Living Sustainably

If not now, when? 

Climate and nature need to be fully protected. This can only be achieved if we open ourselves to a sustainable life.

The citizens of rich countries and, more generally, the rich worldwide, bear an overwhelming responsibility for any future climate change. 
Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. 2019. Good Economics for Hard Times - Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems.

Here, an attempt is made to make the complex topic of sustainability understandable.


1. Our dilemma

Starting Position - Growth and Resources - Environmental Policy - Digitalization - Climate Change - Biodiversity - Economy - Sustainability

© Alexander Sviridov | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021 

Our dilemma is that we live in a finite world, but behave as if it were inexhaustible.


Starting Position


No, it's not a climate crisis, but a societal crisis. And it has devastating consequences for the climate and nature - for the entire world as we know it today. 
Translated from Lars Hochmann. Economists4future - Verantwortung übernehmen für eine bessere Welt. 2020.

Economic growth is not what everything is based on - but an intact planet
Climate Strike - FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE
We engage in an experiment that is certain to fail. [...] The gigantic experiment is running worldwide and is based on the hypothesis that unlimited growth is possible on a limited planet. 

Translated from Harald Welzer: Alles könnte anders sein - eine Gesellschaftsutopie für freie Menschen. 2019.

The goals for a sustainable development are set [UN Agenda 2030]. However, we currently do not know the conditions under which humanity can implement the measures to achieve these sustainability goals globally.
Christian Berg. 2020. Sustainable Action. Overcoming the Barriers.

© Tashatuvango | Shutterstock, [US] 2018 

For a long time we have

  • followed the instruction «multiply and subdue the Earth».
    In just 200 years, the world's population has grown from 900 million to nearly 8,000 million people. By the year 2100, according to the UNO an estimated 10,000 - 11,000 million people are to live on our Earth.
  • kept thinking as if there were still as few people on Earth as there were 200 years ago. 
  • paid little attention to the side effects of technological progress.
  • largely ignored the concomitants of steady growth.
  • ignored the warnings of the scientific community about the threat of climate change.
    No coming catastrophe has ever been studied as thoroughly as global warming. And none has ever been so thoroughly ignored. The first international climate summit took place back in 1979.


With regard to sustainable development and consumer behaviour the rich countries of the world are, as it were, «developing countries».

The steadily growing consumption is the engine that drives the steady growth of our economy.

This in turn results in major environmental impacts worldwide and the climate change and is increasingly endangering our natural basis of life and living together on Earth.

© Benjamin Simeneta | Shutterstock, [US] 2021 

Even in the Global Risk Report 2020 of the World Economic Forum WEF are the crises with the highest probability in the coming years environment-related, such as:

  • Extreme weather events with great damage to property, infrastructure and human life.
  • Governments and businesses fail to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
  • Great loss of biodiversity and collapse of ecosystems with irreversible consequences for the environment, which leads to a severe depletion of resources for humanity and industry.

We face tremendous challenges due to rapid population growth, the overuse of resources and associated pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and overall we are experiencing a gradual loss of our basis of existence.
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Anders Wijkman. Come on! - Capitalism, Short-terminism, Population and the Destruction of the Planet. 2017

However, we must not tell people the fairy tale that the climate goals are compatible with the conventional growth approach. [...] And you have to stop telling people this complete nonsense that everything will remain the same for them. That all social hardships will be compensated. 
Translated from: Günther Bachmann - Former Secretary-General of German Council for Sustainable Development. Interview 12.08.2021

Growth and Resources


© M-SUR | Shutterstock, [US] 2018  

We have to face
the growth dilemma
that is

Giving up on growing our current economy means the risk of economic and social collapse.

