From Sustainability of Things to Sustainability of Relationships

Things and Relationships

Things and Relationships – (c) Olaf Brugman, 15 July 2017

Does accepting the reality of climate change imply the end of a business philosophy in which individual entities may care only about their own operations even, if it those operations off-load adverse impacts and increase cost of public goods? Yes, it does, and this also implies that we need to go beyond the Sustainability of Things and move toward Sustainability of Relationships.

For sure, accepting climate realities is a milestone, that marks more than ever that our economies at global level reach the limit of natural resources availability and reach the limits of the quality of public goods such as safety, standards of living, quality of our bioenvironfent, etc. These limits are now confronting us more than ever before since individual decisions of people, government and business are now questionable in the light of imminent resource scarcity or ‘liveability’ of environments. They make us aware that caring for a tree at the expense of a forest is inconsistent and irreconcilable with sustainable development narratives. They place external impacts and costs at a collective level within the realm of values, decision-making and market behaviour of the individual actor (person, business, government agency, etc). They have become part of individual accountability, responsibility and legitimacy.

However, the hole is deeper than it seems: sustainable development is shaped not only by the directly visible artefacts that we produce such as fuel-efficient cars, sustainable buildings, low carbon agriculture practices, etc. It is much more shaped by invisible factors embedded in legislation and institutions: our societies’ approach to building and construction favours building new homes and destructing old ones. Civil legislation discourages tenants of social housing to adapt their homes for future use and penalises them if they do. In this way, decaying housing and replacing it by new buildings is valued more than adapting housing to new needs, helping them to adapt over time, which would be a truer case of sustainable development and a ‘destroy and build anew’ approach. If we build affordable social housing in isolated neighbourhoods where people working in shifts cannot reach their work by public transport because the public transport is only running around standard opening times of shops and offices while its designers had no clue about working class citizen’s transport needs, then transport and emissions are increased, not reduced. If businesses in a fossil fuel-dominated industry are allowed to engage in fraudulent, anti-competitive behaviour, if collective wage agreements lead to wages that workers are ever more denied access to affordable housing that they can be the owner of, if jobs do not earn decent living wages. And if one grills retailers for not offering sufficient organic products while planning our retail locations at the outskirts of town where we can only go by car, then these institutions almost invisibly prohibit or ignore opportunities for sustainable development. This means we leave the biggest source of sustainable development untouched: the relationships that shape our eco-social-economic relationships and that leaves room for some sustainable development, while blocking others. And it limits our views on sustainable development of things rather than on sustainable development of relationships between consumers, business and policits. In this context, a car maker’s pledge to henceforth only electric vehicles may seem a good thing. However, it may divert us from seeing even greater opportunities for much more sustainable liveable cities if we multiply public transport and take private vehicles of the street. But since our institutions favour private ownership and use of motor vehicles, making a better product is all we succeed to pass resolutions for. Luckily, accepting the realities of climate change makes it more probably that any impact of our invisible institutions may become scrutinised and questions for its real impacts. And it may create awareness that by addressing the Sustainability of Relationships, we may go beyond the Sustainability of Things.

From a Sustainability of Relationships perspective, we can rethink human artefacts like smart cities, public health care, green finance/bonds, social housing etc. Usually, approaching them from a sustainability of things perspective will put in focus their physical and visible properties and what is sustainable about them. We would typically look at the quantity of emissions reduced when we fit our wast bins with sensors so that the waste collection truck will pass your bin if it is not completely full: dear citizen, you didn’t produce enough waste! Or our smart parking system would route you to an empty parking space taking the shortest possible route. Only for those who had first bought a smartphone and sign up to expensive apps of course. A relationships-approach would beg the question whether it is smart to devote so much of public space and natural resources just to accommodate private ownership of cars. A things approach would make us want to measure the reduced emissions of a new building built to the latest standards, while the relationship approach could take into account how many natural resources would have been safed for future generations by refurbishment and adaptation of existing buildings (“impossible, unfortunately, we have just changed the building regulations and you cannot change your roof isolation unless you build a whole new roof with materials that are permitted now”) . A things approach would focus the sustainable development of public health by enabling the elderly to consult their medical specialist by video and safe transport emissions and hospital staff time. A relationships approach would focus on strengthening the presence of general practitioners in neighbourhoods and focus more on social support structures for health instead of investing in technology and buildings to combat disease. And a things approach to green investments would focus on how much worth of lower emission assets, water treatment installations or hydro or nuclear energy installations (‘they’re very low in emissions”) would be financed. A relationships approach would for example focus on how the assets would increase individual freedom of citizens to design their own solutions such as installing your own off-the-grid solar our wind power installation, or what biodiversity and safety risks would be implied by the technologies financed. Or it would focus on how the social and affordable housing could be improved over 100 years instead of being written off and demolished in 60 years, or how the housing would improve access to the work place, jobs, health and recreational services of the people who need to live in the affordable housing: does the affordable housing allow for near-home horticulture, does it have a gym, etc? But affordable housing buildings do not have gyms and vegetable gardens: health and food things are not designed into housing, and we have split the relationships of our food, housing, and health systems. What are smart cities, really?

My sincere thanks to the participants of the 61st annual conference of the International Society of Systems Studies (ISSS), 10-14 July Vienna, in particular Dr. Clemens Martin Auer (Federal Ministry of Health, Republic of Austria), Marc Pierson M.D., Dr. Constantin Malik, Prof. Dr. Fredmund Malik, prof.dr. Ockie Bosch and Vilma Machado, for the very rich conversations and for creating new relationships and networks. And thanks to the City of Wien, who planned its Museum Quarter to contain rich knowledge sources such as the bookshop of Walther König GmbH & Co that has the vision of still selling the books of the late prof.dr. Lucius Burkhardt. It are ecologies of dialogue and narratives like these that both enable and drive sustainable development in networks.

© Olaf Brugman, 25 July, 2017

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