The future we want, within our limits

Professor Susan Baker discusses new politics and the economics of limits: the future we want and can have.

The Welsh Government is taking the international lead in demonstrating its commitment to sustainable development by preparing a Well-Being of Future Generations Act. The Bill has been drafted, public consultation has finished and we await the final outcome. In the meantime, a National Conversation with the people of Wales, initiated in 2014 by the then Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, has just seen the publication of the Pilot Report The Wales We Want. Through the Conversation people discussed the Wales that they want to leave behind for their children and grandchildren by 2050. This Conversation also helped to shape the six well-being goals in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill when it was introduced in July 2014.

This week on Click on Wales

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill was discussed by the full assembly on Tuesday after the environment committee voted to drop large parts of the bill but rejected sections intended to replace them in February.

This week on Click on Wales we are running a series of articles on the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill looking at what we’ve got and how it can be improved.

As we read through the Wales we Want, it is time to reflect: can we have that future? Can we have it all? A commitment to promote sustainable development is embedded within the Government of Wales Act and has represented a distinctive part of Wales’ devolution journey. Now is the time to ask: can that vision of a sustainable future for Wales be realised?

So far, the Conversation has not taken the plunge and said: yes, we can have that future, but only if we accept that we cannot have it all: there are limits to growth and Welsh society, like the rest of Britain, will have to accept that there will be difficult trade-offs and hard choices to be made if sustainable development is to be promoted.

Policy makers in Wales now know that it is no longer possible to see economic development in isolation from its ecological and social consequences. From an ecological point of view, these consequences have become evident in biodiversity loss, climate change, deforestation and desertification, and growing problems of water shortages. When judged from a social perspective, deteriorating environmental quality is causing hardships that can weaken the capacity of communities to respond to risks and vulnerabilities. While there are many, and often competing, versions of sustainable development, they share a common belief that there are ultimate, biophysical limits to growth. New research about planetary limits, including efforts to define a safe operating space for humanity, and new revelations about the extent of our impact on the earth’s system, including through ecological footprint analysis, provide fresh impetus to the argument that we need a politics and economics of limits. As well as ensuring the basic survival of us and other species, such limits also serve a justice agenda: they create the conditions necessary for ecologically legitimate development, particularly for those that are socially and economically excluded and for ensuring that this generation does not close down the options for future generations, for example, by using up the planetary resources they need for their well-being.

Awareness of the outer limits of the earth’s environment has to go hand-in-hand with a new awareness of the ways in which the internal organisation of society, be it at the local or the international levels, shapes the prospects for a sustainable future. Attention must thus be given to the interlinked spheres of authority and influence that shape the way society is constructed and policies are made. These influences operate from the international down to the local levels, from the trans-national corporation to the individual consumer, and from the application of technology to the pursuit of a more spiritual engagement with the natural world. Promoting sustainable development is not just about finding more effective and efficient institutions of environmental governance. It is also about genuine commitment to a common interest, developing values that focus on community rather than individual self-interest. It is ultimately about the distribution of power, between the global and the local, between the privileged and the marginalised and about reducing the priority given to the economic over and above the social and the environmental, at present and into the future.

Viewed from the local level, sustainable development is about promoting social change within the community, to take account of locally agreed ecological, cultural, political and social preferences. One of the key ways of identifying sustainable development priorities at the local level is to open up the policy making processes to wider groups from within society. However, this is not a simple task, as it requires a public that has learned a civic spirit and that no longer sees the public sphere as a forum for the expression of narrow, vested self-interest.

In Wales, as elsewhere, the construction of our sustainable future places a great deal of emphasis on the role of governments at the local level as well upon actors from within civil society. The advantage of this twin emphasis is that it enhances the chances of generating examples of good practice. As these successes become a tangible aspect of everyday life, commitment to sustainable development will acquire increased legitimacy and public acceptance. But, as we promote a governance process that engages state and non-state actors, the public and the private sectors, we need to acknowledge that trade-offs have to be made – sometimes between this generation and the next; sometimes between social and environmental considerations; sometimes between ecosystems and biodiversity; sometimes between an individual’s desire for more consumption and sustainable development; sometimes between individual wishes and collective interest. We cannot have it all: as a society, Wales has to agree priorities as it faces these difficult trade-offs. If we deny that difficult choices face us, we deny the challenges involved, and we then also deny Welsh society the opportunity to learn how to deal with the difficult choices that lay ahead.

If we learn how to live differently, within planetary limits and at levels of consumption to which all can reasonably aspire, then a model of development can be constructed that opens up a future for the coming generations that will inherit the earth. The conditions for the promotion of sustainable development have become far more challenging in recent decades. Climate change and biodiversity loss reveal the devastating consequences of the growth orientated model of development. These changes threaten life on Earth. This threat is a wakeup call, a time to reflect on the construction of a new way of being and doing that enhances, rather than diminishes, the conditions necessary for our collective future. Recognition of the finite nature of planetary resources and the development of strong, ethical principles based on equity and well-being, can provide a sound framework within which to construct a much needed, new politics and economy of limits, one that can shape our decisions about what to do now and also sustain our collective futures.

Professor Susan Baker is a member of Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute. This piece reflects her contribution to “Sustainable Development: What are we waiting for?” a panel discussion at Plaid Cymru spring conference.

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