visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)Work in a SustainabIe Society - Introduction to the Issues
Kohler, Page 2 of 2  return to page 1
Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) I. Background dot.gif (101 bytes) IV. Inter-Relationship between Work and a Sustainable Society
dot.gif (101 bytes) II. Insights into the World of Work dot.gif (101 bytes) V. Role of Churches in Promoting a more Sustainable Society
dot.gif (101 bytes) III. Insights into the Concept of Sustainable Societies dot.gif (101 bytes) VI. Factors influencing the Transition to a more Sustainable Society


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III. Insights into the Concept of Sustainable Societies

The papers prepared for the Consultation particularly focus on the issue of work, and less attention has been devoted to what exactly is a sustainable society. I am convinced that there is no single vision of what a sustainable society will be! What a sustainable society will be is a moving target! What may be sustainable today, may not be so in two weeks, depending on the impact of both people and nature! I see the concept of a sustainable society as defined more as a PROCESS by which we try to balance the overall relationship between people and nature.

It is probably much easier to define what is not a sustainable society! Certainly events around the world give us many easy and quick examples of what is NOT sustainable! Just a quick review of the most recent list of United Nations mega-conferences gives some insight on areas of particular concern:

  • The UNCED Conference and Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 drew attention to the myriad of problems involved in balancing our development and environmental objectives;
  • The World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen reminded us that we had a social agenda which required our urgent attention--particularly issues related to poverty alleviation, employment and social exclusion.
  • In Cairo, the International Conference on Population and Development struggled with the critical moral, ethical and economic issues of population and the need to meet the development needs of all people,
  • The World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993) focused on the priority themes of progress towards fuller democracy, the alleviation of poverty, and the respect of human rights; and in the near future,
  • In Beijing in September there will be the Fourth World Conference on Women, to AGAIN try to move forward from the present inequitable treatment of women all across our planet.

Convening of these conferences demonstrates recognition within the international community of the importance of these issues in working toward a more sustainable society. These conferences, however, cannot in themselves "solve" these issues. A major shift in priorities at all levels--from individuals through to international institutions -- will need to take place. Nevertheless, what has been the role of the churches in these conferences? While in some they played a prominent public role, e.g. in Cairo, in others they were seldom heard or seen! In this paper, I would like to simply highlight several areas in which I see particular problems and/or opportunities for change:

  1. It has become blatantly clear that present production and consumption patterns are no longer sustainable. International negotiations are under way to begin to set priorities and approaches for a transition to more sustainable production and consumption patterns. This will be a complex process. What concerns me most, however, is that this process of analyzing these critical issues for OUR future has largely been left to diplomats, politicians, and a few bureaucrats. While much attention will no doubt be given to protecting present life styles in the North, will the urgent need for improving production and expanding consumption to alleviate poverty in the South also be heard? It is important that these issues not be analyzed solely on economic and political terms but equitable ethical and social terms as well. Therefore, what is the role of the churches? How can the churches prepare for participation in such a process?
  2. As we look around our world today, we see the urbanization of poverty. In both industrialized and developing countries, cities have become our most critical centres of conflict, social disintegration and inequity. We will not be able to achieve a sustainable society without giving special emphasis to achieving "sustainable cities". Cities have a special effect on our families, our sense of community and participation and "belonging". How can we promote the establishment of more secure "roots" for people within rural areas to discourage urban migration and to enable them to achieve satisfaction of their economic, social, cultural and spiritual needs. Similarly, for those already in cities, how can they also establish "roots" and achieve these needs.
  3. How can we promote the development of more "sustainable livelihoods" particularly within the informal sectors of our rural and urban communities. By this we mean, not only through the creation of a paid employment, but also by facilitating peoples' efforts to have a "good" life which enables them to meet their basic needs without placing inordinate stress their environment and social situation and without foreclosing opportunities for future generations also to prosper. The success or failure of such livelihoods is directly linked to their local lands and natural resources. But it is also closely related to trade agreements, international Conventions, and national politics and economic power. As stated in the ILO's Declaration of Philadelphia: "Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere!" This is as true for our cities as for our forests, mountain regions, fishing villages and deserts.
  4. In light of the significant differentiation which exists within our societies, how can we improve our capacity, indeed our political will, to give priority to caring for the underprivileged?
  5. While one can imagine a multitude of different actions required to make our world more sustainable, it all comes down to two words: WHO PAYS! I am personally convinced, that even more important then the specific actions we take-- will be the way we share the costs and benefits of those actions which will determine whether we achieve a sustainable society. Far too often in human history, we set about to change our social and economic behaviour, and what we see is a long record of winners and losers. Those who often pay the highest percentage of the social and economic costs often receive little or none of the benefits. For example, when an enterprise is forced to close because of its environmental implications (Note: this does not happen as often as we are led to presume!), the local workers and community often pay a very high price -- with their jobs and economic well-being. Nevertheless, it is our entire society--and in some cases our entire planet--which shares in the benefits of such action. We need to find ways to ensure that the social and economic costs and benefits of the transition to a sustainable society are equitably shared!

