Newsletter No 3 Oktober 2011

Sustainability and Quality of Life

Martine Vonk

epaSustainable behaviour will be better achieved when choices correspond with values and ideas about quality of life. In order to find examples of values and sustainable behaviour patterns with a relatively low impact on the environment, I studied four long-existing religious communities, to wit Amish, Hutterites, Benedictines and Franciscans.

Our world is confronted with significant global problems. The term ‘environmental crisis’, as used by the historian Lynn White (Science, 1967), is still topical, now covering different kinds of problems relating to the environment and human life. The consumption of material goods has increased enormously over the last decades and the environmental impact is exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth. Climate change and the loss of biodiversity have become interconnected with other global issues, like the threatened food security and energy supply, exhaustion of certain minerals and economic problems. In order to maintain a worldwide quality of life, we need a profound structural change in consumption and production patterns and a reflection on the worldview that underlies these patterns.

epa2In the development of Western culture and worldview, Christianity has played a major role. The impact of Christian values on Western development however has been criticised as well. Lynn White stated that certain Biblical interpretations might have been used to justify exploitation of the earth. Earlier, the sociologist Max Weber related the rise of capitalism to Protestantism, because of its work ethic, thrift, and the moral meaning it assigned to economic activities. On the other hand, Christian values also encouraged frugality, responsibility and care for people and nature, which not only influenced ideas about development, but also ideas about quality of life. Therefore, I have taken up White’s suggestion to reconsider the Christian worldviews and values, in order to find starting points for the solution of environmental problems and reconsideration of ideas about development.


The community-level seemed to be an interesting approach for studying this relation coherently. The research groups were the Amish, the Hutterites, and Franciscan and Benedictine communities. These communities are focused on maintaining their quality of life and in many cases their ideas about quality of life appear to lead to behaviour choices with a relatively low environmental impact as well. In most cases, these choices are not so much based on environmental values, but on values such as community, stability, moderation, humility or modesty, the rhythm of life, and reflection.

The value of community may contribute to maintaining common values and behavioural choices, while communal life itself offers many opportunities for lowering the impact on the environment. The value of stability emphasises commitment to a certain place and therefore encourages a sustainable way of dealing with property. The value of moderation accentuates another way of consuming, based on essential needs. The value of humility shifts the attention from the individual to the broader community. A balanced rhythm of life may provide for embedded reflectivity and a way to persevere in a preferred way of life. Reflection itself helps one to stay focused on values and quality of life.

Maintaining quality of life

The communities practise what they believe and provide the necessary framework to maintain their quality of life. Four principles appear to be important. Firstly, ideas about quality of life are rooted in a coherent religious worldview and translated into clear values and subsequent behavioural choices. Coherence between religious beliefs and practical behavioural choices requires an on-going reflection on religious principles and conduct. Secondly, the communities have a strong social capital. They have agreed on a communal social system, including a social network, rules and mechanisms of social trust and control, which contribute considerably to maintaining specific behaviours. Thirdly, good leadership and an adequate decision process strengthen the acceptance of the communal decisions. When members have to deal with the implications of a decision in daily life, communal consultation and approval are significant for controlling the consequences. Fourthly, the communities apply a reflective process of change when necessary, in order to ensure quality of life, taking salient values as their point of departure. They will reject certain developments that might affect their quality of life in a negative way.


The values found among the four religious communities might still connect to ideas about quality of life rooted in broader Western society and may stimulate a reflective change towards a sustainable development with a lower impact on the environment. However, in our society, worldviews are often made up of fragmentary belief systems with a certain discrepancy between beliefs and practical choices. In order to create more coherence, we need reflection on how to realise and maintain quality of life and a translation into daily practice. Three challenges can be defined:

The first is to take time for reflection. To realise sustainability, long-term values should be made explicit and policies need to connect to ideas about quality of life. As long as progress is defined as economic growth, short-term economic profits will overrule long-term ecological sustainability, social justice and well-being. The present complex environmental problems require well-considered choices, for policies and practices can involve significant and sometimes even irreversible consequences for nature and people worldwide.

The second is to consume less and choose for quality instead of quantity. Moderation and reduction of consumption both affect the carrying capacity of the earth and spiritual well-being of humans in a positive way.

The third is to establish new kinds of community that help to maintain sustainability. Environmental problems are often experienced as a social dilemma, whereby individual choices are perceived as meaningless, as long as others continue their wasteful and polluting behaviour. To solve this environmental social dilemma, community in whatever form is necessary, in order to recognise the problem, to generate solutions, to agree on collective actions, to support and encourage community members, and to uphold these actions.

The promising values and principles as found in the Western religious past offer inspiring steps for a sustainable future.

 contact: Martine Vonk