cj#832-2/2> GRI.II / Intro & C.4: “Livable and sustainable societies”

1998-09-15

Richard Moore

[continued...]

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Achieving sustainability: there is no single recipe
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
To summarize what has been established so far, the fundamental
characteristics of a livable and sustainable world -- based on the essential
requirements of livability and sustainability -- are the following:

     (1) Societal politics is democratic, locally based, and
     participatory.

     (2) Accurate information regarding all aspects of societal
     operations are readily available.

     (3) Societal systems are monitored at a societal level, robust
     sustainability is systematically regulated, and the specific
     arrangements are determined largely by local conditions and
     preferences.

     (4) Trade is based on mutual benefit, rather than competitive
     advantage, and on reliable relationships, rather than temporary
     gain.

     (5) Inter-societal relations are generally collaborative,
     harmonious, and based on mutual respect for the principles of
     sustainability, self-determination, and self-sufficiency.

These are not simply desirable characteristics, and they are not utopian. As
I hope this investigation has demonstrated, these characteristics are
necessary and essential to livability and sustainability, and they are
mutually supportive and reinforcing -- they weave into a stable culture of
sustainability. While capitalism has for centuries made the false claim that
blind and narrow self-interest would lead to universal benefit, a much
stronger claim can be made that informed societal self-interest, based on
sustainability, stability, and locally-based democracy, will lead to maximum
overall benefit, general satisfaction, and a peaceful, harmonious world.

There are many paths to sustainability, depending on the circumstances, the
cultures, and the preferences of each society and locality. There is no
single recipe that would be appropriate to every situation. There are some
general guidelines that apply widely, such as the need to reduce energy
consumption drastically from its current levels, the need to keep population
levels within each society's carrying capacity, and the desirability of
moving toward self-sufficiency in essentials.

Uses of all resources must be reviewed, and strategies developed for moving
toward sustainable systems. Hasty change is itself wasteful and
destabilizing, and sustainability is best served by keeping the wheels of
society going while new systems are being developed to replace old ones.
Various kinds of market regulation can be used to facilitate such
transitions. Energy use, for example, can be taxed in order to subsidize the
development of more efficient transport infrastructures.

While economies must be effectively regulated and must be monitored at a
societal level, this by no means implies that sustainable societies must be
command economies. In fact, modern societies, over the centuries, have
developed quite effective mechanisms to regulate internal commerce, trade,
and resources. Licenses, subsidies, tax structures, anti-monopoly rules, and
other measures have frequently achieved societal objectives within
market-based economies.

There are some cases, however, such as the infrastructures of transport,
energy, and communications, where outright societal ownership and management
may be far and away the best policy for many societies. The dismal failures
of many recent privatizations, such as in Britain and Brazil, highlight the
good sense behind societal operation for facilities whose stable maintenance
is essential to society and where markets have little useful regulatory role
to play. [Privatization examples to be provided]

Citizen preference is a major factor in the equation of societal benefit.
The indigenous people of Chiapas might prefer communal farming; the
descendents of Swedes in Minnesota might prefer family farms. Both
approaches might be able to provide reliable and sustainable food supplies
to their respective societies, and local democratic preference must
generally prevail over any central-planner's notion of optimality.

Without the pressure of capitalism's growth imperative, there is no need to
pursue "optimal use" as if it were a holy icon. There is room in sustainable
societies for flexibility, and the encouragement of preferred cultural
forms. If people want river boats back on the Mississippi River, just
because they like them, there's no reason why the sustainability-feasibility
of such a transport system cannot be explored.

One of the most important societal resources is accurate and timely
information. Sustainability management requires accurate information
regarding crops, production yields, consumption patterns, trade, financial
flows, and the effects of regulatory measures. Effective democracy requires
that citizens be accurately informed of societal and world affairs, and that
governing bodies be kept informed of citizen preferences and needs down to
the local level. Secrecy, in particular, is anathema to a democratic,
collaborative world. Maintenance of reliable and accurate information
channels must be a primary societal objective, and various monitoring
mechanisms will be required to make sure information is in fact being
adequately and accurately distributed.

Resources such as water supplies, fisheries, and agricultural land are of
utmost importance to society, and their ongoing integrity and sustainability
is of primary concern. The principle of societal dominion over such
resources has been long recognized in Western societies, and at times has
been used effectively to preserve such resources. In a sustainable society,
property rights of operators must always be subservient to the requirements
of sustainability, as defined by democratically-derived societal
regulations. Pesticide use, irrigation methods, fishing intensities, and
tillage practices must all be regulated so as to preserve topsoils and
fisheries, maintain water supplies and their quality, and to protect public
health.

In the case of non-renewable resources, various strategies might be used in
support of overall sustainability. If the economy is running satisfactorily
without exploiting minerals, for example, it might be advisable to leave the
minerals untapped and hold them in reserve for times of need. If, on the
other hand, mineral exploitation is considered necessary to support the
economy, then that must be seen as a temporary expediency. The society must
plan some kind of successor economy in order to be ultimately sustainable.

