Introduction to Part I

Sustainability in Poland

Just as the construction of any building begins with the foundations, we start this book with three chapters to introduce the elementary concepts and problems that relate to sustainable development. We shall refer to back to these concepts in the parts that follow in this book, using the initial concepts to build more detailed visions of sustainable development in the different spheres of human activity.

Chapter 1 refers to economy–society–environment interactions; these are the three systems where their interests need to be balanced with one another within the concepts of sustainable development. In particular, we shall look at ecosystem services used by the economy and by society; the external costs of human activity; our ignorance of economic–social–environmental interactions; and the role of institutions, social capital and social participation. We shall also get to know the fundamental principles followed in the concepts of sustainable development. One of which is adopting a systems approach to studying and shaping the above interactions, which we explore in detail in chapter 2.

The systems approach (or systems thinking) allows us to see the connections between the economy, society and the environment, and the approach provides tools that can be used to analyse and represent these connections. One of the most important concepts discussed in chapter 2 is mental models, to which we shall return many times later in the book (mental models are our ways of thinking or convictions that reflect our understanding of the world). The tools that we shall use, such as causal loop diagrams, will help us to represent our mental models. If we create such a diagram with a group of different stakeholders, we can see the differences and commonalities in our understanding. Based on this, we can then start to elaborate a common vision of development, incorporating the needs of the three interactive systems noted above.

In chapter 3, we refer to the most crucial aspect of sustainable development known as sustainability. According to the popular definition, sustainable development fulfils the needs of both current and future generations. This is even more difficult than balancing the interests of the three systems that currently exist because we do not know the mental models of future generations, neither do we have their representatives. In this context, we must consider how to take care of the interests of future generations, using currently available forms of economic, human and natural capital. We also discuss which indicators can be used to assess how successful we are in achieving sustainable development.

To illustrate the basic interactions we use three examples: valuing the Białowieża Forest (case study 1.C1), cod fishing in the Baltic Sea by Polish fishermen (case study 1.C2) and the functioning of a chipboard factory, located in a region of natural interest (case study 1.C3). All of these case studies demonstrate the significance of the environment from the perspective of the economy and society, and the need to adopt a long-term perspective when assessing human activity. Also, they show that economic decisions have to incorporate the opinions of people whom they might affect. The first three case studies illustrate the problems that we face in Poland in attempting to make the concept of sustainable development a reality.

Referring to the management of river valleys: the Barycz in Poland (case study 2.C1) and the Tisza in Hungary (case study 2.C2) case studies in chapter 2 illustrate the complexity of interactions that have to be taken into consideration when planning for sustainable development. We explore the role that stakeholder dialogue played in both cases because without the involvement of inhabitants, a development vision imposed from outside of the region could not have been called a ‘sustainable development plan’. In fact later in this book, we shall also frequently emphasise the importance of social participation and of creating conditions to involve local communities in decision making that will affect them.