Doctor, it’s a fact that sustainable development has permanently entered the academic dictionary, but different scientific disciplines focus on slightly different aspects and emphasise its different dimensions. Looking through the press and social media, it can be concluded that the economic understanding of sustainable development predominates. What is sustainable development for you?
Indeed, I can agree that the term “sustainable development” itself comes from economic sciences and that it is primarily economists who speak about it. I, however, understand this concept much more broadly. For me, sustainable development is multidimensional development that takes into account not only economic factors, not only pays attention to the material or financial aspect, but also takes heed of the cultural factor in all its aspects. The concept of culture must be understood very broadly here. It’s necessary to take into account the social and ecological aspect, various dimensions of the civilisation aspect, cultural diversity, ecosystem diversity, species diversity, the multiplicity of connections between various creatures that inhabit our earth and participate in the life of the biosphere. In addition, we do not know whether, in the perspective of our civilisation development, sustainable development won’t also apply to outer space. Already today, various types of space debris or artificial satellites that have stopped working and function in outer space are a problem. They pose a problem for humanity, so I suspect that over the years, the extra-terrestrial perspective will also attract the interest of those dealing with sustainable development. But at the moment I think that sustainable development should focus on the Earth’s biosphere. Thinking in the categories of not only the present generation, but also future generations, is crucial to my understanding of sustainable development.
New sustainable development goals, which were adopted by 193 member states, were negotiated for almost three years. An Open Working Group was established for this task, which defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 related tasks that reflect its three, economic, social and environmental, dimensions. Actions for the attainment of the goals require activity and progress on these three levels simultaneously and in an integrated manner. These are extremely ambitious goals. How do you think these goals can be achieved? Is it possible at all?
It necessitates fundamental changes in awareness and re-evaluation of priorities. First of all, departing from the consumption model, departing from the model linking personal, individual success with the number of consumed goods. In my opinion, changes on many levels are necessary here, global changes going beyond the policy of each individual country. Here it’s necessary to abandon state and national particularisms, and to reject the fetishisation of economic growth. At the moment, the economic success of a country is measured by gross domestic product. Even those who aren’t professional economists know that gross domestic product is the value of ordered goods and services. In this paradigm, the more citizens consume, the greater their economic success, and the more the path they have chosen is considered to be an example to follow, worthy of being followed. This is where the question arises. Is it really true that the more goods and services people order, the better? And better for whom? There’s also a phenomenon of overconsumption of certain social groups and lack of access to basic consumer goods for other social groups. Consumption becomes the factor that differentiates and divides to some extent. These differences are huge in each individual country. Shocking data are published about the differences between the richest entrepreneurs or top managers and regular employees. Various studies indicate that this gap has been systematically and dramatically growing over the past decades. The gaps are getting bigger. At the moment, we are dealing with the absolutely dramatic situation in sub-Saharan Africa. If we look at the list of countries ranked by social wealth, we see that among the 20 poorest countries, most are located in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an absolutely dramatic situation. The question arises: has the direction of civilisation development been chosen correctly? Isn’t it so that only a small group known as the golden billion benefits from the technological and civilisation achievements of mankind? Enjoying the disproportionately higher share of these gains of civilisation, they are the beneficiaries of this unfair division of labour, which for some is very beneficial, for others – destructive. Therefore, many other problems arise, for example social mobility related to the fact that the place of birth, family and birth conditions are directly related to access to both education and basic material goods. That’s why, to sum up my statement, I think that some kind of disproportions in consumption results in two twin phenomena occurring simultaneously: overconsumption by certain groups and lack of access to basic consumption goods by other groups. This situation is a contradiction of sustainable development and, unfortunately, there is now awareness that these are negative phenomena, that they are very disturbing phenomena, but this awareness appears among intellectuals and conscious people, those who are interested in this subject, and the average consumer, like the decision-makers of this world, they either ignore this problem or limit themselves to uttering various slogans.
One of the goals of sustainable development is to take action to counteract climate change and its effects. Do you see any actions around you that would indicate that this problem is taken seriously?
I’m just afraid that a lot is said about it, but not much done. Let me give you one example that has shocked and upset me recently. At the beginning of last year, I wanted to go to Great Britain. I considered various ways of getting there. I figured I would seriously consider going by train. I calculated the cost of traveling by rail across Europe, the Channel Tunnel and then the UK. It would be the expenditure of about PLN 3000. At that time travelling with cheap airlines cost about PLN 30 on special offer. I admit that in the end I decided to take the plane, although I was aware that I was doing wrong. On the other hand, the disproportion of expenses was so great that a person with a small budget had no choice but travel by air. My reflection is that this is a shocking situation. Travelling by train isn’t two or three times as expensive, but almost 100 times!!! This is a fact. Traveling by rail in Europe is the most ecological and, at the same time, the most expensive means of passenger transport. This shows that we are dealing with a truly dramatic situation that requires immediate action. If London and cheap flights were taxed at the beginning, each passenger on the plane would have to bear the cost of various activities that would, for example, compensate for the carbon footprint that is generated by the flight. The fact that politicians give all kinds of speeches about how important sustainable development is to them and that they are very eager to have a photo taken with Greta Thunberg, does’t change the fact that little is being done in this respect.
What is your opinion about the activities undertaken by the European Union to support SDGs?
