Let’s start with the very concept of zrównoważony rozwój, because it is widely used, but we have completely different approaches to what zrównoważony rozwój is. Taking into account your scientific activity and achievements, how do you understand zrównoważony rozwój?
As a person dealing with the development of socio-political thought, I don’t like the term zrównoważony rozwój very much, because the term zrównoważony rozwój is not a completely correct translation from the English language. The English etymology of sustainable development referred mainly to the research conducted by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s and the fuel crisis. At that time a warning appeared that, after a period of rapid growth in the 1950s and 1960s in Europe, the situation could change and economic growth also has its limits. And the question arose: how can this growth be preserved, what actions should be taken? The original idea was for growth to be sustainable and for economic growth, and hence prosperity, to be sustained.
So the goal was to manage growth?
Probably so, to manage growth, because the famous report of the Club of Rome The Limits of Growth indicated what may at some point stop the economic rebellion, on which Western Europe built prosperous societies, a welfare state and ensured social stability, especially after the interwar experience related to the development of extreme fascist or communist movements. Post-war economic growth made it possible to introduce the idea of a prosperity state, a welfare state. And warnings appeared that it should be remembered that this policy isn’t permanent and that at some point it may reach its limits, and what next? Therefore some measures should be taken to make this growth permanent. When it comes to introducing the concept of sustainable growth, it seems to me that it is, in fact, related to the growing environmental awareness in the 1980s and the political successes of green movements, mainly in the Scandinavian countries and in Germany, when attention began to be paid to the issue of ecology. It seems to me that in this case, the Chernobyl disaster gave ecological movements, green movements a stimulus to indicate the negative effects of industrialisation, and then the category of more sustainable growth appeared, i.e. to maintain economic growth and increase social welfare taking into account environmental needs. These categories are combined. However, as for the development of the idea, so many different concepts have been attached to the concept of sustainable growth, especially in recent years…
…that this term has started losing its sense. It’s become so capacious that it is practically undefinable. Because everything that is possible: social and economic issues, whatever you want, are thrown into the category of sustainable development. This category is no longer legible and is probably detached from its original sources. It has become such a very flexible frame that anyone can cram things into and justify whatever they really like.
That’s what I wanted to ask about. Because this concept is very fuzzy, such an umbrella term that has many different meanings and doesn’t really reflect these ideas of the Club of Rome anymore, does it? I think so too. And you said that this concept was imperfect. What term would you use instead of sustainable development?
It depends on what we are talking about, because when it comes to public discussions about state policy, it is the same concept as any other and can be used as a journalistic and propaganda slogan, no problem. However, when it comes to the academic sphere and the research sphere, here it’s necessary to reflect on definitions. On how we use them, how we apply them, because if we use such a broad, flexible concept during analyses, the meaning of these analyses is lost. In the academic environment, or in analyses, not only in academic ones, but in professional analyses, it is necessary to clarify this term and pay attention to what aspect in this case we want to concentrate on and how it is related to what can be defined as sustainable or permanent development. It’s no problem when this term is used in political discussions. Better or worse slogans keep appearing, e.g. a welfare state. Sustainable development is among the political slogans. On the other hand, in professional analyses these terms should be made more precise.
I agree with that too. Researchers should know what they are talking about, they must define the subject of discussion or the subject of their research. It is very difficult for me to define what sustainable development is. What do you think about the goals of sustainable development? Don’t they help to clarify the concept of sustainable development a little?
They don’t help, because the term sustainable development has become so flexible that everyone tries to squeeze their goals, whatever they may be, into this sustainable development. So what used to be strictly economic goals (how to maintain economic growth), then has been extended to environmental goals (how to maintain economic growth taking into account environmental problems) including various types of problems: loss of biodiversity, depletion of natural resources, struggle for the right to live in the unpolluted natural environment. Then, various issues of equality and poverty have been added. The concept of sustainable development has been extended in such a way that the formulation of goals blurs it even more, because we formulate goals, for example, regarding the maintenance of economic growth, ensuring the clean environment, eradication of poverty, socio-political organisation, or also the state, and the functioning of society. And all people easily add their goals, which for some reason they consider essential, important for the further sustainable development of human society, to the concept of sustainable development.