Maintaining growth means the risk of destroying global ecosystems that are our basis of existence. 
Tim Jackson. Prosperity without Growth - Foundations for the economy of tomorrow. 2016 

It's a dilemma: it does not work without growth, there is no completely green growth, and normal growth inevitably leads to ecological disaster.
Translated from: Ulrike Herrmann. Goodbye, Kapitalismus: So kann der Übergang zu einer neuen Wirtschaftsordnung gelingen. Perspective Daily 11. Januar 2021

Continued growth isn't a fairy tale, it's a necessity. But not just any growth.

The power of the market needs to be directed to achieving what society wants. That requires measures of income and welfare that reflect our values. [..] We need a world where we are no longer guided solely by measures like GDP*) [..].
Mark Carney. Value(s) - Building a Better World for All. 2021.
*
Global gross domestic product (GDP) is the total value of goods produced and services rendered for final consumption worldwide during one year, after deducting all intermediate consumption.

We urgently need a clear vision, a bold policy, and a truly robust strategy to find the way out of the growth dilemma.

The growth dilemma is barely taken into account by the normal policy-makers and is mentioned only marginally in public debate.
Tim Jackson. Prosperity without Growth - Foundations for the economy of tomorrow. 2016 

© Munimara | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018   
It is clear that there are no simple answers to this - none that could be proposed without proposing at the same time a transformation in the whole of the way we think, work and order our lives

David Fleming, Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy. 2016  

The overriding goal, it seems, can no longer be solely growth. It must become a truly sustainable development.
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Anders Wijkman. Come on! - Capitalism, Short-terminism, Population and the Destruction of the Planet. 2017

Three per cent growth means doubling the size of the global economy every twenty-three years [...]. This might be OK if GDP were just plucked out of thin air. But it's not. It is coupled to energy and resource use [...].
Jason Hickel. 2020. Less is More. How degrowth will save the world.

The conventional reaction to the growth dilemma is the call for decoupling of economic growth from resource consumption, including harmful environmental impacts. 

The decoupling is to be achieved with more efficient production processes. However, producing more efficiently means an increase in productivity and this enables further growth with additional resource consumption.

So we cannot just rely on efficiency measures because we have not succeeded in decoupling global economic growth from resource consumption in absolute terms.

Global use of materials is accelerating. It has more than tripled since 1970. Moreover, the global economy is only 9 percent circular. Just 9 percent of the 92.8 billion tonnes of material that enter the economy are re-used annually. 
PACE The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy. The Circularity Gap Report 2019

Not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future.
Parrique T. etal. 2019. European Environmental Bureau. Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability.

Therefore, two different decoupling tasks must be pursued:

(1) decoupling the production of goods and services from unsustainable natural consumption and

(2) decoupling the satisfaction of human needs from the imperative to ever more consumption.
Maja Göpel. The Great Mindshift. 2016

© Christos Georghiou | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018    

There will be no one simple solution for decoupling prosperity and the destruction of nature, but if we don't manage it, we will have to adapt to the new conditions. And they'll be tough.
Translated from an interview with Harald Lesch. Digitale Welten riechen nicht. GeoPlus 29.09. 2021

But one thing is clear. If we are to live well, within the limits of a finite planet, we need a better conception of social progress than the one encoded in the myth of growth.
Tim Jackson. Post Growth. Life after Capitalism. 2021

So today we are faced with the Herculean task (1) of satisfying the basic needs of what is soon to be 10 billion people while, at the same time, (2) respecting the ecological limits of our planet. 

In this context, it should be remembered:  

© Waldemarus | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018    

A minority of around 20 percent of the world's population, mainly in rich countries, but also the rich worldwide, currently accounts for around 80 percent of total global resource consumption. 
Multiple sources: The figures indicate the order of magnitude, but there are no exact data available.


Environmental Policy


© BlueRingMedia | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019  

The great fallacy of the environmental debate over the past 30 years has been the hope that an ecological turnaround can essentially be implemented with some technological innovation programme within the existing economic order

The continuing impressive development of prosperity has not been able to slow down climate change, resource consumption or the loss of biodiversity - on the contrary, all these pressures have increased massively.
Translated from: Uwe Schneidewind. Die Grosse Transformation - Eine Einführung in die Kunst gesellschaftlichen Wandels. 2018

Technological innovation is absolutely important [...]. It is vital, in fact. We're going to need all the innovations and efficiency improvements we can get to drastically reduce the resource and carbon intensity of our economy. 

