Features of a sustainable society

Oct 14, 2022
Sustainable future written on asphalt road surface with marking lines and tree tunnel

A sustainable society would have the following 12 features. It is ‘better, not bigger’ and should receive a high score on the Sustainable Development Index and Genuine Progress Indicator.

My recent article on this website argued that Australia (and all nations) should urgently pursue policies consistent with sustainability, with the UN Sustainable Development Goals being an imperfect guide, but a guide nonetheless. (Although best-selling Japanese Marxist scholar Kohei Saito – Capital in the Anthropocene (2020) – has called SDGs the new opium of the masses given that he advocates for degrowth in high-income nations.)

True it is that ‘sustainability’ is often a weasel word that is all promise and no delivery, with tomorrow being worse than today despite the rhetoric. Measuring actual progress would help. The Sustainable Development Index has Costa Rica and Sri Lanka achieving the best scores with Australia trailing at No. 161. The UN’s Human Development Index – another metric that seeks to improve on GDP – has Iceland, Norway and Switzerland in the lead, although it focuses much less on environmental performance. The Genuine Progress Indicator is another useful tool. Here is my own brief guide to sustainability.

A sustainable society would have the following 12 characteristics:

  1. Its physical economic throughput remains less than its biocapacity

This protects the natural environment. Resources are used no faster than they can regenerate or be substituted, and the resultant wastes (including CO2) are produced no faster than they can be assimilated. The physical economic process is governed by the laws of thermodynamics meaning materials recycling has its limits. So economic scale (size) is critical. It follows that the physical size of an economy cannot grow indefinitely, as a cancer would, and maximum caps on physical throughput should be legislated. Yet qualitative improvements are always possible with a stable GDP. Tomorrow can be better than today – economic welfare can increase – even if the physical scale should not grow beyond the optimum.

  1. Low level of inequality and poverty (a fair society)

Both wealth and income inequality must be contained to achieve a stable society. Wealth inequality can be lowered by fair inheritance taxes, while income inequality is lowered by a progressive tax system (with a 100% tax above a reasonable threshold, which could be as low, or high, as the prime minister’s income). Low inequality means we come closer to equal opportunity for all. As a general rule we should tax things we don’t want: low-to-moderate incomes need not be taxed at all, while high incomes – beyond a certain point – are pernicious (unearned economic rents).

  1. High level of democracy

The will of the people should be expressed in fair elections, untainted by mis- or disinformation. High levels of free education are therefore needed, with good pay and conditions for teachers. Wealth and power should not overly influence election outcomes, (oligarchy), so elections need appropriate public funding with effective private-donation caps. Australia’s malapportioned Senate needs addressing, perhaps by its abolition (see Richard Walsh’s book, Reboot, 2017) and/or the replacement of states and state governments with smaller provinces.

  1. Low level of corruption; respect for rule of law

Hopefully the long-overdue federal integrity commission will have a salutary effect: we have long heard of money laundering in casinos and banks; the use of tax havens and other tax rorts; and the use of flags of convenience for merchant shipping. The recent royal commission into financial services rorts barely scraped the surface – severe penalties are needed for financial fraud and they need to be enforced.

  1. Respects human rights, usually with a Bill of Rights

Australia is unusual in not having a Bill of Rights: the authors of our Constitution thought breaches would be corrected at the ballot box. Times have changed and people’s rights need to be enshrined in law to discourage breaches and enable remedies. This should include the right to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment (as the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly have confirmed), as well as the right to paid employment.

  1. Low level of labour underutilisation

By which I mean true full employment: no involuntary unemployment or underemployment. This should equate to 1-2% unemployment and zero underemployment. This will only be achieved with a federal government job guarantee. Full-time hours may be reduced to four days per week to achieve point 1 (above) which will likely entail some planned degrowth.

  1. Low level of private-sector debt

The federal government’s budget deficit is exactly equal to the non-government sector’s surplus, whereas a federal government surplus forces the non-government sector into deficit. Government austerity policies (so-called budget repair) make everything worse. Home prices, in particular, must be stabilised by addressing causes, including population growth, easy finance, and lack of public housing. Strong banking regulation is a must, preferably with a publicly owned bank like we used to have. Cancel all student debt and make education free.

  1. Public ownership of essential services and natural monopolies

This includes most aspects of the electricity network; telecommunication; insurance; pharmaceuticals and vaccines; ports; roads (no tolls); Qantas; banking; and mineral resources. I cannot think of a privatisation that was a good idea.

  1. Restricts rent extraction (unearned income)

This could largely be achieved by a 100% income tax bracket above, say, the prime minister’s salary. High incomes for some means low incomes for others when there are finite resources. We are currently on a lifeboat that is sinking fast. Profitable companies should use those profits to invest in research and development, pay down debt, and improve infrastructure rather than paying dividends or engaging in share buy-backs.

  1. A diverse and free media

Australia’s concentrated media ownership undermines democracy and its pernicious effects are plain for all to see. Also, our restrictive defamation laws are an embarrassment.

  1. Deliberately pursues self-sufficiency in critical sectors like energy, food, construction materials, vaccines

Australia suffers from its dependence on foreign oil and non-fossil energy infrastructure. It is essential we manufacture our own renewable-energy equipment, remembering that the energy sector must remain at a sustainable scale. Imports of food must be scaled back and free-trade agreements need to be renegotiated with sustainability to the fore, not free-market capitalism. We must take sustainable forestry and fishing seriously.

  1. Actively engages with the international community to promote sustainability

Helping other nations, especially those impoverished and those in our immediate neighbourhood, helps both us and them.

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