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
- 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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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
- 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?
- 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:
- 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?
- 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!
- 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?
- 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:
- 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!
- The church may have a key role in rejecting a new sense of SOLIDARITY
to counter the emphasis on individualism!
- 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
- The church needs to re-examine the importance of the role of the
family as an economic, social and spiritual unit.
- 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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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"!
- 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.
- 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