Promoting environmental and community sustainability

Promoting environmental and community sustainability

Jef Peeters, December 14  2016  Research Fellow at University of Leuven Belgium. Member of the research group Social Policy & Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences.  Main topic is 'social work and sustainable development'. Working within an international network about 'ecosocial transformation of society'

A good introduction of this issue requires a good conceptualization. For that we need to start from the current social context, characterized by the run together of different crises that put a fundamental transformation on the social agenda. This transformation is going to take place anyway, for worse or for the better.

How should ‘sustainability’ then be understood? It is about creating a future that involves a just and liveable world for everyone. ‘Sustainability’ is the name for the concomitant set of goals and tasks and requires a holistic approach. Environmental, social and economic sustainability are not separate themes, but dimensions that only in the reconciliation on each other can lead to a desired result. Consequentially, promoting environmental and community sustainability is not possible without a vision about economic sustainability and accompanying actions.

We can say that so far the connection of social objectives with the pursuit of ecological sustainability is not successful because it was prevented by the dominant logic of the market economy. That logic placed social and ecological principles as competitors facing each other. So the objectives of the respective social movements often seemed opposite each other. In that context it was also for social work not obvious to connect with the fight for the biophysical environment. 

According to many observers, the current economic crisis is a serious systemic crisis. But that creates opportunities for change. Therefore both new economic practices and transition proposals to a different economic model are appearing. In my opinion, the proposals of a commons transition are the most promising. Anyway, it is crucial that the economy is ‘embedded’ again into social and ecological relations – to use the terminology of Karl Polanyi. This is a basic entry point for action.

The necessary connection of the various dimensions of sustainability requires an overarching story, a vision of a cultural shift that sets out the expectations and aspirations again, in short a paradigm shift. We need a worldview that  redefines the relationships of humans among themselves and with the world. That has many aspects, but the core includes at least the following two elements: connectedness and complexity. As such, it is an ‘ecological’ – possibly ‘social-ecological’ – worldview. For practice, that means not just the recognition of mutual dependence, but a positive vision on the interaction with others and with the world as the source of a meaningful life and living together. In addition, in the place of competition, cooperation and sharing come into sight as core elements of a new practice, today recognizable in bottom-up forms of sharing economy, new cooperatives and commons.

The intended paradigm shift is on the way, but not yet dominant in culture and policy. It is therefore important to explicitly articulate it, both through practical stories and theoretical elucidation. The wording needs to have an open character, i.e. open to the actual pluralism in society, so that people from different inspirations may join. That openness is all the more necessary as migration and refugees, and in that way an increasing super-diversity, is an undeniable European reality.