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How to reach ecologically sustainable welfare societies

There is growing evidence that Western welfare standards are not generalizable to the rest of the planet if environmental concerns, such as resource depletion or climate change, are considered. A new interdisciplinary anthology by researchers from Lund University raises the question of what is required to make welfare societies ecologically sustainable.
Oksana Mont

Oksana Mont, professor at The International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, Lund University and one of the authors of the anthology Sustainability and the Poltical Economy of Welfare tells us more about the concept of Sustainable Welfare.

What does Sustainable welfare mean?

By sustainable welfare we mean welfare societies that are also ecologically sustainable. What we came to label ‘sustainable welfare’ calls for systematic explorations of potential solutions at the crossroads of sustainability science, welfare research and economic and policy strategies.

Is it possible to make welfare societies ecologically sustainable?

The book explores alternative pathways to a more sustainable society where well-being, justice and socio-economic stability can be secured for all, now and in future, and within the ecological limits of a finite planet. So ecologically sustainable welfare society is a journey, not a destination.

How can we balance the global income growth and the rising material standards of living, with the associated increased production and consumption, with an ecologically sustainable society and planet?

Economic models are taking a first step at figuring out how the balance could be found. One of the most advanced economic models in which the three parameters – employment, the environment and well-being – are analysed together while considering different assumptions about economic growth was developed by Peter Viktor (2008).

Viktor examined how the Canadian economy could be sustained with a low- or no-growth scenario up to 2035. In addition to analysing economic parameters, Viktor also modelled environmental impacts and social factors, including employment. The ‘business as usual’ scenario assumed economic growth of 2 to 3 per cent per year and this model resulted in persistent unemployment and increasing environmental impacts.

In a ‘disaster’ scenario, reduced investment and lower productivity were assumed, which led to the almost complete ending of growth, resulting in severe unemployment and growing poverty and governmental debt. In an alternative scenario with a slow increase in productivity, coupled with shorter working hours and an active redistribution policy, the model showed that the economy could still develop with slow income growth, reduced unemployment and public debt. Even though emissions would increase, they could be suppressed by a CO2 tax.

Using Viktor’s model, Michael Malmaeus made calculations for the Swedish economy for the period of 2005 to 2035 (Malmaeus, 2011). During this period, economic growth was projected to increase by 170 per cent. Similar to Viktor’s modelling exercise, one scenario showed that it was possible to maintain economic stability with a very small growth rate over the 30-year period: GDP would increase by 30 per cent and private consumption by 20 per cent. The critical factor in this scenario was the reduction of work volume by 65 per cent compared to the current level.

What are the main obstacles to the achievement of sustainable welfare and wellbeing?

The chapters of this volume have diagnosed and detailed the numerous challenges that contemporary welfare systems are facing and studied the kind of changes in mind-sets, institutional settings, theoretical underpinnings and practices, and processes and actor compositions that could facilitate a transition towards sustainable welfare.

What are the lessons to be learned from your book and for whom? 

The contribution of this book is threefold:

First, as an ‘academic’ contribution in the narrow sense, it offers a kaleidoscope of views and proposals for how welfare and sustainability concepts, policies and practices could be integrated to advance the new research field of ‘sustainable welfare’.

Second, it contributes towards the sketching of the outlines of potential solutions to the real-life challenges represented by the multiple crises that real-world societies are facing.

Third, this volume illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary approaches for addressing complex eco-social problems.


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