Humanity is currently facing a novel combination of realities that challenge traditional ideas abiding in human brains: population and consumption per capita keep growing, natural resources are being depleted and/or degraded by many kinds of pollution, intolerable inequalities are breeding violence worldwide, and human institutions (both secular and religious) are becoming increasingly paralyzed by failures to resolve issues and the fear of greater failures. Most ideas that emerge about possible long-term solutions are quickly discarded as impractical in the short-term.
However, reason eventually prevails in human affairs, and the nature of Homo sapiens sapiens (the species of "those who know that they know") remains a source of sure hope. There is an increasing awareness that neither individualist capitalism nor collectivist communism are capable of assuring a better future for our children and grandchildren, even though a new synthesis is not yet visible. Experience confirms that newly emerging technologies are ethically neutral and can be used for good or bad. It is argued that human wisdom, and the human capacity to make adaptive choices and act accordingly, will enable us to overcome the current global mess and pave the way for something better.
Human agency is the capacity for human persons to make choices and act independently, thereby influencing their social and ecological environment. Philosophically and sociologically the concept of "human agency" is the subject of scholarly debates, but the following is a reasonable summary adapted from Wikipedia:
"Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and act independently. It is normally contrasted to natural forces that are not based on conscious decision-making. Agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical notion that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined. Human agency entails the claim that humans do in fact make conscious decisions and enact them on the world. How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue.
In brief, humans are acting persons who are responsible and accountable for their actions. The new twist is that social accountability and ecological sustainability can no longer be assumed to be separate concerns. As we enter the Anthropocene, actions by persons, corporations, and other institutions are significantly impacting unconscious natural processes that were hithertho insensitive to human activity. Too many humans. Too much consumption of goods and services directly or indirectly extracted from natural resources. Too much waste. Too much groupthink, such as the fantasy of infinite growth in a finite planet, that benefits a minute elite at the expense of humanity and the human habitat. Thus it becomes critical to understand how persons and institutions must adapt their choices and act accordingly, now and in the foreseeable future.
"The capacity of a human to act as an agent is personal to that human, though considerations of the outcomes flowing from particular acts of human agency for us and others can then be thought to invest an ethical component into a given situation wherein an agent has acted, and thus to involve moral agency. If a situation is the consequence of human decision making, persons may be under a duty to apply value judgments to the consequences of their decisions, and held to be responsible for those decisions. Human agency by one person or group entitles others to ask should this have occurred? in a way that would be nonsensical in the case of unconscious natural forces."
Timeline of Sustainable Development
The terrorist attack of 11 September 2001, the financial crisis of 2008, and the current ubiquity of greed and violence do not bode well for sustainable development during the 21st century. The optimistic expectations that followed the demise of the "iron curtain" and the "cold war" are giving way to widespread pessimism, as many wonder if World War III has already started as extreme inequalities in standard of living become increasingly intolerable.
In this context, it is useful to summarize recent human development milestones:
1962 ~ Publication of Silent Spring, the seminal book by Rachel Carson that sounded the alarm about the nefarious ecological effects of pesticides.
1972 ~ Publication of The Limits to Growth, a set of computer simulations by a team at MIT, sponsored by the Club of Rome, that attempted to show the absurdity of pursuing unlimited growth with limited natural resources.
1987 ~ Definition of "sustainable development" by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in
Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
1992 ~ The Earth Summit, or UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, with representatives of 172 nations (including 108 heads of state), resulting in Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Statement of Forest Principles, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
1999 ~ The Ecocosm Paradox, a significant analysis by Willard Fey and Ann Lam (Georgia Tech and Ecocosm Dynamics Ltd) identifying the fundamental "groupthink" feedback loops that may eventually result in resource exhaustion and ecological collapse unless reversed by human agency.
2000 ~ The Millennium Summit of the UN General Assembly in New York, with representatives of 189 nations (including 142 heads of state), resulting in the Millennium Declaration and unanimous approval of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
2002 ~ The World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, resulting in another Declaration on Sustainable Development and a Sustainable Development Implementation Plan for Agenda 21 and the MDGs with 2015 targets.
2005 ~ The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an analysis of ecosystem changes induced by human activity and the consequences of those changes for human well-being. It provides scientific evidence on the current state of the world's ecosystems, the services they provide (clean water, food, forest products, flood control, and other natural resources), how they are changing as a result of human activity (indeed, we are entering the Anthropocene), and the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems.
2012 ~ The Future We Want, Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20). Summary: "If we are to leave a livable world to our children and grandchildren, the challenges of widespread poverty and environmental destruction need to be tackled now.
- The world today has 7 billion people – by 2050, there will be 9 billion.