But the problem we face doesn't have to do with technology. The problem has to do with growth. Over and over again, we see that the growth imperative wipes out all the gains our best technology delivers.
Jason Hickel. Less is more. How degrowth will save the world. 2020

Today, Europe continues to consume more resources and contribute more to environmental degradation than many other world regions. We do not only have to do more; we also have to do things differently. 

Over the next decade, we are going to need very different answers to the world's environmental and climate challenges than the ones we have provided over the past 40 years. 
The European Environment - State and Outlook 2020. European Environment Agency. 2019

[Because] problems can never be solved with the same mindset that created them. 
Quote from Albert Einstein
© ChristianChan | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021 

It is quite simply a fact that the current ways of life and economic activity have a comprehensive and deep impact on various ecosystems. 

Future generations [...] therefore face drastic and irreversible disadvantages. 

To date, environmental and sustainability policy has far from succeeded in achieving a sufficiently strong reduction in ecological burdens. 
Translated from: Institut für ökologische Wirtschaftsforschung (IÖW): Gesellschaftliches Wohlergehen innerhalb planetaren Grenzen, Texte 89/2018 im Auftrag des Umweltbundesamt Deutschland. 2018.

Since [in the «free» market economy] public and common goods such as clean air, biodiversity, cohesion or justice have no price, they can be destroyed for free and the resulting costs be charged to the general public. 
Christian Felber. Change Everything. Creating an Economy for the Common Good. 2015

We need a policy shift that does not treat sustainability as a possible by-product of an economic growth agenda, but aims directly at sustainable consumption, production and investment.
Translated from: Maja Göpel. Unsere Welt neu denken - Eine Einladung 2020

Digitalization


© LIORIKI | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019 

The combination of digital progress and capitalist ideology in a fully monetarised society obviously leads to a concentration of power among a few, mostly private, actors. 

However, digitalization has contributed as much as nothing to solving the really big problems [...]. Because normally only ideas that can be made into money come onto the market. 
Translated from: Jonas Lüscher, Writer - Interview in the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, 06.01.2018.

We will end up with «digital by default» unless we choose «digital by design».

We shouldn't view technology through the lenses of Big Tech where the role of algorithms is to replace humans [..]. 

We should start by valuing the outcomes that we want technology to help achieve such as reducing carbon and improving the returns to labour.
Mark Carney. Value(s) - Building a Better World for All. 2021.

An alignment of the global digital revolution with the goals of sustainability [..] is hardly to be seen, even though many key players emphasise that they have acted for the benefit of humankind.
WBGU German Advisory Council on Global Change 2018. Digitalization: What We Need to Talk About.

© prasit2512 | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021  

The three main objectives of ecological sustainability are decarbonisation, dematerialisation and renaturalisation. 

In theory at least, the growth of digital services can be compatible with the goals of ecological sustainability. But today's reality is far-removed from that ideal.

The consumption of energy and material is actually increasing as digitalisation expands. This situation will not change unless the majority of affected companies adopt the three ecological objectives as binding principles.
Ortwin Renn, et al. The opportunities and risks of digitalisation for sustainable development: a systemic perspective. GAIA 30/1(2021): 23-28

Overall, digitalization processes today tend to act as «fire accelerants», exacerbating existing non-sustainable trends such as the overuse of natural resources and growing social inequality in many countries.

On the one hand, it must be plainly stated that the digitalization of business and everyday life has so far been marginally oriented towards sustainability aspects.

On the other hand, digitalization offers an enormous range of possibilities for supporting the Great Transformation towards sustainability. 
WBGU German Advisory Council on Global Change. Towards our Common Digital Future. 2019. 

