Many people of color do not identify with the term sustainability because they don’t see any necessary connection between a systems ability to sustain itself and overcoming racism. This is not surprising. History suggests that racism and inequality can be sustained for a very long time.
If sustainability is just the ability to sustain and activity or system in the long run, then what is the reason for including a bias toward equality and fairness in the definition of sustainability? A growing movement in Berlin hints at one reason why huge disparities of power and wealth are not sustainable in a free society.
Growing wealth in Berlin has lead to gentrification of areas formerly inhabited by artists. Rising prices drive many people out of their old neighborhoods. How do the dispossessed respond? They burn rich people’s cars – over five hundred of them in the last three years.
According to Frank Millert of the Berlin police the number of politically motivated arsons has been close to doubling each year over the past three years.
This car burning is not the work of just a few. This phenomenon is part of a more general increase in leftist attacks on property. According to a German federal spokeswoman,
‘It is not just anti-militarism we are seeing … it is anti-imperialism, a catalogue of anti-things … anti-fascism, anti-gentrification. The people we are seeing are the so-called ‘autonoma’, people operating in groups without hierarchy...’’ The lack of hierarchy makes it very difficult to round them up.
One method of seeing the future is what Matt Taylor calls Weak Signal® Research. Small happenings at the periphery of society can provide early intelligence on what is to come. The Berlin “carsonists” point to what may become a serious challenge to current "capital dominated" version of the market economy. (Market economies can be a good for the common people, but not when most of the rewards and power flow to a tiny minority.)
In Berlin there appears to be a growing community of folks who believe carsonist form of protest is understandable. There is even a website lists and maps each car’s demise. The radical left itself is probably no more than 12,000, but many others see the growing inequality of global capitalism and sympathize. Aysun Inci, Turkish immigrant, thinks burning cars is wrong, but she also says"
"The distance between poverty and wealth keeps getting bigger, I understand the anger, somehow."
In an earlier era of apparently unlimited resources, a social system ruled by capital (capitalism) allowed for rapid growth and change. In some cases the growth in productivity it produced was worth a temporary loss of equality. I others, Haiti comes to mind, the result of a capital dominated takeover of the society was to replace a vibrant egalitarian peasant society with a small rich local elite and utter poverty for the rest of Haitian citizens. (See Toward a Second Haitian Revolution by Steven Stoll on page 5 of Harpers, April 2010.) (If you subscribe click here to see it.)
As natural resources themselves, rather than the capital to extract them, become a major limiting factor in the world, one person’s gain is more closely correlated with another’s loss. If I catch a fish it isn't there for you to catch later. Investing in more fishing boats does not solve this problem, so the rationale for capital's dominance of our society is declining. In the long run, just as scarcity led to rationing during WWII, resource shortages will lead to stronger demands for more equal distribution of resources such as water, oil, raw materials, fish, land and the right to pollute.
If a growing egalitarian sentiment is matched with continued growth of inequality there will be an increase in acts of destruction like those of the "carsonists" of Berlin. What is being invented is a form of protest that demands attention, and yet will appeal to a far broader range of citizens than terrorism.
The carsonists pose a challenge to the sustainability of a great and growing inequality because:
- The attacks are not on people, rather they are on property, which makes them appealing to a broader segment of the population.
- The attacks are widely perceived to be political statements, not the meaningless vandalism of disaffected youth.
- Many of the carsonists are believed to be ethnic German bohemians and artists. Somehow this makes their actions more legitimate.
Property destruction does not inspire terror, so the carsonists are not exactly terrorists. Perhaps a perpetrator should be called a "polivand" for a politically motivated vandal. Time will tell if we need a new word with this distinction. Political vandalism is a powerful form of protest that can only be held in check by widespread belief in the legitimacy and fairness of the socioeconomic system or a brutal system for repressing dissent. The long term sustainability of a free society depends on keeping inequality closer to the moderate level needed to reward initiative.
In the long run, great inequality can only be maintained by brutal regimes that crush the expression of dissent and keep the population in fear or cringing respect. It helps if the authorities are willing to punish whole villages rather than having to find the perpetrators. This brutal tactic worked Saddam’s Iraq. It worked in the hydraulic empires that could shut off the water supply of any village harboring dissidents. Absolute power kept inequality sustainable for feudal lords and slave owners in the Southern US.
The level of brutality needed to sustain a great and growing inequality is incompatible with the level of innovation and intellectual productivity needed in advanced economies. Knowledge work requires a high level of freedom, trust and responsibility that depends on and informed, ethical and willing population that believes in the system they are part of.
Faith in a system wherein the local economy is ruled by a remote capitalist elite is declining. If the gap between rich and poor continues to widen there is trouble ahead. Property destruction may become a very effective form of protest. If done intelligently and without the central coordination which simplifies police work, it will be very hard to stop.
If inequality continues to increase, political property destruction will be used not just against rich individuals, but against corporations and government agencies. It there is a huge population of the poor amidst great concentrated wealth, broad segments of the population may come to cheer for and support the perpetrators. For this reason, if our civilization is to persist, we will have to reduce the spread between the rich and the poor. If a corporation is to remain profitable, it will have to pay attention to its impact on the poor and powerless.
Greater equality is becoming a major sustainability issue. Other designs for a market based system are possible. Other forms of corporate organization and reward system are in use. It is time to begin learning how to operate in a fairer way that produces more egalitarian outcomes within the corporation, within the nation and between nations.
Despite the fact that I believe the logic expressed above will play a compelling role in the future, I do not believe that it explains the inclusion of social equity in the definitions of sustainability in wide use today. For this reason I will offer a historical explanation for its inclusion in most definitions of sustainability today.
The most quoted definition of sustainability is actually a definition of “sustainable development” created by the UN. The issues addressed by sustainable development are different than the needs of sustainability in general.
The Brundtland Commission of the UN, headed by Gro Harlem Brundtland, published a report in 1987 called Our Common Future. The concern was that much of the development taking place in the third world did not produce enduring benefit for those where the so called “development” took place. For example, suppose the World Bank helps a company build a mine in Africa.
The mine creates a lot of employment in the village for 30 years. GDP rises. Then the ore runs out and the company leaves. The community is left with unemployment and polluted ecosystems that can no longer support the people’s earlier subsistence way of living. After the company leaves, the people are far worse off than before the company appeared. The mine produced development in the short run but the development was unsustainable in the long run.
The Bruntland Commission wanted push development activities in a direction that left people permanently better off. The report contained a definition of sustainable development that brought meeting the needs of all members of the community into the center of the sustainability dialog.
"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Companies adopted the Bruntland definition of sustainable development because it aligned with their own long term profitability. If their operations developed a reputation for leaving poverty and environmental disaster behind them, governments might not permit them to operate. Or protests might shut down their operations.
For these reasons, the arguments that sustainability advocates inside major firms used to support sustainable ways of operating generally focused on the “social license to operate.” To earn the good reputation needed to gain government licenses and community support, corporations need to offer communities in which they wish to operate development projects with enduring benefits. In this way the Bruntland definition and social benefit entered into the corporate dialog on sustainability.
Whether one looks at a corporations social license to operate, freedom from property destruction or the future of relatively free civilizations, greater equality will be necessary for long term survival of our major institutions. For this reason, a bias toward equality is a critical element of sustainability. Finding ways to combine a relatively free market economy with greater equality is one of the dominant challenges of our times.
(Credits: Photo of Prescribed Burn by lostmodern using cc-by-nc-sa, Champagne Glass Distribution of Wealth from Conley (2008) You May Ask Yourself), Data and picture derived from UNDP, Human Development Report 1992 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).