visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)Work in a Sustainable Society:
Visualizing a sustainable society
Report 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, 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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In the "Iceberg Model of Unsustainable Economics", unemployment may be understood as labor sinking below the water line into the invisible economy. The causal link between unemployment and rise in productivity may be understood not as less work; but as an increase in non-contract, unregistered, invisible, unprotected work. The layers making up that enormous invisible economy might be considered as built up in an order of increasing monetization, with contracted and wage labor exposed above the line. Although only a discussion model, the image captures many of the ways people commonly talk about their place in the economy, including the widespread expression of the dream to "rise to the top". Near the bottom of the iceberg are the "colonies". Both internal and external to a national economy, colonies may be defined by race, by gender, by nationalism in the distribution of resources. They exemplify the continuum of relationships based on violence, often with military oversight, which serve to extract resources for the benefit of powers outside the colony.

The Iceberg Model of Unsustainable Development

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   work062.jpg (865 bytes)Contract Relationships                   
          work061.jpg (735 bytes)  Colonizing Relationships (based on violence)

The iceberg paradigm of unsustainability, with its pyramid of colonization and its destructive consequences, leads to a few theses about sustainable development:

  • "Catch-up development" is not possible for all people. Historical ([ex]colonies, [ex]colonizers) and actual differences between various types of workers in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and age are used to set one against the other in an antagonistic relationship. Thus, wage workers in the North who lose their jobs due to the globalization of the economy tend to consider "cheap labor" in the South and the East as their enemy. This in turn exacerbates racism and further diminishes the possibility of equality for all.
  • "Catch-up development" is not even desirable for the comparative few on top of the wage labor peaks.
  • To preserve the foundations of life on earth, equality, justice and solidarity, new models of society are needed which can lead towards true sustainability.

4.2 Alternative Economic Principles

This leads to the difficulty of visualizing a sustainable society as a working, positive, and inspiring concept, not a blueprint but a guiding principle to indicate the direction in which steps must be taken. Even this humble formulation must first admit that such a vision is not and should not be all encompassing. A comprehensive effort to deal with all elements of every level and type of society in all regions of the world at the same time would be self-defeating by definition. So the reader should consider the following diagram in terms of its intent: more as a colorful illustration to provoke other ways of thinking, rather than a formal and systematic investigation of concrete steps to take.

An Alternative Economic Perspective

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The consultation methodology put presently colonized and marginalized actors, activities and values into the core (center), because they are central to ensuring that life can go on in its regeneration and fullness. The existing Iceberg model shown above, topped by capital and submerging most of the world’s people and nature itself, cannot produce and regenerate life. If the preservation of life is made central (the life or subsistence perspective), all other dimensions, mechanisms, etc., must serve this goal. This core of life is not unlimited: efforts to expand and exploit it must recognize that happiness, freedom, justice, equality for all must be realized within these limits.

People’s livelihood in a sustainable society will depend both on income from wage-labor/employment, and on other forms of work (including unpaid work), on regaining control of communal assets and on the solidarity of communities. In this context, the loss of wage-labor employment need not be catastrophic. Moreover, valuable, unpaid, necessary social labor can have prestige in the society when it is shared by men and women equally. Thus, moving from paid to unpaid work will not be a negative factor leading to social exclusion, depression, isolation and poverty. Nor will socially and environmentally destructive work be necessary to ensure employment, money income and thus livelihood for people.

Restoring local and regional community control of assets and resources can enhance better decision-making on the contradictory concerns for a healthy environment and the preservation of people’s work, employment and livelihood. Work and nature will no longer be antagonists.


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