15 February 2021

'Sustainability' is a meaningless goal

 The New Scientist, in a feature about fishing, quotes an expert:

The word 'sustainability' doesn't mean anything. You can actually overfish sustainably - you can reduce the stock to a tiny fraction of is original abundance and fish the rest sustainably. It's like cutting an immense forest, but leaving a few trees standing, which you harvest sustainably. Daniel Pauly, quoted in Plenty more fish in the sea? by Graham Lawton, 'New Scientist', 13 February

One advantage of the Social Policy Bond concept is that it obliges policymakers to come up with clear, unambiguous, verifiable goals. 'Sustainability' just isn't good enough. You might almost think its elasticity and prevalence are designed to ensure that business can continue continue as usual, not only in fisheries but in forestry, climate change, or indeed any aspect of the environment. Unfortunately, setting verifiable goals is difficult for governments. There are genuine as well as spurious reasons at to why this should be. One is that there are too many unforeseeable variables that could affect movement towards targeted goals and that have little to do with government performance. We can hardly expect, therefore, government to do otherwise than promulgate vague, meaningless goals that have little to do with social well-being. 

I advocate, instead, that government relinquish some of its goal setting role, and instead seek to articulate and refine society's goals. Such goals, I believe, would extend beyond the time horizons of particular government administrations. They would be broad and verifiable but, most importantly, they would be meaningful to ordinary people, in a way that such goals as 'sustainability' - or proportion of youngsters going to university, or waiting times in hospitals etc - are not. 

Discussing Social Policy Bonds I often emphasise the gains that could be made by injecting the market's incentives and efficiencies into the achievement of social and environmental outcomes. But perhaps even more important would be the bonds' role in obliging society as a whole to define clearly what those outcomes actually are. In such a policymaking environment goals as devoid of meaning as sustainability would not clear the first hurdle.

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