Voluntary and collaborative sustainable development

We believe that voluntary collaborative efforts towards sustainable development (SD) are more effective than personal or involuntary efforts towards SD, and this article is intended to describe the major reasons why.

Sustainable development vs the status quo

The concept of sustainable development brings with it a host of priorities that are at odds with the current system of economics and politics at work in most of the world. Compared with the status quo, SD places more emphasis on human and natural capital rather than physical and financial capital. SD also includes both a global perspective, recognizing the rights of traditionally impoverished or marginalized peoples, and an intergenerational perspective that recognizes the rights of future generations. The present work focuses on voluntary collaborative efforts towards sustainability. ‘Voluntary’ means self-chosen rather than forced. Force can come from law or other sources. ‘Collaborative’ means involvement and cooperation of a number of people towards a unified goal.

Voluntary action vs force

Voluntary action for the purposes of the present work is defined as an action which a person chooses for themselves. This is different from volunteerism, which has an implication of working without being paid. Voluntary action could be choosing to invest one’s own money into a certain stock, deciding to buy solar panels for one’s roof, or volunteering at a soup kitchen. Voluntary action means very distinctly that you are not being forced to do something by an external agent.

Force can come in many forms. Some that I consider specifically with regards to SD are legal force and market force. Both of these forces are considered in the context of an advanced, democratically governed and primarily market-driven society such as that of Canada. Legal force is represented by laws governing the actions in question. Market force is the relative opportunity, and danger, of actions relating to a market position.

Of these two forces, legal force is the most uncompromising to the average individual. By comparison, market forces can be less deterministic, and less clear-cut in their effects. While the average individual is unlikely to directly break laws in the society in question, market forces generally have a very complex relationship with an individual’s actions.

Market forces refer to the effects of supply, demand, and price on buying, selling, and investment in the market. All facets of decisions related to employment, both on the employer and employee sides, are also strongly affected by market forces. For example, those of us who watch or read the news avidly know that very small global or national market changes or finance decisions can lead to tremendous numbers of jobs being lost or gained.

Law of demand

Generally the law of demand applies to goods in a market. This is the case where if the price of a given product rises, substitute products will be more likely to be bought, thus reducing demand for the product in question. The law of demand gets broken in some circumstances however, such as when no reasonable substitute exists for the good in question. This is actually the case for a number of goods pertaining to sustainable development such as electricity, and fuels such as gasoline and natural gas. These goods are notorious for the inflexibility of their demand curves which makes their cost particularly sensitive to changes in supply. For instance, if slightly more gasoline or electricity is demanded than is produced, the price can rise very quickly.

Necessities have inflexible demand

For these specific goods, the inflexibility of demand is primarily because these goods are necessary for the basic functioning of our society, and do not have common and affordable direct substitutes. For instance, the demand for natural gas in Canada is relatively stable regardless of price because about 42% of it is used for the heating of buildings1 . Natural gas can thus be seen as a resource critically underpinning one of Canada’s fundamental human needs during winter. It is interesting to note that natural gas is increasingly being used as a fuel for electricity generation and for industrial  processes2 . Similar arguments apply to our current dependence on gasoline and related fuels because of the current design and function of our cities and society in general. Likewise for electricity, for which no substitute as the primary multi-use motive power of our society exists. A critical reason for the adoption of societal design based on SD is that many ecosystem services have no effective substitutes.

Collaborative action

Collaborative actions are activities undertaken by a number of individuals with a unified goal. Action of this sort includes such things as cooperative enterprise, volunteerism and non-profit organizations. Volunteerism and activism are generally undertaken by groups of like-minded individuals, rather than simply by individuals alone. Collaborative action is a pillar for social change of the type required for the genuine pursuit of SD. Individual action is technically required for collaborative action, but a distinction is drawn in the present work.