- One out of every five people – 1.4 billion – currently lives on $1.25 a day or less.
- A billion and half people in the world don’t have access to electricity.
- Two and a half billion people don’t have a toilet.
- Almost a billion people go hungry every day.
- Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and more than a third of all known species could go extinct if climate change continues unchecked.
2014 ~ Post-2015 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs and 2030 targets are currently under discussion, with 17 goals tentatively identified as of this writing.
To some extent, each of these milestones has been the result of human agency. However, wiser human agency is needed to convert declarations and goals into realities. The report, Global Wealth Report 2014, dramatically documents increasing divergence from fairness in human affairs, both globally and locally. Another recently released report, Just Money: How Catholic Social Teaching can Redeem Capitalism, forcibly argues that simplistic tweakings of the current system cannot be expected to yield any semblance of "sustainable development," and advocates a "humanization" of the economy as the remedy:
"The answer is not to abandon the business economy but to humanise it, thereby making it fairer, more efficient and user-friendly, never forgetting that, like the Sabbath, the market was made for man and not man for the market."
Integral Human Development
Integral Human Development (IHD) is about promoting "the good of every person and the whole person" in all dimensions of human life: physically, intellectually, psychologically, spiritually. From the perspective of IHD, sustainable development cannot be reduced to economic development alone. Granted that there is a hierarchy of needs, and basic necessities such as food and shelter must be met before higher levels (education, self-esteem, social responsibility, self-actualization) can be pursued, human development is not simply a matter of growing in material consumption of goods and services. Only inner growth can lead to responsible social and ecological citizenship, for humans are both flesh and spirit, body and soul, and meeting the objective needs of the body is necessary but not sufficient for the well-being of human subjects.
Furthermore, as is well known, IHD cannot be attained in isolation. People need people. People need community. It is only via inter-personal relations that IHD can be attained to any significant extent. The biblical myths about the creation (Genesis 1-2) make it clear that inter-gender relations are the most fundamental and universal basis for humans to become fully human. "Human development, if not engendered, is endangered" (HDR 1995). Cultural aberrations, such as ideological patriarchy, still persist in some regions of the world and contaminate some of the major world religions. But social solidarity, and ecological sustainability, are contingent on recovering inter-gender relations based on unity in diversity, equality in mutuality, and individuality in community.
"Body-Persons" as Human Agents
As John Paul II's Theology of the Body abundantly shows, human beings are personal subjects, "body-persons" in which the physical body, real as it is, makes visible not only invisible divine realities but also the inner human life of thoughts, emotions, and deeper spiritual existence. Beyond the basic biophysical necessities and personal safety concerns, IHD is about humans becoming fully human, including the inner journey that takes each person from lonely self-interest to relational solidarity. The efficacy of human agency for sustainable development is contingent on full development of each and every human person.
The converse is also true in the sense that those in abject poverty cannot possibly find time and energy to seek an education, let alone undergo the inner journey. This is the reason that fairly distributed economic development is so important. But, in the ultimate analysis, it is human initiative, albeit within the limitations of each person's concrete situation, that is crucial for sustainable development. It follows that those who are privileged, materially and otherwise, have the greatest moral responsibility to become agents for social and ecological justice.
A central concept of the Theology of the Body is the "spousal meaning of the human body." It means that the body is the means to engage in mutual social relationships: between man and woman, husband and wife, parents and children, friends and friends, friends and enemies, rich and poor, those who are near and those who are far away. While face to face communications (including "body language") remain indispensable, the internet is enabling people to reach out with minimum effort. However, keyboards remain inert unless human fingers enter something. In one way or another, the body is the way for a person to relate to others.
But there is more to the "spousal meaning of the human body." Human bodies become truly "spousal" when acting in solidarity with others, seeking unity in diversity without any form of exclusivism, equality in mutual complementarity, and community that fully respects the individuality of each person. This kind of "spousal" acting is of course crucial in marriage and family life, but extends to all dimensions of social life and should go even further to animate all human interactions with our natural habitat. In the biblical tradition, humans are placed at the center of creation, not at the top of a pyramid of domination.
Anthropological Synthesis of Egalitarian vs. Complementarian Ideologies
An article in the current issue of America Magazine identifies some crucial issues of gender relations that pertain to the "spousal meaning of the human body." A healthy spirituality of sex, which is essential for IHD, cannot be reduced to either the egalitarian ideology that ignores the differences between men and women or the complementarian ideology that ignores the original unity of man and woman, fully restored by the redemption.
