Debates on sustainability, if taken in as matter dealing with a wider, social understanding of the issue in question, are frequently linked to a rather mechanical understanding of needs, and in this context reference is not least made to considerations on marginal utility and the subsequent thesis that at a certain point any additional consumed unit does not lead any additional (or only a minimal increase of) satisfaction. Even an adverse effect can be made out in cases where we can speak of definite overconsumption. The commonly presented thesis is that there is a point of saturation beyond which no ‘added value’ is possible. And of course, there is a close link then also to the Pareto-optimum.
However, the entire approach is based on a fundamental flaw, only dealing with numbers and different weighing, loosing the underlying qualitative aspect out of sight. Utilities can in deed be quantified. However, this is presupposing that use value and exchange value are distinct units, at least in tendency separate from each others. Actually, in this view they both take distinct physical forms, the one being the actual ‘good’, the other its money-form.
Such approach may be fundamentally criticised by bringing two aspects together – which also means by referring to the following two conditions:
- the consuming and the paying entities are basically identical.
– Of course, in a macro-economic perspective this can only mean that in a long-term perspective (in the last instance) externalisation is not possible
- the utility value is not understood as matter of ‘consumption; rather , consumption is itself (part of) a productive process (as outlined for instance in the Grundrisse by Marx) and s such production is meant to be a matter of ‘empowerment’. The ‘utility’ is ‘mastery of life’ – right in the understanding put forward by Engels:
The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.
What Engels is presenting is a fundamentally and genuinely social relationship, not simply inescapable but even without a want to escape. Production, products and consumption are very much an entity, in the same way as the individual is not social by his/her interaction with others but its own intrinsic existence.
Against this background we ay turn our attention to Wilhelm von Humboldt and his work on The Limits of State Action. Towards the end of his treatise he looks at the question of prevention of crime, however, importantly linking this to the question of causes of crime. He contends that
… all prevention of crime must be directed to its causes. But these causes, which are so infinitely varied, might be expressed perhaps in a general formula as the feeling, not sufficiently resisted by reason, of the disparity between the inclinations of the agent and the means in his power for gratifying them. (117 f.)
And from here he continues:
Although it might be very difficult to distinguish them in particular instances, there would be, in general, two distinct cases of this disproportion; firstly, when it arises from a real excess of desires, and, secondly, when it results from a lack of means to satisfy even ordinary inclinations. (118)
We have to try to stripe off all this fundamentalist individualism that characterise Humboldt’s remarks – and then they may actually be rather meaningful to grasp more thoroughly the challenges we face today, as much as we faced them already throughout history of mankind. In other words, the challenges about sustainability and a new understanding of what economic activities are about are not new – however, they are permanently captured by a tensional relationship that is characteristic in different dimensions, sometimes occurring in parallel, sometimes in a somewhat alternating way.
It is frequently said that today’s economies are structurally depending on debt – debt together with quantitative growth are suggested to be an indispensable condition of stability. Leaving the inherent contradiction aside: stability – as far as it resembles stasis – is made dependent on two dynamic aspects, one of the main problems seems to be that the entire pattern is based on a fundamental contradiction – a tearing apart of entities.
Consumption is in a twofold way separated from its productive dimension: it is suggested as independent from the process of manufacturing (production of goods) and it is furthermore suggested to be independent from the production and reproduction of human existence. However, in bot, economic and social theories these two ‘divisions’ are not sufficiently considered. In other words, difference and connection between productive and non-productive consumption are left outside of analytical considerations. Cum grano salis, the same is true fro production as matter of reproduction. By this, the goal of reproduction is turned away from its original perspective, now not being concerned with human beings but with socio-economic systems.
Thus, the task of policies on social sustainability have to take up the challenge to establish and maintain ‘blocks against externalisation’ as every of the before-mentioned separations are also mechanisms of socio-economic externalisation.
Though it remains for the moment open to properly relate happiness, prosperity, flourishing, wealth etc. we may see a perspective. If we have, according to Amartya Sen, to look at ‘capabilities needed to flourish’ (Sen, see also Nussbaum) we may concretise this by defining flourishing primarily as developing contentness against the disparity as it is outlined by Humboldt, the
disparity between the inclinations of the agent and the means in his power for gratifying them.
Functionings, as frequently centre-staged by Sen, are now also matters of the ‘social individuals’, partially independent of the functioning of social systems – and dialectically in this way determining new perspectives for these systems.
 1791/92; ed.: J.B. Burrow; Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993