Socially responsible entrepreneurs proclaim that sustainable business will save the world. Bureaucrats in the World Bank promote sustainable development in developing countries. Organic farmers describe their practices as sustainable agriculture. But when we shed of all the superficial layers, what is sustainability really about? Roar Bjonnes reflects on the innate meaning of the concept and sketches out some key features of a life-centered economy.
Sustainability - an industrial system mirroring nature?
The word sustainability refers to a 'system of agriculture or business that, ideally, does not harm the environment in its pursuit of growth'. To industrial ecologist William McDonough, sustainability refers to a “closed loop” or “cradle to cradle” business in which all the effluent waste is recycled back into the production process. In other words, an industrial system that mirrors the way nature works. Historically, it was the United Nations that first started using the term sustainable development. The influential, UN sponsored Brundtland Report, issued in 1987, declared that the answer to our environmental and economic problems is “sustainable development.” Since then, sustainable development has come to mean different things to different people–from organic farming to fair trade, from small businesses that recycle their waste paper to large, polluting corporations who want to show the world they have “green” intentions.
Corporate Unsustainable Development
Dole is a good example of the last category business. With $5.1 billion in revenues, Dole is the world’s largest producer and marketer of conventional fruit and vegetables. Dole is also the world’s largest user of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Dole is therefore not exactly a sustainable company. According to Sharon Hayes, Dole’s director of environmental affairs, however, the company has a “commitment to environmental leadership and consumer choice.”What Hayes refers to is that Dole has a “sustainable branch” that grows organic bananas and other fruits. But many environmentalists call this “green washing.” That is, Dole has no real intention of becoming a sustainable company, it simply wants tocapitalize on the highly profitable market of organic foods. Thus the irony: while Dole’s organic bananas are eaten by health conscious Americans driving gas guzzling SUV’s, the workers in Peru and Ecuador growing these fruits do not even make a living wage.
Dole is not alone in showing its “green face” these days. Many multinational corporations have similar campaigns. One may argue that these incremental steps toward sustainability are favourable. But in reality, the sustainable development practices among corporations today are, for the most part, not very sustainable, neither environmentally nor economically. The main reason for this is that it is profit (the bottom line), not sustainability (the second bottom line), that drives the growth of these corporations.
Almost two decades after the Brundtland Report–as both material and spiritual poverty has increased dramatically–it is clear that deeper solutions are needed. Indeed, many critics maintain that the current sustainable development model maintains many of the fatal flaws of the neo-liberal or capitalist development paradigm itself. In other words, sustainable development promoted by corporations and by rich western nations has not been able to deliver its much touted promise of a healthier environment and a more equitable economy. In fact, we are in many ways much worse off today than in 1987.
Because of capitalism’s apparent failures, many environmental activists and thinkers such as Paul Hawken, David Korten and Lester Brown have realized the need to move away from a purely capitalist and materialist economy. Paul Hawken has thus developed what he calls “natural capitalism.” David Korten has advanced a new economic model he terms “people centred economics.” Lester Brown is a spokesperson for a new “eco-economy.”
All of these models have much in common, including decentralized economics, green taxes, economic equity, etc. What they also have in common is that they want to reform rather than replace the capitalist model. They do not offer a new economic paradigm. Despite their many progressive and well meaning facets, all of the new sustainability models operate within the framework of capitalism. But can sustainable capitalism really be sustainable?
Progressive Utilization Theory and Sustainability
Progressive Utilization Theory, also known by the acronym PROUT, is a collection of socioeconomic and political ideas created by Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, envisioning "a decentralized, community-based world economy of self-sufficiency; economic democracy; small business; and limits on the accumulation of wealth." From a PROUT perspective even the most idealistic sustainable models will inevitably confront capitalism’s inherent contradiction: that self-interest and profit are the main drives of the economy and also the main causes of economic exploitation and environmental degradation.
Sarkar explains: “The contradictions in capitalism are due to the self-centered profit motivated psychology and the accumulation of wealth for the benefit of a few rather than for the welfare of all. Hence, capitalism is not congenial to the integrated growth of human progress.” In other words, in a capitalist economy, no matter how green, there will always be a tug of war between the bottom line (profit) and the second bottom line (sustainability). And the bottom line will always win.
Sarkar’s keen insight into this fundamental flaw of capitalism is the reason why PROUT advocates a radical restructuring of the entire economy. PROUT’s alternative to capitalist reform is its three-tiered structure—small private enterprises, worker owned cooperatives and enterprises owned by state, regional or municipal boards. The inherent problems of profit-motivated greed can thus be checked and balanced by limiting capitalism itself. In other words, without curbing the growth of private capitalism—which is driven by its profit motivation– it will be impossible to maintain social, economic and environmental balance, no matter how “sustainable,” “green” or “natural” the economy is.
