I had high hopes for the seminar (finally) advancing my understanding of the concept - but it didn't. I'm just as confused as before and the concept seems to be very illusive (see the long list above). Dare I say it looks like "snake oil" or "fool's gold" to me?

    My problem with the perspective you present (of an inherently fuzzyiness "of the fundamental character of the concept") is that it is wide open to discussions and perhaps always will be. You make out like that's not a a huge problem, like it's work in progress, but I'm not so sure about that. The state of affairs to me implies that some social sustainability researchers will make certain studies, and other social sustainability researches might not discuss or criticize the *results*, but rather dispute the first researches use of the term.

    I had this problem myself with the term "community" back when I wrote my thesis. My solutions was to read widely and then create an operative definition that I used in my thesis. But any operative definition (including of course mine) opens up the research in question to critique from someone who prefers to emphasize other aspects of "what community is" and I naturally (?) didn't like that.

    If it is hard to pin down what social sustainability is/means, then (as I write above), my suggestion is to talk about what you really mean, i.e. for example who to create a "just society" (rather than a socially sustainable society). I haven't read Wilkinson and Pickett's "The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone" - but I appreciate the title and would have liked it less had it been called "The spirit level: Why social sustainability is better for everyone".

    But I like your argument "we are not simply doing research on what constitutes a just society. We are considering a much broader agenda" and will need to think some about it.

    I think I am becoming gradually less fond of the Brundtland Commission definition (not that I was super-hot for it to start with). Just today I read this gem concerning the Brundtland definition:

    "While this definition will no doubt continue to be widely cited, it has limited operational usefulness. Befitting a political leader [Gro Harlem Brundtland], the definition is to general to guide behavior. It is so vague ' to be consistent with almost any form of action (or inaction)'".

    1. Naturen, ekosystemen och arterna behöver skyddas för att de A) har ett egenvärde B) för att alla mänskliga samhällen är helt beroende av naturen o s v för sitt väl- och fortbestånd.
      Och om man då försöker sig på en parallell utgångspunkt med människan som skyddsobjekt: Varje individ behöver skyddas för att hon A) har ett egenvärde B) för att alla mänskliga samhällen är helt beroende av enskilda individer för sitt väl- och fortbestånd.
      Lika litet som man med lätthet kan hävda att viss natur, vissa ekosystem eller vissa arter inte behövs och därför inte behöver skydd, kan man hävda att vissa individer inte behövs och inte behöver skydd. Dessutom ligger skyddet i varje individs intresse, och därför är det svårt att hävda att vid en intressekonflikt så är en individs intresse mer värt än en annan individs. Om man därför kan lyckas institutionalisera och vidmakthålla (sustain) skyddet för alla individer så är det helt enkelt det mål som är enklast att acceptera för var och en, och för alla tillsammans. Sedan är frågan om man behöver skyddas från alltifrån kärnvapenkrig till olycklig kärlek eller t ex förlust av ett älskat husdjur. Kanske räcker det om man skyddas från just våld, sjukdom och analfabetism samt ges möjlighet till försörjning och demokratisk delaktighet i samhällslivet. (Nu slank det förvisso med ett par relativiserbara begrepp, samt begrepp som inte är ’skydd från’ utan snarare ’möjlighet till’, men det går nog att lösa praktiskt-filosofiskt). När individen då har basalt skydd och basal tillgång till insitutionerna utbildning och politik är chanserna mycket bättre för henne att tillsammans med andra uppnå en mängd andra eftersträvansvärda mål, på egen hand och i samarbete med andra. Detta är helt enkelt politisk filosofi i linje med Kant, Voltaire, Hume … you name them, och linje med de s.k. ’rättighetsrevolutionerna’ under senare århundraden. Sedan behöver bara tilläggas att de grundläggande nyttigheterna/rättigheterna för individen behöver garanteras och hanteras såväl i form av miniminivåer som i form av en rättvis fördelning samt slutligen i form av (allas rätt till delaktighet i) rättvisa procedurer för att påverka denna fördelning. Lätt som en plätt. Tänk vilka framsteg vi gjort sedan medeltiden! Men om man ska kalla det här som vi bör sträva efter för social hållbarhet, det vete katten./Greger Henriksson (KTH, BRF och samhället)

  3. Ja Greger, det finns många bra saker som är eftersträvansvärda och kanske också borde skyddas/uppmuntras. Det kan diskuteras vilka dessa är och prioriteringarna mellan dem. Men jag ser (som sagt) inget skäl till att sammanföra/klumpa ihop dem under begreppet social hållbarhet.

    Jag har dock fått mig en tankeställare och har lite tankar om vad social hållbarhet skulle kunna innebära om jag fick bestämma det själv. Jag har två olika linjer och har skissat ner dem i ett utkast till ett blogginlägg som ev. dessvärre kräver en viss inläsning. Men vi kan prata om detta när vi ses!