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Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Daly and Meadows – better than a wedding cake

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I wrote yesterday about the Stockholm Resilience Centre's disappointing wedding cake model which attempts to create a convincing case for viewing the SDGs as a coherent whole.  I say disappointing because it fundamentally misrepresents the human society – human economy relationship when doing this.

The much earlier model put forward by Donella Meadows and Herman Daly makes a much better fist of this (although it does not mention the goals).  As Paul Vare and I write in our new book:

"... sustainable development can be almost as difficult to talk about as it is to carry out.  One way of thinking about it is in terms of the assets we draw on, and the technologies and institutions we use, to improve how we live: our civilisation and our wellbeing.  Herman Daly and Donella Meadows described this in terms of four capitals: natural, built, human and social.  This shows the relationship between our political economy and nature, and how all life, and the economic transactions that underpin it, are ultimately supported from within the biosphere. It also sets out the ends to which these are put.  ... "

Here is a view of the (far from perfect) model which is best read from the bottom up:

Wellbeing –

is the Ultimate End – happiness, fulfillment & enlightenment – to be achieved through ethics

Human and Social Capital –

are the Intermediate Ends – health & wealth knowledge, leisure & mobility, consumer goods – to be achieved through the political economy

Built and Human Capital –

are the Intermediate Means – Manufacturing & infrastructure work, tools & materials – to be achieved through science & technology

Natural Capital –

provides the Ultimate Means – solar energy, natural cycles and systems, biological resources & minerals

Fundamentally, supporting absolutely everything, are what Herman Daly called the ultimate means on which all life and economic and social transactions are based: natural capital.

This is energy from the sun, the Earth’s natural materials cycles and systems, all living things on the planet with their ecosystems and habitats and the genetic information they contain (including we humans), and all the minerals found in the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land.  Everything we do and make and know is based on this capital stock which Donella Meadows says is the heritage that we were born into, although we rarely treat it as such.

The intermediate means are what we use to process and convert natural capital to useful things.  These means include tools, machines and devices of all kinds, the factories, offices and systems in which they are used, and the skilled labour that people provide which is needed for all these.  As such, these also include schools, hospitals, transport systems, and much more.  They constitute our built and human capital.  These intermediate means set the limits for how wide-ranging an economy will be.  Such means are necessary if we are to realise what we want from life, but they are not sufficient to do this.  Managing these intermediate means is the concern of economics, social systems and politics; that is, the political economy.  We use this to value, distribute, and maintain resources across the societies in which we live.

Intermediate ends are different.  These are what governments promise us, and what economies are expected to deliver, if we work hard and/or are lucky enough: health, wealth, knowledge, leisure, and consumer goods and material things (stuff).

Although this is what everyone says they want, satisfaction is not always guaranteed.  This is the case even when our wants are delivered.  That is because intermediate ends are not ends in themselves, but instruments to achieve something yet higher – the ultimate ends of happiness and human fulfilment  – or so philosophers tell us.  In this view, what really ought to matter to us is beyond stuff, how we communicate, beyond even health and wealth.  In this view, all these are the means to wellbeing wherein lies true happiness, human fulfilment and enlightenment.  Clearly, not everyone shares this view of what life is all about.

Although this model (and what I have written) clearly shows its relevance to thinking about the SDGs (and vice versa).  If I have the energy, I'll try to make this more explicit in a new post.

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