Cooperatives and large scale key-industries owned by the state are therefore the main engines of the PROUT economy. PROUT is clearly committed to protecting the environment and supports “closed loop” business practices. Yet PROUT maintains that these ethical and environmental business habits are not enough. The economic structure itself must radically change to end exploitation of both humans and nature. This keen insight is one of many ways in which PROUT-theory can help in the creation of a more sustainable society.To create a sustainable economy, the economy itself must be modelled after both human nature as well as the natural world. Thus, unlike capitalism – which grew out of the social Darwinist dictum of “the survival of the fittest” – the PROUT economy grew out of the realization that human society as well as the ecological order is based on both cooperation and self interest. Sarkar’s PROUT is thus holistic, integral, cooperative and ecological. It is an economy that supports and maintains the growth and balance of the larger whole as well as its individual members, whether people, animals or plants.
Naked Sustainability - key features of a life-centered economy
Neohumanism: Our ecological vision is based on Neohumanism, which proclaims the existential rights of both animals and plants. According to this philosophy, we must redirect our selfish tendencies (which capitalism cultivates to its fullest extreme) toward the development of a deep sense of social equality. Neohumanism also hails that sustainable stewardship of the planet’s resources can best be realized through a spiritual kinship with all beings. The realization of our Cosmic Oneness with all beings must be the underlying dictum of a sustainable society. Without sustainable spirituality there can be no sustainable society.
Progress: True progress is that which leads to spiritual realization and emancipation. Economic and scientific progress is important, but such progress must not come at the expense of nature or the development of culture and spirituality. To PROUT, the role of material development is not just to create more wealth and goods, but to create a conducive environment for spiritual growth, recreation, art and culture. All of these activities rate very high on the personal happiness curve and very low on the environmental destruction curve. Sustainability will thus be achieved when society’s overall goal is spiritual rather than material growth.
Prama: In its optimum, ecological state, nature is in a state of dynamic equilibrium or prama. Progressive Utilization Theory maintains that economics and science must strive towards dynamic equilibrium as well, rather than the false, capitalist notion of “linear and perpetual growth.” In order to create a sustainable world, prama in the physical, mental and spiritual spheres must be established. That is, the interaction between science, politics, culture, economics and ecology must be in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
Decentralization: Progressive Utilization Theory s not the only “green” theory that advocates economic decentralization and local self-sufficiency, as such an economy is much more benign to the environment. Yet PROUT offers a unique approach to decentralization. Based on the formation of socio-economic regions throughout the world, PROUT would decentralize society based on common economic problems and potentialities, ethnic similarities, common geographical features, common language and culture. Within each socioeconomic region, which sometimes would cross national boundaries, there would be “block level planning.” In other words, a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach to planning the relationship between economics, culture and natural resources. International products will be replaced with local products, energy use for transportation will go down, and pollution will be dramatically reduced.
Production for consumption, not profit: A consumption economy is an integral aspect of PROUT’s decentralized economy and should not be confused with a profit-oriented consumer economy. A consumption economy is an economy where goods are produced as per people’s needs. A consumer economy is an economy where goods are produced and sold solely for profit. Since the consumption economy’s main goal is to satisfy basic human needs, it also provides the economic security needed for people’s non-material sources of fulfilment—family, community, culture, and spirituality.
Cooperative enterprises: Coops are the cornerstone of the PROUT economy. The Darwinian notion that competition promoted the evolutionary survival of the fittest individual is outdated. New research reveals that evolutionary success had more to do with the survival of the fittest community through interwoven cooperation. Thus cooperation, not competition, must be the cornerstone of a more equitable and sustainable economy.
Eco-villages: Sarkar’s “master units” or eco-villages will serve as micro-level experiments on how to integrate science, economy, culture, spirituality and ecology on both a local and global scale.
Global vision and governance: Decentralization, self-sufficiency, and smaller scale industries do not mean neglecting a global agenda. We need a global movement with at least three separate, yet integrated, goals. 1) A strengthening of the global polity through a gradual replacement of the UN with a global federation, or world government that can safeguard the needs and right of people and the environment. 2) The formation of self-sufficient, socio-economic regions of free and fair trade zones—that is, a global grid of sustainable and self-sufficient trading partners. 3) The development of a global movement rooted in a life-affirming vision of spirituality and oneness with all of creation.
Beyond Sustainable Development - towards a life-centred economy
Sarkar’s model urges us to move “beyond sustainable development” and natural capitalism toward a complete restructuring of the economy based on a spirit-centred vision of progress and economic prosperity. Progressive utilization theory advocates for a development model that is life-centred rather than matter-centred; one that grows from local communities, that is cooperative rather than competitive, one that shares wealth equitably, maintains harmony with the earth, protects local markets, vitalizes local cultures, and makes spirituality the defining context of progress.
Ramesh Bjonnes has a degree in agronomy. He has authored numerous articles on sustainable development issues and is a regular columnist for a Norwegian daily newspaper. Published with permission from the author. The book 'Growing A New Economy' will be available for sale online by December 2016.