cj#966,rn,sm> Chapter 4 – Sustainable societies: a realizable necessity


Richard Moore

Date: Fri, 25 Jun 1999 14:27:50 -0700 (PDT)
To: •••@••.•••, •••@••.•••,
From: David Lewit <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Re: cj#965> Part II - Introduction - Is there any hope for


You are right to keep it all together.  Publishers differ in their
approaches--you will find the right one soon enough.  Keep up the great work!

Aloha-- DL


                    Achieving a Livable, Peaceful World

                            Part II - Chapter 4

                     Copyright 1999 by Richard K. Moore
                 Last update 15 September 1998 - 4060 words
                    comments to: •••@••.•••

Part II - Envisioning a livable world: an inquiry into democracy,
sustainability, and world order
Chapter 4 - Sustainable societies: a realizable necessity

General principles of sustainability: stability and regulation
With the advent of acid rain, ozone depletion, global warming, and other
obvious signs of global-scale disruptions, sustainability is becoming a
familiar term. Environmentalists talk about sustainable agriculture and
sustainable economics, while globalization's policy-makers talk about
sustainable development.

"Sustainable development," like most of globalization's euphemisms, means
the opposite of what it says. Just as free competition masks a program of
monopoly concentration, so sustainable development masks a program aimed not
at preserving resources, but at extracting the maximum possible profit out
of those that remain. Satellite and field inventories are being collated,
models are being built of various ecosystems, and an agenda of "best use"
(that is, maximal exploitation) is being prepared. In the calculus of
sustainable development, people die of thirst while water is diverted to
support agribusiness operations.

While sustainable development is merely deceptive rhetoric, sustainable
economics and agriculture are in fact necessary societal objectives -- the
unsustainable alternative is simply another name for the inevitable collapse
of society. But sustainable economies and agriculture cannot be achieved,
not in a lasting form, unless society as a whole is made sustainable.

Consider for example the indigenous Mayan people in Chiapas, Mexico. Their
economy and agriculture were sustainable before Cortez arrived in Mexico and
remain sustainable to this day. What has ceased to be sustainable is the
political viability of the Chiapas region within Mexican society, as a
result of NAFTA. Political sustainability is every bit as essential as
economic sustainability, if, as the name suggests, the goal is to last over

One might also take notice of the fact that two centuries ago nearly all
economies were sustainable. Population growth, technological development,
and infrastructure changes have been responsible for the acceleration of
resource depletion. Wherever automobiles have become widespread, for
example, that in itself has guaranteed the unsustainability of societal
energy use.

If any part of a society is to be ensured sustainability, then the entire
society, taken as a living dynamic system, must have certain stability
characteristics. This is not to say a sustainable society must be a static
society, but there must be appropriate regulatory mechanisms that keep the
various elements of society within some kind of balance and harmony.

In primitive societies the regulatory mechanisms were natural and cultural.
Tabus, religious beliefs, and other cultural norms -- along with the limits
of the surrounding environment -- kept populations in balance and resource
use within sustainable limits. These cultural norms and economies evolved
over time out of the necessity of societal survival. But such societies were
relatively static, making stability easier to achieve. Modern societies are
highly dynamic, and achieving stability is therefore more difficult.

In dynamic systems, stability is achieved through feedback mechanisms. For
example, a house is kept within a stable temperature range by means of a
thermostat. In order for the thermostat to do its job the temperature sensor
must be located in the house and it must be able to control the furnace. In
general, a regulatory mechanism must be linked to that which is to be
regulated, otherwise the system is unstable and runs out of control.

In modern societies the primary feedback mechanism -- the measure that is
used to judge economic health -- is GDP (Gross Domestic Product). What GDP
measures is monetary transactions, not social well being. It is no surprise
that with GDP as the policy regulator, corporate profits increase while
social well-being declines. To use GDP as a measure of social well-being is
like placing one's thermostat out in the back yard. Just as the furnace
would in that case over-heat the house, so does GDP encourage economic
growth far beyond societal benefit.

Sustainability requires that monitoring mechanisms be designed which are
linked to each significant aspect of society, and which then link into
regulatory controls which have the power to correct imbalances. These
regulatory controls might be laws which prohibit certain activities under
certain circumstances, resource allocations which budget the use of critical
resources, or variable tax rates which make activities increasingly
expensive as they get further out of bounds.

Markets can be very effective regulating mechanisms in certain situations
and if the markets themselves are appropriately established and regulated.
Education can enhance societal stability by helping people to understand how
society functions and how their own choices and actions effect society and
their own well being. Accurate and timely information enables governing
bodies and citizens to respond to changing circumstance and hence to help
keep society in balance.

The range of feedback and regulatory mechanisms is limited only by human
ingenuity, but to be successful, they must be linked to that which they are
intended to regulate. The only sustainability imperative is that overall
regulation be effective in achieving robust sustainability and societal

Sustaining livability: the necessity of democracy
If societies are to be livable -- if they are to achieve social well-being
-- then the most fundamental feedback mechanism must be the people
themselves. Only people can judge their own well-being, and just as a
thermostat must be inside the house, so must citizen satisfaction be the
measure of livability. A livable, dynamic society must therefore be a
democratic society: only a government of the people can be a government for
the people.

The failure of most of our existing democracies is due in large part to the
inadequacy of their political feedback mechanisms. Citizen political will is
expressed primarily through elections that are held every several years, and
in which the only information conveyed is a mark which is placed next to the
name of one of the candidates. Imagine how poorly a business would run if
the only feedback management received was every several years when the
accountants said "You're doing well" or "You're doing poorly," without any
quantitative information!

