Respect of Time, Ethics and Sustainable Development

by Ana Bazac

The aim of this paper is to keep attention to the contradictory and limited character of the concept of sustainable society if one excludes the critical perspective over the social structure and the social relations from within the present society.

As it is well known, the concept of sustainable development (sustainable society) was forged as a model to harmonise the ecological and economic demands during the late modernity of the last century’s 70’s decade[i]. The ecological demands were not only the result of the emergence of the development of ecology as science, but also the conclusion of the obvious contradiction between the finite character of primary resources – and especially of hydrocarbons – and, on the other hand, the structural principle of the modern economy, i.e.  the principle of growth. The idea that emerged was that this principle would be better accomplished, thus the long term development would be better ensured if the resources and ecosystems were to be managed so that to preserve their own internal logic and not only that relating to economy as such.

But between the two sets of logic – that of modern economy and that of ecology – there is a structural antagonism. That is why, the protection of the environment and biodiversity, although it had and still has a glorious history, is far to be realised (1). This is the reason of the rejection of the concept as such as being a “verbal manipulation” (4).

However, in spite of its critiques, the theory of sustainable society has developed beyond the basis of ecological techniques and their implementation in the functioning of economy.

Creating the deep ecology – or T ecophilosophy –, Arne Naess has advanced, as the core of the theory of sustainable society, the accomplishment of the self of every living being (7, pp. 164-165)[ii]. The accomplishment of the self of man does not mean, of course, the accomplishment of one’s interests against the accomplishment of the self of the other forms of living matter: if man is not aware of the consequences of his actions over living matter, the solution would be the refrain from any such actions (7, pp. 174-175). This is a rationalist perspective: the anticipation of the consequences of actions involves not only the emphasis of planning and, in general, of scientific analysis – and not that framed by restrictive interests –, but also the assuming of  responsibility for the short, medium and long term consequences. From this point of view, however beneficent some actions could be on short term and for restrictive interests, they are valid only if their positive effects continue to occur on long term and surpassing some fragmented interests.

Actually, this perspective presupposes that the accomplishment of the self of man does not mean the accomplishment of the self of some people to the prejudice of the others’. This is the reason why deep ecology has exceeded the vision of isolated defence of various ecosystems: for if the efficiency of such a defence locally is not connected to the defence of the values of ecology at a global level, the rules of behaviours of communities and institutions and the relations among them should be revised. This is because the accomplishment of our self is part of an eco-spherical whole (7, p. 168), As an essential value of deep ecology, the principle of the accomplishment of the self by manifesting responsibility toward the consequences in all temporal and spatial levels where man has access has the formal character of complete generality of the Kantian ethical principle: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (3)[iii].

Sustainable society is not, therefore, only that where people learn to respect the natural environment, it also includes the focus on ethics. But this focus is weak nowadays: business ethics and the ethics of punctually solving concrete problems and which are isolated from the context[iv] tends to substitute the Kantian thought. How open is education to this line of thinking?

Farther, because man’s greatest wealth – both at the level of each individual and at the level of the community and the entire society – is time, the analysis of sustainable society presupposes to take into consideration the saving of time for each of us[v], therefore the winning of more time for the entire society. From this standpoint, the necessity of a “human code of conduct” (13) was advanced in relation to the behaviour of people, institutions and countries.

But the social structure of “late modernity” (Habermas) – where the complex ideology and philosophy of “post-modernity” was developed – is characterised by the rise of bureaucracy. Being a complex intermediary social category between the direct holders of the economic power and the ruled, the rise of bureaucracy reflects the development of the modern society, as Max Weber has explained. The expansion of domains and aspects that need to be managed, as well as the necessity of a coherent image about society as a whole – therefore the necessity of unitary evidence and control – have resulted and continue to result into the increase of power of the bureaucratic categories, and consequently these ones manifest the tendency to become autonomous from the democratic control.

In Max Weber’s Western world (or model), because the holders of the economic power were powerful and also because there was a significant counter-pressure from the population, bureaucracy was subordinated towards the actual holders of economic power and, at the same time, towards the democratic control which represented the double interest of the rulers and the ruled – situation reflected by the sociologist as the form of the ideal-type of anonymous bureaucracy and strictly observing the law –.

Just in order to counterattack the tendency of bureaucracy to become autonomous, therefore that of doubling the power, an important formal aspect of leadership in the Western world was the permanent control over bureaucracy. By continuing Weber’s model, the present democratic requirement is the transparency of the entire activity of management and services, performed within the public property, over the handling of public funds and the direct relationship with the public.

Obviously, the high bureaucracy, intersected with the economic holders of power – therefore more and more co-participating to this holding –, has the possibility to evade the law. This is which explains the roaring high-level corruption scandals, sometimes disclosed to the public.

