The High-level Panel (HLP) report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda makes the observation that the MDGs “fell short by not integrating the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development as envisaged in the Millennium Declaration and by not addressing the need to promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production.” (Executive Summary P1). I agree with this analysis.
Although the HLP is right in drawing attention to this, I find that the report lacks an analysis of underlying cultural and moral patterns. It is important to realize that current major problems are a consequence of what our modern culture has considered its successes: progress, continuous economic growth, increasing welfare, technological and medical innovation, and the abundance of food. Only recently has it dawned on the ‘developed’ part of the world that this has been achieved at the expense of other nations, peoples and natural resources. And – to a certain degree – the emerging economies seem to be repeating the same mistakes.
To make the HLP’s proposals a success, a cultural paradigm shift is required. In this contribution, I will try to describe this paradigm shift in terms of the way humanity relates to physical and socio-cultural reality.
According to influential American Jewish thinker Abraham Heschel (1907-1972), human beings relate to reality in two ways, through `manipulation' and `appreciation’ . In the latter, the individual views his surroundings as things to accept, comprehend, appreciate or admire. In this view, nature contains a value in itself, and is more than just a resource for human use. In the case of manipulation, the individual views his surroundings as things to manipulate, control and utilize. The world is first and foremost a resource of raw materials and energy to be used by people in their search for security and the good life. The only bond between the individual and his surroundings is utility. This attitude ultimately leads to alienation from the environment and other people.
Scientific-technical control and development
The attitude Heschel identifies as ‘manipulation’ is closely related to the rise of modern science and technology, with its power to intervene in and control reality. Though this has brought much progress, the unrestricted pursuit of control over reality and use of natural resources, and ignoring the limits of these resources and the balance that is essential for the maintenance of ecosystems, form an important backdrop to the present crises of finance, food and fuel.
Mainstream thinking in development assistance can be said to have its roots in the same modernist view of development and progress, sharing the following characteristics:
- an emphasis on material economic growth and the dominant role of the market
- an unresolved tension between growth and sustainability
- an implicit underestimation of the essential role of culture and cultural differences in understanding human beings and society.
We need a cultural paradigm shift based on an understanding of reality that Heschel identified as ‘appreciation’. How can we promote this paradigm shift? Although there are no quick and simple solutions, several policy suggestions can be made, which should not be seen only as practical steps but interpreted and framed within this shift:
- The policies of governments, the private sector and NGOs should primarily be defined in terms of fundamental values, and not in terms of their useful effects (for whom?); e.g. instead of justice being a consequence of more economic growth, inclusive and sustainable growth will be the consequence of justice and stewardship.
- The many private initiatives for fair and sustainable consumption should be facilitated by governments, without taking them over.
- The policies of governments and the private sector should further the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a recycling economy as is manifest in, for instance, bio-economy, cradle-to-cradle thinking and eco-agriculture.
- The ‘backwardness’ in developing countries with respect to large-scale infrastructure (energy and agriculture) should be seen as an opportunity to establish more small scale local solutions;
- The international monetary system should be reformed; important elements of a new system include a financial transition tax and measures to counter tax evasion and tax havens.
Despite the current focus on sustainable development in proposals for the future development agenda, we therefore have to go further than this, in both developed and emerging economies. What we need is fundamental systemic change, starting with a cultural paradigm shift from utilizing, consuming and ‘manipulating’ our environment to valuing and ‘appreciating’ it.
 A.J. Heschel, Who Is Man? Stanford (CA) 1965: Stanford University Press.
Photo credit main picture: 'Recycle Reduce Reuse' by Kevin Dooley via Compfight