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News, 10/8/2009

Book review: Towards a sustainable future with the help of class struggle?

The concept of class is back or that is my first glance impression of Sustainable Futures. A closer examination reveals that this time the question is not about Marxism or Suffragettes, but the thread of this book is an effort to outline three cultural classes in terms of consumption and environmental damage: Over-Consuming Class, Sustainable Class and Struggling Class, and to explore new ways that would be conducive to sustainable development all over the world.

Elements for Discussion: Sustainable FuturesSustainable Futures – Replacing Growth Imperative and Hierarchies with Sustainable Ways is the outcome of a project commissioned by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and carried out by the Coalition for Environment and Development (CED), an activist research group. The book has been edited by free lance researchers Marko Ulvila and Jarna Pasanen.

According to the writers, sustainable culture comprises two principles: environmental sustainability (pollution and resource use) and human dignity (fulfillment of basic material human needs plus socio-cultural needs such as respect and freedom). The root causes of unsustainability are the growth imperative (belief in constant economic growth) and hierarchical structures (rich/poor, men/women, social classes). The last two factors are highly interconnected and contribute to the false consciousness of conspicuous consumption as something to reach for.

The common measure of economic growth is GDP and the book aims to show its inadequacy, since a vast array of economic processes is excluded from that system. As concerns hierarchies, the book shows how existing hierarchies support inequality, poverty or gender discrimination and in this way support unsustainability. Hierarchical structures guarantee that power is reserved for the rich and devalue the economic production and lifestyles of the marginalized..

The book consists of three parts: (1) study of cultures based on three consuming classes; (2) dialogues from the workshops which were conducted on the basis of the project in six countries; and (3) a selection of the full texts of the commissioned papers and summaries of or excerpts from other papers.

False consciousness of consumption under the microscope

To measure the sustainability of different cultures and countries, the writers used four sets of data: Ecological Footprint and Human Development Index (GDP plus life expectancy and adult literacy) together, Happy Planet Index (self reported satisfaction for life) and Environmental Performance Index (environment’s health, ecosystems’ vitality in given country).

On the basis of these assessments and via cross tabulating the results of various countries, a very different picture emerges. According to the findings, countries like Colombia, Cuba or Sri Lanka measure very high on the scale when considering sustainable lifestyles. On the other hand Scandinavian countries, which would rate high on the Environmental Performance Index, are left far behind in all the other assessments.

The results can, of course, be contested but as the researchers state “the discussions (...) should be primarily seen as an invitation for further work on and debates about the criteria and methods used for assessing countries in the context of sustainable culture.”

Towards sustainability with holistic economy and equality

As already stated, the researchers question the growth imperative because wealth is distributed unequally: the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Destruction of the environment and displacement of millions of people on the way of development are also repercussions of economic growth. It is also well known that economic growth doesn’t add to people’s life satisfaction.

One alternative to the formal monetary economy is a holistic approach, which takes into account the informal economy (household production, flea markets) as well. Another solution is to apply the principle of human dignity for all and environmental sustainability as primary objectives of economic activity. From the point of view of the consuming classes this would mean the following:

  • Over-consuming class → degrowth
  • Sustainable class → steady state economy
  • Struggling class → empowerment

The writers present five different hierarchies – gender, ethnic traits, economic class, scientific knowledge and technology and species and argue that they all contribute to inequality.

As far as gender and ethnic traits are concerned, the writers recommend pursuit of positive action, such as empowerment of women. One striking aspect of the three consumption classes was gender variations. When 2/3 of the over-consuming class are male, 2/3 of those representing the struggling class are women. Therefore one challenge is men and their position, masculinity and its manifestations.

The response to the question of economic hierarchies is to limit the size of big companies. This is also highly justified because of the recent economic crisis worsened by the collapse of gigantic companies. In the field of technology, the solution is availability, openness, sharing and pursuit of the common good as already happens in the form of public libraries and open source software. “Otherwise, a great deal of public research and development spending will go to the technologies that will be patented by private entities, in practice blocking the wide dissemination of the new technology”, as the writers express their worry.

Species hierarchy, on the other hand, would be contested by reversing the trend of abuse of animals and nature. Instead, the relationship should be that of respect and care.   

Democracy is the only way to sustainability

Even though often contested, the writers seem unanimous about the role of democracy in the development of sustainable ways of living. They seem very optimistic about the change in general and compare the possibility of cultural transformation with religious awakening or revolution. Learning from indigenous peoples is also crucial.

Two scenarios for cultural change are presented. One is that cultural change can happen by itself when the time is right for the change. The other scenario emphasizes class struggle in which the classes that have the most to gain from transfer to sustainable cultures will rise up and enforce the necessary changes.

In the case of the latter scenario, the writers strongly emphasize the role of popular movements of the sustainable and struggling classes and gathering places for these movements such as the World Social Forum. According to the writers, this kind of non-hierarchical, non-violent forum supports the values which are addressed in this book.

Dialogues from the grassroots level portray concern about environment’s state

The second part of the book is an excellent survey of the thoughts of many all over the world. It reveals concern about development and disappearance of traditional ways. The book shows that especially in Africa there is a great deal of bitterness and suspicion towards the West, and towards colonialism.  

The third part of the book gives insights into the situation “on the field”. This part consists of dialogues presenting the reality of the poor, sustainable lifestyles of indigenous peoples and development of overconsumption in the western world. For those who are not familiar with anthropological knowledge of cultures and peoples and the many dilemmas development brings, this part is recommended reading.

To sum up, Sustainable Futures gives something to talk about, think about and change in one’s everyday life. The topic of environmental sustainability is huge and this book can address only a handful of the problems connected to it, but it addresses the ones everyone can change in their everyday actions.

The key message of the book is that societies at large have to change; sustainability cannot be left on the shoulders of a few conscientious environmentalists. As the wise men all over the world have said for centuries: “everything is connected”, “what you do to the web (of life) you do to yourself”. So the book suggests: be mindful, take action.

Hanna Ovaskainen

Sustainable Futures – Replacing Growth Imperative and Hierarchies with Sustainable Ways

The book can be ordered free of charge from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (, tel. +358 9 1605 637, fax +358 9 1605 6375). It is also available in PDF-format


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