Climate Change


© Photobank gallery | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019      © Scharfsinn | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019   

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.

Even today, we are presumably much better at understanding the social consequences of climate change than the social conditions for limiting it.
Christian Berg. 2020. Sustainable Action. Overcoming the Barriers. 

An average increase in global warming of 5 degrees worldwide, as predicted by the end of the century, means massive changes.

5 degrees in the other direction as a comparison, that was the last ice age. About two thirds of Switzerland were covered by ice at that time. That's the measure of change when we talk about 5 degrees.
Translated from the interview with Reto Knutti, climatologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETHZ Zurich, REPUBLIK 23.11.2019 

In fact, China is the single largest emitter of carbon. This is, however, largely due to goods produced in China but consumed elsewhere in the world.

If we attribute the emissions to where the consumption takes place, North Americans consume 22.5 tons of CO2e per year per person, Western Europeans 13.1, Chinese 6, and South Asia just 2.2.

Overall, we get the 50-10 rule: 10 percent of the world's population (the highest polluters) contribute roughly 50 percent of CO2 emissions, while the 50 percent who pollute the least contribute just over 10 percent.

The citizens of rich countries and, more generally, the rich worldwide, bear an overwhelming responsibility for any future climate change. 
Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. 2019. Good Economics for Hard Times - Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems.


Oceans out of balance

Climate change is above all taking place in the oceans. They are becoming warmer, more acidic and sea levels are rising.

The oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the surface of the planet. To date, the oceans have absorbed about a quarter of global CO2 emissions. However, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic as carbonic acid is formed during the absorption of CO2
 

© Marti Bug Catcher | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021 

The lack of appropriate wastewater treatment and the release of pollutants from the manufacturing industry, agriculture, tourism, fisheries and shipping continue to put pressure on the ocean, with a negative impact on food security, food safety and marine biodiversity.

The ocean plays a crucial role in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the livelihoods of billions of people. We urgently need to change how we interact with it.
The Second World Ocean Assessment. United Nations. 2021

The «climate decade»

The goal of halving global emissions by 2030 represents the absolute minimum we must achieve if we are to have at least a 50 per cent chance of safeguarding humanity from the worst impacts. 
Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. 2020. The Future We Choose - Surviving the Climate Crisis.

The primary challenge is to stop the flow of money to oil, coal and gas and to establish a clear path towards de-carbonization.

The «sustainability» of finance can be gauged by how far and how fast it shifts us away from the fossil fuel economy, rather than simply allowing the financial sector to develop new «green» markets alongside a core business that continues to bankroll climate change. 
Oscar Reyes. Change Finance - Not the Climate. 2020

We are entering the «climate decade». A ten year period where our collective actions will determine the kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit. 
The Climate Decade. Ten Years to Deliver the Paris Agreement. The GlobeScan-SustainAbility Servey. 2019

© Alexander Mak | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021    

Covid-19 has demonstrated that the foundations of prosperity are precarious. Disasters long talked about, and long ignored, can come upon you with no warning, turning life inside out and shaking all that seemed stable. 

The harm from climate change will be slower than the pandemic but more massive and longer-lasting. 
A new opportunity to tackle climate change - Countries should seize the moment to flatten the climate curve. The Economist - May 21st, 2020 

We think of climate change as slow, but it is unnervingly fast. We think of the technological change necessary to avert it as fast-arriving, but unfortunately it is deceptively slow, especially judged by just how soon we need it. 
David Wallace-Wells. The uninhabital earth. Life after warming. 2019

Biodiversity


© Pavel K | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2020      © oticki | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2020

The large and rapidly progressing decline in global biodiversity is also a serious risk to the food security of future humans.

Land use change linked to massive expansion of globalized, highly commercialized industrial agriculture is the main overarching driver of declining agrobiodiversity. 1 % of the world's farms operate 70% of crop fields, ranches and orchards.

