Thursday, March 1, 2018

Why social sustainability is as important as environmental sustainability

You may have noticed that our logo has People, Planet, Prosperity (considered the three legs of sustainability stool: economic, social and environmental sustainability.)
From Social Watch,
Often people are confused about the social and economic piece. They think of sustainability as predominately environmental. 
It's certainly true that our society is wholly dependent upon nature, our economy is a "wholly-owned subsidiary of Nature," as Ray Anderson liked to say. It's probably most accurate to see these as concentric circles, with Environment the largest, then Society and then our Economy as a subset of our society. (See the common example from Social Watch.)
But we can't get to environmental sustainability without getting people on board, without meeting human needs. We're so clever, we find ways to circumvent natural limits that other species face. We go ahead and meet our needs unsustainably, if we have to. If you were a Brazilian farmer who had to burn down some rain forest to feed your kids, you'd do it, right? If you have to get into a fossil-fuel driven car to get to work, you do it. "Now" matters more to us humans than long-term impacts, especially when we're in crisis.
So the end-game is finding a way that we can all have a good life within the limits of nature.  

Sounds good, but still a bit vague, right? To make matters worse, what determines a good quality of life differs. In underdeveloped nations, access to clean water and sanitation is key. In the developed world, we've developed a dizzying array of things we think we need to be happy. So for now, let's examine social sustainability at the community level.

Think of social sustainability as quality of life. What in your community is undermining the quality of life for those who live and work in the community? 

Let me use Sedona, my home town, as an example. The City is already working on two big priorities that I consider part of social sustainability:

Traffic: Traffic jams are a huge headache for people in the community; they affect how we feel; just yesterday I talked to someone who moved to Cottonwood because of it; and of course it has environmental and economic impacts as well like air pollution and days I shop or eat out in Cottonwood so I don’t have to drive to West Sedona from Village of Oak Creek. And I'm sure our three million visitors don't like sitting in hour-long traffic jams during high-season and holidays. It's also bad for business.

Lack of workforce housing: Many people who work here can’t afford to live here; this is an interconnected problem between the types of jobs here, wage scales, cost of real estate vs rent that can be charged. Having to commute (especially in bad you see how everything is connected?) requires that people of modest means must own a car or spend hours on public transit, away from their family.

We have some other social challenges in Sedona including some hunger and homelessness. Our education system seems to be struggling because our state doesn't fund it as well as most other states. The transient nature of our community (people who live here part time, where this is not ‘home’, as well as being a retirement community) has an impact on social cohesion or social capital which can be important assets when the community needs to come together to get things done. Sedona isn’t very walkable, which affects people’s health and requires they get in their car. So the work the City is doing around urban planning, to create walkable centers, is also a social sustainability initiative.

Other communities have different social sustainability issues, things like crime levels, drug abuse, food deserts (where people can’t get easy access to fresh food), rates of obesity, etc. 

It’s hard to think about social sustainability in the broad sense (although there are some good theoretical frameworks out there like Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef’s 9 fundamental human needs and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals). But if you just keep asking, “What is undermining our quality of life in our community?” you can easily identify what needs to be addressed.
And then here's the trick: find solutions that also help the economy and the environment (or at least that don't make them worse.) That's the special sauce of sustainability, seeking solutions that make everything better: People, Planet, Prosperity. All three. Not trade-offs.

ELF from Organic Transit:
So how do we, for example, fix traffic in Sedona while making the other P's better? We certainly don't build wider roads. Instead:
  • We can build a better transit system to handle all the tourists which would make their visit more enjoyable, one that would explain what they're seeing and make it easy to start hiking from one trail head and get picked up at another. 
  • We can encourage the formation of a new business that would rent 'neighborhood electric vehicles' like this solar-powered ELF, buzzing around in bike lanes or rarely used sidewalks, with drivers stopping to take pictures whenever they want (instead of filming out their sunroof while they drive--trust me, they do it). 
  • We can get tour companies to collaborate on scheduling transportation, perhaps through an app. "Done with your trip to the local wineries? A tour to Honanki is leaving in 10 minutes. Click here to learn about that archeological site." 
These more sustainable solutions (vs. widening roads) create new economic opportunities, improve the visitor experience, and reduce greenhouse gases. 
People, Planet, Prosperity: Win, Win, Win.

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