AUTHOR: Miina Hujala
Note: this text is an archival text written on 19.2.2021
AUTHOR: Miina Hujala
Note: this text is an archival text written on 19.2.2021
It’s good to ask what do we mean when we use the term ’sustainability’? In Finnish the equivalent word is ’kestävä’ – that isn’t always used in the same context as sustainability, even though the terms have similar meaning in terms of continual, supportable, perhaps with the resonance of ‘staying-power’, ‘endurance’. In Finnish also ‘durable’ and ‘long-lasting’ are connotations evoked.
Sustainable development, economically speaking, seems to connote to a way of growing that one is not 'exceeding the limits' – being able to support the growth so to speak. This angle came up when I read the Alliance of Artists report’s overview written by Caitlin Strokosch (last accessed in 2021), where thoughts on sustainability were evoked in terms of how residencies have organizational sustainability. Being able to support the practice financially whilst seeking to add or change (or enlarge) practice.
‘Kestävä’ as a term in Finnish has a connotation to the ecological realm, as it has in English as well, a development that seeks to take in consideration the environmental factors. Ecology and renewability. My perception is that the term in Finnish doesn’t have such a strong resonance with economic durability, even though that perspective should not be excluded. Only perhaps thought a little bit more in depth what does it mean.
Kone foundation’s theme application in 2020, which this ongoing work is supported by, has as one of the core elements an idea of ‘sustainability’ as an environmental term. As embarking on the project – thinking of sustainability linked to residency practices – this does not mean excluding the context and other related factors (as many residency organization practitioners also like to say: we are a part of “an ecosystem”) involving multiple different relations as part of the practice. Social, cultural, economical, epistemological factors are all part of ‘sustainability’. And from the ecological standpoint these need to be addressed and encountered.
It seems that when aiming to make change happen for/within a certain practice/organization there is a requirement to have economical sustainability – to be able to conduct and make to the needed acts and take measures according to revised plans. Supporting change of structures might be perceived as a risk. To mitigate that risk, before taking decisions, the expected consequences have to be calculated and the goals and means calibrated. ‘Sustainability’ thus becomes a key term in many ways. Will the entire practice collapse as a result is the question. I'd like to add that firstly we need to ask: do we need to sustain the practice in the first place? And if so, then ask how will it continue? In what terms do we enable it to sustain? And by no means does ‘sustaining something’ whatever it takes have to be the only solution. We need to disembark from, resign and end things.
As we think “Should ‘this’ (activity, reasoning, method ect.) be continued aka. sustained?” as perhaps nowadays as the question that we should ask – alongside the aim of finding sustainability in development (that in my perception means that it protects/takes in consideration environmental and social renewability) – we have to find ways and paths to renounce and give up on things.
With these questions in mind, I delved deeper into a couple of reform agendas linked to sustainability, or more accurately – social, environmental and climate measures that governments should undertake.
The proposed measures that I looked into involved the two nation states that are central in this project (also under the framing of the grant theme): Finland and Russia. Looking at not what the governments do, but what the civil society/research field actors would propose them to do and reading through documents such as Ecological Reconstruction Plan by BIOS and Civil Society Review: Decade of Action for the SDGs in Russia: Challenges and Solutions’ done by Coalition for Sustainable Development in 2020 on the implementation of sustainable development goals in Russia looking and assessing the implementation of UN Resolution from 2015 of sustainable development goals (SDGs). (The coalition includes representatives of Russian NGOs, small and medium-sized enterprises, social entrepreneurs, educational institutions, research institutes, trade unions, journalists, civic activists and community leaders, whose expertise covers all areas of sustainable development.)
The review has as the starting point UN agenda that has 17 goals for people and the planet which the review goes through in relation to Russia.
When thinking about sustainability and as understanding from the report that Russia is very deeply dependent of its natural resources (oil, natural gas, and also other minerals) that hinders not only transition to more clean energy solutions, but the entire development (not only of that sector), being not able to draw in and create initiative for capital investments for renewable energy source solutions. This dependency is paired with the lack of governmental agenda, that part-takes on many fronts on the lack of needed focus on the level of administering and controlling the measures required to combat not only climate change related issues but also social and economic change in general. Also, the lack of transparency and communication hinders any mode of actual possibilities to involve the civil society widely and making the procedural change needed is difficult, as the current situation is too dependent on it to be driven from top-down. Even though governments do have to make and implement policy, we also need live and actual questions and responses from the people and organizations involved in the changes.
BIOS is a research unit that has been operating since 2015. Aimed at providing understanding on how “ecosystems and cultures as more and more densely intertwined” they have formed, in addition to the before-mentioned reconstruction plan and other documents, reports and statements, also recently in 2020 a ‘Dashboard’ for transition politics to provide insight on the path towards ecological reconstruction. The Dashboard lists five segments related to the transition: carbon balance, total material requirement, financial sustainability, societal resilience, and transition employment.
