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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2009

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Editorial - A Sustainability Renaissance through the Depression

Well into the current global economic crisis, it is clear the adversity we face is unprecedented. The Great Depression of the 1930s took place in a world with some 2.5 billion people, undiscovered natural resources, and reasonably healthy ecosystems. But the Grand Depression we are grappling with today occurs at a time when global population has ballooned to nearly 7 billion, more than half our ecosystem processes are profoundly disrupted, and climate change is an unavoidable reality. The world’s economies have committed 10 percent of their collective wealth in a desperate gamble to maintain the old order.

Yet even with talk of green investment—at best, a modest 20 percent of this injected cash—the outcome of all this effort will be new, more heavily regulated economic regimes that continue to supervise profoundly unsustainable development. The London G20 Summit communiqué in April gave no specific reference to particular commitments to green technology or job creation, when the chance to do so was golden.

We seem to be passing through four phases:
Rejection of the scale of the crisis and a misguided response, which underlaid the Lehman Brothers collapse in September of last year. This profoundly destabilizing beginning period, which is nearly over, exacerbated the crisis.
Restoration of the old economic order but with more hands-on regulation. Such restoration will not be possible in a world of depleted ecosystem services and diminishing natural resources, yet it is the primary aim of the G20 process.
Revelation that some completely new “art of living” must be created, beyond belt-tightening. Speculative examples of how to move forward are just beginning to surface in the media and special reports.1
Renaissance in the form of a progressive establishment of a new eco-economy that feeds individual well-being and the common good. This phase is barely sketched out but has a distinguished intellectual history.

In his essay “On the Theory of Moral Sentiments,” for example, Adam Smith defined “virtue” as the product of four attributes: prudence through careful planning and consuming only what is necessary, where restraint is a feature of the moral soul; justice through the careful avoidance of knowable harm to others, on the basis of thoughtful action; beneficence through unconditional giving to others as a means to promote one’s own happiness as well as the happiness of others; and self-command through a highly developed personal sense of responsible moderation of any excessive desire or behavior, in the context of the conditions outlined above.

If we are to establish a compassionate and responsible society out of the renaissance economy, the process may need to begin with a productive companionship between virtuous governing and virtuous citizenship. Not just a partnership, a “companionship” involves journeying together through confident mutual support to an unknown destination. The resulting economy might design the present as a sustainable basis for the future, build on ethics and virtue as well as consumption and enterprise, measure success by Smith’s principles, and consider the public, private, and civil sectors as indistinguishable actors serving the common good in compatible ways.

Creating a renaissance economy offers a fresh role for sustainability science. Its purpose will be to provide an innovative set of reliable measures to identify and evaluate the linked boundaries of nature and humanity’s tolerance and means to build resilience; offer credible ways to create a new meaning and purpose of prosperity that emphasizes the local and the communal; and share case studies of diverse community action that governments and citizens across the planet can learn from. In this cause, the functions of evidence-based science, innovative storytelling, and creative transitional scenarios will be vital.

These are genuinely troubling times. The biggest challenge is not the vision, but the division of the remaining “free spend” to further a dubious restoration, leaving too little for the renaissance. Already in the United Kingdom, there are signs of cutbacks in spending on community support schemes and renewable-energy investment at all scales. Severe public spending cuts already have been promised, and private-sector credit suffocation will make a mockery of investing for the long-distance sustainable payoff. This is the thin end of an unsustainable wedge.

Remedying this dangerous situation will require a sustainability science that charts the kinds of opportunities leading to global eco-awareness, betterment, and well-being.

—Timothy O’Riordan

1. See, for example, the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission’s Redefining Prosperity project (accessed 1 April 2009).

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