Futureproofing Europe

26. February, 2008

Foto: Rita Ruduša

Today, many people use money they do not have to buy things they do not need to impress people they do not like. That, in brief, is the current consumption pattern.

An interview with Dr. Joachim H. Spangenberg, head of socio-economics in, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, by Rita Rudusa

Sustainable development was first defined in 1987 by the Brundtland Report[1] as a ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ What has changed in the last 20 years in terms of understanding and perception of what sustainable development means?

The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as a kind of reconciliation of two earlier debates. One was the environmental debate in the North and another, the development debate in the South. They often were at odds with each other, but the Brundtland Commission insisted that they could fit together. Being influenced by their background people from the North perceived the Brundtland Report as something about the environment and people from the South perceived it as something about development. When I took part in the Rio Conference[2] I saw people who were very dedicated to collaboration, but did not understand each other simply because they had different agendas. I think what has improved in the recent years is the understanding that environment is an issue for everybody, for poor and rich countries alike, and that social justice is also an issue for all countries. We see now that these things affect everybody and must be solved together. We are beginning to understand what sustainability means in practical terms.

But growth and environment are still at odds sometimes, are they not?

Economic growth is a wrong measure for progress, because economic growth describes one element of societal progress but no the most decisive one. If you are poor, you need growth. Fine. But once you have reached a certain level then it is not a key concern. Then health, healthy environment, social relationships become more important. Let me illustrate it with an example. When the Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans it was a social catastrophe for people who suffered from it, but it also meant an increase in US GDP. It was an element of growth, because there was an immediate need for action, for repairs, for investment in rebuilding and so forth, which increased growth. So, growth does not measure whether we are better off, because then you could say that we need more catastrophes like Katrina. There is more to progress than GDP growth.

It is nevertheless very tempting to present nice figures of growth as the ultimate sign of progress.

Everything in nature grows to a certain limit and then other qualities develop, a fruit ripens. Growth is just about quantity, not quality. In medicine, the only thing that is growing without any limit is cancer. So, you could present growing cancer as a measure of growth. And that is not very healthy, is it? So what we need to talk about is how to futureproof our society and our economy. For example, we can see that there will be shocks in the future. One of them will be the peak oil shock[3], another shock will be the lack of biodiversity impeding on certain ecosystems, another shock maybe another big storm. There will be a pandemic of a disease, the World Health Organization is absolutely certain it will happen within next 50 years, but the problem is we do not know what disease, where and when. All these things will happen, we know they will. The future is full of surprises.

How do you make governments realize that? Shortly before his resignation, the previous Latvian Prime Minister, Aigars Kalvitis, said that the years he had been in power were the best Latvia has ever experienced because of the double-digit growth. It was largely driven by consumption, yet it was presented as a big success.

Good politics and good sustainable economy should be shockproof. And in this respect resilience of the economy is a very important element, much more so than the growth rate. The growth rate tells you something about today as compared to yesterday, but it does not tell you anything about the future. If you talk about sustainable economy then the growth rate is a rather marginal thing.

The problem is that people sometimes do not look beyond the horizon. Growth rate fed by consumption could be compared to selling all the valuables in your house. You think you are getting richer by selling things but you end up in an empty house with no heating and you are sitting in the rain because you have sold your roof. Yes, you may have a lot of money in your bank account but it will not take you very far if you have nothing else. So that is exactly what we are doing when we are selling out just in order to increase the figures of growth. I am not saying that income is not important, it is. You have to have a dignified life. But income cannot be an overarching goal, because that leads to a very shortsighted policy, which makes you vulnerable to external shocks and in the end leads to a decrease in standards of living.

Would you say that the EU Sustainable Development Strategy[4] prepares the EU for these future shocks?

The current Strategy is a significant step in the right direction. What is missing there is a bit more emphasis on biodiversity, a bit more emphasis on consumption and production and a bit more emphasis on economic sustainability. However, in the meantime we have a [European Commission] Communication on Biodiversity[5], which is filling that gap, they are also developing an action plan on sustainable production. What is still open is the issue of what makes economic sustainability. I think they are making progress and, as far as I can see, this is the best strategy in the world with good implementation programs.

So, the Strategy is there and so are the mechanisms for putting it into practice. But it is up to the member countries whether they comply or not?

It is an agreement that the member countries should implement. The countries, each and every one of them, have to report on an annual basis to the Commission how they implement the European Strategy. This is a fantastic mechanism because all reports are public. You can read them on the Internet and see which countries have failed. But you can also read through the experience and policies of other countries. I have just read the Austrian, the Dutch, the German and a few other reports and they all have very original ideas on how to put the Strategy into practice. If you read it you will feel inspired and think, oh, yes, we can use it in our country. You have an enormous pool on things you can use in your domestic policies to be more creative and innovative in the policy process. You can be inspired by what you see around you, which is what the European Union is good for.