Ironically, it might be in a society's best interest to accelerate
exploitation of its export resource in order to generate funding to
establish the successor economic regime. But apart from such a transition
strategy, sustainability is best served by limiting non-renewable exports to
what is required to obtain needed imports -- if one is fortunate enough to
be sitting on a pile of gold, there is no sense in squandering it.

Energy is a resource whose non-sustainability is readily apparent based on
current usage patterns. xx% of known global oil reserves, for example, were
consumed between 19xx and 19yy, and at current rates of consumption all
known supplies will be exhausted by 2xxx. Meanwhile massive highway
development is being carried out all over the world and xx% of known oil
reserves are consumed each year by commercial air travel. The management of
energy in sustainable societies will be dramatically different than in a
world where maximizing the use of petroleum seems to be the primary global
energy policy.

Market economics are simply inappropriate as the primary regulator of energy
usage. Energy usage must be regulated such that the societal resources which
must be expended in order to provide energy are managed sustainably. If food
is traded for oil, through some string of trade transactions, then energy
usage cannot be allowed to force over-use of food-producing resources. Hence
the economics of energy use is primarily the economics of
resource-management, and a competitive energy industry is of little
regulatory benefit.

Some energy might be supplied free of charge, for example to hospitals,
where energy costs are of little regulatory value. In other cases the
regulation of the market would be most advisable, and energy prices can be
varied for different uses, enabling maximum usage flexibility within the
bounds of sustainability.

There is an energy budget, determined democratically, within which a
sustainable society must live. The budget must be sufficient to provide
necessary societal operations, and it can be as large as the society
desires, within the bounds of prudent sustainability. Just as financial
budgets in today's societies are set at both local and national levels, so
energy would be budgeted at societal and at local levels.

Energy needs of essential societal operations and infrastructures would be
guaranteed, and then localities would be free, within guidelines, to
allocate their energy budgets according to local conditions. Rural areas
might need to use much of their budget for tractor and truck operation,
while urban areas might make use of efficient mass-transit solutions,
freeing more of their energy budgets for uses other than transport.

Adjusting from reckless to sustainable energy usage will probably be one of
the most difficult transitions as societies move toward sustainability.
Recall that the force of capitalism has been fueled by the human creativity
that it inspired, albeit for the dubious purpose of maximizing capital
growth. As was observed, necessity is the mother of invention. Living within
energy budgets will demand considerable creativity, and some of today's
talented corporate executives and engineers can be usefully employed with
the task of helping localities and societies to develop appropriate
solutions.

We have, fortunately, the advantage of history -- many generations of
efficient energy systems have been discarded in the scramble for economic
growth, and many technologies have been discovered and never exploited,
because they didn't promise sufficient corporate profits. We may not be
forced back to horses, candles, and sailing ships, at least not all of us,
but it is comforting to know that there is such a wide spectrum of proven
energy models available to inspire appropriate sustainable designs.

In democratic, sustainable societies, people are at the same time a resource
for society and the sovereigns of society. Society has a general interest in
the productivity and good health of its citizenry, in support of societal
operations, and it also has a responsibility to support the well-being of
the people on whose behalf governing bodies are empowered. For both reasons,
a livable society would presumably give high priority to social services,
within the constraints of its sustainable budget.

Education and health care, for example, might be most efficiently and
effectively provided free to those who can benefit from them. Little useful
regulatory purpose is served by imposing a market regime on such basic
services. Certainly quality and efficiency need to be maintained, and usage
must be in some sense fairly allocated. Many regulatory mechanisms are
available for such purposes which are more direct and effective than
markets.

There is much more that could be said, but this is not the place to
comprehensively consider, even in overview, all aspects of sustainable
economics. My intent has been only to identify the fundamental principles
that must necessarily be followed if sustainability is to be achieved, and
to see how those principles might be applied in familiar situations. I've
tried to explore a variety of solution paradigms so as to illustrate the
kind of creativity that will be required. After more than a century's reign
of the paradigm of capitalism, we all need a bit of a jolt in the head to
regain our sanity and prepare for a sustainable future.

In closing, we must look at the big question: Is it all possible? There are
those who believe humanity can only survive if global populations reduce
drastically, through disease and starvation, after which a sustainable world
could be obtained. [citation to be provided]

But such a perspective is based on statistics which presume a continuation
of capitalist economics, which grossly abuses and misuses global resources.
To understand the actual carrying capacity of the Earth, one must use a
different kind of statistics, based on different kinds of resource usages,
as we've been discussing in this chapter. Several investigators have looked
at these kinds of statistics, and their results are very promising [citation
to be provided]. In any case, even if global population must in fact
experience painful reduction due to resource insufficiency, the sooner
sustainable practices are introduced, the more people will be saved.

[end Chapter 4]

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