Genital complementarity pursuant to human reproduction, and other objective and subjective gender differences, do not mean that men and women are mutually exclusive in all dimensions of human life. There is neither egalitarian ideology nor complementarian ideology in the Theology of the Body, which provides a refreshing synthesis that is 100% complementarian and 100% egalitarian. Awareness of this "equality in mutuality," or "equality in complementarity," is crucial for men and women to avoid "dumpster love" and experience sex as a sacrament.
In this regard, the exclusion of women from the hierarchy of the sacramental churches is a tragedy that is rooted in patriarchal theology rather than divine revelation. How can we explain to young people that the divine plan for human love includes both unity in diversity and equality in mutuality, while the sacramental leadership lacks gender diversity and mutual enrichment? Isn't it significant that no support of patriarchy can found in the Theology of the Body?
Families as Agents of Sustainable Development
The nuclear family is the fundamental unit of society. It is the womb where IHD in engendered, and it is the "domestic school" of social solidarity and ecological sustainability. It follows that the family can be a very influential agent of sustainable development. Without family support, it is hard for individuals to be agents of positive change. Supporting families are essential for individual human agency to happen, and families as such become agents when all the family members act together as responsible citizens.
Needless to say, families become dysfunctional, and cannot become agents of positive change, unless they constitute a "communion of persons" based on inter-gender and inter-generational solidarity. A patriarchal family, in which the "patriarch" makes final decisions in isolation from other family members, is a dysfunctional family. So would be a matriarchal family in which the "matriarch" exercises absolute authority. Dysfunctional families cannot be agents for sustainable human development outwardly because they spend too much time and energy in internal power struggles, no matter how subtle; body language makes them visible.
What happens in nuclear families also happens in extended families, institutional families, and the entire human family. "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton). Absolute monarchies, and other extreme power structures such as the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat" are no longer credible as effective forms of governance. Religious patriarchy is a notable source of dysfunctionality in churches and tends to induce various forms of intimidation to ensure conformity with established doctrines. Patriarchal churches may show resilience as agents for the perpetuation of patriarchy, but they are increasingly failing as agents of sustainable development.
The Theology of the Body is 100% complementarian and 100% egalitarian, but every conceivable rationalization is still being used to justify patriarchal structures in family, society, and religion. There is, for example, the idea that men and women are equal in dignity but complementary in function, and this is used to justify the exclusion of women from certain roles, especially in religious worship. As modern psychology has shown, there is man in woman and there is woman in man. Gender differences do not cancel the fundamental unity of man and woman. This anthropological (and theological, and sociological) integration of "equality in complementarity" is crucial for men and women, and families, to collaborate as agents for sustainable development.
Integration of Sustainable Development
Personal integration is the most essential prerequisite for sustainable human development. Family integration and, more generally, integration of inter-gender relations is a corequisite, since personal integration cannot happen in isolation and man-woman relations, in family and society, are the most universal form of inter-personal community. Then comes integration in other dimensions of social life: racial, ethnic, national, international, etc. Integration of humanity and the human habitat, or ecological integration, is also becoming imperative as we enter the Anthropocene.
Full integration of the sustainable development process is contingent and wisdom and good will. It is a human-intensive process that utterly transcends mathematical analysis and the empirical sciences, and it would be foolish to presume that it can be guided by any sequence of technological fixes. That said, the more quantifiable dimensions of the process, such as the engineering, economic, and ecological dimensions, are analyzable, and to some extent amenable to integration, by using methods such as, for example:
Any of these methods can be useful when wisely applied in conjunction with reliable data in their proper application domains. None of these methods, or any other mathematical or scientific method, is universally applicable in all phases of sustainable development. The issues that really matter in human ecology are primarily anthropological and ethical, and to a significant extent political, but only secondarily scientific or technological.
This is the reason that spirituality, and the guidance provided by religious traditions and institutions, is so crucial. A secular ethic of human development is also possible, but given that 80% of the human population profess some religious affiliation, the influence of organized religion, for good or bad, should not be underestimated. Religious influence is nefarious when it promotes patriarchal domination and other forms of violence. On the other hand, the Golden Rule is the best formula for "muddling through" toward a civilization of solidarity and sustainability.
Strategies and Best Practices
Integral human development, as defined above, is the fundamental strategy for sustainable development. The efficacy of human agency for sustainable development is contingent on integral human development. The supplements of this monthly journal document the current status of strategies and best practices for sustainable development, as follows:
- Advances in Sustainable Development, including the latest reports on the Millennium Development Goals, current initiatives pursuant to the definition of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals for the 2015-2030 timeframe, and emerging research on human development, integrated planning, data resources, and international solidarity efforts.
- Directory of Sustainable Development Resources, an annotated list of 1000+ links to online resources in practically all phases of sustainable development.