But in general the medium and low bureaucracy in the Western world is still behaving within Weber’s ideal-type. Precisely because of the observance of the law at the level of activities closely connected to the large public, is life not only bearable but even “good” (Popper) – of course, together with the observance of other conditions as well.

Corruption and the arbitrariness of the small and mid-sized bureaucratic instances are weaker than at the level of the high bureaucracy. This means that the population has actually more time available for activities which presuppose the accomplishment of the self. That is why, notwithstanding the forces which aim at counter-attack it, the contribution of large categories to ecological, political and civic activities is so much greater than we can imagine.

But things happen differently in countries where modernity has brought along a powerful bureaucracy due to the weakness of the bourgeoisie. In Romania, this situation occurred, in specific forms, also during the Stalinist period and also after the 1989 moment.

Consequently, corruption is significant at all the levels of bureaucracy: both at the level of high bureaucracy and at the level of medium and low bureaucracy. The everyday life, directly connected to medium and low bureaucracy, becomes more and more tiring and bad, far from the “good life” which is emblematic for the post-war Western world and its social theory. Within this context, one of the methods against the wasting of one’s time is the integration within corrupt relations: but this kind of solutions diverts us from the accomplishment of the self and dissolves our availability to participate to the common activities for accomplishing a sustainable society.

At the same time, the power of bureaucracy – which rarefies the democratic control of institutions – is manifesting through its infringement of regulations and laws, therefore by imposing arbitrary standpoints concerning leadership and the performance of tasks.

If, for example, the one month period given by the law for a management body to reply to the letters sent by the public is not observed, then not only the contempt of bureaucracy towards people’s time is emphasised but also the establishment of a state of annoyance and disgust which is also responsible for people’s lack of interest in an active position in creating a sustainable society.

If, further, institutions simply fail to respond to the requests and notifications sent by people or by the media, or the answers are illogical, fake, dubious, then we are witnessing not only the contempt of bureaucracy towards people’s time but also the establishment of a state of annoyance and disgust which is also responsible for people’s lack of interest in an active position concerning the creation of a sustainable society.

If the replies of institutions are provided in mockery, counting on people’s annoyance and disgust which stop them to manifest responsibly concerning the problems of society, then the result is an alienated behaviour concerning an active position towards the creation of a sustainable society.

If we use the double standard, similar to the double speech – one towards the bureaucratic superior instances, and the media, and another one towards the population depending on bureaucracy, the result is completely negative concerning an active position to create a sustainable society.

In fact, bureaucracy even aims at this result: any responsible, therefore critical, manifestation of the population is perceived as an attack to the bureaucratic structures. The effect of this kind of behaviour of bureaucracy is, however, the emphasis of the profound lagging behind – and certainly not at the level of forms and discourses[vi]of society as such towards the standards of sustainability.

Under these circumstances, education should be sensitive not only to the necessity to modernise the ecological and technological popular culture, but also to the necessity to modernise the attitude of bureaucracy, i.e. to democratically control it and limit its tendencies, and to openly discuss – the most convincing method of education – the social problems opposing the creation of a sustainable society.

Romania is integrated within the processes which occur at a global, concrete and European level. Our hope is that of taking over the Western mechanisms of democracy and welfare, to save the time of people through the abolishment of the arbitrary and duplicitous leadership patterns. But there is the danger that the decrease of bureaucracy – referring here to the useless mediations within and between activities – could consist rather, or even only, in the creation of a business-appealing environment and not in the democratic control over bureaucracy. There is also the danger that the observance of laws by the bureaucratic structures might remain an aspect lesser accomplished.

The waste of time by the bureaucratic behaviour exhausts the time for creation, therefore the time for the accomplishment of the individuals’ self and, therefore, postpones the sustainable development of Romanian society as well as it encumbers the European development. On the medium and long term, this situation may have disastrous effects even on the power relations. That is why the discussion regarding bureaucracy proves to be a sine qua non element, far from representing a subversive topic proposed by a non-conformist perspective, just for the purpose to preserve the power relations. The problem is that it is not the only element in this respect.


[i] 1) See 10). Sustainable development is that development which “accomplishes the needs of the present without compromising the capacity of future generations to accomplish their needs”.

[ii] It’s interesting that the notion of ecosophy was created by Naess in a conference held in Bucharest in 1972.

[iii] And “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature”; and „act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only”; and „the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislative will”; and „every human will is a will which in all its maxims gives universal laws”; and „Act always on such a maxim as thou canst at the same time will to be a universal law”; and „Act on maxims which can at the same time have for their object themselves as universal laws of nature”; and „So act in regard to every rational being (thyself and others), that he may always have place in thy maxim as an end in himself”; and „Act upon a maxim which, at the same time, involves its own universal validity for every rational being”; and “So act as if thy maxim were to serve likewise as the universal law (of all rational beings)”;

All of these for „any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end”.

