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Environment and Development A Challenge to Our Lifestyles - 4. Steps towards Sustainable Societies


It is widely recognised that industrialised countries need to reduce drastically their consumption of natural resources. But how can this be done in a market system based on economic growth? Does not economic growth necessarily mean a growth in the consumption of natural resources? Or are there forms of growth of a qualitatively different nature?

Several proposals have been made of measures which would move us towards sustainability. In our view they should not be regarded as alternative steps but rather as complementary measures.

a) In the first place means need to be developed which allow for a more efficient use and re-use of natural resources. Large reductions in the consumption of resources and especially of energy can be realized in this way. But to achieve this requires a myriad of small steps involving a progressive reconception of the way we use resources. Some of this will require new technologies to be developed, but in the main it is a question of more careful use of what we have already, be it improved management changes, product design, waste re-use and recycling, monitoring and numerous other measures. This "efficiency revolution" could lead to a very considerable reduction in our consumption of natural resources, and especially of energy. Most of this potential has yet to be realised, since it requires not only changes in industrial and personal practices but a shift in priorities. Inevitably, this is a slow process, and to be effective it also requires substantial economic and fiscal measures in support. Particular attention needs to be given to less industrialised societies so that as they develop and use more of the earth's resources they will be able to meet their needs in an energy- and resource-efficient manner. This can only be assured by the willingness of the developed countries to agree to the transfer of the appropriate technologies.

b) Another proposal would include the environmental costs incurred by human activities in all economic assessment. At present the true price of production is not recognized by the economic system because it does not take into account a number of "side effects". To a large extent, the cost of waste disposal and environmental damage is still covered by the community. Many natural resources like the air and the sea are considered to be "common goods" as if no price were attached to them and therefore no charge is made for polluting or misusing them. The price of an air-ticket, for instance, does not reflect the cost of the pollution produced by the aircraft. On the contrary, many countries even subsidize the fuel used by the airlines; in other words, these governments financially support environmentally-damaging activities. In our view, the "polluter pays principle" should be adhered to as strictly as possible. Moreover, if environmental costs of fossil fuels were included in the price we pay for them, it would greatly boost the prospects for energy efficiency measures and renewable energy technologies. Renewable energies currently compete from a position of serious inequality against more cheaply-priced coal, oil and gas. This is one of the main factors which holds back the efficiency revolution.

c) There is also an urgent need to measure in new ways the performance of the economic system. The most widely used criterion, the Gross National Product (GNP), does not give an adequate picture of the actual costs of economic activities. Environmental damage and pollution are difficult to assess in financial terms. What is the price of a destroyed forest or an exterminated species, for example? Despite the difficulties of measuring the true costs of human activities, efforts in the direction of "green accounting" can decisively contribute to changing people's perception of the present situation.

d) In order to reduce the exploitation of natural resources, a distinctive price mechanism in the form of environmental levies should be applied. In the market economy decisions are dictated by demand and prices are assumed to reflect scarcity. Certain natural resources have in fact become now rare goods; they should therefore be protected by environmental levies. Increased prices will in turn act as an incentive to identify and apply more efficient methods of production. Internationally agreed standards of use will evidently be required in order to achieve the necessary prices levels. International conventions are a vital instrument in this respect.

e) Another important shift with regard to consumption could be achieved with the aid of a new tax system. At present taxes are primarily based on human labour. From the environmental point of view, the use of resources and energy should be taxed as well.

f) Unemployment is one of the major issues faced by European countries. It has become clear that this phenomenon is due to more than a temporary economic turbulence. The dilemma is manifest: on the one hand, technological innovation leads to the redundancy of many jobs; on the other hand, if increased production is regarded as the main way of creating jobs, this is not ecologically sustainable. This crisis may partly be overcome by the creation of environmental jobs. Strategies of renewable energies, promotion of sectors such as ecological agriculture and public transport, environmental protection and recycling can give new opportunities for constructive work. Other measures such as shortening daily work hours and job-sharing will contribute to mitigating the devastating effects of unemployment. Instead of continually pressing for further economic growth alternative approaches should be explored. Employment and environmental protection need not to be mutually exclusive.

Measures such as these imply not only new concepts of society but a change in one's mind-set. They can only be realized if current definitions of wealth, freedom and quality of life are rethought. To advocate a lower dependence on the finite resources of the earth and nevertheless promote adequate standards of living for all requires a new sense of solidarity. On the one hand, they presuppose a commitment to the preservation of ecological goods like pure water and air, nourishing food, pleasant land- and seascapes, and abundant and diverse fauna and flora. On the other hand, they imply a critique of some predominant values, such as the acquisition and accumulation of material goods, and a narrow definition of private property. At present, industrial production is geared to produce goods which satisfy supposed needs while the advertising industry seeks to stimulate consumption rather than conservation. These tendencies affect both West and East. In order to achieve the measures necessary for a sustainable society, a new understanding of quality of life and enjoyment must be developed.

Change cannot be imposed. The new orientation must grow out of an interchange between people. Putting into effect the necessary economic and political measures affecting lifestyle depends on the democratic foundation of and the degree of participation in each society. This process will require clear lines of communication between government and all sectors of society, and democratic forms of negotiation and decision-making in all spheres of society.

Churches can play a role in this respect by consistently emphasizing the need for a shift in moral attitudes and by promoting the values necessary for sustainable societies. Wherever possible they may join forces with people of other religions and other philosophical persuasions and seek to build up the consensus which is needed for change.

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