Social and cultural sustainability for caring and empathic societies

Teksti | Tiina Wikström

What do Greta Thunberg and young people on climate strike have in common with the United Nations promoted Gross National Happiness (GNH) of Bhutan? Or with the wisdom of the Seventh Generation principle still deeply respected by many Native American people?  They all represent the will to promote the different pillars of sustainable development, namely ecological, economic and socio-cultural dimensions that are at the center of Agenda 2030 and 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, as till recent years, the main emphasis of sustainability discourse has mostly been on ecological and economic sustainability, it is also essential to emphasize the importance of social and cultural sustainability as two individual yet interlinked pillars of the overall notion of sustainable development. In social services studies and research, this means promoting caring, diverse and empathic societies where equity, human rights, accessibility and inclusive wellbeing are central.

Social sustainability: one of the four pillars

Sustainability has been a trending yet somewhat abstract and complex umbrella term occupying the crossroads of many scientific discourses over the recent years. As a multidimensional concept, it can refer to anything from a desirable state of ecological existence and biodiversity promotion to different economic policies and recycling actions for environmental protection.

When we talk about social sustainability, there are additional elements to be included in this concept. As a (at times missing) piece of a green resilience puzzle, social sustainability belongs next to economic, environmental and cultural sustainability, and it has its glocal, both global and local, dimensions and features. It is also interlinked with both politics and policies, and it cannot be separated from such relevant issues as resilience, social exclusion, multiprofessional and intergenerational community development as well as social equity. When we talk about accessible and inclusive society, poverty eradication and empowering vulnerable communities or democracy with social justice and human rights, we talk in fact about social sustainability. As an extensive and diverse concept, social sustainability is naturally interconnected with Agenda 2030 and the 17 SDGs.

Caring and empathic society

To fight for social sustainability and resilience and to tackle social exclusion and other social problems means to increase the level of participation of all members of society. This includes enhancing social integration, diminishing power imbalances and extensively promoting human rights and the inclusion of the weakest members of society. For such developments, the promotion of caring and empathic society is essential. All challenging issues need to be dealt with at political and policy levels, yet societies also need  more strongly emphasize such goals and values as emotional resilience, empathy and compassion. As Gandhi said, “There’s enough on this planet for everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed” (OECD, 1). Understanding the interdependence of all people and other living beings is the key for glocal resilience and survival, as these pandemic times have so clearly and painfully taught us.

East meets West: Gross National Happiness and the Seventh Generation principle

The holistic interdependence of all beings and the importance of caring for future generations is though nothing new for example for Bhutanese or many Native American cultures. GNH of Bhutan emphasizes the importance of happiness, contentment and holistic wellbeing for present and future generations, rather than just GNP or even Human Development Index, and thus all development plans need to be value-based and benefitting all members of society and the planet earth. Bhutan’s final goal is happiness for all, balancing the political with the spiritual, and all the progress is to be holistic, inclusive, equitable and sustainable.

Similarly, in different Native American cultures, the principle of Seventh Generation has been traditionally emphasized, and it simply means that whatever we do, our acts should benefit the next seven generations.  To be able to see the future and the required solutions to imminent sustainability and other problems more clearly, we may need a certain paradigm shift and courage to look back, to see what traditional wisdom other cultures may offer us in terms of sustainability and nature relationships. As Koskimies writes online in Shorthandstories, “paradigm shift is possible, when people are able to let go of their preconceived truths and find meaningful opportunities in a new setting. And when they dare to engage with those who differ from themselves.” Referring to Clarkson, Morrissette and Règallet (1992, 3), “We cannot simply think of our survival; each new generation is responsible to ensure the survival of the seventh generation. Indigenous people are the poorest of the poor and the holders of the key to the future survival of humanity.”

Sustainable and resilient communities

As indicated for example by The Egan Wheel, for communities to be sustainable and resilient, we need thriving and fair economies, such as doughnut economies, and sustainably built and environmentally friendly and affordable living environments. Communities require also ecological and inexpensive transport services and well run governance. For a happy and balanced life, we want accessible and fair services, sustainable and inclusive communities and active, strong, cohesive and participatory local cultures where people can thrive and feel safe and empowered emotionally and psychologically. Hence, we need both social and cultural sustainability and resilience, and we need them glocally – they are to be addressed as global requirements yet also something that is realized and put into practice in every-day life of local communities.

Cultural sustainability

Cultural sustainability is closely interlinked with social sustainability, as it also emphasizes for example active citizenship, resilience and empowerment of local communities. In EU-funded Voices of Culture (2021, 6), culture is seen as social glue, shaping “how we perceive, make sense, behave and relate to changing realities.” As UNESCO states on its website, there cannot be sustainable development without culture, as culture is who we are and what shapes our identity. Culture and cultural diversity enable and drive the social, environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability. In 17 SDGs, culture is recognized and emphasized in several goals from education and sustainable cities to inclusive societies.

In their article, Soini and Birkeland (2014, 213) analyse the scientific discourse on cultural sustainability by organizing the existing research around seven storylines: heritage, vitality, economic viability, diversity, locality, eco-cultural resilience, and eco-cultural civilization. Soini and Birkeland conclude that especially the heritage and cultural vitality story lines form a fourth, cultural pillar of sustainability that is parallel to ecological, social, and economic sustainability. These story lines focus on sustaining varied cultures, cultural heritage, culture capital preservation, local identity and social cohesion, whereas the other story lines indicate culture being an instrument in achieving economic, social, and ecological sustainability. In this way, culture has both directly and indirectly a strong role in sustainability.

To summarize

Based on United Nations Agenda 2030, also Universities of Applied Sciences have approved a joint programme to become sustainable, responsible and carbon-neutral by 2030. This also means a commitment in education to create more empathic and caring societies. For that we need to include in our sustainability and resilience education also social and cultural sustainability and have the courage to learn from other cultures and societies and their traditions in the process. In this way, also in education, survival knowledge can become survival wisdom, with a deeper understanding of  the many faces of cultural diversity, social resilience and more holistic lifestyles.



Jaa sivu