Tax policy, in my opinion, both at the national level and in the European Union, unfortunately still promotes an anti-ecological, unhealthy way of life. It pertains not only to Poland, but also Western European countries. I am a supporter of the vegan idea. I believe that meat production is the most destructive for the climate. Meanwhile, the European Union subsidises meat producers. In that case, we can’t speak of the European Union supporting the idea of sustainable development. On the other hand, vegan food is much more expensive. I bear these costs because I’ve made such a decision, but there are people who, for economic reasons, can’t afford it. It leads to a situation in which people who are primarily driven by economic interests choose an anti-ecological way of life.
What is your opinion about the role of behavioural changes?
As for my life, I’ve done quite a lot. I don’t buy clothes in brand shops, but in second hand clothing shops, I don’t follow various types of fashions, I use a minimum of electronics, I use second-hand electronic equipment. However, I still feel that I could definitely do more, such as cut back on plastic that I still use quite a lot. I’d like conscious consumers to be in the majority. Unfortunately, the average buyer is exposed to all sorts of incentives, all sorts of quality-of-life marketing arguments. On the other hand, we hear the postulates of limiting consumption or taking pro-ecological actions much less frequently. The power of advertising is destructive: it creates behaviours, artificial needs and triggers the belief in the consumer that in order to participate in modern society, one must often ostentatiously buy and consume what is currently fashionable. You have to constantly buy new attire and electronic equipment. I’m an opponent of individual materialisation promoted on a large scale. I believe that a person who doesn’t need a car shouldn’t have one. Instead, they should use public, mass transport. I’ve been doing this for years and, to be honest, I’m not going to change it. On the other hand, advertising creates a reality in which not having your own car is a great shame, and public transport is for losers. People who don’t follow all kinds of fashions, don’t have the most modern electronic equipment, don’t have their own car and don’t consume on a large scale, face enormous social pressure from kindergarten or early childhood. In this situation, it seems to me that the only possibility of global change is to create an environment in which pro-ecological choices conducive to sustainable development will also be economically rational and will be favoured by an appropriate tax policy.
Do you discuss the issue of sustainable development during your didactic work at the University of Gdańsk?
I try to stay in touch with students and sometimes discuss ecological topics with them, including the effects of various activities and their impact on the biosphere, ecosystem and climate. Unfortunately, I don’t see much interest in this subject among my students. In my opinion, students dream of consuming on a large scale, succumb to various types of fashions, it is important for them to have modern electronic devices, the desire to own a car is popular, and they fall into unhealthy eating habits. In the immediate vicinity of the university there is a McDonald’s, which is a symbol of junk, worthless food. It’s extremely popular among students who eat there during breaks between classes. In addition, there’re vending machines at the university where you can buy crisps, breadsticks, Coca-Cola. If someone wanted to eat a healthy meal or a vegan dish, they’d have a huge problem. It isn’t easy to get a wholesome vegan meal not only at the university, but also around the university. You can do it, but you need to know the culinary topography of the area quite well. On the other hand, the advantage of the University of Gdańsk is that bicycle racks are quite easily accessible and they are located in many places. However, I haven’t noticed any great interest in these racks. I have been cycling to university for many years and my impression is that most students look at it with some kind of amazement, that they find it eccentric. When it comes to academics, unfortunately there are few keen cyclists.
What you’ve said can’t be considered optimistic.
Exactly, what I’ve said might have sounded too malcontent, and I’ve just realised it now. Perhaps this is because I consider the alarmist tone justified in the current situation. However, I’m glad that there’re also non-conformists, that there’re academics who aren’t afraid to talk about the fact that perhaps modern civilisation is going in the wrong direction, that there’re authorities among intellectuals and people aware of the threat.
If you were to indicate any effective solutions in terms of achieving the goals of sustainable development or counteracting climate change, which would you enumerate first?
When it comes to positive models, often societies much richer than Polish society – here I can give the example of Norwegians or, more broadly, Scandinavians – have lower consumption needs and incomparably lower need for ostentatious consumption. I just think that this kind of linking social status and prestige with large-scale consumption is a huge problem that Polish society is blighted by. If I were to compare the Polish situation to the Norwegian situation, then a Norwegian who is four or five times as wealthy as an average Pole, at the same time has no problem with renting a flat, living, for example, in a relatively modest wooden house, using public transport, even if he or she is a senior official or has high position in the local community. In the Scandinavian countries social prestige isn’t connected with ostentatious consumption. And it seems to me that this is a social pattern when it comes to the previously mentioned behavioural aspect. It seems to me that a modest life, a bit more asceticism, reduction, limiting consumption would be a very good direction of development. I think the promotion of these kinds of models is the most important. I must admit that I am using our conversation to promote issues that I personally care about. As for other examples, solutions, I believe that private cars and plane flights should be taxed. Receipts and additional revenues from these taxes should be allocated to supporting environmentally friendly means of transport. I believe that Poland is a country for drivers. If we take into account the Highway Code, in no other country in Europe, in the European Union, is there such a provision as an arbitrary pedestrian inrush onto the street. Poland is a country where in the case of a collision of a pedestrian with a car, the pedestrian can be found guilty. In general, pedestrians and cyclist have fewer rights than drivers. Cyclists are treated as intruders on the roads, car drivers consider themselves the rulers of these roads, and they believe that roads are for cars only. In conclusion, if I were to choose the three most important areas in which changes should occur for society to develop sustainably, I would mention: trying to stop consumerism, increasing the rights of vegetarians and vegans, and the rights of pedestrians and cyclists, i.e. less consumption, healthier food and a healthier lifestyle.
The interview was carried out by Sylwia Mrozowska, PhD, DSc, Prof. of the UG