Individual action is defined here as an action undertaken without a communal goal. That is, there was no consultation and agreement among the community in question. An example of a collaborative action would be a group deciding to create a communally-owned cable company for a small town which would be owned by the residents of the town. An example of an individual action towards SD would be buying solar photovoltaic panels and putting them on one’s own roof.

It is possible for individual actions to be synergistic. That is, actions taken in self-interest by two parties can often be mutually beneficial. For instance, informational campaigns on the subject of electricity conservation would present a very similar message to a campaign on water or natural gas conservation. The combined message of the two is likely to be about conservation in general. They would thus be mutually reinforcing, and their combined effect would be greater than either would be alone.

Economies of scale

Cooperative or collaborative enterprise unlocks economic opportunities that are unavailable to most individuals. The economies of scale in renewable energy development are tremendous. Renewable power is far more cost-effective if built on a large scale. Saskpower estimates that large wind projects of 150MW or more will produce electricity that costs 6 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour while small personal wind projects that are 10kW or less will produce electricity that costs 27 to 57 cents per kilowatt hour 3 4 . This means that a dollar spent on large scale wind is approximately three to ten times as effective in terms of producing electricity as a dollar spent on small scale wind. Similar economies of scale apply to hydroelectricity, biogas, solar thermal, and solar photovoltaic projects4 . These economies of scale are by no means limited to the field of energy production. It is more efficient to insulate and heat one large building than an equal volume of many smaller buildings. Proposed business enterprises are usually judged for their merit on practical considerations of cost and utility.

Threshold investments

Threshold investments are another economic option to consider. A certain minimal amount of money is required in order to begin any large project, such as a hydro dam or recycling facility. Since most individuals cannot afford to fund these large projects by themselves, working cooperatively is necessary to unlock opportunities for development that are qualitatively different than the opportunities each person’s own buying power affords them. Grassroots collaborative development will also be better situated to identify small scale investment opportunities that a larger organization such as a corporation or a government may miss or dismiss. Some major hurdles for this sort of development are that expertise and sufficient capital (financial and physical) may not be available locally. In the cases where collaborative development is possible, local people can capitalize on their own local opportunities.

Capital, GDP, and wealth

The use of the word ‘capitalize’ at the end of the last section refers not necessarily to profit, but to wealth. These can be two different things. For instance, if a town creates a cooperative to provide a service that they require, it will likely provide the service with lower costs and higher reliability than a similar private concern, since these are the primary goals of the venture. Lower costs mean less capital is being spent on this particular service. This would lead to a direct reduction in GDP. However, the capital not expended on this service is freed to be used elsewhere. By making each service cost less, the entire system becomes more wealthy, as more services are achievable through use of the same amount of available capital. In this way cooperatives and similar organizations may not individually show substantial direct contribution to the economic prosperity of their locale. They instead would contribute to the general prosperity by keeping the price of their service low and the delivery reliable. Community cooperatives are reliable in that the community they serve has a vested interest in their continued survival if they are doing their job well.

Utility over economic growth

Drawing the last few themes together, we can generally state that efforts towards SD tout different objectives than simple profit. For example, a neighbourhood with one lawnmower instead of five may contribute less to GDP since less money was spend on lawnmowers, but if our productivity stays the same, we have gained the same utility using less capital. Housing several adults in a single Canadian house instead of one or two means that fewer houses will be bought. However, all of these adults now have a home that has cost each of them less money. This increased efficiency is an essential facet of both modernization and of SD. If we can make better use of our capital, we can free it up for investment elsewhere. This additional investment indicates economic well-being, since the percentage of capital required to maintain our basic needs decreases.

Personal or co-operative?

Investment into a locally grown cooperative is often safer for the investor than starting their own company because they have the cooperation and support of more people than just themselves. It could be argued, probably correctly, that the investor does not have as strong of control over their investment as they would if they started their own company. If the investor is certain of their success, they should feel free to forge ahead on their own.

