What is Whole-System Sustainability? Part 2: Economic and Social Sustainability

Reader Contribution by Ruth Tandaan Sto Domingo
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Photo byCarla Borella

In the first installment of this two-part series, we saw that under the best of circumstances, a singular approach to sustainable development — one that considers only environmental sustainability while missing social or economic sustainability — can produce very little long-term benefit to local residents, human or otherwise.

Under the worst cases, the illusion of sustainability will allow for other areas of the development to accrue in such an unfavorable manner so as to negate any benefits while at the same time, creating additional issues that will have to be addressed at a later date. For any Development to be truly Sustainable in nature, it must be Systemically Sustainable.

Where Part 1 introduced the principles of Whole-System Sustainability and defined its environmental components, this post will dive into two other sustainability considerations that must be considered for any solution to be systemically sustainable: Economic Sustainability and Social Sustainability.

What is Economic Sustainability?

Economic Sustainability focuses not only on economics, but also on matters of finance. The difference  between the twain are subtle and nuanced perhaps, but they remain distinctly different areas of study. The sustainability of any major development is heavily dependent on both the local and domestic economics in addition to the ability for financial growth and development. Economic Sustainability is requisite if the people are to have the opportunity to be self-sufficient, and ideally, productive and contributing members of society. Finances on the other hand, are imperative for the measuring of worth and value, ensuring the potential for growth, and allowing for the foundation or community development to be continually operated without conducting business as if they were forever trapped in some endless (and costly) fundraising telethon.

Economic sustainability is a multi-faceted approach, developing an economically symbiotic relationship between the community economic and financial systems and the individuals within the sustainable community development. Economic Sustainability is defined as the point at which the economic and financial portions of the system are such that economics are capable of allowing the persons within the community development to provide for at least their minimal needs and requirements, while at the same time, the financial system is established to the point that it can ensure growth and expansion.

There are some people in the world who would love to implement a cashless society, and it may sound great in theory … and may even work to a more limited degree in practical application … though likely only at the local level and among smaller, more compact and unified communities. There are in fact, a great many isolated and rural locations around the world who remain virtually unaffected … at least financially speaking, even during the most disruptive government changes. The continuation of their local economics even during times of national or domestic disruption is due to the intimate nature of these smaller and more isolated communities … which also tends to make them substantially more independent. While they may suffer financially, it is unlikely that they will suffer much economically, even with the instability resulting from a complete change of government.

Currency and Money are effectively interchangeable terms in the vernacular of today, though they have very distinct differences that should be understood for any effort at Economic and Financial Sustainability in community developments. Money is something that has an “inherent” or “perceived” value such as gold. Currency should be viewed as a medium of exchange denoting value. Value and Worth likewise, can be viewed as separate terms with separate meetings. While there is an insufficient amount of space in any singular artihighercle to fully explain economics and finance, and it would reduce the readership extensively, let us look at an example in the form of something that interests everyone.

When the monetary system withdrew from the gold standard, a single troy ounce of gold had an approximate value of around twenty US dollars. Today, even with inflation adjusted accounting, the cash (more accurately, the currency) value of the gold is substantially higher. At the time we left the gold standard, the worth of that ounce of gold was enough to purchase two nice, hand tailored, custom suits. Today, the worth of that ounce of gold is worth enough to purchase two nice, hand tailored, custom suits. The actual worth of the gold has not changed even though the cash (or currency) value of the gold is much higher. All of this is incredibly boring perhaps, but must be considered for the overall economic and financial sustainability of any development.

This is seemingly relevant however, given the rise in popularity of alternative currencies and some pushing for a cashless society. To complicate matters even further perhaps, this is as much a sociological issue as it is one of economics and finance. The bottom line however, is that removing the value of everything, means that virtually everything will be worth nothing. While the cashless society may in fact work at the local level, it is not a viable solution for long term, sustainable development. A cashless society most certainly would not work within large, urban population centers, if for no other reason than for sociological concerns. If nothing has any value or worth, what is the damage if property is stolen, or the means of trade? How does one implement a free transaction for the exchange of goods and/or services without any means to determine value or worth?

Photo bysasint

Social (or Sociological) Sustainability

By far, the most often overlooked consideration in regards to viable sustainability, is the introduction of socially or sociologically sustainable standards. Human nature being what it is, this is also a particularly difficult and sometimes objective field of study as well, making it all the more difficult to successfully implement.

Sociological Sustainability is inclusive not only of the basic social aspects of the Sustainable Community Development, but also the availability of basic goods and services to all people equally, including access to safe and secure housing (integrated into society and not isolated based on social standings) and ready access to both short-term and long-term medical and health care and treatment, quality education and equality of opportunity.

Many of the current social “assistance” programs, actually are far more detrimental than they are beneficial. When poor life choices are financially rewarded and wise life choices are financially punished, this should be expected. While this is a very unpleasant topic for some people, it remains exceedingly relevant for any Socially Sustainable development that seeks to be successful in both design and implementation. Living in the bad part of town or on the wrong side of the tracks can frequently lead to an exhibition of bias in the hiring process, preventing an otherwise capable and competent person from gaining meaningful employment. The segregation of many impoverished persons through the introduction of “Section Eight” or other subsidized housing units has proven to be detrimental in a great many ways for the local residents.

Children brought up in these environments often lack viable role models and look up to those who have obtained perceived positions of power within these neighborhoods. Incarceration is viewed by some as a mere right of passage in the modern, segregated societies established through subsidized housing. Their role models tend to be the strongest and most aggressive persons within these largely segregated neighborhoods, generally meaning those who are prone to criminal tendencies in order to supplement the meager subsistence that they receive in the name of “assistance”. In these cases, it is not merely a matter of providing opportunity, but just and viable reasoning for taking advantage of the opportunities that are present.

There can be little doubt that of all things sustainable, sociology and social standards will be among the most important. Without the persons, what is any community? What is the cause of sustainable development if not to improve the life and livelihood of the persons within the development? For better or for worse however, social standards and norms are among the most important aspects, and as such, they will be a major factor in the many articles to follow this one on these pages.

If there is an upside, it is that there are viable and effective solutions to all of the problems and challenges addressed herein … and many more that are far too expansive to be included in any single article. As such, I do hope that you will return and perhaps even bookmark this page so once the problems have been adequately defined, we can focus together on viable solutions rather than dwelling over the challenges we all must face.

Please leave any of your thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions in the comment section below so that I can address them individually, and perhaps even use them for consideration in future articles. None of this work would be possible without you, the reader, and as such, your thoughts and considerations are the most important aspect of any articles published herein.

Ruth Tandaan Sto Domingohas worked with numerous NGOs, governments and Indigenous communities in Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and Vanuatu to implement sustainable solutions. She is the co-author of Whole System Sustainable Development. Ruth enjoys “hyper-realistic” cross stitch and is working with her husband to build a largely off-grid and self-sufficient home where she will raise livestock and garden both flowers and food.


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