Is it such a bag, right? Into which items can be dropped?
The danger is that then this concept has become a very broad concept, often also a political one. Due to the politicisation and extension of the concept of sustainable development to issues unrelated to the economy or the environment, political resistance to this concept appears, which is a natural and understandable process.
And please tell me, does the concept of sustainable development goals appear in your teaching activities? If yes, how?
If the issue of sustainable development appears in my teaching activity, it’s rather not in the context of SDGs, but rather as a form. When it comes to goals, it is in the sense that SDGs set the directions of the state’s policy, in the sense that sustainable development is a concept that directs the presentation of problems and their definition, and directs the activities of the state and public institutions. In this sense, it appears. When it comes to sustainable development itself, no. On the other hand, in the context of the development of society and the emergence of a certain normative concept, which sustainable development is, setting goals that, in consequence, direct the activities of socio-political institutions – yes.
And what about your research activities? Are elements of the concept of sustainable development goals contained in your research activity?
Sustainable development in my research activity is related to the changes of the modern state, i.e. changes in the way public institutions and the state operate, with the emergence of the concept of sustainable development, which redefines the functioning of the state and the organisation of the state and society. It’s part of my research work. How the state changes under the influence of these new ideas that have emerged and are altering, affecting the way the state functions today.
What is the role of the European Union in supporting the SDGs?
First and foremost, the European Union has financial resources. And this is the essence of systems, of any political system, that resources can never be spent on everything within it. Because there’s never enough of these resources in human society. Within the political system, decisions are made on the allocation of resources to certain activities and goals. In fact, the European Union decides what the financial resources at its disposal will be spent on, and the financial resources are followed by everything: research, strengthening of certain areas, institutional action. Institutions change the organisation of the state and society in accordance with the goals that have been set. That is, the European Union defines to a large extent goals within the political system of the European Union that we want to achieve and the funds are allocated to that. And indeed, it is an institution that has quite large resources and there is quite a lot of institutional pressure here. The EU is able to force countries to adopt certain policies in line with SDGs. Moreover, the European Union causes the political unification of the entire continent, which is also not without significance, because Europe as a continent is very diverse, there are many countries. There’s probably no other continent that would be so diverse …
Europe and the European Union allow us to maintain a coherent economic, social and environmental policy on a terribly diverse territory: socially, economically, ethnically, culturally, however we call it.
How do you evaluate Poland, Poland’s activities for sustainable development and our role in the European Union in the context of unification? How do we compare with other countries?
How does Poland compare with other countries in the implementation of the sustainable development policy? Poland is quite a conservative country in thinking about politics and social changes. Throughout its history, Poland has always been situated on the European periphery and has never been at the centre of this European policy. A large part of political ideas, not even a large part, all political ideas and concepts of the state, society have reached Poland from outside, most often, of course, depending on the periods of history, but these modern ideas have reached Poland mainly from Western Europe. They arrive late to the peripheries and countries with a rather conservative approach to reality. On the one hand, of course, this is a problem related to the fact that these changes are introduced later in Poland than in Western Europe, but on the other hand, it’s also a positive consequence, because in such careful and conservative introduction of changes we can learn from mistakes and correct the current approach. Here, too, this conservatism and caution in the implementation of the idea of sustainable development have two sides and it’s difficult to assess it unambiguously. A very conservative approach to some concepts of sustainable development can be a plus and a minus, because conservatism allows you to observe and possibly correct, introduce changes to what has possibly failed. There is a difference, however, between completely rejecting ideas and saying no, and reasonable, moderate conservatism that helps us to correct the pursued policy.
