Three Challenges Defining Social-Political Sustainability
The subtle difference between pure social development and social-political sustainability is very central to the pursuit of sustainable development. Just as economic development accomplishes little if the achievements heralded are unsustainable, so too must social enrichment go hand in hand with a concerted effort to ensure its persistent viability.
Open, contested political arenas offer the only means to this end—arenas that are contested by you. These three phenomena endanger the sustainability of our social-political processes; they beg for our devoted attention.
1. The most insidious danger of all is that of prevalent political apathy. If the population at large cannot be convinced that its fate is sufficiently at stake to engage itself actively, then all hope surely is lost. The causes of apathy are many; clearly the simplest is inner-focused individuals who are more concerned with personal than societal enrichment, or who believe that the benefits derived from social engagement will not be commensurate with the time and resources invested. This phenomenon can be likened to game theory and political science notions of the “tragedy of the commons”. A related cause of political apathy is blind faith in social and political institutions. But we must remember Sartre’s espousal of the one who “is loyal to a political and social ensemble, and who never ceases to contest it”. There is no contradiction in believing that a nation’s social and political processes are the best ever conceived by mankind, and still rising every morning to challenge them. Indeed, this is the very essence of democracy.
2. The existence of social inertia is different from apathy. We human beings are creatures of habit. Even when informed and acknowledging of specific problems, we can be resistant to the specter of addressing them aggressively via political mechanisms if so doing entails a rupture with time-honored cultural tradition. In a 2006 poll, eighty-five percent of Americans indicated their belief that global warming is “probably happening”, while half asserted that the issue of global warming is “extremely important” to them. Yet the ubiquity of single-occupant vehicles on America’s highways remains undiminished.
3. When the general populace is involved and engaged, this can often pose problems of social-political inefficiency. This issue can be particularly acute in nations which are large in population and geography. An inability to reach consensus can sometimes lead to paralysis. Under an autocratic establishment, the government can execute changes to social-political institutions with an alacrity that is sometimes enviable. But this, of course, is not consultative; sustainability of the social-political dimension is only ensured in the long run if it is reflective of the collective will. A different sort of social-political inefficiency arises when there is no obstruction to consensus but when channels for initiating change (particularly in the judiciary) are constrained, convoluted or overloaded.
Political apathy and social inertia can only be combated in ongoing daily efforts to inform, arouse and provoke. Happily, social-political inefficiency can be addressed more methodically. Governments, businesses, non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations alter and influence the state of our social and natural environment every day. Actors which seek to bridge the gap between these entities and the general populace and to facilitate their interaction, aided by extraordinary new technologies of participation, have a grand role to play in the future of social-political sustainability.
An evocation of these challenges would not be complete without a consideration of the dynamic interactions the social-political domain engenders with other elements of sustainable development. Economics is the science of resource allocation, the study of the ways in which we satisfy human wants and needs. No human need is more fundamental than that of nourishment. In a revealing illustration of the interdependence of sustainable development’s three constituent parts, rising world food prices now pose a grave threat to social-political sustainability around the globe. One need only turn to recent social unrest and political instability in Haiti, Egypt and the Philippines to be assured of that. These rising prices stem from uncertainties regarding the sustainability of our agricultural processes. To be specific, some have very explicitly cited efforts in the West to subsidize and encourage biofuels production as a leading inflationary factor (though burgeoning middle classes in India and China seem surely to be responsible for other upward price pressures). And all this as the viability of biofuels falls under a penetrating scrutiny.
These challenges of social-political sustainability will remain inextricably bound to the future of sustainability as an enterprise.