It is in the cases of higher risks and higher costs that collaborative efforts become more powerful, as they share the risks and responsibilities among the group. The possible failure of an enterprise is another major issue in favour of collaborative development. If a private firm fails, and it is providing a fundamental service such as heat or electricity, the locals may be forced to buy it up and run it in order to keep their community alive. Specifically for the industries necessary for life, such as water, food, and heat, communities are well-advised in taking these industries into their own hands to be certain they are well managed.

Duplication of efforts

A possible problem with individual action towards SD is that the same equipment may be constructed, or the same research conducted, by multiple people who are not communicating or cooperating. Comparatively, if people pooled their personal resources, skills, and plans, duplication of efforts would be minimized, and every effort would serve an agreed-upon goal, drawing upon a larger pool of starting capital.

Contradictory efforts

Individual efforts may also lead to efforts on the part of several community members that act against each other. This may be because they disagree about how something should be done, or because they do not know of the other’s efforts. Contradictory efforts could be something as simple as one person putting up solar panels and another planting trees in places where the trees will eventually obscure some of the incident sunlight on the other person’s solar panels. It is clear that by working together, problems of this sort can be minimized.

Voluntary vs involuntary

Modern efforts for SD typically include a push for legislation that will force people and, more importantly, corporations to comply. While this is a natural extension of the state and democracy, it is not an ideal solution. If people are forced into SD involuntarily, they will naturally harbor some resentment for being forced. Also, it has been well-established that the generative and innovative capacities of humankind are best kindled in a climate of freedom and safety. The application of law to the individual citizen, forcing them to take on certain aspects of SD, could be seen as an abridgment of their freedoms in recognition of the rights of other humans.

It is the place of government, and democratic discourse, to resolve the tensions between an individual’s rights and the rights of everyone else. An ideal mix for achieving SD would be law-making that protects the rights of the individuals and provides stewardship for natural capital. Law-making is a necessary and powerful tool for making SD possible. It is very important to note that, despite their power, laws can only take us some of the way towards SD. We need education and involvement at every level of society in order to develop sustainably together.

SD subordinate to profitability

Publicly-traded corporations are mandated, and legally obligated, to maximize shareholder profits. In order to pursue SD as a primary concern, the laws governing publicly-traded corporations would have to be rewritten. Privately owned corporations can act in whatever manner their owner(s) dictate, so they are not bound by the same restrictions as publicly-traded corporations. As it is, some enlightened corporations of both sorts have made some impressive headway with a strong dedication to SD as an auxillary function that will help them gain profits for longer, and build a better public image. A publicly-traded corporation pursuing SD will always be doing so in a fashion that is subordinate to its profitability.

SD as a foundational value

More effective organizations for the pursuit of SD are those that include SD as one of the foundational values. Many non-profits and cooperatives fall into this category5 . Due to their tendency to not pursue profits, cooperatives and non-profits often do not attract as much financial investment as publicly-traded corporations. However, due to their tendency to invest in their local area, locally-grown cooperatives are often strongly supported by their communities. The local people generally have some notion of the value they are getting from the existence of their local cooperatives. A cooperative is capable of competing well with a corporation; additionally it has been shown that increased profit-sharing leads to increased profitability of a firm due to increased worker productivity6 . When workers have a stake in the success of the firm that they work for, they are more productive labourers.

Intergenerational equity

One of the goals of SD is to guarantee that future generations have opportunities for determining their future quality of life, as defined by the values they develop. By depleting the earth’s resources during our lifetimes, we deplete the tools through which future generations can construct high quality lives for themselves. In addition to environmental resources, we should also consider educational and social institutions that future generations may choose to draw upon.

It is important to consider that the social climate in which the next generation is raised will have a powerful effect on their values, beliefs and predictions for their own future. It has been demonstrated that people sample the content of their experiences and memories extensively when they construct a prediction of what the future will be like7 . A community that contains collaborative efforts towards SD will be more likely to raise children who are more prosocial, have a stronger sense of community identity, and pursue a life more oriented towards sustainability8 .

