Book Review: Sustainability in Austerity

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Image: Book Review: Sustainability in AusterityHow Local Government can Deliver During Times of Crisis

Challenging the status quo, doing more with less, and delivering on sustainability issues.

This book is designed to guide and inspire local government bodies in taking action on a range of sustainability and related environmental and social issues. It is a welcome addition to the sustainability literature. Targeted at local government officials and councillors, the book will also be of interest to a range of local community groups that have an interest in the activities of local government bodies.

The work is also imbued with a wider general interest through its embracing approach to sustainability; challenging narrow thinking through an interrelated treatment of sustainability and related dimensions of a multifaceted and complex social milieu. This is a welcome corrective to tendencies to separate environmental, social, and economic issues and deal with them in a piecemeal or non-integrated fashion.

The background and extensive experience of the author is evident throughout the book. Philip Monaghan has acted as a consultant, public speaker, advocate, and manager in various economic development, environmental and social sustainability roles. His experience includes work in the UK local government sector putting into practice the principles that underpin the book.

An extensive collection of case studies provides rich illustrations of what can be achieved. Vignettes, anecdotes, and tips draw on experiences in developed and developing countries around the world. The practical focus of the book is on more than 100 “cost-neutral interventions” that local councils can make. A total of 15 chapters cover a range of activities and issues including: the need to build a business case for projects and proposals; the importance of embedding action towards sustainability in a framework of local democracy and decision making, where communication and openness are central; managing corporate assets, including financing, procurement, and costing issues; economic development and planning for local areas, encompassing considerations of land use planning, carbon reduction, and the creation of green spaces; the conduct of waste and environmental services; managing fleet and logistics (considering ways to reduce travel and transport); and community management. I was especially impressed with the chapter on community management, particularly its contextualization of the social dimensions of sustainability and emphasis on empowering, encouraging, and nurturing localism and neighbourhood-level efforts. Facilitating “self-help” is included, but prominence is given to the provision of resources to assist local residents with organization, speaking up for the voiceless, and “challenging the status quo”. There is a welcome flavour of equity, fairness, and social justice here that is designed, in part, to ensure that communities are not harmed by irresponsible and inconsiderate private sector activity. The importance of education and social cohesion is also stressed.

Austerity

The theme of “austerity” permeates the book through its emphasis on cost-neutrality. Local government authorities are not asked to make sacrifices in the name of sustainability. However, the emphasis on “cost-neutral” interventions downplays the possibilities for significant worthwhile (and ultimately necessary) sustainability-related investments – even those which could be achieved in a “bottom-line neutral” way by reprioritizing existing spending and programs (here I am making a distinction between “bottom-line neutral” and “cost-neutral”). This tendency (paradoxically) characterizes a pervasive political propensity to limit aspirations to what can be achieved in the short-term.

Redressing this lacuna, greater emphasis should be placed on holistic analysis of spending proposals that transcends the limitations of conventional cost-benefit analysis. The book aspires to this, but may inadvertently have the effect of diverting attention away from necessary major investments. At any level of government, the (ever-present) reality of limited financial resources can be used to preserve the status quo and effectively pass on the ultimate costs of unsustainability to future generations.

Taking a different perspective on the question of financial constraints, it might be argued more broadly that austerity is actually what the planet most needs to deal with the excesses of unsustainable production and consumption patterns in much of the Western world! In this sense, times of austerity may represent an opportunity to temper ever-rising expectations for production and consumption by considering obligations and opportunities to enhance quality-of-life and to make the necessary resources available.

Action and achievability

There is a considerable value in the suggestions for action in the book although it should be noted that many revisit well-established ideas about lighting, energy, water, and travel, while some others are somewhat trite. For example: the idea that households be asked to log formally all the food they throw away so that they can take stock and think again about purchasing only what they need; that residents be asked to only run washing machines and dishwasher when full; or that local government should advocate against pet ownership, for vegetarianism, and encourage smaller families (all on the basis of carbon footprints). This style of local government paternalism is quite out-of-date and sits at odds with the empowering intentions of the book. Thankfully, most of the recommendations take the reader beyond such clichés.

