‘Social capital’ was coined by the American economist Robert Putnam, who famously discovered it wandering around the towns of Emilia-Romagna in Italy, with all their guilds, football clubs, amateur dramatics and local networking – stretching back to the 12th century. Tony Blair describes it slightly differently in his notorious pamphlet The Third Way, as “the foundation of social solidarity on which any successful society depends”. The green economist Hazel Henderson calls it the ‘Love Economy’. In discussing sustainability, the social element of the triple bottom line is often the poor cousin, hence the devotion of this column to exploring the social bottom line. In the context of the triple bottom line it refers to the human society, its interaction and dependence on the natural environment and the means that it has created in order to trade commodities: money. The economy is also a function of society.
Social concerns are sometimes related to environmental issues, in so far as localised pollution, smog, dry land salinity and its effect on farming, contaminant levels in beaches, waste disposal triggering the notion of not in my backyard syndrome and more globally, issues such as climate change due to greenhouse gases.
Social issues such as crime, road accidents, smoking, gambling and others are not directly related to environmental issues, but are possibly more linked to the financial bottom line. They may also be related to other associated social issues. For example, the rates of crime may be higher in poorer communities. Therefore, in looking to integrate the bottom lines it is prudent that other issues within the same bottom line are also considered.
Finally, it is generally fair to say that social issues such as road accidents and gambling, while implicit, do have environmental implications or associations. For example, by reducing the rate of road accidents a road authority would not only increase the safety of its citizens, but also reduce resources used in vehicle repair and in medical treatment. Similarly, it can be argued that promoting gambling in society as a leisure activity involves the use of significant resources including energy whereas the societal gains from the activity are a minimum. It could be argued that a more efficient society would rule out gambling and opt for more productive activities such as indoor sports centres and community gathering places, where a positive societal gain is experienced.
The present recession is likely to test our capacity to manage the social bottom line. Did you know that a population the size of the City of Darwin is homeless each night in Australia? If there was ever a time for engineers to contribute to society through their work and volunteer activities, this financial crisis will continue to present endless challenges.
Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (email@example.com), based in Melbourne.