Tragedy of the commons

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is the tendency for people acting in self-interest to deplete a shared resource9 . This tragedy is often mentioned when disparaging of the idea of shared resources or communally owned capital. This is, however, an opportunity for communal ownership to really shine. Combining communal ownership with meaningful stewardship can ensure the health of the resource is not overly degraded or depleted. Effective stewardship is necessary because the tragedy of the commons exists. If rights to collective resources are not assigned in a way that protects the resource, it is likely to be depleted by individuals acting in their self-interest.

Additionally, if ownership rights of things that are considered collectively owned, or ‘un-ownable’, are simply assigned into private hands, conflicts tend to ensue10 . Some resources, such as the atmosphere, the water cycle, and biodiversity, defy our normal concepts of what it is possible to ‘own’. An individual or corporation cannot own these things, but meaningful management and conservation of the resource can be accomplished via communal ‘ownership’. Ownership in this case can take the form of a right. We could say: “Citizens have the right to clean air, water, and preservation of the biodiversity that lets our planet and our species flourish.”

In short:

Collaborative enterprise unlocks economic opportunities that are prohibitively expensive for most individuals. Grassroots collaborative development is well-suited to identify small scale investment opportunities. Collaborative enterprise contributes to economic prosperity by keeping prices down and ensuring the reliability of service. Many of the problems that surface in the application of SD principles can be avoided by collaborating with others undertaking similar work. The role of law seems to be best suited to protecting freedoms of individuals and providing stewardship for natural capital. People work harder and better when they have a direct stake in the enterprise they are serving. People who grow up in a climate of SD will be more likely to pursue SD in a prosocial fashion themselves.

Get Involved

Our world needs your opinions, your ideas, and your voice. The future is constantly waiting for us, but it will not wait forever. Our potential as a society is limited primarily by the extent to which each of us takes responsibility for our lives and choices. While it is true that cooperative efforts towards a common goal are more effective, it is also true that we need involvement and activism in every community to wake people up to the issues at hand. This may require an individual to act on their own in their community. Every cooperative effort has to start with one person.

Each of us has to face a fundamental question: How much do we value the lives and happiness of people elsewhere on this planet, and those people yet to be born? The answer to this question defines what the concept of sustainable development means to us.

Those who choose to help must ensure that they educate themselves on the issues they choose to involve themselves in. Misguided action may be worse than no action. Many resources on these subjects exist, especially on the internet. Hopefully you will find our work to be one of the many worthy online sources you choose to guide and energize your efforts.

  1. Natural Resources Canada: About Natural Gas. Accessed November 3rd, 2010. [Update: Link became broken because Natural Resources Canada restructured their pages on natural gas.] []
  2. Wikipedia: Electricity sector in Canada []
  3. Dale, L., Milborrow, D., Slark, R., Strbac, G. (2004). Total cost estimates for large-scale wind scenarios in UKEnergy Policy, 32, 1949-1956. []
  4. SaskPower, Powering A Sustainable Energy Future. Presentation to the Standing Committee on Crown and Central Agencies. January 2010. Retrieved October 3rd, 2010. [] []
  5. One example among many: Regina Car Share Cooperative []
  6. Kruse, D. L. Profit sharing and productivity: Microeconomic evidence from the United States. The Economic Journal. 102, 24-36, 1992. []
  7. Szpunar, K. K., McDermott, K. B. (2008). Episodic future thought and its relation to remembering: Evidence from ratings of subjective experienceConsciousness and Cognition, 17, 330-334. []
  8. Al-Hathloul, S., Mughal, M. A. (1999). Creating identity in new communities: case studies from Saudi Arabia. Landscape and Urban Planning, 44, 199-218. []
  9. Tragedy of the Commons, Wikipedia, Retrieved October 3rd, 2010. []
  10. Making it illegal to collect rainwater. Actions of Bechtel in Bolivia. []

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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