The section on work indicated that one of the key issues was how we would value work in the future. Likewise, the problems of a sustainable society are closely linked with how we will value natural resources and our environment in future. How can we effectively and correctly internalize the costs of our natural resources and environment within our present economic system? Therefore, taken together, one of the challenges for the economic profession--- and for those monitoring and ensuring the accountability of the economic profession-- is how to internalize environmental and social costs in future--and to further ensure that those costs are equitably shared within and between countries! At the some time, perhaps we need a new approach which will enable us to take into account social values without forcing ourselves to monetize such values which intrinsically can not be evaluated in dollar or peso terms!

IV. Inter-Relationship between Work and a Sustainable Society

The sections above, by necessity, have already dealt with a number of linkages between work and a sustainable society. The following provides a number of other factors which the Consultation might wish to discuss:

  1. Segments of our society are more vulnerable to change as they are less able to adapt to change. This may lead to quite different priorities and attitudes towards change. It effects changes in the world of work, such as the introduction of new technologies, or shifts to public transport or new alternative energies. It may even lead to new family structures and constraints. Such differences in ability to adapt--can further accentuate existing disparities. How can we facilitate change in future? What role should the churches play in promoting and resisting change--and helping people to cope with change?
  2. What should we resist? Our societies have been open to change--often in the past with limited regard to the longer-term implications they may have upon work, and the social, cultural and spiritual foundations of our societies. To what has our society said no? Why have we done so? What criteria should we use to assess technologies and changes in "lifestyle"? How can we ensure the freedom of choice-- while still preserving our futures!
  3. Given the increasing level of uncertainty (economic, social, political) within our societies, how can we avoid indifference and apathy--if not even paralysis? What role might the "precautionary principle" play in the decision-making process of the future? What are the ethical, moral and spiritual implications of the "precautionary principle", if any?
  4. The Communications Revolution has led to great changes in our societies--in all regions of the world. The overwhelming acceleration of the so-called "Information highway" will significantly influence our future! Do we know how it might influence our cultures and spiritual lives-- will it strengthen or weaken them? Can we influence that choice?

V. Role of Churches in Promoting a more Sustainable Society

It appears that the churches have many opportunities --one might even say obligations--to take a more active role in these matters in the future. Let me raise a number of issues which I think might be important to our Consultation:

  1. The church has a role to inject a sense of OPTIMISM to counter the present wave of pessimism. Might one even suggest that the Church has a special task related to the promotion of HOPE for the many people "within" our societies who are indeed EXCLUDED!
  2. The church may have a key role in rejecting a new sense of SOLIDARITY to counter the emphasis on individualism!
  3. The church may need to improve its links to the economic actors within our societies, especially employers and workers and their organizations, with a view to the churches playing a more active role in our economic and social decision processes. The church may need to establish partnerships with other institutions which represent other segments of civil society in order to participate in a broad coalition for change.
  4. The church needs to re-examine the importance of the role of the family as an economic, social and spiritual unit.
  5. The church has a special role in providing balanced information and a vision of sustainable society of the future to its members taking into account critical economic, social, cultural and spiritual issues within our societies. This will require the active participation of the members of the church, at all levels, in an open, frank and transparent process

VI. Factors influencing the Transition to a more Sustainable Society

Despite all the sections and points I have already raised, there are still some issues which just do not fit comfortably --perhaps because they fit everywhere--within the structure of our Consultation. I believe, however, they still deserve our consideration--or at least that we should be aware of these issues as we discuss our principle themes:

  1. TIME: The issues before this consultation are made even wore awesome because of the complete range of time frameworks which MUST be taken into account. Therefore, in all these areas we need to look at short, medium, and long-term effects--as well as inter-generational effects! Timing may be as important as the goals themselves!
  2. LEVELS OF ACTION: The top down approach to development will NOT work if we are pursuing sustainable development. The process must be bottom up; enabling local people, including church members, to be involved throughout the process- This being said, however, beware, that a shift to sustainable development at the local level--does not necessarily equal global sustainable development.
  3. ACCEPTANCE OF CHANGE: greater attention needs to be given to the development of innovative ways to promote the acceptance of change through participation, clear objectives and the equitable sharing of costs and benefits of the transition to a more sustainable society.
  4. NEED TO GRAB ATTENTION: As was cited in the Report of the First Consultation, our societies respond to heart attacks more effectively and promptly than we do to cancer! The environmental and world of work issues today-- are indeed a cancer!! We need to develop approaches to information and awareness that help us to encourage our politicians and societies to PREVENT the "cancer"!
  5. VALUES: Our societies need to develop new indicators and techniques to evaluate work and natural environmental resources in the future. The criteria for the setting of such values must be widely agreed upon in order for them to be acceptable.--and to lead to the changes required in our economic and social behaviour. The role of churches--through their participation or absence--will he critical to the success of this process.
  6. OUR TARGET IS A MORE EQUITABLE WORLD: The achievement of a more sustainable society must be based on a more equitable world. Therefore, we risk postponing the crisis until later--perhaps the next generation?-- if we do not more aggressively seek ways to eliminate poverty. Of course, this will be a very long and difficult process. But we should not compromise our objectives-- simply because they are difficult and long-term. As long as part of our global population is unable to meet its basic needs, including socially and/or economically remunerated work we will be unable to meet our sustainable society objectives! Progress most assuredly must be step by step--but this is not the same as drop by drop! We must make a serious commitment to follow through towards an equitable and sustainable society!

Larry R. Kohler, 3 June 1995

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