Social-Political Sustainability: The Human Element
It is commonly accepted that the project of sustainable development is conceptually composed of three constituent parts. These parts are (1) environmental sustainability, (2) economic sustainability, and (3) social-political sustainability. The United Nations 2005 World Summit refers to the “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” of sustainable development as environmental protection, economic development and social development. The interdependency of the first two is evident; it is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time to satisfy the needs and wants of burgeoning populations within the binding constraints imposed by our physical environment. But what is this great hoopla about social development and sustainability of politics, and what exactly is its place?
If environmental protection is concerned with the preservation of our natural environment and resources, and economic sustainability is concerned with seeking durable growth solutions therein, then the social-political sphere can be thought of as representative of the more purely human element in the equation. Social development and social-political sustainability are intimately related concepts but they are not in fact entirely interchangeable. It is important that we understand their symbiotic relationship and its implications for the broader sustainability project.
Social development is a concept that is familiar to most of us in its many and varying forms. Within any given society there are opportunities to improve and enrich each of its composite parts in many ways. Of sometimes greater importance is the need to harmonize relations amongst these various and sometimes opposing elements. Those actively engaged in the process of social development include agents acting within its institutions to effect change via established channels. Of more notice, however, are often those who act from the outside, those who reject the society’s institutions as inadequate, and who advocate wholesale social and political change as the only true path to social enrichment and development.
It is in this transformational role that we begin to touch on the realm of social-political sustainability. Within any given social context, social development can be pursued with the simple granting of budgets. Financial and human resources are utilized to strengthen and enrich societies by improving educational opportunities, by embracing the marginalized and the forgotten, by making improvements to healthcare and hygienic conditions and by endearing knowledge of financial and entrepreneurial activities to name just a few. Here, the distinguishing feature of social development is that it is executed within the institutional mechanisms and constraints prevailing in that given entity.
Social-political sustainability too is very much concerned with physical and material standing of peoples, but further than this it is concerned with the state of their civil society. Social-political sustainability is differentiated from pure social development in that its sphere is expanded beyond the employment of simply monetary means. Social-political development entails not only the engagement of institutional mechanisms, but also their modification and advancement. Social-political sustainability thus seeks pathways to durable social enrichment and development via the vibrancy and health of a society’s political processes. At its core, there ultimately is little more than an absolute faith in the functioning of liberal democracy. Despite the frequent changing of the guard and the potential for policy discontinuity this entails, it is believed that representative republican government buttressed by mass public awareness and participation provides the best model for a sustainable body politic.
In addition to social policy, environmental and economic policies are clearly dictated in the political realm as well. It is in the creed of the sustainability project to hold that healthy political bodies which are truly representative of the collective will can show us the path forward. Recognition of the strain to our natural environment that unrestrained industrialization and consumption have brought depends upon it.
The French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville long ago warned Americans that their political structure (and indeed that of all democracies) could fall hostage to a “tyranny of the majority”. To illustrate the weight of these words, consider a scenario in which a pluralistic political majority were unwilling to adopt legislation which combatively addresses climate change issues, while the autocratic but highly environmentalist ruler of another nation prosecuted an aggressive climate change agenda with gusto. In the face of peril, such a situation would revive human moral and ethical dilemmas of the highest order.
Faith in democracy and the ideologies it espouses transcends the purely political arena. In a free and wealthy society, those in the pursuit of scientific truth battle only scientific obstacles. If the danger is real, the truth will be brought to bear. But even in the face of incontrovertible truth, can the titanic inertia of human complacency and comfort be overcome and conquered?
Many scientific and economic authorities now believe that emissions caps are insufficient in the battle against climate change. They call for a massive mobilization of public funds for investment in research with the goal of discovering new low-carbon-emissions technologies, and this on the scale of the Manhattan Project that delivered the first atomic bombs.
We will be watching. This, folks, is nothing less than a test of social-political sustainability in action.