And as far as Poland is concerned, what areas of sustainable development should Poland devote more attention to? What should be the most important in our country?
Is this question in fact a question about which goals I consider the most important in sustainable development?
In fact, there may be many answers. From my perspective, however, Poland should definitely improve its activities in the area of caring for the environment. And here, first of all, it’s probably about educating citizens in simplest matters. In things that have been virtually eliminated in Western Europe, because I can’t imagine that anyone in Western Europe would dump rubbish in the forest, which is common in Poland. And perhaps we should start from the simplest things. Pay attention to biodiversity, the simplest things that keep coming back. It used to be obvious, and now we are being suddenly informed that there should be flowers in the meadows that grow wild, because it is natural, that the use of fertilisers in the fields should be limited, because then everything flows into rivers, nitrogen affects the development of water management which is outrageous in cities. Everything has been covered with concrete, devoid of trees and water reservoirs that hold the groundwater level. The simplest, ordinary things should be realised first, and only then all the other elements will somehow come. Unfortunately, this process of social transformation, which began in the 1990s, hasn’t been completed yet. Changes in awareness about the importance of taking care of the surroundings and the environment. Consciousness that has been in Western Europe for a long time is sometimes absent here.
So, the groundwork.
The groundwork, yes.
It concerns people’s consciousness.
People’s consciousness, yes.
I agree here. Garbage in the forest, it is something unimaginable.
Yes, this is the nightmare that shows that sustainable development must be implemented from the bottom up. If we set ourselves abstract, elusive goals, then everyone will dump rubble or rubbish in the forest anyway, nothing will come of it. Sustainable development also means ensuring that wealth in Poland is more evenly distributed, so that there is no such situation that there is wealth in large cities and areas of exclusion and poverty somewhere in medium or smaller towns. These are also issues of more even development and distribution of profits resulting from economic growth. But this is also a question about what disturbs you, e.g. litter in the street that I see on the way to work…
It disturbs you, it disturbs me, so we can assume that this is a problem.
Yes, it is a problem. One of many.
We’ve talked about the EU, and about Poland. Now I would also like to ask about our university. What activities in the field of sustainable development goals do you think the University of Gdańsk should undertake?
The university as an academic unit. It’s a problem that universities, in my understanding of the mission of universities and their public service, should be research units, sort of Think Tanks that conduct research, point out problems and have an advisory voice also in the formulation of state policy goals. Probably the problem in the Polish state is that universities are treated as teaching institutions. They aren’t treated as research units, i.e. they do not receive money for research. Very often, the money that should go to research conducted by universities is directed to various types of foundations or private Think Tanks, which means that public money is spent twice: on the maintenance of universities and on various types of research institutes conducting research more or less professionally. On the other hand, universities that associate, remunerate scientists should, in this case, make sure that they excel in various types of research. It must be remembered that universities have also taken on a corporate form in their operation. They are divided, especially large universities, into many units and there is no coordination between research devoted to such broad concepts as sustainable development. So, it’s as if each unit carries out their own research without coordination. This is a completely different problem. In my opinion, universities as such should be research institutions and function like Think Tanks.
Are there any areas of sustainable development that would be important for the University of Gdańsk? Something connected to the region?
What the University of Gdańsk deals with and at what it is successful are mainly problems of the development of coastal areas, research on the marine ecosystem, and the word ecosystem is very broad, because it applies not only to the biological system, but also to the social one. How people live in this region, the issues of resource use, fisheries, forest management – that is, the development of coastal regions, and also due to the location of Gdańsk – the development of transport. The Gdańsk region is connected by means of various ties with the Scandinavian countries, which are anyway leaders in the development of the concept of sustainable development. So we can use these good Scandinavian practices and use the location to build a cooperation network, partnership with the Scandinavian countries and utilise the location of Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea for research and scientific cooperation.
Thank you very much for the interview.
The interview was carried out by Elżbieta Czapka, PhD