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Journeying towards a more sustainable society

Read on to find out more about sustainability as a human journey that takes in wider issues such as well-being and social justice.
© Except for third party materials and where otherwise indicated, the copyright in the content provided on this page is owned by The University of Nottingham and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike UK 2.0 Licence

Sustainability is about ‘saving the planet’, about reducing our reliance upon finite resources and about working within the limits of our planet to try to achieve a good quality of life for all rather than an elite minority in particular countries. Its requirements can feel pretty overwhelming – and just too big for us to make any difference as individuals. But, small changes can have impact – and sustainability is incredibly positive:

  • It’s about people rather than the environment
  • It’s about welfare, well-being, equity, social justice
  • It’s about quality of life rather than limiting growth
  • It’s about healthy living
  • It’s about self-development and positive thinking
  • It’s about using the skills and capabilities we have already in a sustainable direction
  • It’s about new ways of doing things (which can be exciting).

It is getting more and more difficult to ignore the sustainability agenda. Individuals, communities, students, governments, employers, are all increasingly signed up. One clear signal of this is the emergence of ‘measure what matters’ – the idea that the current economic measures that we use to value our economy are false or at best short-sighted. The measurement of our well-being is now a part of government rhetoric. To explore this further, go to the website of the independent Think-and-Do-Tank, The New Economics Foundation (NEF). Note their strapline:

‘Economics as if people and the planet mattered’.

Sustainability and social justice

The understanding that sustainability cannot be achieved without social justice is a fairly recent development. With social sustainability comes recognition of our need to share resources globally and to consider the needs of the poorest and weakest in society who often do not have the choices that are available to wealthier nations.

Social sustainability is one aspect of sustainability or sustainable development. Social sustainability encompasses human rights, labour rights, and corporate governance. In common with environmental sustainability, social sustainability is the idea that future generations should have the same or greater access to social resources as the current generation (“inter-generational equity”), while there should also be equal access to social resources within the current generation (“intra-generational equity”). Social resources include ideas as broad as other cultures and basic human rights. We can also speak of ‘Sustainable Human Development’ – development that promotes the capabilities of present people without compromising the capabilities of future generations. In the human development paradigm, environment and natural resources should constitute a means of achieving better standards of living just as income represents a means of increasing social expenditure and, in the end, well-being.

The different aspects of social sustainability are often considered in socially responsible investing (SRI). Social sustainability criteria that are commonly used by SRI funds and indexes to rate publicly-traded companies include: community, diversity, employee relations, human rights, product safety, reporting, and governance structure.

The philosophical aspect of social sustainability focuses on individuals’ behaviours, attitude and actions. The way of living towards a socially sustainable way may not necessarily promote luxury and wealth, but rather, the development of reverse-consumerism.

The dimensions of social sustainability

According to the Western Australia Council of Social Services (WACOSS):

“Social sustainability occurs when the formal and informal processes; systems; structures; and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and liveable communities. Socially sustainable communities are equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life.”

It has the following dimensions:

  • Equity – the community provides equitable opportunities and outcomes for all its members, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community
  • Diversity – the community promotes and encourages diversity
  • Interconnected/Social cohesions – the community provides processes, systems and structures that promote connectedness within and outside the community at the formal, informal and institutional level
  • Quality of life – the community ensures that basic needs are met and fosters a good quality of life for all members at the individual, group and community level (e.g. health, housing, education, employment, safety)
  • Democracy and governance – the community provides democratic processes and open and accountable governance structures.
  • Maturity – the individual accept the responsibility of consistent growth and improvement through broader social attributes (e.g. communication styles, behavioural patterns, indirect education and philosophical explorations)

Above text sourced from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

These dimensions make very clear a guiding principle that has determined the content we have chosen to include in this course: to us, and hopefully to you too, sustainability is a process and a human journey, rather than a scientific outcome alone.

Think about: has your own definition or understanding of sustainability shifted as a result of the conversations you have had on this course?

© Except for third party materials and where otherwise indicated, the copyright in the content provided on this page is owned by The University of Nottingham and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike UK 2.0 Licence
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