Communication for Sustainable Development

In the spirit of equality and prosperity

Sustainability isn't just about how we use scarce natural resources, says Evan Williams – one of the key speakers at Public Service Events' recent Sustainable Scotland conference – it's also about doing things differently to achieve a fairer, more balanced society

Sustainability is a much easier concept to describe than to achieve, which is why it came as something of a surprise when the UK government decided it no longer needed the advice of the Sustainable Development Commission.

It may be true that government has over the past few years become slightly less unsustainable than it was in the past. But it seems to me that we have only just started to understand what needs to be done.

Very simply sustainability is about doing things today in a way that does not harm the chances of future generations. It is easy to see how that might apply to the use of scarce resources or environmental carrying capacity, and it is easy enough to see how that might translate into economic constraints, the need to use public funds prudently and to maximise returns.

What concerns me is how we connect sustain- ability with social progress. And that has been the focus of the Scottish Sustainable Development Forum's thinking in recent months.

One of the very exciting things we have been able to do in the past two years is to publish the Scottish Green List. The list was set up to honour and recognise the commitment of people who make a difference to their communities through running local projects with volunteers or creating businesses with sustainability in mind.

The reality is that inequality, unemployment and disadvantage isn't just a problem for those people directly experiencing it. There is increasing evidence that more equal societies almost always do better (to borrow the subtitle of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's recent book The Spirit Level).

The spirit level argument is, in short, that in countries with the largest differential between the wealthy and the poor, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, obesity, mental problems, and even
teenage pregnancy occur more frequently, people have lower life expectancy and suicide rates are higher – not just for those at the lower end of the income scale.

In recent years we have done a good job of encouraging people to see the benefits of reducing energy use, cutting back on use of raw materials and reducing waste. We have done that in large part by an appeal to self-interest – it saves you money.

It seems now, more than ever, there is a similar appeal to self-interest in starting to tackle the worst excesses of social disadvantage in our communities. Doing so will improve the education, health and life chances of all of our children and bring benefits to all parts of society.

What is clear, though, is that creating a more sustainable society cannot be the job of markets – they just don't deliver those kinds of outcomes. And it can't just be the job of communities themselves, impressive though some of those initiatives are.

It really is the job of government at a local and national level to work towards a more sustainable society. In doing that work they need access to thoughtful analysis, innovation and vision, just the sort of things that the Sustainable Development Commission provides. As they used to say "if you think you can't afford education then you should try ignorance".

Evan Williams is chairman of the Scottish Sustainable Development Forum

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