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October 31, 2006


Discussions (or Various Views) on Sustainability

prof_fukai.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Shigeko N. Fukai, professor in policy studies at Nanzan University

In this lecture, I would like to explain why sustainability has become a prominent issue in global politics, and why we need a paradigm change now. I shall then review the principal issues and debates surrounding sustainability, before presenting my own vision and strategy.

1. Definition of sustainability

The most widely quoted definition of "sustainable development" is the one presented by the Brundtland commission (World Commission on Environment and Development) in 1987. It emphasizes the value of fairness between generations (inter-generation) and within a generation (intra-generation).

Fairness between generations means that the current generation avoids threatening the ecosystem by limiting the volume of production, consumption and waste-disposal within the earth's carrying capacity, not to compromise the living standard of the future generations. On the other hand, fairness within a generation means to solve problems of poverty and the North-South problem to ensure all people in the present generation to meet their basic needs.

2. Why it is discussed

What triggered the discussion about sustainability are the following two problems; 1) limited capacity of resources and the environment, and 2) poverty and the North-South problem.

1) Limited capacity of resources and the environment

  • Finite earth and infinite growth

  • Herman Daly defines the finiteness of the earth in terms of three criteria. The first is a limit to the capacity of the earth in decomposing, absorbing and detoxifying contaminants. In other words, to preserve the earth's ecosystem, waste outputs must be kept within the natural absorptive capacities of the environment.

    The second is the finiteness of non-renewable resources such as oil and coal. That means, we have to keep the rate of their consumption below the rate at which renewable substitutes like solar and wind energy can replace their depletion. The third criterion is that renewable resources also have a limited capacity in regeneration. The consumption rates, therefore, should not exceed the regeneration rates. For example, continuously cutting down trees that are too young will result in denuded hills, even though a forest can renew itself at a certain speed.

  • The rise of environmental movements and power the scientific knowledge

  • Although a materially affluent society was realized from after the 1960's by "synthetic revolution", a huge cost was hidden therein. Chemical substances, which had never existed in the natural world, began to be used, and have accumulated in human bodies. Murray Bookchin wrote a book entitled Our Synthetic Environment in 1962 and warned about such dangers. But it was Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) that drew public attention to this problem and has been appreciated for its premonitory sense.

    In those days, people began to ask whether the idea that human beings controlling Nature was arrogant, whether the standard of living should be measured by quality or quantity, and what was the cost of the "affluent society". Silent Revolution gave an answer to these questions to usher in the golden age of environment movements in the U.S. Thus, under growing pressure from the public, the Nixon Administration enacted many of the environment-related laws that laid down the foundation of the environmental policy in that nation.

    Another book that had a great impact on people was The Limits to Growth (1972). This was a report by a research team formed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore ways to avert the crisis befalling mankind, including the depletion of natural resources. It warned that society based on mass production, mass transport, mass consumption, and mass disposal could not be sustainable. The oil crisis erupted in the succeeding year and the 1970's became the decade when a sense of urgency heightened notably in terms of resource and environmental issues.

2) Poverty and the North-South problem

  • Two factors

  • Biophysical issues mean immanent threats to the earth's ecosystems if and when the present developing nations develop economically to the level of the current developed nations.

    Although sustainability is often discussed from the environmental perspective, poverty and the North-South problems are also important challenges. Poverty and widening income and wealth gaps pose two kinds of issues: political ethical and biophysical.

    Political ethical issues mean that for a great majority of the people living in the global south who are condemned in abject poverty, a sense of injustice may well legitimize subversive activities against the current unfair world order. It may even justify terrorism. Biophysical issues mean imminent threats to the earth's ecosystems in the foreseeable future when the third world nations grow economically to the level of the current developed nations.

    There are so many examples that eloquently illustrate the reality of the North-South inequity: one-fourth of the world population exclusively uses three-fourth of the planet's resources; approximately one out of five are forced to live on $1 a day; while 40,000 children a day are starved to death in poor countries, food that can feed 30 million people (or 50 million people in developing nations) is thrown away every year in Japan.

    Developed nations often insist that they provide ODA (Official Development Assistance) to address such problems. Actually, the amount of ODA is only half of the expenditure on armaments in Japan and one-twenty fifth in the case of the U.S. The North-South inequity is expanding. Data show that the poorest 20% of the world population living in the South earned approximately 15% of the income of the poorest 20% living in the North, reduced by 5% from 20% in 1950.

