The planet is struggling. Study after scientific study warns that we’ve pushed far beyond the physical boundaries of what our living world can sustain.
From increasing temperature extremes causing disastrous weather – including record breaking droughts and unprecedented fires – to plastic choked oceans and ecosystem collapses, it’s painfully clear something massive’s got to give. And yet most governments are waiting for it to make economic sense before they take action.
In light of this, a background document for the United Nations’ (UN) draft Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 suggests we seriously need to consider making drastic changes to our economic systems.
“[T]he economic models which inform political decision-making in rich countries almost completely disregard the energetic and material dimensions of the economy,” the researchers wrote in the document.
“Economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use.”
In other words, maybe it’s time to accept we can’t somehow maintain 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 background document for the chapter of the report called Transformation: The Economy, has been written by scientists from environmental fields, such as ecosystem scientist Jussi Eronen from the University of Helsinki, as well as economic, business and philosophy researchers, like economist Paavo Järvensivu from Finland’s independent BIOS research unit.
Not only have we reached the point where using our land, water and atmosphere as a giant garbage dump is no longer viable, the document warns that our current economic systems are also causing critically widening gaps between the rich and poor.
This is leading to a rise in unemployment, and debt which are all contributing to destabilising our societies.
In fact, data shows continuing to pursue economic growth in wealthy nations doesn’t continue to improve human wellbeing, as ecological economist Dan O’Neill explains for The Conversation.
Still, the notion of changing our economic system to fit within the physical limits of our reality is seen as highly controversial and isn’t something many policy makers will discuss.
Especially when leaders of wealthy nations such as the US and Australia openly deny climate change. Or as a leaked document from the UK’s foreign office reads: “Trade and growth are now priorities for all posts… work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down.”
Meanwhile, we’re failing to meet the Paris agreement to hold temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial times.
Every indication from our scientists is that we have two options: make widespread drastic but controlled changes to the way we live or continue as we are, blundering towards disaster.
“Market-based action will not suffice – even with a high carbon price,” the UN document warns.
It’s not the first time humans have had to rally together and find unique solutions to extraordinary scientific challenges – the document points out the fact that the US Apollo program only succeeded because the government set a clear mission and then found ways to achieve the funding and research required.
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 questions.
Journalist Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate, points out that “we humans are capable of organizing ourselves into all kinds of different social orders, including societies with much longer time horizons and far more respect for natural life-support systems.”
“Indeed,” she writes, “humans have lived that way for the vast majority of our history and many Indigenous cultures keep Earth-centered cosmologies alive to this day. Capitalism is a tiny blip in the collective story of our species.”
No one is suggesting we revert to technology-less societies. Instead, the idea is to learn from different ways of living that have proven track records of longevity. From there, we can find new and better ways forward with the help of our advanced technologies.
Klein believes we should view this need to transition our economies as an opportunity to shape them for the better, a chance for us to create both a fairer and more sustainable world.
The background document does not cover what transitioned economies would look like, but it does suggest they “must enable politics to acknowledge transformational social goals and the material boundaries of economic activity”.
And that economies should primarily be a tool to “enable a good life” rather than as excuse to dogmatically pursue profits.
Järvensivu and colleagues also acknowledge that to transition our societies in time to prevent hurtling ourselves beyond the critical 2 degrees Celsius threshold of warming, it will take an emergency scale response.
This echoes warnings from other scientists: “Incremental linear changes … are not enough to stabilise the Earth system. Widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold.”
Such a response could look something like an accelerated World War II style transformation of industry, as discussed by leading Harvard atmospheric scientist James Anderson.
Meanwhile, experts around the world are exploring alternative ways we can set up our economic systems, such as Doughnut Economics, Post Growth Economics, Prosperity without Growth and Steady State Economy – and Järvensivu and colleagues have asked all forward-thinking leaders around the world to start testing possible transitional 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 incredible things when we work together.