Friday, September 2, 2011

Social justice and sustainability - the conflict of time

The way we've posed the problem of sustainability has had a huge impact on the outcomes we've deemed as feasible. As I've written previously, the world has basically defined three pillars of sustainability- environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability, all of which intersect with each other but can also be mutually exclusive. The way the problem of sustainability is currently set up is such that goals and targets must be met for all three pillars - environmental, social, and economic. A "sustainable" outcome is some sort of "optimisation" of the three pillars. What this means is that there are some compromises that need to be made, and one or two of the pillars will be compromised more so than the others; there are conflicts and tensions between these pillars. Add on to this the issue of time - injustice now vs. injustice in the future - and what you have is a full-blown case of complexity and politics.

So how does a contemporary environmental justice problem fit in this paradigm? Not well. We can all agree that what we need to strive for is a world of lasting peace within ourselves and with the Earth we live on. But there are injustices that are happening right now that are a result of massive systems of oppression and violence towards people; we've exposed people to horrific living conditions, and have gotten them mired in a cycle of poverty that they honestly cannot leave. We need to deal with these issues right now. Unfortunately, as we witnessed in Delray, a semi-"just" (I cringe to use this word here.) solution now means affording people the opportunity to leave Delray by buying them out, or by beautifying their streets by funneling some money from the New International Trade Crossing project to the neighbourhood. But the bridge itself is not something that is sustainable in the long term. Rather, it further imprints on us the need for cars and trucks and shipping, while the fourteen thousand trucks passing over the bridge daily will worsen air quality for the residents left behind.

We're stuck in this mindset of trade-offs. We can give people money, but only at the expense of the environment. Short-term social justice trumps long-term sustainability. If we try to do less harm on the environment by not building the bridge, Matty Maroun will continue his monopoly, and people will have no money to leave Delray. Long-term steps toward sustainability might keep oppressive systems in place today. What I've realised is that there is no way we can live in a sustainable world unless everything (except the environment) is on the table for radical change - economy, society, culture, international politics and diplomacy.

We must act now in the best interests of those that have borne the brunt of our actions, and that means allowing these people a nicer place to live in. We must care for the abused, and welcome them into our neighbourhoods and circles, and break down the barriers that have held them back. This means that we, the privileged, need to change. Posing sustainability as a win-win problem ("sustainable development"), a problem in which we can alleviate ecological burdens on some while enjoying the lifestyles and privileges that others currently do, will only continue ecological degradation. We must therefore simultaneously envision a more holistic world - a world in which our human choices (say, of building a bridge or a dam) are tempered by an understanding that the long-term consequences of these choices lead to situations in which future short-term decisions will not be in conflict with future long-term actions needed.

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