Submission on Sustainable Development to the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Sustainable Development

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When we talk about sustainability, what are we trying to sustain? The answer, surely, is the flow of benefits which not only allow life in Ireland to go on, but make it a pleasant and rewarding experience.. In other words, we want to sustain, and if possible improve, the quality of life. And what determines the quality of life? Surveys have identified the following thirteen factors and more could probably be found:

  1. The quantity of goods and services produced and consumed.
  2. The strength of one’s family, home and community ties.
  3. The quality of the environment people enjoy, including space, energy, natural resources and plant and animal species.
  4. How fairly – or unfairly – the available income is distributed.
  5. The fraction of time available for leisure
  6. How easy it is to get a job. Supporting oneself by one’s own work is one of the essential aspects of existence and the absence of a possibility of doing so means in all probability a considerable loss of welfare.
  7. The safety of the future. Humankind derives part of the meaning of existence from the company of others. These include in any case his children and grandchildren. The prospect of a safer future is therefore a normal human need and the dimming of this prospect has a negative effect on welfare.
  8. How healthy people are.
  9. The level of cultural activity, the standard of education and the ease of access to it.
  10. The quality of the housing available.
  11. The chance to develop a satisfactory religious or spiritual life.
  12. How good or bad working conditions are.
  13. Being able to participate in decision-making on key areas which affect one’s life.

It is important to note that only the first of these factors can be measured in money terms. The rest are essentially non-monetary. Care must therefore be taken that the maximisation of monetary flows in the economy is not at the expense of the other sources of human welfare.

All thirteen factors can be regarded as the products of, or related to, four forms of capital which together provide the flow of benefits which supports and enriches human life. The four types of capital are:

  • Social capital: The source of the benefits we receive from family, friends, community and country
  • Human capital: Knowledge, skills, techniques etc.
  • Fixed capital: Houses, roads, factories, machines, tools, etc.
  • Natural capital: The endowment represented by the natural world. This takes in not only natural resources – fisheries, forests, minerals, soils etc. – but also nature’s services such as climate regulation and pollutant disposal. The immense benefits humans derive from natural beauty are also the product of this form of capital.

It is widely accepted that a basic principal underlying sustainability is that the total of these four types of capital which is handed on to the next generation must not be less than the preceding generation received. This is because, if the capital stock is diminished, the flow of benefits the stock can provide is diminished too, leaving the next generation worse off. Accordingly, an important debate about sustainability is whether – and if so, to what extent – it is permissible to run down one type of capital if another capital stock is simultaneously being built up. For example, should natural capital be reduced by the consumption of fossil fuels if human capital as represented by improvements in renewable energy technologies is simultaneously being built up? There is no hard and fast answer to this type of problem and careful judgement is required on a case-by-case basis. However, most people would accept that there are limits below which each of these types of capital should not be reduced, although they might disagree about what those limits are.


In the light of the above, a sustainable development is a change which increases the stock of one or more of the four forms of capital and thus allows a higher flow of benefits to be enjoyed by the people of Ireland for an indefinite period. Equally, it could be a change which slows down the rate of depletion of all or any of the four capitals.

In Feasta’s view the first, and most urgent step towards building a sustainable Ireland is to look for areas in which capital is clearly being lost and bring it to a stop. We therefore think the monitoring process planned by the Sub-Committee should have as its prime objective the identification of areas in which capital is being eroded. The Committee itself could help prioritise action to increase capital stocks and slow their depletion. It could also assess new projects and technologies for their likely effect on the four stocks of capital.

All this submission can do is to indicate the type of questions the adoption of the ‘Four Capitals’ approach to sustainability might lead the Sub-Committee to ask. In Agriculture, for example, it could enquire whether Social Capital is being reduced by the loss of employment in the farming sector: how has this affected community and family life? Do the growing centres of population provide the same level of benefits such as social support as the ones they replace? If not, should action be taken so that the flow of people stops or can the new communities be helped to improve? Another question concerns the distribution of income produced by the food production and distribution system. Is it tending to widen the gap between rich and poor and thus damaging Social Capital by setting up social tensions and making those who are becoming relatively worse off feel less good about themselves, with knock-on effects on their health? Or is the system tending to equalise incomes and empowering people by giving them a wider range of accessible opportunities?

In terms of Human Capital, it might seem that the new knowledge and technologies are far more valuable than the old techniques and that this form of capital is therefore growing. However, the Committee might think it desirable to ensure the old methods are preserved in some way so that, if circumstances required, they could be put into use again. Much of this knowledge is represented by practical skills, and by social inventions such as local co-ops and the meitheal.. Once lost, all these would be hard to restore.

The value of the Fixed Capital in agriculture might seem to be rising but the Committee might want to discount a large part of the current stock’s value because the buildings and machinery it represents are only suited to the existing unsustainable production processes and would be valueless in a sustainable system.

On Natural Capital, the Committee would have many questions to answer. For example, it would need to monitor the state of the country’s soils. How rapidly are they being eroded? Is permanent damage being done as a result of compaction? Can the permanent loss of soil to building projects and new roads be slowed or compensated for?

What about the genetic resources represented by domesticated plants and animals? Are these being properly preserved or is Irish agriculture coming to depend on a smaller and smaller genetic base increasingly controlled by non-Irish hands? And the country’s bio-diversity as a whole – is agriculture still tending to diminish that?

The high-external-input type of agriculture which has been adopted in Ireland since the 1940s is clearly unsustainable because it is eroding forms of natural capital – fossil fuels and phosphate deposits in particular – at a very rapid rate. Even the oil companies are now projecting that world oil production will peak by 2020, and some analysts put the turning point as early as 2005. There are the effects that the emissions from fossil fuels have on the global climate and that phosphates have on waterways to be considered too. The achievement of a sustainable system of agriculture in Ireland therefore involves eliminating its use of many of the resources it currently purchases from industry and the Committee should monitor the rate at which these purchases are being reduced.


Similar lists of questions could be suggested for other sectors of the Irish economy but it is the taking of a holistic approach which is important rather than the questions themselves. Feasta suspects that if Irish sustainability is monitored along the lines just suggested and attention is paid to all thirteen factors which contribute to the quality of life rather than just the monetary one, the Committee will find that the country is moving away from sustainability rather than towards it. If this is correct we would like to work with the Committee in exploring how such a serious trend can be turned around.

Feasta, The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability,
Crolly’s Cottage,
Readypenny, Co. Louth.
Tel/fax (042) 74064.

(Feasta was launched in October 1998 and currently has some 200 supporters, many of whom work in areas related to sustainable development and environmental protection.)

Submitted October 1999.

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