Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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2.3 Social valuation: towards ecological citizenship

An important practical question is whether the standard tools of economics are adequate for describing and monitoring sustainable development. If we consider either the Brundtland ‘essential needs of the poor’ condition for sustainability, or the idea that we ought to try to secure a certain level of quality of life for future people equivalent to that of some people today, it would appear that economics will not be enough by itself. This is because each of these concepts demands more than the satisfying of conditions such as maximising national product over a period of time. Issues of distribution within societies and between countries have to be taken into account, and the question must be answered as to what level of quality of life we should aim for. These are moral and political, not economic, questions. Thus the contribution of economics has to reside within a larger framework of decisions about long-term policy.

This may explain why some economists have criticised the Brundtland definition of sustainable development as being too vague, perhaps assuming that it should be usable by economists as a precise practical guide to policy. However, once we appreciate that the issues involved are moral and political, it is clear that the problem is one not of vagueness but of deciding which moral and political judgements are appropriate.

In particular, the key notions of needs and quality of life give rise to difficulties in practice. If we try to elaborate what are the needs of people today, and what will be the needs of future people, and what are the needs of the poor, it may be difficult to reach agreement; and we may suspect that what is agreed today will not be accepted at times in the future. The same difficulties apply to an even greater extent when we consider what would count as maintaining the quality of life that we wish to sustain.

Activity 11 Quality of life

Which features of your own present-day life would you class as meeting your needs, and which as enhancing your quality of life? Make some brief notes on your thoughts.

If we interpret needs in a narrow sense, we might perhaps expect agreement about what people’s needs are now and will be in the future. Regarding quality of life, however, there are reasons for expecting less agreement, and also reasons for thinking that people outside a certain community may easily be mistaken in their views of what will promote quality of life in that community. For example, the following are three elements that many would pick out as contributing to quality of life:

  • Material comforts. One element of ‘quality of life’ might be the standard of living and way of life enjoyed by the more fortunate in developed countries, including such things as modern domestic comforts, absence of drudgery, and cheap travel and communication.

  • Political freedom and justice. A second element would probably be such features of a society as political freedom, tolerance and absence of gross economic inequality. These are characteristics that form part of the political ideals of a large proportion of the world’s population.

  • Cultural traditions. A third element might cover cultural characteristics, such as systems of agriculture, land-holding and associated social organisation. Economists have emphasised that economic development can damage such cultural traditions, resulting in great suffering. A moral and political issue arises here: some of the ideals referred to in the other two elements may be incompatible with these traditional ways of living.

Although agreement about these elements of quality of life might be widespread, it cannot be assumed that it is universal. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that development with the aim of improving quality of life will bring universal benefits to the whole community, including the community of non-human nature. With the widening of moral concern regarding ‘what matters’, from existing disparities of wealth and poverty amongst human populations towards both non-human nature and future generations, a need has emerged for guidance given an increasingly uncertain and unknowable future.

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