The measures overlap and transect with the ones stated in the coalition’s review on Russia, but with insights into differences, like how Finland is economically connected with the EU and has a very different situation in terms of democracy and civil participation. Without going over indepth the variances there are between the situations of these neighbouring countries, I wanted to look at some of the perspectives that link 'social, economic and ecology as sustainable' in the review and the plan.
Looking at the BIOS' ecological reconstruction plan from 2019 we can note that the major focus shift that BIOS is suggesting is that “The market economy exists only as a part of the wider society and the wider society only as a part of the biosphere.”
In defining further the lack of proper perspective BIOS researchers define a very solid core to all thinking aligning itself with solutions: “The perception has been that Finland is facing problems, such as low GDP growth, low level of employment, unbalanced industrial structure, ageing, inter-generational poverty, low levels of participation – and also climate change. In political and economic analyses, society’s dependence on nature has been addressed as a separate and isolated question. However, lowering emissions and related tasks are directly connected with, for instance, the organisation of production and the amounts and kinds of labour.”
As we currently produce using energy from fossil fuels to drive the “growth” measured as GDP and such, there seems to be a dangerous disconnect between economy and ecology. BIOS researchers state at the beginning of the text on solutions that: “The whole metabolism of society must be reorganised so that resource use and emissions occur at sustainable levels.” This means that thinking has to start with the connectedness of various strains of sustainability (social, cultural, economic, ecological). It seems that the problem depicted from BIOS plan charts that the problem related to sustainability situation in Finland lies in looking at these as separate fields, that is providing multiple – perhaps always unbalanced – visions of the situation, but then again perhaps looking at the picture at its “entirety” is impossible. We need the segments but with a different analytical aim. Also, the problem of a certain ‘expected lifestyle’ seems to be behind the obstacles of ecological reconstruction in Finland. As consumption is perceived as very central and thus making it hard to avoid energy, resource and material spending that all affect climate emissions and have environmental impact.
ABOUT THE INABILITY OF ‘DECOUPLING’ ECONOMIC GROWTH’S RESOURCE DEPENDENCY
Consuming and having the expectation of ‘expected lifestyles’ is something that of course is shared between Russia and Finland. If we think of the actual modes of consumption and levels of it, we see that economical factors pay into a large part of how much we can consume. The review authors Eugene Gontmakher and Vitaly Kartamyshev state in their segment ‘Russia’s Poverty Trap: Old Problems and New Challenges’ that is first part on the agenda that: ”Today, 17.6 million Russians live below the poverty line, which is 13.1% of the population. Families with children constitute almost 80% of all poor households.” (Poverty line is when income per day is less than 1,90 dollars.) The also note that: ”Poverty in Russia is not homogeneous. Small towns and villages, as well as the national republics of the North Caucasus, are the most trapped in poverty.” “Measured by the Gini coefficient, income distribution in Russia stands at 0.43, one of the highest indexes in the world.“(Gini ratio measures income/wealth inequality.)
Inequality is one of the key elements socially that affects the way people are able to participate – in activating change of their situations and improvement in general – also in climate actions. The responsibilities related to emissions are not equal, and as the effects will be felt globally, understanding where to focus the needed measures is about acknowledging and also alleviating inequality.
Gontmakher and Kartamyshev provide some remarks on how to enhance the situation in Russia also saying that “The advancement of social protection is possible provided that economic growth is restored, combined with a structural adjustment of the economy. “
By structural adjustments they mean for instance targeting the state’s subsidies better to find the persons in need of them but also augmenting the budget funds towards it.
Gontmakher and Kartamyshev mention that: “Experts are also concerned that the size of federal transfers depends on oil prices. A sharp, prolonged drop in oil prices threatens the socio-economic situation in the regions.“
They also note that even though Russia has a 10 trillion rubles fund there might be a lack of measures (and initiative) to tackle the social policy (inc. inequality), also the framework caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Economic ‘growth’ might or might not be the enabler of solutions, but the way our societies have been laid out, it has a central role in defining the landscape of possibilities. As a reaction to the need to lessen the havoc that the corona pandemic has caused the debt levels have risen globally. Perhaps as a sign or as a gesture of a way to secure sustainability of – not only livelihoods – but lives.
As the question of sustainability goes, perhaps budgets are more flexible than we thought. It is about the reasoning behind the acts.
A lot of hope is placed on the greener paths to (sustain and enhance) economic growth, a possibility that is stated in the Finnish governmental agenda: “This means ecologically and socially sustainable economic growth, high employment and sustainable public finances, as well as a level of stability in the economy would enable unforeseen impacts on people's wellbeing to be avoided.”
Also: ”Sustainable economic growth and new kinds of exports will emerge as a result of Finland’s involvement in developing solutions to global issues and megatrends.”
BIOS researchers have published recently articles about ‘decoupling’ – contesting that the pursuit of economic growth without ecological impact is impossible.
(‘Decoupling’ is a term used to describe cutting the link between economic growth and (negative) environmental impacts and according to being able to “sustain economic growth” whilst lessening ecological intensity per unit (relative decoupling) or absolute decoupling with total decline in resource impacts.)