[iv] Also see Jeffrey Sachs’s approach which, in the context of focusing on actual targets – such as the eradication of malaria, see (2) –, develops a minimalist perspective in treating the problems of human ecology. I am referring to the eradication of extreme poverty (11). See also (12).

Could, however, the extreme poverty be eradicated – leaving aside the punctual successes as a result of technologies, of the increase of the general level of civilisation consequent to the technical and scientific revolutions and, generally, to the social development – without this eradication to touch the capitalist structural relations? And would the eradication of extreme poverty be not dependant on the increase of social polarisation in each country and throughout the world? For the time being the UN researchers have showed that the goals of the Millennium (to halve the extreme poverty phenomena until 2015) cannot be achieved. Rather, a “rolling” (postponement) of the solving of these problems occurs. Sachs’s book from 2005 is written in the same spirit. (But see also the failure to achieve the ends of Kyoto protocol and the bitter disagreements in Copenhagen, December 2009).

Notwithstanding the progress in science and technology, as well as the policies of inequality reduction through economic and fiscal tactics (welfare state and progressive tax), the fact that inequality has increased – as between “the developed North” and the “underdeveloped South”, but also in each country, even in the developed ones – is the result of capitalist structural relations, of the logic of capital. Just in this framework, the conservative standpoint, mainstream today, supported and still supports the principle to not offer a preferential treatment to the poor countries, for this treatment would be “unfair” to both the principle of equal treatment and the one of the responsibility of the governments of these countries. There is also quite general the belief that the “neutral” elements such as science and technology would be the only panacea able to solve the problems. Just aspects such as “what type of growth” and “for what purpose” are eliminated from the discussion about the economic means for the eradication of disparities.

(In contradistinction, see the theorists of global justice, who, from a communitarian philosophical point of view, highlight that “there are moral thinking that tend to blind us to our responsibilities in regard to global poverty”, and that “the developed states cut their official development assistance  as a share of gross national product by about 27 per cent”, (8); and that we are responsible for the global misery because of our concrete and direct contribution to it, and that we should stop thinking about world poverty in terms of positive duties such as helping the poor, but we should be sure that “others are not unduly harmed (or wronged) through our conduct”,  (9).

Therefore, modernisation and development must be carefully taken into consideration, because they are concepts that reflect interests and values, which are not neutral.  The western pattern of modernisation cannot be applied, namely generalised, precisely because it is based on capitalist structural relations that are unjust and unfair. May a pattern where 20% of the world population consumes 80% of its resources– from the perspective of the global ecological balance but also from that of the logic of capital in the developed countries – be generalised?

The concept of sustainable development collides with the capitalist process of reproduction. If sustainable development (sustainability) means the general and real social control over social, economic and cultural processes, the capitalist structural relations presuppose the private, restrictive and contradictory control. (See also (6).

[v] (5, p. 23): “Freedom consists in knowing that freedom is in danger. But knowing or being aware means having time to avoid and to prevent the moment of inhumanity “; (5, p. 265):”Being free means having time to prevent one’s own downfall under the threat of violence”.

[vi] Therefore repeating the situation existing during the period of Romanian modernisation, which started in 1866, when the modernisation of political and legal forms overlapped a non-modern/lagged behind social and economical status.


(1) Lee-Anne Broadhead, International Environmental Politics: The Limits of Green Diplomacy, Boulder, Lynne Riener Publishers, 2002
(2) Dalton Conley, Gordon C. McCord, Jeffrey Sachs, Africa’s Lagging Demographic Transition: Evidence From Exogenous Impacts of Malaria Ecology And Agricultural Technology, February 2007, (22-II-2007)
(3) Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785),
(4) Serge Latouche, La scomesa della crescità (2006), Milano, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2007, p. 35, apud Ioan Biriş, “Esiste uno sviluppo sostenibile? Contributo ad una chiarificazione concettuale”, Ioan Biriş coord., Conceptele ştiinţelor sociale: Modele şi aplicaţii, Timişoara, Editura Universităţii de Vest, 2008, p. 99.
(5) Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité, Kluwer Academic, 1961, pp. 23, 265
(6) István Mészáros, “The Challenge of Sustainable Development and the Culture of Substantive Equality”, Monthly Review, December 2001
(7) Arne Naess, Ecology, community and lifestyle (1974), Cambridge University Press, 1989
(8) Thomas Pogge, “Introduction”,  Global Justice, edited by Thomas W. Pogge, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing (2001), 2004, pp. 4, 6
(9) Thomas Pogge: World Poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2002, p. 130
(10) Report of the Brundtland Commission (World Commission on Environment and Development), Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, 1987
(11) Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, Penguin Press, 2005
(12) Jeffrey Sachs, Joanne J. Myers, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, (9-VII-2010)
(13) HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, president of Club of Rome, Text for the Address at the 30th Protestant Kirchentag, Hannover, 28th May, 2005, (15-V-2006)

Respect of Time, Ethics and Sustainable Development

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