“Constraints to Human Capital”: More Unpacking of “Sustainability Unpacked”

When I came across the book Sustainability Unpacked at my local library, I was thrilled by the book’s sexy title.  I was personally hoping to discover the global sustainability discourse critically unpacked… but instead, this book does little to unpack claims of “sustainability.”  It is fairly traditional in its interpretation of “sustainability”–that “sustainability” means figuring out how many humans, and in what configurations, can we fit on planet Earth, indefinitely.  What it “unpacks” is a whole lot of aggregated data about the planet and humans.  The word “unpacked” seem misleading to me… the title suggests a bold claim of critical inquiry, but it delivers authoritative scientific information within a mainstream “sustainability” framework, as though “sustainability” needed no unpacking at all, apart from being defined by four interlocking ecological necessities (for human survival): water, forests, food, and energy.

In my last post, I “unpacked” some of the implicit assumptions buried in the authors’ problem statement around which their book orbits.  Here, I am going to delve further into the book’s preface, in which they set up their interpretation of the sustainability “problem,” which the data in their book will address.

Still from Preface:
“These unavoidable constraints control the globe’s productive capacity and set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed.”

That the fairly static, material quantities of organic molecules, water, soil, and sun, control the planet’s capacity to produce material goods–this seems like an intuitively solid claim.

… but that they also “set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed”?

What on Earth do they mean by “human capital”?  Well, I sure hope they don’t actually mean how much cash money humans can generate in the world–which seems like it could be implied, by a scheme to account for all the world’s resources and convert them all into commodities for our human economic marketplaces–but which would be a laughably absurd measure for the book’s grand claims of universal significance.  Does “human capital,” then, mean the number of existing human living bodies?  In that sense, yes, increasing the number of living human bodies does require soil, water, sun and other inputs, and thus does have a “material constraints” component.  But why not say “number of humans,” then, than “human capital”?

If by “human capital” they mean “human potential”, then I don’t buy their claim.  I don’t see how the planet’s organic material capacity inevitably creates firm, insurmountable constraints on human potential.  Because I don’t believe we need completely global, carefully managed material exploitation (meaning: conversion of all planet-wide resources into human-consumable forms) to attain full human expression.  Really.  Full human expression is not contained within these quantifiable boundaries.  And human potential does not have a clearly defined connection between how many humans are alive, in my view.  Human potential has more to do with how we arrange ourselves, with how we define our lives’ purposes while we are here.  These facets are intangible, and thus highly mutable, especially given an explosion in self-directed learning and online communities.  Through innovative thinking and new ways of organizing, driven by material and social stresses, we can unleash totally new possibilities–this is quite different from the quantifiable amount of atoms comprising Earth’s material content.  Really.

From my confusion, I looked up Wikipedia’s definition of “human capital”.  Wikipedia says: “Human capital is the stock of competencies, knowledge, social and personality attributes, including creativity…” I’m with them there!  That’s what I call “human potential” above!

“…embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value.”  Hmm.  It seems to me that humans’ measurable influence on our economic models is less than humans’ overall socio-ecological impact.  When an indigenous clan, after a weak agricultural season, is desperately hunting for food, are they making an economic decision?  Or seeking to satisfy biological needs?  Their actions will certainly have effects on “natural resources” which can be quantified… but can they be effectively commodified?  What about non-economic actions, like caring for one’s family?  How does spiritual pursuits and loving one’s family affect human potential, but not economics?  Is economics a “once-removed” abstraction from the deep nature of our decisions and actions?  If so, does it make sense to base our future prospects, our entire planet’s worth of quantifiable natural resources, on economic premises only?

That human potential expresses itself in multiple dimensions and is a phenomena transcending mere economics is so obvious to me, I’m a bit baffled as to how to further my argument beyond this point.  So if anyone disagrees with me about how to define “human capital,” or if the authors of Sustainability Unpacked would like to clarify this term, please comment after this post.  That way I can know what alternative perspectives exist which will help me clarify my own feelings.  Thanks!



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  1. Pingback: Diversity of Sustainability Definitions is Good, Yet "Back to Nature" Offers Little...? | Sust Enable: The Metamentary

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