Beyond Carbon

Beyond Carbon

The Challenge of Social Sustainability

Stephen Sykes  |  06/10/2011

There needs to be a rebalancing of the sustainability debate. Sustainability is not just about carbon and the environment - it has economic and social dimensions. Matter such as cultural diversity, social cohesion and community wellbeing have been overlooked for too long.

Such was the thought-provoking proposition at a round table forum organised by one of the UK’s top house-builders - the Berkeley Group - when they published their 10th Annual Sustainability Report last month . Thought-provoking, but is it correct that we are hooked on carbon? Why is carbon so prominent or even dominant in the sustainability agenda? Is any rebalancing required – and, anyway, why would a major house-builder be interested in all of this stuff?

Many readers of ERIC’s Newsletters and Blogs will be familiar with the legislative process – i.e. how the initial identification of a societal problem can turn, in time, into a statute or regulation. That is what happened with carbon. Over about 25 - 30 years carbon changed from being a problem identified by a few climate scientists (by early 1980s, with the first UK Carbon Footprint for a project published in July 1989, in the Bilsthorpe Environmental Statement, JH Looney et al.), to commanding the attention of international forums and commissions, to the development of a global consensus (e.g. the Kyoto Protocol in 1997) and, finally, to the enactment of stringent target-setting laws, such as the Renewable Energy Directive 2009, and the UK’s ground-breaking Climate Change Act 2008. There are plenty of examples of other environmental problems which, over the past century and more, have followed a process and ended up being addressed by environmental laws (sewers, smog, acid rain, nitrates, hazardous wastes, asbestos, etc.).

These experiences confirm that, for law making to occur, a necessary condition is a consensus amongst experts (particularly the scientific community) as to the nature of and underlying causes behind the environmental problem, and a level of confidence about the effectiveness of the proposed solution to it. Moreover, the environmental problem which is to be the target of legislators needs to be measurable so that suitable standards for mitigation can be set - and it also needs to cause or threaten significant societal harm in order for legislative intervention to be justified.

Can ‘social sustainability’ (or a lack of it) possibly attract, perhaps over the next decade, the same legislative treatment and controls as these other threats to sustainability? Is there even a consensus that the UK has a problem with social sustainability e.g. in respect of the built environment and communities? Is social sustainability measureable?   The answer appears to be yes to all of these; but with what costs, checks and balances? In order for a problem to be regulated it also needs to be capable of definition. This is where the difficulty starts with ‘social sustainability’. It is the very broadest of all concepts. The higher ground in relation to sustainability has been staked out for some decades now by thinkers such as Shumacher with concepts such as the economics of permanence.

“From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence.  We must study the economics of permanence.  Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected …There can be ‘growth’ towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth”. Fritz Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” (1973).

Other commentators have only recently started to consider this concept and they have said that it embraces matters as diverse as:

“meeting basic needs; overcoming disadvantage attributable to personal disability; fostering personal responsibility, including social responsibility and regard for the needs of future generations; maintaining and developing the stock of social capital, in order to foster trusting, harmonious and co-operative behaviour needed to underpin civil society; attention to the equitable distribution of opportunities in development, in the present and in the future; acknowledging cultural and community diversity, and fostering tolerance; and empowering people to participate on mutually agreeable terms in influencing choices for development and in decision-making”.  Social Sustainability: An Exploratory Analysis of its Definition, Assessment Methods, Metrics and Tools by Andrea Colantonio of the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development.

If, perhaps, one or two of the more specific components of social sustainability can be pinpointed and measured – e.g. targets for achieving greater social diversity within communities - then the difficulty of finding a workable definition might, just about, be surmountable. 

Pushing on then, is there a consensus that the UK has a problem with a lack of ‘social sustainability’? The short answer is ‘no’. There is no effective consensus amongst social scientists, politicians or policymakers that there is a problem which needs fixing.  Indeed, over-simplistic, convenient slogans from politicians about elements of UK society being ‘broken,’ for example, shed little light on social sustainability, and create much darkness.

Likewise, numerous commentators informed or otherwise, are reflecting currently on the causes of the urban riots in England in August 2011. However, there are few clues from the ensuing debate about whether our society has these problems because our communities, or some of them, are socially unsustainable. The riots have become a vexed political issue, with right-wingers putting them down to inept parenting, schooling and a general lack of personal responsibility and application, whilst left-wingers attribute them to a lack of life chances, opportunities, resources and social mobility etc.

Putting the politicians to one side, there might be other way to pinpoint the problem so that it is then possible to frame a few improvements which can be made with regards to certain aspects of social sustainability. This hope lies with our very own first hand observations and awareness. Those of us who live in towns and cities know if our communities are socially sustainable, ethnically and culturally diverse, or not. We know if our local schools are diverse or not, and whether our built environment has plenty of green spaces, and facilities to cater for young and old.

In addition there are a few companies, such as the Berkeley Group, with experience of building new communities which are economically sustainable, environmentally sustainable (low carbon) and are, perhaps, moving towards aspects of social sustainability because they attract a diverse range of people with different outlooks and budgets. These built environment companies are already building low carbon or zero carbon homes and they are looking for the next challenge. They can see competitive advantage in not just putting up bricks, glass and mortar, but in offering their customers great, socially sustainable places which are spacious enough to live in and enjoy for the rest of their lives.

Likewise there are a growing number of examples from around the world of new sustainable cities, towns and communities, such as Vancouver’s Sustainable Region Initiative, which can inspire the UK’s developers, planners and policymakers, and perhaps give rise to positive change, and maybe even effective regulation or – better still - fiscal support to build these places in the UK. 

In summary, carbon and environmental sustainability is – currently – centre stage for policymakers, responsible organisations and citizens because of the nature and severity of the threat that climate change presents, the measurability of carbon reduction, and the scientific and political consensus that underpins the laws that have been passed to attempt to tackle it. Carbon laws set targets over the long term, and it is certainly far too soon for de-carbonisation to lose its central importance to lawmakers and business and to everyone who is concerned about the environment.

What is possible, however, is the gradual widening out of the debate to allow the social aspect of sustainability to draw some much needed attention too, if only to frame workable definitions and metrics to measure what has to be done to effect improvement. Over the next few years it is greatly to be hoped that one or more of the more specific measurable elements of social sustainability will attract interest and action from forward thinking businesses, such as the Berkeley Group, other businesses seeking competitive advantage, and politicians seeking new targets for legislation.  

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