Their aspiration is distilled in the Vice article on green economic growth as a myth: “In the words of the BIOS team, this means that “more attention should be given to conceptualizations of economy that do not rely on economic growth as the key route towards ecological sustainability and human wellbeing.”
Without just parroting all the critique of decoupling that BIOs researchers have presented I do think about: What is ‘sustainable growth’? (that takes the environmental/ecological impacts in central consideration) paired with the understanding that everything we do / use / transform / activate involves energy?
As far as I see, resource dependency and residual effects of activity are inescapable conditions of life, perhaps it all boils down to a question of what counts? (What activity matters?)
When required to hinder aspirations to fit a certain target or frame (like budget) what factors are driving our behavior? Accounting that natural resources are not only THE resources that we are dependent on but also that we are not-independent-of (no existing of ‘us’ happens without the reliance of the natural planetary processes) is something that has come to fore more but still doesn’t seem to align with the actuality that we live day-to-day. Link with the political so to speak. This – I’ll call it a gap – even though I think it is more a misconception is present when we make choices of where we place our focus (and with what we navigate through the daily landscape of our lives). When abilities of action are not equal, we do need to remind ourselves how our understandings of necessities and possibilities are formed. Somehow ‘sustainability’ and ‘growth’ seem to repel each other. There is no growth without limitations. Sustaining means that there is enough for renewability. The misconception that we can move without leaving traces is a fantasy of the immateriality of existence.
THE PRICE OF ELECTRICITY
In the review done by the coalition, Tatiana Lanshina (from Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration / RANEPA) in a segment dealing with Clean Energy mentions that electricity for consumers is quite cheap in Russia: 5 cents € per kWh.
And compared to Finland for instance where in 2020 the price was 0.1740 e / kWh (including taxes) it is over three times less.
[In 2019 the highest in Europe were Denmark (0,2924 e/kWh), Germany (0,2873 e/kWh) and Belgium (0,2860 e/kWh.)
Energy prices seem to be a basic component that links economical, ecological and social together quite straightforwardly. Consumers (and industry of course) benefit from low energy prices, prices are formed on markets, with more or less regulation. Carbon tariffs and taxation in general can drive the use of different sources of energy that become more affordable also to consumers. As we aim to look at how various threads of different sustainable aims pair with the threats we are facing, surely economical austerity has been and is still used to measure (and base) the reasoning of actions. But the question that we face is: should it?
Are we culturally stuck? Both respectively in the Finnish and Russian landscapes?
And even if we decarbonize we might not be able to shift the connection of spending necessitated in order to evoke growth (seen as a synonym for development, advancement). Following the BIOS statement stated in their reconstruction plan, I’m thinking if wellbeing as a concept seems to be lost.
Social inequality is kept in place by the aid of idea that there isn't well being enough for all. Understanding the link between 'privilege' and 'pleasure' might help navigate this idea. What we 'afford to do' and 'what we can do' are two different things. (I am to explore these further later.)
As Russia is dependent on selling fossil fuels (and other natural resources) economically, it has a big challenge ahead in order to find a way to make change – face social and economic inequality side by side – whilst embarking on executing measures to tackle climate change effects.
In chapter 13 of the agenda 2020, participant and partner in this project Angelina Davydova from the Office of Environmental Information writes: “A just transition’ is a topical issue in Russia. This involves the adaptation of certain regions whose economies are based on the extraction of fossil fuels towards the changing global energy landscape.”
And that: “The introduction of a socially-oriented ‘carbon price’ would contribute to a more equitable distribution of revenues from the energy sector, including those directed towards the social and economic development of local communities and environmental protection.“
There is no separate way to tackle ‘environment’ or climate change as its effects are involved in all we do.
“It is also of utmost importance for the Russian Federation to align her climate policy priorities and objectives with other plans and strategies for social and economic development, including the energy sector, agriculture and forestry, healthcare, transport and construction.“
By juxtaposing the needed and aspired ‘post-fossility’ (as the Finnish government programme states as objective: “Finland aims to be the world’s first fossil-free welfare society”) with a very fossil-fuel dependent eastern neighbor, is a way to point that how the measures taken need to be global. The tasks that BIOS gives to Finnish society and decision-makers are relevant and fitting to the scope of particularities of this state, and the multiple authors of the review of Russia’s activity evoke and bring light into the situational parameters there, but overall 'sustaining' the planetary ecosystem at a level that provides well-being for renewable life known as humans for instance needs missions and visions that transcend and cross cultural divisions. Sustaining correspondance, and exchange of information, transmitting practices and setting joint goals together is as crucial as ever.
That is why thinking about what 'sustainable' and 'sustaining' means is a very central tool in navigating different understandings and perceptions.
[On the next part I think I'll focus on the 'sustainable' in terms of residencies (as organizations) a bit, and think of pleasure but also agency.]
Image credit: Miina Hujala
Image capture: Image taken from a heat pipe (allegedly), that steam is rising out of. Image taken from Vladivostok, 2019.