  • Environmental justice movement against the burden of the environmental cost

  • Economic disparities are not the only imbalance between the North and the South. The environmental cost is also unduly imposed on the South. Importing agricultural products means consuming massive quantities of water of exporting nations, and countries exporting mineral resources suffer from pollution, as the environmental costs are not included in the commodity prices. Developed nations including Japan depending on imported resources should be aware of the fact that they are able to maintain their clean environment only by the sacrifice of other nations. On the other hand, developing nations are suffering from environmental destruction caused by poverty. People often destroy their immediate environment through overexploitation of resources in order to survive, by, for example, over-harvesting forests and resorting to "slash and burn" agricultural methods.
    This vicious circle of poverty and the environmental degradation literally threatens the very survival of local residents. Compared to many of the Northern environmental concerns like climate change, this type of poverty in the South has an extreme urgency to dealt with.

    Environmental damage is imposed on the poor, or the socially vulnerable, not only globally but also within each nation. Opposing this trend, the "environmental justice" movement has emerged. In the U.S., a protest movement was launched against the concentration of toxic dump sites in the residential areas of the poor and the minorities and this led to the amendment of the Superfund Act (CERCLA and SARA). Globally, as environmental standards became tighter in the North in 1980's, the volume of hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals exported from the North to the South notably increased. As a result of protest movements, the Basel Convention (on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal) was enacted, although it is often criticized as loophole-ridden.

    The widening North-South gap has intensified discontent among the poor, which indeed constitutes the majority of the world population, expanding a hotbed of crime and terrorism. What forced the leaders of developed nations to realize it was the September 11 attacks in 2001. They have come to realize that poverty in developing nations and the North-South inequity need to be dealt with not only as humanitarian issues but also as a vital strategic issue that threatens security of developed nations. After this, poverty eradication was solemnly declared as a priority goal in the statement at the Gleneagles G8 Summit in 2005. Also, after the 9/11 attack, the amount of the ODA has greatly increased by the U.S. and other donors, although large portions of the increase were due to debt relief of Iraq and Nigeria.

3. What we need is a paradigm shift

What we need to achieve a sustainable world is a paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn who coined the phrase "paradigm shift" argued that the great revolutions and major breakthroughs in science result not from solving existing problems but from discovering entirely new ways to think about those problems. We must have the courage to defy the common sense that has been controlling our thought and acts. In other words, we have to discard the conventional paradigm to form an alternative vision of a sustainable world and develop a strategy to change lifestyles as well as production methods to realize this vision.

Today's paradigm is producing a reality that is totally different from the image of the world we originally sought to create. Conventional wisdom tells us that free competition would lead to the most efficient allocation of resources from which all the people would benefit eventually -- but, in actuality, the income and wealth gap has been expanding and the problems of poverty have not been solved. Our faith in technology and endless economic growth was betrayed by ever-increasing risks and uncertainties as demonstrated in a growing variety of epidemics, environmental destruction, and disputes on natural resources in many parts of the world. It is clear that the conventional paradigm is unsustainable.

As Kuhn has argued, paradigm shift occurs when it becomes evident that the conventional paradigm contradicts the empirical evidence. Rejecting then-conventional notion of cumulative linear progress of science, he maintained that science undergoes periodic revolutions. A Copernican change from the Ptolemaic theory to the heliocentric theory is a good example.

A crisis that needs a paradigm shift may well be an opportunity to mobilize extraordinary power. The oil crisis in 1970's, for example, accelerated development of energy-saving and labor-saving technologies. If we acknowledge that now is the time of crisis, we should be able to create revolutionary ideas and demonstrate the power of execution. The Earth Summits in Stockholm in 1972, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in Johannesburg in 2002 encouraged a paradigm shift on a global scale slowly but surely. Now, sustainability has become a guidepost for new paradigm shift.

4. Achieving sustainability

The representative views on a sustainable world can be classified into a reformist and a radical group. The reformist group considers it possible to achieve necessary changes within the existing global political and economic systems without radically changing their frameworks. The radical group argues that it requires revolutionary change in the current system to achieve a sustainable world.

