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Seeking A Sustainable Alternative

Discussion points from Ewa Charkiewicz, on possibilities for using Sustainable Development as an available and institutionalised route towards alternative visions.

1. Alternative vision
There has been much disappointment about how the notion of sustainable development has been re-framed into a project of ecological modernisation. But at the same time, sustainable development is one of the few already established footholds that provide resources to oppose neoliberal economic globalisation.
Neoliberal discourse governs by excluding and delegitimising any talk on alternatives. Alternatives are shown as mutually exclusive opposition to globalisation and dismissed as a return to local closed markets and traditional communities. But Sustainable Development provides an available and institutionalised route towards alternatives.
2. Ecological modernisers
If sustainable development is such a contested concept, change the terms and focus to Sustainable Production and Consumption, SP&C. SP&C are the core of sustainable development and have already acquired institutional footholds. The focus on means or tools for change make it more coherent and manageable, allowing it to escape the "amoeba-like" diffused and contested meanings of sustainable development. While still burdened by connotations of technocratic global ecology, the concept also embraces alternative policy and action tools that are a counterweight to technocratic eco-efficiency approaches. The SP&C toolkit includes policy and strategies for sustainable products, fair trade, local markets, "civilising" global product chains, and such goodies on the agendas of environmental governance as precautionary principle, company reporting, extended producer responsibility, environmental footprints.

Since debates on SP&C link it with reduction of poverty and improved quality of life, it has the potential to integrate social, environmental, and political dimensions of sustainability that have been separated from each other with the neo-liberal turn in governance. In the Southern contexts SP&C is talked about as anti-poverty livelihoods strategy to hedge local communities against the risks and volatilities of global economy.

(3) North vs South.
The paradoxical metaphor of the (rich) North and the (poor) South persists in both mainstream and critical debate. The neo-liberals promise that the South will one day become like the North, and debates on globalisation follow in the colonial, ethnocentric footprints of (under)development discourse.
One of the ways to challenge the Washington consensus, economic liberalism, unfettered economic growth, etc. is not only to deconstruct unequal relationships with the South, but also to deconstruct the North.
First it should be limited to North/West. Despite appearances, for the majority of East Europeans, every day life is closer to that of developing countries than to the media-projected affluence of the West. In the last decade the highest increases in poverty have been in Africa and in the transition economies of the former second world, which have now become a part of the global South.
The global South has even extended into the North/West. Alternative indicators designed to measure quality of life show that real income poverty and time poverty have increased in the North Western countries, in particular in the former working class/new service class, and also among the former middle class. The quality of life would have decline further, if not for the increase in household indebtedness (consumer credit) and entry of women into the labour market (Schor, Segal, Rowbotham, ISEW of Cobb & Daly, United for Fair Economy, and others).
The loss of security, and the new costs, unexperienced by previous generation, eg. the costs of education which has been increasingly privatised put additional pressure on household budgets. The restructuring of the North West, has taken its toll on perceptions of well-being and resulted with psycho-social stress of globalisation and accelerating and profound changes in work arrangements, means of generating income, social status, gender relations, etc. The psycho-social costs of global restructuring include the rise of domestic violence and violence at work. While these experiences are shared by almost all societies worldwide, the "North/West" has its problems unnamed and unchallenged. Declining material quality of consumption, including the decline in the durability of goods, is masked by new consumer aesthetics and symbolic projections of quality and the ever increasing supply of seemingly new cheap consumer products manufactured in distant and local "global souths." According to neo-liberal global contract, the social and environmental costs of consumption are disproportionately transferred the to the South.

4. Gender and governance
Environmental and ecological economists locate the roots of ecological crises in the assumptions of neo-classical economics that do not take environmental costs of production and consumption into account. Feminists, including DAWN members, unpacked the concepts of free markets to show how macro-economic policies, markets and households are gendered and gender biased, and how social and environmental costs of consumption, production and reproduction are disproportionately transferred to women.
To make these costs visible, feminists developed the concepts of reproductive or care economy (women's unpaid work in reproduction of labor, caring for children, sick, disabled, and elderly family members, household work). The extent the monetary economy depends on the care/reproductive economy parallels its dependence on the subsistence economy and nature's economy.
The care economy plays a buffer role, absorbing and mitigating the costs of structural adjustment and the risks of financial crises and global economic volatility. This buffer function is over-stretched, so is the regenerative capacity of ecosystems. Rents and profits are not only derived from acceleration of production and consumption, and from externalising environmental costs of production and consumption, but also because the social costs are neither gender differentiated nor accounted for.
Environmental discourses, whether the ecological modernization or environmental justice kind, are gender blind. We need to make visible the linkages between feminist and environmental critiques of economic governance.
Re-focussing on gender differences makes it possible to break the top down approach of eco-technocratic discourse, which glosses over any differences in political and economic power and responsibilities for the environment among people as citizens, workers, consumers, producers, and corporations or states.
Not only the environmentalists should take feminist concerns on board. Many feminists prioritise women's equal access to the market and more equitable division of the benefits of economic growth, without acknowledging that current economic growth patterns undermine nature's economy and the base for life on earth as we know it. As Bella Abzug put it, women should not strive to enter into a dirty stream.

5. Gender lens on quality of life
Quality of life has been linked to environmentally sustainable development by way of putting on the agenda people's every day life, more quality time, emphasis on community values, participatory governance, and locally oriented production and consumption. Feminists have questioned romantic approaches to community values. Religious fundamentalism, Catholic, Moslem or other, is defending its own ideas of traditional local communities. The integration of feminist and environmental agendas for quality of life requires the questioning of blanket endorsement of community values.
Re-written from feminist standpoints, the quality of life agenda should include the issues of health and reproductive health. One of the pillars of the environmental debate is the critique of hydro-carbon economy. The thrust of the critique is that current models of economic undermine the resource base and regenerative capacities of ecosystems and therefore undermine livelihoods and prospects for sustainable growth.
They also damage human and environmental health, including reproductive health. In particular, the introduction of xeno-biotic substances (chemicals such as used in pesticides or solvents), unknown during the millions of year of evolution, is responsible for the disruption of immune, neurological, and hormone systems in the body. They affect reproductive health not only of individuals but also of future generations, therefore threatening the reproduction of whole species, including humans. Given the transfer of social costs of reproduction to women, and women's direct role in reproduction, they bear the brunt of the costs of dirty growth.
The transition to sustainable production and consumption is a strategy to protect human and environmental health.
Environmentalists' efforts to base models of governance of chemicals and GMOs on the right to know and precautionary principle correspond and overlap with feminist efforts and stakes in protecting women's reproductive health.

6. Global social contract.
Discussions of environmental governance are often focussed on international treaties, laws, or on proposals for establishing a World Environment Organisation (WEO) to provide a counterweight to WTO. While important, the discussion should also extend to proposals for a global social contract that integrates issues of social justice, environmental justice, and gender justice, and provides a fair basis for negotiating the interests of producers and consumers, employees and corporations. To this list one would like to add fair shares of environmental space and equitable relations among women and men. The Johannesburg Summit provides an opportunity.

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