Globally, the FAO estimates that 75 % of crop diversity was lost in the 20th century. Historically about 7,000 plant species were cultivated for food, today only about 80 plant species make major contributions to food supplies at the global level.

In fact, half of all plant-based calories come from only three species - rice, maize, and wheat. And 93 % of global meat supplies come from just four animal species - pigs, poultry, cattle, and buffalo.

Looking ahead, restoring agrobiodiversity - the richness of what we cultivate, breed, consume, and conserve in the wild - is crucial to ensure resilient food systems against the backdrop of climate change. 
Swiss academies factsheets Vol.15 No.1. 2020. Variety is the source of life: Agrobiodiversity benefits, challenges, and needs. 

Biodiversity is experiencing a dramatic, human-induced mass extinction worldwide [...]. This also greatly reduces the capacity of ecosystems to contribute to climate regulation and food security.   

Only if there is a fundamental change in the way we manage land can we reach the targets of climate-change mitigation, avert the dramatic loss of biodiversity and make the global food system sustainable. 
WBGU German Advisory Council on Global Change. 2020. Rethinking Land in the Anthropocene: from Separation to Integration.

Economy


© underworld | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019     © Sira Anamwong | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019 

The incentives in today's economic system are still one-sidedly promoting the exploitation of nature and man.

To detach Nature from economic reasoning is to imply that we consider ourselves to be external to Nature.

We may have increasingly queried the absence of Nature from official conceptions of economic possibilities, but the worry has been left for Sundays. On week-days, our thinking has remained as usual.

The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it.
Partha Dasgupta. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. Abridged Version. 2021

Economic growth based on exploitation - the business model of the rich West for 400 years - has reached its limits. The exploitability of people and the ecosystems [...] leads to migration in millions and catastrophic environmental impacts.
Translated from: Philipp Blom. Was auf dem Spiel steht. 2017
There will be no more simple solutions for our problems. As for example: More market, more growth, more prosperity - that does not work. 
Translated from an interview with Silke Beck, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Um­welt­for­schung in Leip­zig. 14.05.2020.
If mankind holds on to the idea that more and more has to be produced economically, then any progress that it makes on the one hand for itself and the environment will be more than destroyed elsewhere.
Translated from: Maja Göpel. Unsere Welt neu denken - Eine Einladung. 2020.
© mipan | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2020   

The malaise in corners of finance can be remedied only by a combination of regulatory measures and true cultural change.

Market standards were poorly understood, often ignored and always lacked teeth. Too many participants neither felt responsible for the system nor recognised the full impact of their actions.

Bad behavior went unchecked, proliferated and eventually became the norm.
Mark Carney. Value(s) - Building a Better World for All. 2021

Have now - pay later. In order not to be limited by what one can currently achieve by ones' efforts, the store of future possibilities is plundered in advance. The beneficiaries of living beyond one's means have long been in the majority [in rich countries].

But one loser is certain in any case: the ecosphere.
Niko Paech. 2016. Liberation from Excess - The Road to a post-growth economy.

.... [it is] the conditions of any future economy that need to be redeveloped: For all the great achievements that we can look back on have only been at the price of not taking into account either the natural conditions or the living situations of people in other parts of the world.
Translated from: Harald Welzer. Alles könnte anders sein - Eine Gesellschaftsutopie für freie Menschen. 2019 

The ecological problems will increase and so will the social and economic upheavals. [...] 

We need to ask ourselves what kind of economic system will serve the people and also maintain the ecological foundations. Today's does not.
Translated from: Interview with the economist Irmi Seidl. Der ökologische Umbau wird die Arbeitswelt verändern. Tages-Anzeiger. 15.02.2020

It is not about overthrowing society or changing human nature.

It is about taking very simple steps towards the economy of tomorrow. An economy that fulfils its purpose. Towards a meaningful prosperity on a finite planet.
Jackson Tim. 2016. Prosperity without Growth - Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.