Just as a healthy business requires frequent and quantitative feedback on
its performance, so does a livable society require ongoing citizen feedback
-- and that feedback must involve more than candidate selection; it must
involve citizen determination of policy priorities, and those priorities
must be communicated to and acted on by governing bodies.

Businesses require not only frequent feedback on their performance, they
also require comprehensive feedback. Each part of the business must be
functioning soundly if the business is to remain healthy. Similarly, for a
society to be livable, it must be livable locally. As different localities
have different needs and preferences, so democracy must be locally based. To
return to our earlier metaphor, each house needs its own thermostat -- it
makes no sense for one thermostat to turn everyone's furnace on and off at
the same time.

If livable societies are to be achieved and sustained, the most fundamental
requirement is that stable, locally-based, democratic governance be
established. Only democracy is based on popular will, only stable democracy
can maintain social well being in a dynamic society, and only locally-based
democracy can adjust to local requirements. In the next chapter the question
of democracy will be investigated further.

Self-sufficiency and trade: seeking the right balance
Closely related to sustainability is self sufficiency. A self-sufficient
society is not only sustainable, but is also independent of external imports
for its essential needs. Self sufficiency is in fact not typically
attainable except in very primitive societies or in very large societies
which are fortunate enough to possess a wide variety of resources. Trade
with other societies is, generally speaking, a necessity.

For sustainability to be achieved when trade is part of the equation, then
two conditions must be satisfied. First, that which is exported must be
sustainably obtainable. Second, the ongoing availability of needed imports
must be assured. Within those constraints trade can be of great benefit to a
society. An excess of one resource or product can be traded for another in
short supply, and a society can specialize in certain kinds of production,
to the benefit of itself and its trading partners.

Little more need be said regarding the benefits of trade, since those are so
frequently praised in existing capitalist societies. What needs to
emphasized here are the the conditions (above) which need to be satisfied
for trade to be sustainable, and the value of a stabilizing degree of
self-sufficiency in essentials.

Assuring the availability of needed imports can never be fully under the
control of a given society. Making use of relatively inexpensive imports may
provide economic advantages to a society, but over-dependence on imports
threatens the long-term stability of society, especially in periods of
general economic hardship. Sustainability is most reliably achieved through
self-sufficiency in essentials wherever that is feasible.

Whenever a society becomes highly dependent on a given import, it may make
sense in terms of both economics and societal stability to develop a
domestic production capability. This kind of development -- the building of
self-sufficiency -- is the opposite of what development has come to mean
under capitalism. Development today means the building of capital-growth
vehicles, and the encouragement of global over-dependence on trade is itself
the most fundamental growth vehicle for capital. International trade, and
the financing of same, is heavily dominated by TNC's. xx% of all trade is
carried out internally to TNC's.

Having a domestic alternative increases a society's bargaining power in
those cases where it chooses, for economic advantage, to trade beyond its
needs. If imports are not offered at reasonable terms, then the domestic
alternative can be expanded. For several reasons, then, a healthy dose of
self-sufficiency is essential for robust sustainability. Keeping external
dependencies within manageable bounds is one of the regulatory requirements
of a sustainable society.

Trade is one part of a society's wider relationship with other societies,
and a sustainable society -- a society with sustainability awareness --
naturally approaches its relationships with other societies from that
perspective. For example, if timber is needed as an ongoing import resource,
then the importing society would be eager for its trading partners to employ
sustainable forestry practices. Non-sustainability radiates outward,
destabilizing other societies. In a capitalist world, there must be
competition among societies in pursuit of relative advantage; in a
sustainable world, there is more likely to be collaboration among societies
in pursuit of mutual stability and benefit.

When the economic basis of inter-societal relationships shifts from
competition to collaboration, that spirit will affect those relationships
generally, including the political and cultural aspects. Marx may have
exaggerated in saying that all human relationships are determined by
economics, but there is considerable evidence that he was not far off the
mark. Consider for example Western Europe, which had been involved in
endless internal warfare during centuries of competition, both before and
during the era of capitalism. But following WW2, when competitive
imperialism was abandoned, the sprit of collaboration and cultural exchange
grew ever stronger, leading ultimately to the European Union.

In Chapter 6, we will look in more detail at the question of collaborative
internationalism, what kinds of difficulties might be expected to arise, and
how they might be effectively dealt with. For now, let us presume that in a
sustainable world political relationships between societies will be
primarily collaborative and mutually supportive. There may be tensions of
various kinds, just as there are among people in a community, but it is in
each society's best interest to maintain stability and to keep tensions
under control.

One source of obvious tension arises from the principle of self-sufficiency
itself. Suppose for example a society decides that it wants to deploy
wind-power generators in order to achieve energy self-sufficiency. It might
then choose to subsidize development of generator-producing enterprises.
When a production capability is achieved, the society might then impose a
tax on energy imports so that market forces would then lead to the
deployment of generators and eventually the achievement of the desired

This kind of selective protectionism has been used effectively by many
nations, and was crucial to the industrialization of Britain, the United
States, Germany, Japan, Korea, and others. Free trade has always been a
late-stage capitalist agenda, aimed at destabilizing the self-sufficiency of
weaker economies to the relative advantage of stronger ones.

In a sustainable world, a protectionist project might be disturbing to
trading partners who had come to depend on a particular export trade. But
there would be mutual understanding of the desirability of self-sufficiency
-- the trading partner would not interpret the project as a competitive ploy
aimed at relative gain, and would not be inclined to "retaliate" with
tariffs of its own. Presumably the project would be discussed well in
advance of execution, and time would be allowed for adjustments by all
sides. Such is the nature of collaboration.

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

     (2) Accurate information regarding all aspects of societal
     operations is 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

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

     (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

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

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

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.



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