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Image credit: from cover of FOEE Booklet

Beyond the gospel of eco-efficiency

The Sustainable Development Goals, a new global social contract among nations, offer a unique opportunity to move to an integrated, universally relevant, and potentially transformative global development agenda. Trade-offs among various SDGs are unavoidable. Following the principles of sustainable consumption and production, is the most efficient strategy to avoid trade-offs and create synergies.

If we are sincere in our aspirations of delivering the SDGs we have all committed to—such as the eradication of poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy for all, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities, fighting climate change, and restoring and protecting life below water and on land—then introducing resource sufficiency questions in our academic and policy debates is necessary and relevant.

This should become an important part of the political discussion leading to more responsible policy-making without prejudice and fear.

‘It does not help to walk faster, if we are walking in the wrong direction’.

“In the period 1970-2010 consumption has been a stronger driver of material use than population growth at the global level, and the richest countries still today consume on average ten times more materials than the poorest.”  ~ Janez Potočnik (Co-chair of the International Resource Panel)

The above  text is an extract from the Foreword to: ‘Sufficiency: moving beyond the Gospel of eco-efficiency’, a booklet which forms the content of a Webinar Seminar  being organised by Friends of the Earth Europe http://www.foeeurope.org/sufficiency  which  takes place in Brussels on Tuesday June 5th  starting at 2.00pm.  It is possible to register for this webinar here:    Registration Link for Webinar FOEE Seminar 5th June

Some pointers taken from the text of this booklet (which is really thought provoking as well as a potential valuable initiator of ‘new ways of doing’) are included below.


Thirty years ago, in 1987, the World Commission for Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission) defined Sustainable Development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

It contains within it two key concepts:

  1. The concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given, and
  2. The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs. Today we would call the latter safeguarding the provision of ecosystem services.

Justice within and between generations and social groups is at the core of it; this, and the two core principles of needs satisfaction and limitations are irreconcilable with neoliberal policies.  Little wonder then that decision makers in politics and business love to quote the first sentence, but shy away from the second part of the definition.

For development to be sustainable, we need to create wealth and quality of life, or a ‘sufficient psychic income’ from the resources we can fairly and sustainably use. (Quality of life includes good remunerated work, and acknowledgment of unpaid (caring) work, plus gender equality in both).


Voluntary simplicity, sometimes called “individual sufficiency”, means consuming less, consuming only “enough” goods-and services rather than unsustainable amounts (e.g. pullover instead of room-heating, bicycle instead of car, eating less meat and vacationing locally). However, also this behavioural change does not necessarily lead to less resource consumption or pollution: other consumers are able to take up the slack because of the fall in prices that  results from the lower demand by consumers who have newly decided to consume less. As long as supply continues at the somewhat lower price, what I voluntarily no longer consume is demanded by my neighbours, or people in poorer countries, or newly-born people.


Structural change means not consuming less but consuming differently: using one’s unreduced purchasing power on goods or services believed to have less environmental impact per dollar than other goods. Buy a painting instead of a plane trip, buy local instead of transported produce. This strategy most likely doesn’t work either. The hitch is that the artist from whom I buy the painting can then buy the plane ticket I didn’t buy. Furthermore, seen empirically, within economies where structural change has in fact occurred in the form of a transition to economic sectors seen as more labour intensive rather than material/energy-intensive, instead of a reduction, we see an increase in material/energy throughput.


Obstacles to reach sustainable and just resource use.  Despite many international policy processes, there is no consensus on what constitutes effective sustainable and fair consumption and production.  Current policies fail to address the problem, since those addressing resource use only focus on achieving higher efficiency. However, economic growth will relentlessly outstrip efficiency gains, meaning a total rise in resource use and a failure to address scarcity and the accompanying social and environmental problems.


The positive

Fortunately countless people have already started on such transition paths by, for example, engaging in local food cooperatives or public gardening, provisioning services with explicit sustainable character, participating in neighbourhood centres, and joining alternative currency schemes. They constitute development projects out of which a sustainable global future will grow and inspire a new narrative, where a feeling of contentment builds the mental and emotional models for experiencing a good life for everyone, and where caring and responsibility, instead of individual self-interest and consumerism, are the underlying values.

Intentional communities such as eco-villages are ranking high on the sustainability scale and they are recognised as a valid possibility to de-materialise individual and community lifestyles.

As part of voluntary simplicity, intentional communities are built on the free choice (rather than economic necessity) to limit expenditures on consumer goods and services. They aim to cultivate non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. Simplifying, self-provisioning and slowing down production as well as consumption processes are common characteristics of intentional communities.

Four structural elements appear as important: optimization and resource sharing, reliance on regional products, closing cycles, and responsibility.

This holds true also beyond the sphere of intentional communities.  Promoting sustainability by means of localized lifestyles is important for setting examples, for instance in energy production and consumption, food, and housing.

Read full text of booklet  SUFFICIENCY: Moving Beyond the Gospel of Eco-efficiency by FOEE

You can also register at the Webinar using the link earlier in the text – Seminar lasts for and hour and a half  and includes a Q & A Session at the end.



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