The planet is in trouble. Study after scientific study warns that we have pushed far beyond the physical limits of what our living world can sustain.
From rising extreme temperatures causing dire weather patterns – including drought records and from unprecedented fires – to oceans suffocated by plastic and collapsing ecosystems, it’s painfully clear that something massive has to give. And yet, most governments wait until it makes economic sense before acting.
In light of this, an information document for the United Nations (UN) project Global Sustainability Report 2019 suggests that we need to seriously consider making drastic changes to our economic systems.
“[T]he economic models that inform political decision-making in rich countries almost completely ignore the energy and material dimensions of the economy,” the researchers written in the document.
“Economies have exhausted the capacity of planetary ecosystems to manage the waste generated by the use of energy and materials.”
In other words, maybe it’s time to accept that we can’t sustain endless economic growth on a finite planet.
The UN report is overseen by a group of independent scientists from different disciplines around the world.
This backgrounder for the chapter of the report entitled Transformation: the economy, was written by scientists from environmental fields, such as Ecosystem Scientist Jussi Eronen from the University of Helsinki, as well as researchers in economics, business and philosophy, such as the economist Paavo Jarvensivu from Finland’s independent BIOS research unit.
Not only have we reached the point where using our land, water and atmosphere as a giant dump is no longer viable, but the paper warns that our current economic systems are also causing a critical widening of the gaps between the rich and the poor.
This leads to an increase in unemployment and indebtedness which all contribute to destabilizing our societies.
In fact, the data shows that continuing to pursue economic growth in rich countries does not continue to improve human well-being, according to ecological economist Dan O’Neill explains for The Conversation.
Yet the idea of changing our economic system to fit the physical limits of our reality is considered highly controversial and not something many policy makers will discuss.
Especially when the leaders of wealthy countries like the United States and Australia openly deny climate change. Or as a leaked document from the UK Foreign Office reads: ‘Trade and growth are now priorities for all positions…work such as climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be reduced.’
Meanwhile, we are not meet the Paris agreement to keep temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial times.
Every indication from our scientists is that we have two options: make drastic but controlled changes to the way we live or carry on as we are, blundering toward disaster.
“Market-based action will not be enough – even with a high carbon price,” said the A UN document warns.
This is not the first time that humans have had to come together and find unique solutions to extraordinary scientific challenges – the document underlines the fact that the American Apollo program only succeeded because the government defined a clear mission and then found ways to get funding and research. obligatory.
They didn’t wait for market-based mechanisms to make the moon landing happen. So why are we still waiting for the market to miraculously steer us away from disaster, especially when so much is at stake, the document asks.
Journalist Naomi Klein, author of This changes everything: capitalism against the climate, pointed out that “we humans are capable of organizing ourselves into all sorts of different social orders, including societies with much longer time horizons and much more respect for natural life support systems”.
“Indeed,” she writes, “Humans have lived this way for the vast majority of our history and many Indigenous cultures keep Earth-centered cosmologies alive to this day. Capitalism is a small anomaly in the collective history of our species. “
No one is suggesting that we return to societies without technology. Instead, the idea is to learn from different lifestyles that have been shown to improve longevity. From there, we can find new and better ways forward using our advanced technologies.
Klein thinks we should see this need for our economies to transition as an opportunity to shape them for the better, a chance for us to create a world that is both fairer and more sustainable.
The background paper does not describe what economies in transition would look like, but it suggest that they “must enable politics to recognize the transformational social goals and material limits of economic activity”.
And that savings should primarily be a tool to “enable a good life” rather than an excuse to dogmatically pursue profits.
Järvensivu and his colleagues also recognize that to transition our societies in time to avoid rushing us past the critical warming threshold of 2 degrees Celsius will require a large-scale emergency response.
It echoes warnings from other scientists“Incremental linear changes… are not enough to stabilize the Earth system. Widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations will likely be needed to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold.”
Such a response might look like an accelerated transformation of industry in the style of World War II, As discussed by Harvard’s leading atmospheric scientist, James Anderson.
Meanwhile, experts around the world are exploring other ways to set up our economic systems, such as Saving donuts, Post-growth economy, Prosperity without growth and Steady state economy – and Järvensivu and his colleagues called on all forward-thinking leaders around the world to start testing possible transition strategies, such as a universal job guarantee.
These suggestions are pretty daunting, but if we humans have proven anything with our time on Earth so far, it’s that we can achieve amazing things when we work together.