Most people agree that “sustainability” is a good thing – and that we should try to make our societies more sustainable rather than less. But what does that mean in practice? What would a “sustainable” society actually look like? There are so many different visions of the future that our constant references to “sustainability” disguise the basic political conflict at the heart of the concept: what the values and goals of a sustainable future should actually be.1
The mainstream definition of sustainability – espoused by centrist political parties, businesses and most international organizations – centres around “inclusive” and “green” economic growth. In this understanding, economic growth can be decoupled from resource use and emissions via technology, without substantially altering basic economic and social structures such as capitalist labour markets and consumerist culture.
“ Inclusive green growth” does not challenge the consumerist lifestyle of the Global North – in fact it aims precisely to sustain it in face of ecological demands, while extending it to the Global South.”
This mainstream version of sustainability still puts “economic growth” as the overriding political objective of society – despite a growing body of evidence that mere GDP growth does not necessarily increase – and in many cases even undermines – human well-being. Moreover, it largely maintains existing hierarchical modes of production, such as the power of employers vis-à-vis workers and the power of investors to direct the system. “Inclusive green growth” does not challenge the productivist-consumerist lifestyle of the Global North – in fact it aims precisely to sustain it in face of ecological demands, while extending it to the Global South.
A new eco-social contract beyond productivism
However, heterodox academics and social movements have suggested an alternative version of sustainability, which involves a deeper “social-ecological transformation”. This more radical perspective seeks to replace growth-based models of development, rather than merely making growth more efficient, inclusive and sustainable. Instead of economic growth, the goal becomes that of sustaining human rights and well-being within ecological limits.
Abandoning – rather than “greening” – growth entails a profound transformation not only of the economy but also of culture, values, behaviours and habits. The aim is to build a just society that guarantees the opportunity for all to flourish, while respecting environmental boundaries by reducing material production and consumption in the Global North.
Thus, while green-growth aims to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, the goal of the social-ecological transformation is to decouple social progress – well-being, justice, and democracy – from economic growth.
One central way to achieve this is to redefine “work”, rejecting its capitalist identification with paid employment – which often has negative consequences both for the environment and for human wellbeing/rights. Following feminist perspectives, work can be reframed as “taking care” – of people, communities and the planet. This would reorient the whole economic system away from commodity production and monetary value, instead prioritising “social reproduction” over profits-led production.
A utopia or a realistic necessity?
These two versions of sustainability offer profoundly different visions of the future. Under “inclusive green growth”, the future is just a slightly more efficient version of the present – with free markets, consumerism and the profit motive surviving essentially unchanged. In contrast, a social-ecological transformation would demand exactly that: a transformation, a true rupture from the orthodoxies of the present day.
Perhaps for this reason, inclusive green-growth is considered “pragmatic”, while social-ecological transformation is dismissed as unrealistic and utopian. Even some people who agree that a social-ecological transformation would better promote well-being and sustainability still argue that a post-growth society is an unrealizable ideal.
However, the “realistic” approach of inclusive green growth may in fact be radically insufficient to tackle the profound challenges of our time. A growing body of evidence suggests that it is simply not possible to prioritise economic growth without destroying nature, meaning green-growth is largely incapable of solving the ecological crisis. If the “pragmatic” solution simply doesn’t work, then it ceases to be both pragmatic and a solution.
“ To address the multiple crises of our time, we need to do more than just better manage our current systems. Instead we need to recover our capacity to imagine radical alternatives to the status quo.”
Could it be that the “utopian” approach of transformation is actually the most pragmatic? While it is physically impossible to promote endless economic growth – no matter how green – on a finite planet, it is possible to design an economy that satisfies people’s needs and rights within ecological limits.
Imagining the end of capitalism
Post-productivism is “utopian” in the sense that, instead of extrapolating the future from the present, it involves thinking “first about where we want to be, and then about how we might get there” (Levitas 2001: 450).
However, to address the multiple crises of our time, we need to do more than just better manage our current systems. Instead we need to recover our capacity to imagine radical alternatives to the status quo, rejecting any “realism” that insists that growth-dependent capitalism is the only way of organizing the economy.
This utopian approach not only helps to realistically respond to social-ecological emergencies; it is also more democratic. “Pragmatic” approaches tend to limit the choice of possible futures to those that largely resemble the present. However, democratic societies should be able to recognise their own contingency, allowing their citizens to choose among different possible futures – including those radically different from the present.
However, it is important to recognise that “inclusive green-growth” is not a stage on the path towards a social-ecological transformation. In fact, in some areas (e.g. the emphasis on productive employment to bring about social inclusion), inclusive green-growth is diametrically opposed to social-ecological transformation.
Hence, any reforms that largely seek to preserve the current system are insufficient. Instead, we need “revolutionary reforms” (André Gorz), which explore not what is currently possible within a given system, but with what should be made possible for realizing human rights, global justice, wellbeing and democracy within ecological limits.
The risk of utopianism is that it can appear useless for guiding policies in the immediate present. If deep structural reforms appear unrealizable they may lose appeal and political support. In contrast, more pragmatic steps that incrementally improve the status quo (e.g. promoting decent work) are easier to imagine and thus easier to support.
Yet, progressive forces should not be too scared by the “necessary-utopianism” dilemma. We should continue struggling to promote justice, democracy, and sustainability within the current system, while simultaneously refusing to accept that system as the best (or the only) one possible – and thus fighting to overcome it.
- Francesco Laruffa (PhD) is affiliated at the Universities of Bremen (SOCIUM) and Kassel (International Center for Development and Decent Work and Global Partnership Network) thanks to a Fellowship of the Swiss National Science Foundation. His current research project focuses on rethinking work and welfare for a socio-ecological transformation.
This blog entry draws significantly from the following publication: Francesco Laruffa (2022) "The dilemma of “sustainable welfare” and the problem of the future in capacitating social policy", Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 18:1, 822-836
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