- Strategies for Solidarity and Sustainability, including integral human development and demographic issues, mitigation and adaptation strategies, fundamental principles (solidarity, subsidiarity, sustainability, nonviolence) for policy formulation, sustainable energy strategies, and some global transition concepts and simulations.
- Best Practices for Solidarity and Sustainability in business and governance, educational programs, global citizenship projects, calculation of energy return on investment, financial transaction taxes, resource value taxes, industrial quality and environmental standards, and investment opportunities.
- Fostering Gender Balance in Society, a synopsis of gender balance initiatives in secular institutions.
- Fostering Gender Balance in Religion, a synopsis of gender balance initiatives in religious institutions.
It is noted, again and again, that all these initiatives depend on human agency, which in turn is contingent on integral human development. There is no such thing as *the* global solution for the ecological crisis. Too many parts moving, too many cultures, too many conflicting interests, too many intangibles, too many uncertainties. Reducing population is not a solution if total consumption of natural resources continues to grow. Reducing consumption, by technological efficiency or any other means, is hard to imagine given current behavior patterns in the more affluent segments of the population. Other planets are far away, and humans becoming angels is not to be counted upon.
Global initiatives, such as the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, do provide a framework that is helpful and should be supported to the maximum possible extent; and some form of global governance may eventually emerge to manage transnational issues, and could be useful as long as the principle of subsidiarity is practiced. But, in the ultimate analysis, the only way to do sustainable development is one person at a time, one family at a time, one community at a time. Globalization issues cannot be resolved by more globalization.
Integral human development is a necessary and sufficient condition for human agency pursuant to social and ecological justice. The timeline of sustainable development initiatives abundantly shows the kind of people who can make a difference. They are not better or worse than other people, but all have something in common: they were granted the opportunity to get an education, and mature as human persons, to the point of being able to think and act seeking "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
The human person is the point of intersection for all dimensions of human life -- objectively and subjectively, bodily and spiritually -- and is, therefore, the point of integration for sustainable development. Reducing sustainable development to unlimited growth in the human consumption of material goods and services is an oxymoron, as natural resources are physically limited. Both population and consumption may have to decline, hopefully in a manner that does not violate human rights. Science and technology can help but, in the ultimate analysis, people will have to make responsible choices that require self-discipline and a sense of solidarity with other people and the entire cosmos. How can this become culturally possible?
The patriarchal culture of male domination is passing away, and a more balanced culture of gender "equality in complementarity" is beginning to emerge. During this cultural transition, the nuclear family remains the "domestic school" of solidarity and sustainability. Both secular and religious institutions that remain structured according to the patriarchal family model are increasingly becoming obstacles to integral human development, and must evolve in support of the nuclear family. Care should be taken not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but remaining static is not an option.
The Invisible Partners: How the Male and Female in Each of Us Affects Our Relationships, John A. Sanford, Paulist Press, 1979.
Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, Brundtland Commission, United Nations, 1987.
The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, Pope John Paul II, Pauline Books, 1997. See also Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II, translation by Michael Waldstein, Pauline Books, 2006. For more on the TOB, including tutorials and recent updates, visit The TOB Net and The Cor Project.
Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System, Alicia Juarrero, MIT Press, 1999.
Toward a Psychology of Human Agency, Albert Bandura, Perspectives of Psychological Science, 2006.
A User's Guide to Integral Human Development (IHD), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Baltimore, 2009.
Agency trumps structure: Sustainable development, participatory democracy, human rights and human agency, Janet Cherry, ZNet Communications, 15 July 2009.
Accountability and Some Social Dimensions of Human Agency, Bennett W. Helm, Philosophical Issues, Volume 22, 2012.
Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility, Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, Vatican City, 2-6 May 2014.
Of the Same Flesh: Exploring a Theology of Gender, Susan Durber, Christian Aid, July 2014. See also Gender Justice for All: Achieving just and equitable power relations between women and men, Christian Aid, July 2014.
Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience", UNDP, Human Development Report, 24 July 2014.
Living Planet Report, Global Footprint Network, September 2014.
Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems, Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Barry W. Brook, Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences, 15 September 2014.
The language of sustainability, David Benady, The Guardian, 10 October 2014.
Global Wealth Report, Credit Suisse Research Institute, October 2014.
Just Money: How Catholic Social Teaching can Redeem Capitalism, Clifford Longley, Theos, October 2014.
Globalisation versus Community, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Local Futures, October 2014.
Gender Equality and Sustainable Development, United Nations, 16 October 2014.
Transformers: 10 revolutions that made us human, Colin Barras, New Scientist, 22 October 2014.
Market Assumptions - Pope Francis’ challenge to income inequality, Robert W. McElroy, America Magazine, 3 November 2014.