visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)Work in a Sustainable Society:
Visualizing a sustainable society
Chapter 4, page 1 - 2 - 3

dot.gif (101 bytes) 4.1 The concept of sustainability dot.gif (101 bytes) 4.3 Test areas for change, a preliminary check list
dot.gif (101 bytes) Graph: The Iceberg Model of Unsustainable Development dot.gif (101 bytes) 4.4 Some features of international and global sustainability
dot.gif (101 bytes) 4.2 Alternative Economic Principles dot.gif (101 bytes) 4.5 An illustration: roles for international organizations
dot.gif (101 bytes) Graph: An Alternative Economic Perspective
dot.gif (101 bytes) Preparatory papers for Chapter 4 discussion
dot.gif (101 bytes) Women and Work in a Sustainable Society. Maria Mies dot.gif (101 bytes) Sustainable Growth and Employment, Hans Opschoor


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While acknowledging the "moving target" nature of the goal, what follows are some indicators about the kind of society which corresponds to the values, the threats and the understanding of work set forth in these pages. In addition to the normal limitations on forecasting, previously unknown or unconsidered environmental impacts of technology, migration, modern agriculture, are constantly being revealed, making it difficult to fully describe a possible future state.

Given the ecological, economic, cultural and political threats to sustainability, the consultation burrowed more deeply into the concept of sustainability itself (4.1) to develop a vision what a sustainable society might look like, including the implications for work and for different social institutions. This vision is not intended as a blueprint, but as a preliminary critical model against which actual and potential situations of unsustainability may be tested (4.2). A partial check list of items to be included in such testing was drawn up (4.3), and the importance of sustainability at the level of global economy and international economic relations reviewed (4.4).

4.1 The concept of sustainability

Since the 1974 conference in Bucharest on the "Science and Technology for Human Development, The Ambiguous Future -- The Christian Hope", sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the ecumenical movement has stressed the extraordinary importance of a sustainable society. In the words of that report:

"The time is coming when more material production and the benefits reaped by increasing numbers of people can no longer be allowed to outweigh the negative effects of economic growth on the other dimensions of economic life . Since many of the negative effects appear only after lengthy delays, judgment as to the point at which further growth reduces the quality of life depends on the planning horizon of the judges. Feeling a responsibility at least for our grandchildren, and sensing an incapacity of the physical environment to support for a long road significantly higher than today's, we believe that the rich segments of the world have now reached a stage where their continued material expansion will reduce the quality of life of some people at some time within the period of concern to us. The remaining ,poorer, members of mankind are at a stage where the current benefits of material expansion, except in terms of population, are far larger than the probable costs in terms of reduced quality of life now or in the relevant future. Thus the overall quality of life will at present be increased by material growth among the poor and by stabilization and possibly contraction among the rich.

For a short period in recent history some societies cultivated the dream of unlimited wealth, of overcoming poverty, not primarily by sharing wealth but by increasing it so that there would be enough for all. Now we face a sobering return to reality. We begin to perceive that the future will require a husbanding of resources and a reduction of expectations of global economic growth. We do not expect that all humanity can live as the most extravagant have been living, and we no longer believe that the slipover of wealth from the top will mean prosperity for all. There may be a divine irony in the fact that the very technological victories which once supported the vision of affluence, now - by their contributions to increasing consumption of resources, growing population, and pollution - are bringing an end to the dream of a carefree and affluent future. The goal must be a robust, sustainable society, where every individual can feel secure that his/her quality of life will be maintained or improved." [Science and Technology for Human Development, op. cit.]

The depth of this long-standing ecumenical approach to sustainability is rare in most subsequent, often secular, interpretations of the concept. The need to preserve overall quality of life even if a possible consequence is the contraction of economic growth in already-rich societies is stated directly: "The rich should live more simply, so that the poor can simply live."  [John Birch, at the 1975 Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Published in "Creation, Technology and Human Survival", Ecumenical Review, vol. XXVIII 1976, p. 69 f.] In this approach to sustainability, the overall choice between life and death is explicit in the manner of the choice Moses gave the people of Israel: choose for life by not giving in to the powers of death and destruction.

People now and in the future should have the possibility to live out the fullness of their existence: socially, culturally, economically, spiritually. [WCC Assembly 1975, Nairobi.] And given the continuity of existence, this means to share the earth in its created fullness. The totality of society and its institutions should thus heed the calling to sustainability as a norm and an imperative to guide and orient social, political, theological, economic, technological and scientific development. When the expansion of the economy and technology occupy the center of human life, they dominate and marginalize other sectors and segments of society. By the criterion of sustainability, if political and economic systems and the power of technological developments do not promote life in its fullness, they become instruments of the powers of death.

This leads to the question of how a sustainable society could work in practice. Is it possible to develop a vision (not a blueprint) of such a society to serve as a guiding principle?

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