An advantage of the former is its ability to generate practical ideas to improve the situation. The latter excels in identifying fundamental structural problems of the current system and coming up with alternative visions, although this group tends to be indifferent to producing concrete, practical ideas. Unfortunately, little productive communication has been conducted between them, even as the complimentary nature of the two groups suggests that their dialogue would facilitate progress in human quest for more sustainable paths to socio-economic development.

1) Within-system reformist approaches

This group of approaches is also called "ecological modernization". It posits that modernization itself (or technological improvement and economic liberalization) is not evil but that we need to overcome its inherent indifference to the environment. As concrete means, they propose such measures as the internalization of environmental/social costs, development of indices of to measure sustainability, building a closed-loop system of renewable resources, and a shift to the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle). In essence, they argue that economic growth and the preservation of the environment can not only coexist but also "co-prosper" so to speak. This is the position shared by governments, private companies and NGOs in many developed nations.

Let me briefly explain representative arguments:

Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and author of Eco-Economy, is one of the best-known reform advocates. He predicts that the restructuring of the market economy to make it reflect indirect social and ecological costs in prices will generate the largest investment opportunity in history. He foresees the blossoming of new industries and new jobs.

"Eco-Efficiency" is another practical conceptual tool to guide business and government action. It is advocated by WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development), a coalition started by the leaders of the world's leading companies in preparation for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It aims at producing the same amount of goods and services while reducing the resource intensity and environmental impacts, by improving efficiency in terms of both the economy and ecology. Eco-efficiency is a ratio of an output (goods and services produced) divided by an input (the sum of the ecological impacts generated by the production). Both the EU and the OECD acknowledged its usefulness. The OECD studied the potential of eco-efficiency and suggests that factor-of-ten efficiency improvements are both necessary and possible in the next thirty years.

The IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) mapped out a new sustainable development strategy, based on a decade of fieldwork in five African and other developing nations. It proposes an appreciative approach focused on local communities' strengths and achievements rather than weaknesses and problems, to help communities create a shared vision of an equitable and sustainable future and work toward it through projects initiated and managed locally.

Paul Hawken, Hunter and Amory Lovins advocate "Natural Capitalism". They argue that today's capitalism appreciates only industrial capital, and fails to assign any value to the natural capital -- natural resources and living systems that are indispensable for the maintenance of life. It also neglects the social and cultural systems that support human capital. These deficiencies must be corrected by recognizing that the natural capital and social/cultural systems provide us with services that have no substitutes at any prices1.

2) The radical system-change approaches

Those who call for fundamental changes to the current world system itself find its fatal defects in such problems as inherently expansive capitalism and destructive impacts of economic globalization, driven by mega-corporations and financial capitalists, on democracy, the states' ability to tackle global-scale issues, as well as on the environment. They also condemn rampant materialism and lament the ever diminishing physical and spiritual ties between human and Nature.

Many in this group share Aldo Leopold's "land ethic." Leopold attributed the causes of the ecological and social problems to the loss of a sense of unity with the land where not only human and other organisms but also such non-living environment as soils and waters lived in a community. He argued that if we restore sensitivity to the land not simply as real estate but as such a community, human behavior should naturally change. Kirkpatrick Sale further developed the idea and "Bioregionalism". He proposed that communities should be restructured on the basis of ecologically defined regional units instead of the current administrative units.

Herman Daly's "Steady-State Economics" aims at transforming the current growth-oriented economy to the steady-state economy to build a simple and frugal sustainable society. He emphasizes that "development", in technological, intellectual and spiritual spheres, is not only possible but also accelerate without "growth". He argues that stationary economy helps us to restore self-discipline, relearn a sense of enoughness and sharing. Instead of domination of nature, it fosters a sense of stewardship for all creation and a sense of brotherhood to future generations and non-human beings, along with a sense of humility and the attitude of holism to recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Another popular vision of the radical group is Rudolf Bahro's "Self-Sufficient Community". He argues that the shift of developed nations to self-sufficient economy would make a society spiritually rich and cohesive fostering a strong sense of solidarity. It also helps narrow the gap between the North and the South. By disengaging from the world market to build a self-sufficient commune economies, the developing world could enhance economic and spiritual independence and build a different type of civilization from the unsustainable Western civilization.

