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We have been developing sustainability policy for over 50 years, but the results are still disappointing. “At this rate, we’ll never achieve our goals,” concludes Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers, professor of environmental governance and politics at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “We have to fundamentally change the structure of our society. The good news is that this realization is more widely supported than ever before.”
A sustainable society is about more than climate change. Poverty, hunger, healthcare and education are also important aspects and are a few of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the United National believes are required for a sustainable society. The goals were set in 2015, with the aim of achieving them by 2030. “Everyone's support is needed to achieve these goals,” says Visseren-Hamakers. “We are faced with enormous challenges and fundamental changes. We are good at causing or exacerbating problems, but making choices focused on sustainability and a better world requires a different way of thinking and acting.”
“Radboud University has a genuine ambition to contribute to sustainable development - an ambition that I wholeheartedly support,” says Visseren-Hamakers. It’s one of the things she loves the most about working at the university. She also enjoys that the Nijmegen School of Management, where she has her appointment, includes faculty in all the disciplines needed for interdisciplinary governance research, including political science, public administration, business administration, economics, geography, planning and environmental studies. This makes it easier for her to collaborate with colleagues across disciplines to figure out what a sustainable society would look like.
Sustainability as the norm
What does that better world look like? “It will be very different,” Visseren-Hamakers replies. “Today, sustainability is still an exception. There are many initiatives – from circular and local production to sustainable vacations – but we’re held back by the system in which we live, which doesn’t support sustainable practices. The government subsidizes non-sustainable food and energy production, and in our current economic system, growth has a higher priority than the well-being of people and nature.” In a sustainable society, sustainability is the norm. And that means fundamental change.
To achieve that sustainable society, we not only need environmental scientists, but also economists, political scientists and public administration experts. “We now place far too much responsibility on the individual. Why do consumers have to read labels for three hours to find out whether a product contains palm oil? When we buy a product, we should be able to assume that it is a sustainable product,” says Visseren-Hamakers. The burden of environmental policy must also be distributed fairly. “It must be a social transformation that leaves no one behind, because otherwise you will have no support. We cannot continue to shift the consequences of our environmental policy and our consumption pattern to our fellow citizens and to other countries.”
We can succeed tomorrow
Together with societal partners, Visseren-Hamakers and her scientific colleagues are brainstorming how the transformation to a sustainable society can be achieved on smaller and larger scales. “We often talk about governance, about how various stakeholders can contribute, who bears which responsibilities, and about smart collaboration. How can the various parties – such as government, business and local citizens – strengthen each other instead of oppose each other?” Obviously this is a big issue, but Visseren-Hamakers believes the answer is simple: “It is a matter of making different choices. If we all decided to make different choices tomorrow, then the sustainable society will be here tomorrow.”
Take food, for example. We are already producing enough food for the future world population, but according to Visseren-Hamakers it is the wrong type of food. Meat is an obvious example: it is an inefficient source of protein and causes enormous environmental problems in addition to animal suffering. We also shift some of the environmental burden of meat to other counties by importing large amounts of soy from South America for animal feed. In addition, a lot of food is wasted, both during transport and our refrigerators. “It's a bit of a lame joke,” laughs Visseren-Hamakers, “but food waste is low-hanging fruit. The food is already there. We just have to eat it instead of letting it go to waste.” According to Visseren-Hamakers, sustainable food will not be more expensive. “What we do need to do is eat differently, with less animal-based food and more vegetable products. What does a can of beans cost, 80 cents? That is not only more sustainable, but also healthier.”
“Furthermore, I expect that more products will be developed that are easier to repair or to recycle. Then perhaps we will again start to consume less. That has somewhat faded into the background, but it is desperately needed,” explains Visseren-Hamakers. However she hastens to point out that that is a typical Western answer. “If you move the discussion to Kenya, for example, then other priorities will apply. The Sustainable Development Goals show that sustainable development is a global issue.” Visseren is determined to succeed. “We live in exciting times because the support for change has never been so great. We have to do something, and now we can do something. The seeds of change have been sown.”
Prof. dr. Visseren-Hamakers serves as chair of the Environmental Governance and Politics (EGP) group, and is specialized in environmental governance. Her research is especially focused on transformative global environmental governance, and aims to contribute to both academic and the societal debates on how societies and economies can become sustainable, and how such transformative change is, and can be, governed.