It is a near-consensus that the way we produce and consume goods and services in modern economies is not sustainable. We systematically (and knowingly) overuse natural resources, ignore the social cost of (ab)using Nature’s services… So, the diagnosis is more or less uncontroversial and agreed upon. However, the question about the right therapy is still unsettled: how can we do it all in a better way? Generally, there are three strategies that are often named as necessary to achieve true sustainability: efficiency, consistency and sufficiency.
Let us begin with the least controversial sustainability strategy: efficiency. If you ask an economist, he likely will tell you efficiency is the simple most important thing. Actually, modern economics is mainly about various aspects of efficiency. However, in the context discussed here efficiency has a slightly different meaning. First of all, traditionally understood “economic” efficiency is a notion confined to things that can be easily expressed in quantitative terms (at best in money). Moreover, it is viewed through the lens of rational choice theory that underlies modern economics, which means that efficiency from the point of view of an individual (firm, household etc.) is focused on. E.g., it is efficient to exploit coal reserves fastly if it is expected that the coal price will decline in the future. What I mean by “efficiency” here is something different. It is thought as an imperative to use (natural) resources efficiently, i.e. not to waste them. Efficiency in this context is to be understood with regard to social costs that are to be economized upon, not individual/market costs. Moreover, it is not at all confined to quantifiable aspects of human economic activity – there are many ecosystem services that have no “price tag” attached, which does not mean that they need not be used efficiently.
Efficiency as a sustainability strategy, even though bearing a somewhat different meaning than in standard economics, is clearly the least controversial strategy path. Much is already being done across the world to improve the efficient use of natural resources and ecosystem services. Here, no significant changes in people’s mentality and everyday life style are needed, much can be achieved by deploying and promoting adequate technologies and by setting economic incentives right (e.g., so as to minimize wastage in various branches of the economy).
A less well-known but still crucial strategy on the path toward sustainability is called consistency (or, by some, industrial ecology [pdf]). In general terms, consistency is the trial to integrate material and production cycles into each other as well as into natural cycles. It is more than recycling, because recycling is only an ex-post utilization of parts of once-used materials, often linked to unpleasant side-effects like pollution and toxic waste. Consistency is a much more holistic and encompassing integrated approach, within which re-cycling is planned already before production actually begins.
An example of how the consistency strategy may work is provided by the Cradle-to-Cradle principle (C2C), initiated by the German chemist Michael Braungart and developed together with the US-American architect William McDonough. According to C2C, goods must be produced so as to minimize the need for waste disposal. This means that products have to be either completely recyclable or their design has to enable putting them back to natural cycles where they also can be “recycled”. Further principles of C2C are the use of renewable energies in the production cycle and the imperative to adopt production strategies suited to local needs and realities.
Clearly, consistency is a much more difficult and innovative strategy than efficiency. Just as the latter, consistency has its limits – it is doubtful that we are able to “close” all material and production cycles, even though proponents of consistency often seem to believe that we can do this. So far, the C2C and related principles have been only limitedly deployed. Our economies are still not prepared to deal with social costs (and not just market prices) and wastage has been an inherent characteristic of the system.
The third sustainability strategy I would like to discuss is, in my opinion, the most difficult one: sufficiency. While efficiency and consistency are more or less “technological” strategies that primarily require innovative changes in the production structure (with some aid from incentive structures), sufficiency is more of a “philosophical” strategy. It requires that people change the way they live – and there is little scope for pushing them toward this goal by just setting incentives right. Instead, the (will to) change must come “from the inside”.
What is sufficiency exactly? It is an attitude that is very uncommon in the modern society – the ability to restrain from something, mainly from superfluous consumption. Accustomed to consumption without much thinking as we are, a turn toward sufficiency is hardly imaginable for most people. This would mean that we think twice before buying/using something, weighing the benefit of usage against its costs.
Sufficiency is not easy a strategy. However, it has been argued by some critics of modern society that sufficiency could be beneficial for us, not only in terms of long-term environmental impacts, but also in terms of individual satisfaction. As early as in 1970, Staffan Linder argued in his book The Harried Leisure Class that increasing consumption is actually hurting people who don’t pay attention to time budget constraints (and thus impose stress upon themselves, as they cannot really enjoy all the consumer goods they buy). The fact is that we have only a limited amount of “free time” available, but ever more items/activities that call for our attention. Since nearly every consumer good requires time to be found, chosen, bought, prepared for consumption and then, finally, consumed, we end up having very little time for whatever we may be wanting to do – even in our so-called “free time”.
Nevertheless, sufficiency is still the most controversial of the three strategies I have presented here. It is not at all a technical solution to modern environmental (and societal) problems, but a solution that requires us to change.
There are analysts who claim that consistency is the most important strategy on our way toward sustainability, while others express the opinion that sufficiency is central. In conventional discourse, efficiency is accentuated and the other two are dismissed as impracticable and/or unnecessary. However, it is my conviction that neither of the strategies discussed here – not efficiency, not consistency or sufficiency – is by itself sufficient for a true, sustainable solution of humanity’s problems. Nor is any one of them more important than the others. They should instead be seen as different parts of one programme. A programme for saving the world.