And, secondly, certain things in the Strategy are later included in European directives, which make them legally binding. And there is an obligation you cannot escape. But I think that every nation would be better off not waiting till it becomes a legally binding directive, but to see how we can have our own comprehensive approach to make the most possible benefit out of that for our country.

For that you need to have a political will. Which is something that is lacking in our country, where the growth is perceived as the ultimate measure of progress. How do you make the government see the need for sustainability?

What we need is not a political will, what we need is an insight, in other words, a lack of stupidity. Ten years ago there were discussions about good will and things like that, but now we know climate change is a reality, we know there will be the peak oil. Some recent surveys in the UK claimed that the peak oil has already happened, in 2006. That means if we do not restructure our economies now we are going to suffer significantly in the future. The question is not whether we wish to adapt to a new development paradigm, the only question is whether we do it in a systematic fashion and avoid pain and hardship for the population or we do it by force in twenty years time in a very costly and very painful manner. The only thing I demand from politicians is to take the responsibility for the population so seriously that they choose the least painful way and that means going to sustainability now, socially, economically, environmentally.

When it comes to sustainability is leapfrogging possible? Can the new EU member states skip the mistakes made by the old ones and start thinking in sustainable terms?

If I would be a little impolite I would say that it is a bit too late to ask this question. The Baltic countries have invested some energy in combining the worst sides of the Soviet system with the worst sides of the modern EU. I mean the worst of the Soviet system in terms of the economy, namely, the lack of efficiency, the enormous waste of resources with a very little outcome. For what it takes to build a car in the Western Europe, you could only make one wheel in the Soviet block. On the other hand, you have a Western-style consumption pattern, mobility pattern, having more cars, having bigger cars and so on. Just let me give you an example about the inefficiency of cars. Take a standard Western European car: you take ten tons of material to produce an object that weighs 1.4 tons, which is used to transport 100 kilograms of human beings. You drive 80% of the time in cities and in cities and, due to traffic jams, you have an average speed of 15 kilometers an hour, which is two kilometers less than the speed of horse a carriage a hundred years ago. 50% of all distances covered are less than one kilometer, so it can be done faster on foot. This is the efficient use of a car! We use it for three months and then we throw it away. Only about 1.5% of it can be recycled. You may wonder where does the figure of thee months come from. It is simple: in Germany, a car is usually used for 12 years, for 29 minutes a day, over the lifetime it comes to three months, not more. For that you pay 20 000 euros. If that is the best engineering can do, good night! You cannot explain why would anybody waste such an enormous amount of resources and money on a thing, which is so little used. And then it suddenly becomes some kind of a status symbol when you are not even using the car for its services; it is just standing there to impress people.

Today, many people use money they do not have to buy things they do not need to impress people they do not like. So that, in brief, is the current consumption pattern. And the question is, is it really necessary? I am much more relaxed if I do not need to buy a big car and can spend the money on either going to the cinema or having a beer in a pub with my friends. The question really is what are your criteria for the quality of life. Is a posh house a criterion? You build it outside the city destroying ecosystems; you commute for two hours every day. Is that the quality of life? I do not think so. I think standing in a traffic jam is not the most fulfilling way to spend my time.

Yes, but you can see where this greediness comes from. People are trying to compensate for all the things they did not have and did not own in the Soviet days. Coming from the Soviet Union with almost zero consumption you turn into a super-consumer, you need a bigger car, a bigger house, more expensive holidays etc. What needs to happen for this super-consumer to stop and think about the cost of his consumerism?

What I would suggest to Latvians is just to become ordinary people, to shake off their Soviet past. The interesting thing is that the social communication, social structure, consumption patterns, infrastructure, housing, all of it is shaped by the Soviet past in two different ways. On the one hand, some Soviet habits are still alive. The service in some shops is still Soviet-style; administration procedures are still similar to the Soviet ones. Much of the other things at the first glance seem to have nothing to do with the Soviet period, but they are defined by it. You had no possibility to consume, so you turn into super-consumers; there was no nationalism allowed in the Soviet Union, so now you are nationalists. Some of the things that are rather unpleasant for an outsider in Latvia are just a reaction to the Soviet past by doing the opposite. But by doing the opposite you are driven by the past and you are not independent, not free, but still determined by the Soviet era. Relax, do not try to prove you are different from the Soviets, and just try to prove who you are and what you are like.


[1] In 1987, the Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future, alerted the world to the urgency of making progress towards economic development that could be sustained without depleting natural resources or harming the environment. Published by an international group of politicians, civil servants and experts on the environment and development, the report provided a key statement on sustainable development. Encyclopedia of Sustainable Development,

[2] UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 1992

[3] Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum production is reached, after which the rate of production enters decline.

[4] Renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy, 2006,
[5] Halting the loss of Biodiversity by 2010 – and beyond: Sustaining ecosystem services for human well-being, raksts

Creative commons licence allows you to republish the content for free, with no change or improvement. Reference to the author and providus.Lv is required. Please support us with your donation!