Social Sustainability

[It’s the weekend…a chance to step back from that hectic workplace we discussed in the previous post and regroup…maybe allow ourselves to be a bit reflective, even contemplative, think farther afield. Here goes…]

Sustainability? Sustainable development? Those in the business of Earth observations, science, and services are preoccupied with it.

And just what is it? Well, it’s hard to improve much on the definition that appeared years ago in the report Our Common Future, put out by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. Not familiar with that work, but interested? Maybe heard of it, but never checked it out? You can learn more of the background here, and find the entire text of the report here. It’s often referred to as the Brundtland report, after former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; she chaired the Commission.

Those folks defined sustainable development this way: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A difficult challenge! And in this blog we’ve looked at how in some ultimate sense, sustainable development is an oxymoron. If we want to keep going we have to keep innovating.

Most of the time when people discuss sustainable development, they quickly drill down to particulars. They address natural resource use, and distinctions between nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels and renewable resources such as forests, etc. They look at environmental degradation, and biomass and biodiversity, habitat destruction and restoration, and much more.

[Whoa, Bill, sounds like Monday through Friday to me. Where are you headed? Watch this…]

But there’s another dimension, one not so often discussed. [Well actually, it is. But not so much by this label.] And it’s arguably [a significant choice of words, as you’ll see in a moment] equally if not more important.

To introduce this aspect, let’s go back to something I saw in management literature years ago. I’m going to put it in quotes, because I remember it like that, but I can’t remember the source. And because it came from the BI (before Internet) era, I haven’t succeeded in tracking it down. It’s a definition of interpersonal competence. The author defined it this way: “interpersonal competence is the ability to solve a problem in such a way that you can solve the next one.”

Here’s a story that illustrates the point. Back in the early 1980’s, when I was working for NOAA in Boulder, an important project called PROFS needed a computer. In the 21st century, government computer procurement would be just another day in the office…or maybe even “so yesterday,” because we’re now outsourcing computation and buying it by the flop. But back then, computer procurement was a big deal. Every such procurement ran a brutal, multi-step gauntlet. More attempts failed than succeeded. But one of our managers said he could get the job done.

And he did!

All was good, until about a year later, when that first computer which we’d thought would meet our needs forever was already operating at capacity, and we needed a second one. It was then we learned that our manager had ridden roughshod over the procurement people back in Washington the first time around. And at each point, as he’d twisted an elbow or threatened menace, he was asked, “Is this the only computer you’ll need? Will this be enough?” And he’d answered, “Yes. Give me this and I’ll get out of your life.” [A little bit of exaggeration here, but you get the idea.]

So, having our gifted manager return to DC for that second computer was going to be a non-starter. We sent everyone in the group but him back there. The most winsome people we could call on. Poster children. People you could never turn down. Nevertheless, each time, at a certain point in the process, someone would ask, “Where did you all say you were from? PROFS? Didn’t you say that earlier computer was the last one you’d ever need?” After a year of trying, we had to go begging across town to UCAR, asking them to buy a computer which we could then lease.

What does this mean for us? What it means is, as all 7 billion of us hold a conversation on how we’re going to meet our future energy needs, and feed everyone, and ensure an ample supply of drinkable water, we need to solve each problem along the way in such a way that we can solve the next one. We need to resist the temptation to ride roughshod over each other when we hold momentary advantage. The next time around, they may be holding the trump hand. But it’s not even that. Psychologists find, in experiment after experiment and study after study that people hold fairness in such high regard that they’ll even sabotage their self-interest in the effort to punish others for being unfair. When we discuss how we’re going to allocate wealth, how we’re going to reward the creative and the energetic and the educated and keep providing incentives, we need also to be mindful of the condition of those less gifted either physically or mentally or by accident of place and birth and be equally creative in bringing them along.

Scolding or cudgeling people into carbon fees or protection of the environment and endangered species will at best work for a little while if at all. It’ll generate animosities and ignite a backfire that’ll eventually bring everything down. So there will be no sustainable development unless we’re all getting along, unless we simultaneously achieve social sustainability.


How would you say we were doing? Does it look to you as if the world’s peoples enjoy equal opportunity? Freedom of expression? The right to elect their governments? And how about those elected officials? Are they getting along with each other, working on their responsibilities in a way that’s making them and those of us who elected them proud as they do their jobs? When the world’s poor look at those of us who are better off, do they believe we’re doing our level best to share our blessings? How about closer to home? Our relations with our colleagues in the workplace.  Do we help each other? Or do we compete? Are we working together? Or dividing into cliques? And as husbands and wives, as families, are we investing in keeping those most important relationships vibrant over the long haul? Or are we allowing ourselves to be lazy, a bit self-centered, or become more disaffected, even at home?

Truth be told, social sustainability starts with each one of us, doesn’t it? Fortunately, as we mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of help available to us when it comes to social sustainability. Self-help texts fill up the shelves at bookstores. Stephen Covey and counselors such as Dr. Phil and Carolyn Hax and many others are standing by on the web and on the air. And not just in the United States but also on a continent near you.

But social sustainability is necessarily a group activity, and not solitaire. You and I need to get past the books and the advice columns.

Fortunately, there’s another source of social sustainability. And it’s the weekend. You and I could swing by the church. Or the synagogue or mosque or temple. Maybe we’ll see each other there.

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