The planet is in trouble. Study after scientific study, we warn that we have pushed far beyond the physical limits of what our living world can withstand.
From rising temperature extremes causing dire weather conditions – including record droughts and unprecedented fires – to oceans choked by plastic and collapsing ecosystems, it’s painfully clear that something huge has to give. . And yet, most governments wait until it makes economic sense before taking action.
In light of this, a background paper for the United Nations (UN) project Global Sustainability Report 2019 suggests that we must seriously consider making drastic changes to our economic systems.
“[T]The economic models that inform political decision-making in rich countries almost completely ignore the energy and material dimensions of the economy, âthe researchers wrote in the paper.
“Economies have depleted 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 cannot 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 background paper for the chapter of the report entitled Transformation: the economy, was written by scientists in environmental fields, such as ecosystem scientist Jussi Eronen of the University of Helsinki, as well as researchers in economics, business and philosophy, such as economist Paavo JÃ¤rvensivu of the Finnish BIOS independent research unit.
Not only have we reached the point where using our land, water and atmosphere as a giant dumping ground is no longer viable, but the document warns that our current economic systems are also causing a critical widening of the gaps between rich and poor.
This leads to an increase in unemployment and debt which all contribute to destabilize our societies.
In fact, the data shows that continued economic growth in rich countries does not continue to improve human well-being, as ecological economist Dan O’Neill explains for The Conversation.
Yet the notion of changing our economic system to fit the physical limits of our reality is considered highly controversial and is not something that many policymakers will discuss.
Especially when the leaders of rich countries like the United States and Australia openly deny climate change. Or as a document leaked by the UK Foreign Office puts it: âTrade and growth are now priorities for all jobsâ¦ jobs like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be cut.
Meanwhile, we are failing to meet the Paris agreement to keep temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius warming compared to the pre-industrial era.
Every indication from our scientists is that we have two options: to make drastic but controlled changes to the way we live or to continue as we are, stumbling towards disaster.
“Market-based action will not be enough, even with a high carbon price,” warns the UN document.
This is not the first time that humans have come together and come up with unique solutions to extraordinary scientific challenges – the document highlights the fact that the US Apollo program was only successful because the government set a clear mission and then found ways to get funding and research. obligatory.
They didn’t wait for market-based mechanisms for the moon landing to happen. So why do we always wait for the market to miraculously pull us away from disaster, especially when so much is at stake, the document asks.
Journalist Naomi Klein, author of It changes everything: capitalism against the climate, points out that “we humans are able to organize ourselves into all kinds of different social orders, including societies with much longer time horizons and much more respect for natural survival systems.”
âIndeed,â she writes, âhumans have lived this way for the vast majority of our history and many indigenous cultures keep Earth-centered cosmologies alive. Capitalism is a small break in collective history. of our species. “
No one is suggesting that we go back to companies without technology. Instead, the idea is to learn from different lifestyles that have been proven to be successful in longevity. From there, we can find new and better ways to move forward with the help of our advanced technologies.
Klein thinks we should see this need to transition our economies 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 briefing paper does not cover what economies in transition would look like, but suggests that they “must allow politics to recognize transformational social goals and the physical limits of economic activity.”
And that savings should above all be a tool to “enable a good life” rather than an excuse to dogmatically seek profits.
JÃ¤rvensivu and his colleagues also recognize that moving our societies forward in time to avoid rushing beyond the critical 2 degree Celsius warming threshold will require an urgent response.
This echoes the warnings of other scientists: âIncremental linear changesâ¦ are not enough to stabilize the Earth system. Widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations are likely to be needed to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold. “
Such a response might sound like an accelerated WWII-style industry transformation, as prominent Harvard atmospheric scholar James Anderson has discussed.
Meanwhile, experts around the world are exploring other ways to get our economic systems in place, such as Donut Economics, Post Growth Economics, Prosperity without Growth and Steady State Economy – and JÃ¤rvensivu and his colleagues have asked all leaders avant-garde around the world to start testing possible transition strategies, such as a universal job guarantee.
These suggestions are quite intimidating, 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.