Frontpage > Sustainable Societies

Hedelmäpuuprojektin satoa: villiappelsiineja

   Coalition for
   & Development

Sustainable societies

In May 2008 Coalition for Environment and Development launched a nine-month research project under the title CULTURES OF SUSTAINABILITY - SUSTAINABILITY OF CULTURES: Africa-Asia-Europe Dialogue on the Future of Low Ecological Footprint Communities. The aim of the project is to find ways of preserving the ways of sustainable societies and transforming unsustainable ones by engaging in dialogue with concerned people in Finland, India, Kenya, Nepal and Tanzania. The study is commissioned and funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affair of Finland within the framework of Finnish development co-operation.

The final report from the study is now ready!

You can order a free copy from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland by writing a request to keotilaus at formin.fi or download the pdf-file from the link below.

The complete report (250 pages, 6 MB):

SUSTAINABLE FUTURES: Replacing Growth Imperative and Hierarchies with Sustainable Ways

There is also a summary article available (15 pages): TRANSFORMATIONS TO SUSTAINABILITY: Combined Responses to the Interconnected Crisis of Ecology and Economy

Below is the table of content and summary of the main report.

SUSTAINABLE FUTURES: Replacing Growth Imperative and Hierarchies with Sustainable Ways

Editors: Marko Ulvila & Jarna Pasanen

Table of Contents





The search for a balance between modern industrial development and the environment has been intense for more than four decades. However, the results are far from impressive: complex environmental problems, such as climate disruption, impoverishment of ecosystems and toxification, are threatening the future of humanity more than ever before. Therefore, there is a clear need for reassessing the cultural foundations of the present ways and looking for agendas for transformation.

The authors define culture in a broad sense as all the patterns of human behaviour that includes thought, expression, action, institution and artefacts. Sustainable culture is understood as one that incorporates environmental sustainability and human dignity for all.

By using the two criteria for sustainable culture, three cultural classes are outlined globally. The over-consuming class has human needs met but is exceeding environmental space and, therefore, not meeting sustainability criteria. Secondly, there is the struggling class that lives within environmental space, but suffers from malnutrition and other symptoms of powerlessness. In between the two, there is the sustainable class that meets basic human needs with ecological balance. Roughly, one-third of humanity belongs to each of these classes.

Also a country-wide assessment of sustainable cultures is presented by relying on three sets of data. First, the ecological footprint data was combined with the Human Development Index. Besides that, the Happy Planet Index by New Economics Foundation and the Environmental Performance Index of Yale and Columbia universities were used. The combined outcome brings out Colombia, Cuba, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka as top candidates for nations with sustainable cultures.

The study identifies two features of modern industrial cultures as root causes for unsustainability: growth imperative and hierarchic structures. Alternatives are presented for both of these.

The idea of economic growth with Gross Domestic Product as its indicator has been a dominant societal objective. The study presents it as dysfunctional in terms of environment, welfare and poverty. Sustainable economics is proposed as a replacement. It rests on understanding of the complete economy, including the informal economy, and is built on the principles of last-person-first and environmental sustainability. The future scenarios are degrowth for the over-consuming class, steady-state for the sustainable class and empowerment for the struggling class.

Domination through power hierarchies leads to environmental unsustainability and lack of human dignity. This is caused by the alienation of the elite on the top from the basic rules of nature and rules of humanity, including interdependence and inter-connectedness. Paths to egalitarian relations are presented to five such relations: gender, ethnic traits, economy, knowledge and nature. It is considered necessary for the relations to be equalised on all these fronts, as they form a coherent structure of the society.

Cultural transformation supporting such changes includes measures for arresting over-consumption, deepening democracy and learning from indigenous worldview. Drawing on past experiences with practices such as smoking in public places, cultural transformation to these directions is considered most feasible and possible.

In conclusion, agendas for the three cultural classes is summarised. For the struggling class it is about enhancing power and resources, and for the sustainable class the case is about respecting, protecting and promoting the existing sustainable ways. And for the over-consuming ones, a deep transformation into a sustainable culture.

The report also presents a thematic selection of interventions from the eleven dialogues held by the project. There are also summaries of or excerpts from the articles commissioned by the project. They are grouped in four sections: analysis of sustainability, presentations of sustainable livelihoods, processes of destruction and pathways to sustainable futures.

The original concept paper from April 2008


The issue culture in sustainable development is very important, yet often overlooked one. Especially when culture is defined in a broader, anthropological manner to include societal behaviour and structures in totality, the cultural questions come to the fore of the discussion. How do the people relate to the nature and natural resources, what are the dreams of a society and how they guide their action, what are the economic, political, technological and social structures that produce certain kind of behaviour and environmental impacts.

Let us take two generalised examples, one from modern culture and another one from traditional one that relate to the idea of ecological footprint. The idea of good life in modern societies correlates almost totally to energy consumption. One has achieved much in life when one has a big car, a big house, plenty of modern gadgets and holiday travels to distant places. All this consumes large amount of energy, which translates to high greenhouse gas emissions per person and destructive impact on climate.

In traditional, indigenous cultures the idea of good life has a totally different correlation to energy consumption. On has achieved much in life when one has good spiritual relations with forefathers and the animistic deities and respect among the community. All things that do not have adverse environmental impact.

The discussion about the culture and sustainability, therefore, needs to be informed about the serious shortcoming of the modern development paradigm and the understanding of good life in relation to ecological sustainability. Discussion should also recognise the strengths of traditional societies and cultures in their relation to the natural environment, both locally and globally.


The planned method for the research recognises the importance of oral culture in the developing countries in communicating and sharing ideas, experiences and understanding. Therefore special effort will be made to conduct oral dialogues in the concerned countries among representatives from civil society, administration, and political institutions.

The method involves producing a concept paper that will frame and discuss the issues. The concept paper will serve as a discussion document in the future dialogues.

The dialogue reports and the papers commissioned for the dialogues will form the key material for the research. A selection of them will be published as a background e-book in the CED web site. The texts will be analysed for commonalities and differences in various cultural settings. Profiles of exemplary sustainable livelihoods in the South will be produced. In the end the researchers will produce a concise research report that can be offered to practically oriented international academic journals as well.

The research team, working part time on the project, consists of:
Lead researcher: Marko Ulvila, Tampere, Finland
Senior Researcher: Vijay Pratap, New Delhi, India
Researcher: Jarna Pasanen, Tampere, Finland
Researcher: Vagish K. Jha, New Delhi, India
Research manager: Rakesh Bhatt, New Delhi, India
Senior advisor: Thomas Wallgren, Finland

Tentative work plan

The work will begin by commissioning background papers and holding the first dialogues in Finland and India. Resource persons from the participating countries will be requested to write background papers, also commenting on the concept paper.

The dialogues will be the crucial focal points of the research project. Ten to twenty people are invited for an all day session to cover the themes of the research. The concept paper and one or more background papers will be made available beforehand.

The researchers will compile all materials into one Background book that will be published over the Internet. This way the discussion will be made available to all who are interested. A small amount of photocopied versions of the book will also be made available to the participants of the research project.

The final report will be written by the researchers with the help of the senior advisor. One standard academic article will be written from the research to reach the international scientific community.


The project commences in April 2008 and will last for 12 months. The first month will be used for preparations and last two months for finalising of the reports and accounts. The duration for the actual research work is therefore 9 months starting from 1 May.

Further information:
Marko Ulvila, research director, marko.ulvila/kaapeli.fi
Jarna Pasanen, resarcher, jarna.pasanen/kaapeli.fi
Rakesh Bhatt, research manager, rakesh110/gmail.com