Social Sustainability: How to change society and yourself?

Written by David de Winter and Erik-Jan van Oosten

In this short report the RUW Foundation team reflects on one of our recent activities; the ‘social sustainability workshop’. Together with Wageningen Environmental Platform we invited Paul Hendriksen, a sustainability expert from “de stroomversnellers” and a very active member of the Transition Town community (which is popping up everywhere in the Netherlands) to share his vision on the social dimension of sustainable transitions.

We know what sustainability is and what we need to do, so why haven’t we changed our lives yet?

Before the beginning of the workshop a short introduction by the two responsible organizations; RUW Foundation, and Wageningen Environmental Platform (WEP) was made. Some fun arose when we came to sharp conclusion that WEP “Walks the Walk” and RUW “Talks the Talk”, while Paul used to do both, but now doesn’t walk anymore since he was unfortunately bound to a chair because of a broken leg. Such tragedy :p. After the formal introductions Paul started his workshop with a small recap of the previous event. The central question, or “elephant in room”, he proposed in this lecture was the following: We know what sustainability is and what we need to do, so why haven’t we changed our lives yet?

social-sust1Paul answered this question by sketching the image of a golden cage; a golden cage of material wealth which is our society and which we imagine is inescapable. Living in this cage, to Paul, means giving up true freedom for a life that is comfortable, but constantly harassed by the necessity to pay for rents, cars, and other non-essential commodities. One might say that Paul, in this vision, differentiates not too much from another preacher of simple living; Henry David Thoreau. For the RUW team this is a fun coïncidence as we are now reading Thoreau’s most famous book, Walden, in the sustainability book club. However, Paul did seem to expand the individual freedom, prophesied by Thoreau, to include the freedom of working and and co-depending on one another in local communities,’ Small and Collaborative practice’ he says, is key to all successful transitions and sustainable progress. This part of his lecture we really liked, since he also made us do an exercise through which we could determine what our role was in these collaborative processes. Results of this exercise showed that we have lots of ‘dreamers’ in Wageningen, many planners and very little ‘do-ers’. Any do-ers out there? Wageningen clearly needs you!

 Maybe we will we all live a peaceful, anarchist lifestyle in small ecovillages in the near future..

As always at RUW, we feel the need to show you the flipside of the coin. Therefore, we think it is necessary to mention that Paul’s vision of a sustainable future revolves around the emergence of many, small, and decentralized communities. We agree with the idea that these communities create a quality of life that is richer and more sustainable than to life in the ‘golden cage’. However, it is questionable if this way of living is the final end-result of the question; what does a sustainable society look like? The world has become so human and interconnected that overlying structures of governance and law remain necessary to manage the bewildered beast that is modern day world society. Maybe we will we all live a peaceful, anarchist lifestyle in small ecovillages and tiny houses in the near future, but we think it is more likely that this will remain a niche development instead of the mainstream. We hope to see a patchwork of different sustainable modes of living that combine the local where needed and global where possible. This year we aim to explore the different visions on what a living within planetary boundaries might look like.

social-sust2The main question of Paul Hendriksen’s talk was “Why haven’t we changed towards a sustainable society yet?” It remains very hard to provide a precise answer but after this evening we can narrow this down to two components: individual barriers to change and systemic barriers to change. Yes, we live in a golden cage, Yes, we exploit natural resources to the point where our societies have become destructive, Yes, we need to change. But why we haven’t changed? As individuals, we don’t have the overview of our actions. It could be because it is in people nature to secure a future for themselves by focussing on the “here and now” instead of the “there and then”, could be that we have been enclosed in a vicious treadmill of production, maybe we are part of certain social practices and comfortable habits that inhibit us to create truly sustainable systems. It’s very hard to say which one, or which combination of factors, truly prevents us from being the change we want to see in this world. The answer might differ person to person. However, we do feel that Paul, with his plea for individual freedom within the context of sustainable community work strikes a deeper desire; a desire most of us carry in our underbelly. This was well-illustrated by the results of a thought-provoking visualization Paul made us participate in near the end of the workshop. Through this visualization we learned that most of us have a dream of a more sustainable, more democratic and more harmonic future tested in our deeper dwellings. Great! But alas, the question remains, what have we to do to actually make this happen? How bad do things have to get before we get to action? And if we get into action, where do we start? How does transitioning to a sustainable society work?

Stay in tune with the activities of RUW Foundation, because these are the type of questions we will explore in a diverse set of upcoming activities this academic year!

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