The common key words of the "radical system-change approaches" are the departure from economic growth, advocacy of a regionally completed closed-loop economy, a political and economic regime on a human scale, regeneration of communities, citizen participation and a network society.

It should be noted here that there are important contribution of a variety of intermediate ideas such as the criticism and proposals on restructuring of the global economy by David Korten.

3) Consensus between the two groups

Both parties agree on the vital importance of environmental conservation and social fairness. Also they agree that human beings are part of an ecosystem, but they differ in their view on the value of nature to be inherent (this position is called biocentric view) or instrumental to human use as a resource (called anthropocentric view). Both are critical of the current pattern of economic globalization. Radicals blame the system of domination and hierarchy, while within-system reformists focus upon the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism.

5. A vision and strategy of a sustainable world a proposal

To mobilize people to action, we need to have an inspiring vision and practicable strategy. I would like to share my ideas here.

In my opinion, one of the best ways for a country, especially for a developed country, is to build a sustainable society that can serve as a model for other nations, subnational communities, and eventually a global community. Japan is endowed with many conditions and qualities to experiment with building such a model of materially self-sufficient society. For one thing, Japan represents a tomorrow's world in that it has a large population in a relatively small land area, with little natural resources. Yet it has highly educated population and many leading companies with technological edges. Some companies actually put the "zero emissions" concept into practice.

Also, Japan's traditional religious beliefs are based on such notions as a sense of enoughness, nature- and ancestor- worship, and transmigration of the soul that encompass broad range of creatures. This respect for nature and a circular world view not only transcend narrow materialist concerns but could serve as an ethical foundation for a sustainable world that is built on the recycling, rental and sharing principles. Japan is well positioned to build a self-sufficient, steady-state economy, where daily necessities are supplied locally as much as possible. Favoring the local whenever a choice exists is called the principle of subsidiarity. Only those necessities that can not be satisfied locally should be sought from outside. Many things we don't need to own individually, but can rent or share with others. Restructuring our economy on the basis of rental and sharing would help restore spirit of mutual aid and a sense of solidarity.
The subsidiarity principle applies to the world as well. My vision combines the goal of self-sufficiency in materials and goods for a nation or a group of nations (in some cases, regional economic integration may be necessary) and the international exchange of ideas, information, and services. The key factor in promoting the change is a new international business norm: technology transfer and foreign investment must promote self-reliant development.

Knowledge is the only resource that cannot be worn out by use. Technology transfer and free trade of software products should be promoted to help accelerate sustainable development of the South.

Foreign direct investment, which holds a key to sustainable development of host developing countries, should be conducted in such a way to help the host country accumulate capital, generate jobs, diffuse income, and expand domestic markets. The profits, except for an equitable return for the capital and technology supplied, should be retained and used in the host country. The concept of equitable return for investment needs to be articulated as a criterion for legitimate business conduct, and as a tool for reforming the international business culture. CSR and activities of the WBCSD seem to have promising potential to develop such positive business norms. One promising example is sustainable livelihood projects undertaken by the WBCSD. They seek to develop frameworks for an building enabling environment for FDI and for stimulating markets in developing countries, where they are often nonexistent and where the rule of law does not always prevail.

I anticipate that firms gradually shift their strategy from short-term economic gains to long-term perspective for sustainability based on the enlightened self-interest, perspective leading to the localization principle proposed herein. Finally, often it is average people's values and organized voices that move those in power. The indispensable actors in building a sustainable world are those who understand what is going on and voice their opinions to change the unsustainable course we are now proceeding. I hope people here attending the sustainability college will be such actors who lead the way towards sustainability.

Note:Natural capitalism,p.5.


Shigeko N. Fukai is professor in policy studies at Nanzan University. She has published a variety of books and articles including those listed below. Her research focuses on the exploration of a vision and path to a sustainable world that can conserve the biosphere and achieve equity among human beings and the role of firms in changing the course towards sustainability.

  • Introduction to Comparative Politics (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
  • New Japanese Political Economy and Political Reform (European Press Academic Publishing, 2002)
  • Profiling Political Leaders (Praeger, 2001)
  • Informal Politics in East Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Globalism, Regionalism & Nationalism (Blackwell, 1999)
  • Japan's Land Policy and Its Global Impact (Harvard University Center for International Affairs, 1990)
  • Challenges and Opportunities (World Future Society, 1986)