“Local government plays a significant part in shaping the way people live their lives, and actions towards sustainability can strengthen local communities.”

Some of the more powerful recommendations relate to community leadership, including the idea that council leaders should spend at least a day a year on the “factory floor” in order to better engage with environmentally and socially impacting activities (especially in the environmental and community services). Information about “intelligent finance” show a way to pay for environmental and social projects through in-house loan schemes that operate as revolving funds that are replenished as cost savings are yielded (such as through power or water savings). This approach considers cost neutrality over a longer time horizon, thereby opening a wider spectrum of possibilities.

Readers may have questions about the transferability of many ideas in the context of different local government profiles around the world in terms of planning and development, education, shareholding investments, and local economic powers. Other ideas, such as “micro gardens” with links to family kitchens and “common pool resources”, characterized by use of common lands, collective work, and collective choice, are likely to be of significant interest in some places, but of limited applicability in others. These limitations are recognized in the book, but perhaps greater effort could have been made to clarify the relevance of specific suggestions.

Overall, the real value of the book is manifest in the sense of achievability that comes through practical examples not just of what can be done, but what has been done in real cases. An upside of the emphasis on cost-neutrality is that it takes away an excuse for doing nothing.

Overall and probably of most significance, it is recognized (both directly and indirectly) that sustainability requires that environmental goals be met while responding to basic human needs and seeking to improve quality of life for current and future generations. Distribution is a central issue because many problems of sustainability are directly linked to excessive consumption (and associated emissions and waste) and inadequate resources for less well-off communities that lead to unsustainable practices.

Beyond the business case

The prominence given to addressing the “business case” when considering the merits of specific proposals sometimes sits oddly alongside recognition of the importance of social value generation. For example, the value of community green spaces includes leisure, health, and environmental benefits, but also their contribution to community cohesion. How these factors get woven into the “business case” is not self-evident, nor is it clear whether the business case overrides these other factors. Overemphasis on the business case and cost-neutrality can inadvertently militate against holistic assessment of projects and activities.

Local government plays a significant part in shaping the way people live their lives, and actions towards sustainability can strengthen local communities. Monaghan stresses the creation of public value not private value, but there is a need for further insight into how to operationalize this as part of the wider “community case” rather than the narrower “business case”. Recommendations for whole-of-life assessment in social, environmental, and financial terms, considering benefits that accrue to society as a whole, go some of the way, as do measures built around the ideas of sustainable procurement and fair trade.

Challenging

It is easy to be enchanted by the idea that in a financially constrained situation, the sustainability crisis can be addressed by “doing more with less”. The harsher reality is that deep commitment and determination over a number of years is needed, and that significant shifts in our way of thinking and acting are required to usher in a society that is truly sustainable and respectful of society and the natural environment.

Monaghan has a clear commitment to an inclusive concept of sustainability beyond resilience, survival and adaptation, extending to decent living standards for all in a just and equitable society. Sustainability in Austerity recognizes that fairness is at the heart of much human choice and, despite the emphasis on cost-neutral interventions, a serious change agenda is at the heart of this work.

There is an appetite for learning and openness to new ideas. This is combined with determination to pursue real change that is both less damaging to the environment and to social inclusion, cohesion, equity, and fairness. In the final part of the book, an overarching framework for change is provided through the mnemonic of “4 E's” – Engage, Emote, Empower, and Enforce. People are willing to act, but acting alone is futile, because positive outcomes in one domain can be easily cancelled out by retrograde developments elsewhere. Thus, a wider sense of equity and fairness is an essential component of sustainability.

Sustainability in Austerity reminds us of the importance not just of doing more with less, but of critiquing the status quo. Finding better ways to integrate environmental and economic actions requires a broad social framework that prioritizes quality of life for all rather than endlessly seeking greater quantities of things for those who can afford them.

November 2011.


This book review of "Sustainability in Austerity: How Local Government can Deliver During Times of Crisis", by P. Monaghan, originally appeared in Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Volume 2 Number 1, 2011.

The reviewer is Gordon Boyce.