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Sustainable Well Being

Sustainable Development: “Well Being in the ‘here and now’, ‘later’ and ‘elsewhere’.

The industrialised world is going through a historical transformation. The current financial, economic and sovereign debt crises are a part of a deeper and longer-term structural crisis of the 20th century societal paradigm. The structural crisis marks the beginning of the end for the energy- and material-intensive mass-production and -consumption model that spread throughout the industrialised world during the past century. This economic model benefited from the opening of the world trade and the development of welfare state institutions which channelled resources to individuals with higher propensity to consume. They created new demand for the growing production capacity. However, the accumulating problems of this maturing societal model have become increasingly evident since the late 1960s when the baby-boomers first rebelled against the established values of industrialised societies.

The problems of the established societal paradigm stem from various sources, such as the accelerated structural change in national and local economies, ageing of population, unsustainable use of natural resources, changing skill requirements of new technologies, decision making and governance problems in the face of higher uncertainty and growing economic and regulatory complexity, changing values and demand patterns of citizens, as well as outdated institutional rules. These problems have made the current societal model of industrialised countries unsustainable economically, environmentally, socially, and in terms of individual well-being.

The accumulating problems of industrialised societies have reinforced the interest in sustainable development (SD). However, the current discourse on SD is still largely based on the work of the Brundtland Commission in the late 1980s. It defined SD as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Although the Commission offered no definition of needs, they did refer to basic material necessities, such as food, water, and shelter. In the subsequent SD work, this has led to an emphasis on economic and equity issues besides the environmental concerns. The lack of clear definition of needs has made the concept of SD rather difficult to implement in practice.

A more holistic understanding of human needs and well being can create new possibilities for more focused and effective SD policies. Today, many people feel that SD policies and sustainable life styles tend to restrict their freedom of choice and well-being. A broader perspective to human needs and well-being opens up new policy and behavioural options that can achieve the same sustainability benefits while maintaining or improving individual well-being. This is possible if the restrictions of individual freedoms and resource use are compensated by improvements in the other determinants of individual well-being. Such improvements in individual well-being can be an effective motivator for sustainable behaviour.

The traditional perspective to sustainable development emphasizes a society’s resilience against downside risks. If we open up this perspective to a more holistic view of well-being it leads to a more positive concept of sustainable well-being.

This new concept means that societies should aim to foster (all) well-being needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Thus, SD policies should build on a deep understanding of the various determinants of human well-being in the changing natural and socio-economic environment. Such policies require an intelligent balancing of the tradeoffs among the various determinants of well-being.

As a result, the traditional economic, social and ecological sustainability considerations of SD need to be supplemented with the subjective well-beingand responsibility of individuals. The last two dimensions must be included because (a) there are new well-being challenges in advanced societies and (b) sustainability cannot be reached without responsible behavioral changes.

The following Figure introduces the overall framework for our analysis by laying out the key elements of sustainable well-being. In this framework, the existing strength, interest & believe provides the foundation and absolute boundary conditions for all human activities. The economy and environment are only instruments, and the society an important resource and context, for pursuing well-being - the ultimate goal. The different parts of this framework interact and the sustainability problems typically stem from their contradictions and negative spillovers. These interactions can be seen, for example, in the powerful impacts of individual’s strategies and practices for well-being and the environment; or in the effects of choices, the environment, and the demand for public services.

Most of the sustainability problems are fairly well understood. There is also a growing consensus that ecological sustainability must receive a very high priority among the various sustainability challenges. However, there is much less consensus about the appropriate solutions to these challenges. Our objective is to identify and address different sustainability problems and attempt to integrate potential solutions to form a more holistic and coherent vision of a sustainable societal model. For example, the natural environment is often seen as something that lies outside of the economy, as something to which the economy sometimes “spills over” and creates “externalities”. Hence, decision making tends to rely on established, narrow, and reactive models which cannot provide sustainable and complementary solutions in the rapidly changing circumstances. This presentation is an attempt to take a more holistic perspective to the sustainability challenges and opportunities of advanced societies. In particular, to frame the analysis of the present crises from two new perspectives – the historical transformation and complexity of advanced societies.

The growing uncertainty, specialisation, interdependence, and complexity associated with current transformation has increased decision making problems at the level of individuals, organisations and societies. The old mental frames, social theories and decision making processes are often insufficient in the face of these new challenges. As a result, individuals are suffering from growing life management problems, organisations are turning away from hierarchical planning and experiment with new governance solutions, and governments are puzzled with the “wicked” sustainability problems and economic crises they have to deal with. The confusion of decision makers reduces their ability to take determined preventive action in the face of great sustainability problems. This is a big risk that can prove to be very costly for humanity.

The decision making problems are exacerbated by the reductionist worldview that has dominated industrialised societies since the Enlightenment. This view is often criticised for its “machine model” of the society which emphasises static, linear phenomena in the state of equilibrium. It tends to assume rational decision making and perfect information, seeks universal laws and theories, focuses on individual agents, issues and levels of analysis (atoms, diseases, problems, individuals, firms, states, etc.), and believes in planning and top-down control. The reductionist worldview tends to be instrumental and often forgets about the ultimate goals of a system’s activities. The critics argue that such a narrowly focused analysis does not fit very well with many complex problems of today’s highly uncertain and interdependent societies. In particular, it is not able to capture the important interactions, spillovers, feedback loops, and the emergent and non-linear processes among their various actors.

The critique of the reductionist worldview has sparked many interesting fields of research that have adopted more realistic assumptions of human and natural systems. One of the most interesting of these is the complex systems approach. It provides a new holistic, evolutionary, and multi-level perspective to how advanced economies and societies work. This perspective emphasises the uncertain and emergent nature of social systems and phenomena. It focuses on non-linear and self-organising processes that are far from equilibrium, path-dependent, and fundamentally unpredictable. In complex systems, novelty arises from the evolutionary process of experimentation, selection and growth. Micro-level behaviour at one analytical level can accumulate into macro-level consequences at higher systemic levels. Complex systems can be found at different analytical levels, such as climate systems, societies, economies, financial markets, human beings, and organs.