Sustainability


© Gustavo Frazao | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019 

The question is not how?
The question is, when do we start to live sustainably.

It isn't the goal of transforming our society towards a sustainable development that is utopian, but rather the view that today's non-sustainable development can simply be maintained.

We have to move towards a sustainable life, even if there is no master plan on how to achieve the transformation of our present society - with its perpetual expansion - towards sustainable development.

We are not on a sustainable path. 

Within the lifetime of one single generation the world population, global CO2 emissions, resource and energy consumption increased at an unprecedented rate:


Sustainable development is hardly conceivable without 

  • moving away from the predominantly linear economy towards a consistent circular economy, 
  • simultaneously cutting back on over-consumption and 
  • rapidly reducing CO2 emissions.

The over-consumption is possible because we personally pay the price for it only to a small extent. The lion's share goes to nature, another part is paid by people in other parts of the world, and in the future, our children and grandchildren will pay for it.

We must move from the deeply internalized attitude of competition and self-interest to a basic attitude of cooperation and common good, if for example, we really want to curb global climate change.

© MintBlac | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021

Although much time has passed since then to achieve the 17 Goals for Sustainable Development of the UN Agenda 2030, few people know about them. Above all, the consumption behaviour of the rich industrialised countries is the subject of criticism. 

The UN warned that without better performance by the G20 countries, which are responsible for 75 percent of global CO2 emissions, the 2030 Agenda will fail.

If, as forecasted, the world's population increases from 7.1 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050, humans and the planet will face many challenges. Asia's rise will undoubtedly also lead to a higher energy demand, more consumption and production. 

This calls for a public discussion on a broad approach to sustainability. It is about overdue reforms for economic modernisation, climate protection and innovation.
Source: Sabina Wölkner. Agenda 2030: Mut zur Nachhaltigkeit! Konrad Adenauerstiftung. 16. September 2019

Our dilemma as environmentally-aware affluent citizens

© Rudmer Zwerver | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018  

If we wealthy people want to protect the environment, all we have to do today - so we consumers are told - is to go to the supermarket. There are now sustainable and environmentally-friendly products everywhere. 

We can therefore seemingly consume more and more without any worries and thereby even do something good for the environment. Almost no product from toilet paper up to cars is sold without the promise that one makes the world a little better.

«Buy me and make this world a little bit better» is the key message found among sustainable brand's marketing. 

It is argued that the market will fix the climate problem: One does not have to consume less, but only consume in a different way

Now, however, the validity of this approach is being shaken daily by reports of the consequences of our actions.

What we consider sustainable consumption so often leaves behind poverty and environmental destruction elsewhere in the world.
Translated according to Marcus Jauer. Tages-Anzeiger 10.12.2018 und Sebastian Schoep. Tages-Anzeiger 06.06.2019

© Rawpixel.com | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2020      

Thus, anyone who really wants to change something cannot get around thinking about the dogma of «ALWAYS MORE». 

So renunciation - but what does renunciation mean?

In rich countries, renunciation means [...] actually nothing more and nothing less than refraining from ruining the planet and in return preserving the basis of life in the future.  -  That's a big word, of course. Couldn't it be a little bit smaller? Unfortunately not. 
Translated from: Maja Göpel. 2020. Unsere Welt neu denken. Eine Einladung.

Facing change with courage - now


© Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018 

The burdens - from mounting government debts, underfunded pensions, inadequate health and social care to environmental calamity - that we are pushing on to the next generation are unfair, inequitable and irresponsible
Mark Carney. Value(s) - Building a Better World for All. 2021.

How will we explain this to the next generation if we don't do everything now, quickly and with determination, to preserve the basis of life on earth and instead just carry on as before?

© Dirk Ercken | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018      
How do I want to explain this to the children and grandchildren if I don't change my way of living now, quickly and with determination, for their benefit and instead simply continue to live as before?


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