Why sustainability and equality?

What do you think about Sustainability? The more I read about it, the more I see it being used everywhere to sell and seduce, and the less I think I understand it. Something seems clear, it's about the future, is it not?

Yeray Lopez
Yeray Lopez

Table of Contents

Emphasizing empowerment, equality, and sustainability, in expanding people’s choices.

Over time, two key dimensions of human development, very much linked, have deteriorated. On one hand, evidence of devastating current and future impacts on the environment is mounting. On the other hand, income inequality has worsened, while disparities in health and education remain significant. We don´t have to go far to see that happening all around us, ask your sisters, your friends, and your mother.

Sustainability encompasses the basic principle of justice. We care about environmental sustainability because of the fundamental injustice of one generation living at the expense of future generations. The standard definition of sustainable development is: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

About sustainability there are different views:

The Worldwatch Institute estimates that production of one unit of output in the United States in the 2000s required less than a fifth as much energy as it did in the 1800s. This leads to a thesis known as weak sustainability, which focuses on the total capital stock rather than on natural resource depletion, and how the energy used efficiently contributes to sustainability.

Some of my friends think that there will be a miraculous technology that will save the day for everyone, that will allow us to use better what there is, so we can just keep on living as we want without having to make any real change. That has never happened, not for everyone at least, nor for the planet. Throughout history, we have frequently found other lands where to hide our trash, bury our waste, and dump our radioactive waters hoping that the current would take it far away from us as if expecting that by not seeing the monster it will disappear (Look at what Fukushima/Japan is planning to do). Earth does not have an umbilical cord to take things elsewhere, this is it. Visit our previous interview with Katherine Richardson to get an overview of sustainability.

Disputing this view we find the strong sustainability thesis which believes that some basic natural assets have no real substitutes and thus must be preserved. These assets are fundamental not only to our capacity to produce goods and services but also to life. The accumulation of physical or other kinds of capital cannot compensate for Earth’s warming, ozone layer depletion, and major biodiversity losses. How can we put a price on global warming or bacterial antibiotic resistance due to meat production practices? These existential risks are real and are known, so one might wonder, why is it so hard to change?

Experts argue that we are moving from an “empty world” economy, where human-made capital was limited and limiting, and natural capital was perceived as superabundant, to a “full world” economy, where the opposite is true. We know that four planets are needed for keeping up with things as they are now. We see that Earth’s overshoot day, the day where we have consumed the resources that Earth is able to replenish for the year, moves to an earlier date constantly. In 2020 Earth overshoot day fell on August 22 as an average, although some countries had it before others. This year it will happen before that, from that day on we will be stealing from the future and from poorer countries of today. Calculate your personal Overshoot Day here.

Another way of thinking about sustainability is found in the green economy. Its thinking diverges from the traditional discourse on sustainability by focusing on ways in which economic policies can engender sustainable production and consumption patterns with inclusive, pro-poor solutions that integrate environmental considerations into everyday economic decisions. We should aim to practice the Circular Economy in every aspect of our lives. One book that I listened to and liked a lot about the topic is Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, by Kate Raworth

The critical role of uncertainty

How can we be sure of finding ways to offset the damage caused by current and future production and consumption? The answer is that we cannot be certain. Acknowledging this inherent uncertainty supports a strong sustainability thesis and the belief that we must stop what causes harm to which we do not have a solution today. The truth is, that we might never find it.

Consider biodiversity. Its instrumental benefits for people are well known: greater biodiversity increases the chances of finding cures for illnesses, developing high-yield crops, and maintaining ecosystem goods and services such as water quality. We know that ecosystems are resilient, up to a point. Yet defining the threshold at which ecosystems break down is hard. An ecosystem might sustain destruction for some time until an unknown threshold is breached. These risks and unknown thresholds have led to real concerns about gambling with the planet, COVID-19 being one example of how fragile we are. How can we be convinced that those who pollute, and profit from it, also care about finding the solution with all the evidence that we have? They don't.

In her book, Doughnut Economics, Kate argues that once the polluting companies start being fined for the health and environmental damages they cause, many times being done far away from where they manufacture, as in deaths related to air quality or meat consumption for example, as the tobacco industry is, things will start changing. And if you think about it, there are so many costs that are offloaded to the planet that these companies do not pay for, that a very different picture can be painted with those costs accounted for.

From the perspective of capabilities, there is no justification to assume that the future will provide greater opportunities.

What do we mean by sustainability?

Most definitions of sustainable development do not adequately capture sustainable human development. They do not refer to the expansion of choice, freedoms, and capabilities intrinsic to human development. Freedoms and capabilities that enable us to lead meaningful lives go beyond the satisfaction of essential needs. I often ask myself, a bit tired of the term sustainability: What does it mean? Is it that we should sustain all activities? What about the cruel practices, some of them can be sustained at perpetuity without ever changing their moral status? I do not know, but I think a lot about having a more sustainable life and I see more and more values related to the quality of my time, my work, our ways to live together, stress, and now that I am a father how quicker the ones I love will die in a worst-off world.

The human development approach recognizes that people have rights that are not affected by the arbitrariness of when they were born. Think about the luck you have had. You did not pick your genes, your parents, the welfare system you were brought up in, all that is casual and random and cannot be underestimated when thinking about distributing justice and opportunities. Today’s generation cannot ask future generations to breathe polluted air in exchange for a greater capacity to produce goods and services today, to cope with sickness for our lack of will. That would restrict the freedom of future people to choose the kind of life they want to lead, as tipping points have hard returns.

What do we mean by equality?

Early ideas of equality postulated that individuals should be rewarded according to their contribution to society. But I disagree, inequity and inequality in outcomes, what you can do, are closely related in practice to unequal access to capabilities and safe/fostering environments where to practice them. Once again, pure luck.

The current generation’s destroying the environment for future generations is no different from a present-day group’s suppressing the aspirations of other groups for equal opportunities to jobs, health, education, or safety.

Once again

Sustainability is concerned with one type of equality—across people born at different times.

The article on audio

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