Sustainability and cultural transitions

by Tibor Hartel

As the previous post suggested, there is a clear increasing tendency of the use of the word “sustainability”. The reason, basically, may be simple: if we don’t find ways for a smarter use of the resources of this planet, we will collapse. We would like to enjoy the increasing comfort, speed and material well-being and technology offered by our modern civilization but at the same time we feel that we strongly depend on the ecological structures and networks created by the interaction of other, non human living beings which share this planet with us. It can be like a nightmare: to be lost in our virtual dream world assured by technology and sometimes to wake up suddenly from this sweet dream kicked somewhere by a storm, flood, extreme drought, shortage of drinking water etc. This feeling is strange, isn’t it? And at the same time creepy and annoying.

Scientists working in sustainability may suggest: we need to rebuild links with natural systems, since we depend on them. Most of us may agree with this but when we start to look around to find societies which are in ‘equilibrium’ with their natural systems (the ‘traditional societies’), we may not like what we see: although those people seem to be ‘happy’ and healthy, they still don’t have Apple and cars, and internet or satellite TV. They don’t travel so much, don’t have photo cameras to make hundreds of thousands of pictures in a day, have no modern toilets and life is very slow there. We would call them ‘poor’ (see footnote: *). “Ok – we may think – if this is the price for having a sustainable life, I am not sure if I want that, sorry.”

So, one the one hand the need is given: as long as we depend on the energy and other goods provided by ecosystems we certainly need to recognize this dependence and treat these systems carefully, as ‘factories’ which produce vital resources for us. It would be foolish not to do this, basically. But on the other hand, we still lack good reference points about how to do this effectively since the only examples come from past societies and most of us may not entirely like and accept that life (see above).

Old models of sustainable use of natural resources are not entirely transferable for the new types of societies that we have and – mostly? –  like. And many traditional societies (at least in Eastern Europe) tend to shift socio-economic trajectories: because of a number of reasons, they are increasingly dependent on new types of economy and social systems and they seem to ‘naturally depart’ from their traditional state.

Then a crisis appears, such as a big flood, or deterioration in the quality of drinking water: now what?

One may think that investing more in technology would be important. Yes it is. For example, instead of going by plane to conferences on sustainable development, we could project ourselves using holograms. And we could find better ways to use energy and access and store information. There are many new types of social networks (e.g. Facebook) which, why not, are nice in many ways. However, in this technological development – we should not lose the sense of reality. For example, no matter how developed the technology and infrastructure we have is, or how strong we feel with it, we still (will) depend on plants (photosynthesis) and water, and the stability assured by the biosphere. And technology will probably never be able to replace the many services what the biosphere assures us (which ultimately made possible the development of technology).

We also may want to develop those social and institutional structures and features which make us able to approach and manage the resources of this planet in a ‘communal’ way (e.g. as Transylvanian Saxons did with their forests and pastures in a small scale for centuries in largely sustainable way). To do this, we should be less tribal and more participative and open to share and help and understand. The challenge is big because we are not used to think in wide, planetary scales but at the same time to carefully manage local resources. However, the context forces us to do this. We need a new type of culture. Could the humanity make this big cultural transition? We will see. Anyway, together with many other people I think that we are lucky (or unlucky?) to experience these global shifts and changes. Let’s just hope that the outcome of these inevitable changes will be ‘ok’.


* I am aware that this presentation is simplistic. I acknowledge the richness of the traditional societies and respect that – I myself grew up in such a society and know both the positive and the negative aspects of actually living in such a rural community. But now I write to you, global society, using my laptop and the internet. And in English. I would like to see more people with roots in traditional villages doing this – but sadly, many of them cannot even write and read in their own language correctly.

3 thoughts on “Sustainability and cultural transitions

  1. What is the real meaning of “sustainable” word? (e.g. what do you want to sustain? / and for whom? – I believe it is peculiar). Let me introduce this idea for you with a concept which I have been analysed: the LOHAS (acronym for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability). Interpretations – ranging from well-being to poorish societies: US – consume the most environmentally friendly products, is the most loyal to the businesses with values due to their expectations and they are the least price-sensitive. New-Zeeland: conservation, hiking and social issues. Australia: problems related to environment, weather (drought, climate change). In Hungary means a health consciousness with some retrenchment of resources (in fact it’s related to poverty). In China often is translated as “prosperity”, is identified with the get-out from crowded cities and visit the nearby grass or spa. –every society with their own problems. I think that the variations and interpretations of sustainability and the economy are inseparable. (sorry for the grammatical improprieties, English is one of my weak points)

  2. Hi Zsuzsa – indeed, many interpretations of sustainability. I would move around the use of ecosystem goods and services of this planet, at various spatial scales. Ideally, this should be done in a way to maintain those ecosystem / ecological processes which generate those goods and services (which are many). This seem to be quite complicated task, since it involves institutions, individual and collective behaviour, economics (see the ‘ecological economics’ which was built around sustainability basically), technology etc.

  3. Sustainability – a matter of interpretation 🙂 (…and a fashionable word, too…)
    For an economist „sustainability” goes hand in hand with „sustainable development” (G.H.Brundtland: Our Common Future). And as such, the „traditional societies” don’t meet the criterias of „development”. I think that finding the sustainable way of our development is the greatest challenge (however, I respect the traditional societies, of course)

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