Some predict doomsday scenarios and some say technology will fix things for us, and then there are still those that even deny that there is a problem.
We are at a crossroads today, socially, environmentally, and economically. The symptoms are recognizable everywhere around us. There is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, environmental disasters are happening regularly, while at the same time economists and governments keep warning us that we will be in dire straits if we do not grow our economies exponentially and consume ever more.
So what should we do? What is the right course of action into the future. How do we prevent the titanic from crashing into the iceberg?
In this first article I would like to concentrate on how these problems are linked and how they are dependent on each other. In later articles I will look at each problem in more detail. One important note before I start, nearly every ‘problem’ we face, even personally in our daily lives, is also an ‘opportunity’ for change’, for the better.
First lets look at Sustainability. What is Sustainability and what is Sustainable Development? In 1983 the United Nations founded the World Commission for Environment and Development and in 1987 published a report ‘Our Common Future’ (now known as the ‘Brundtland Report’). The report defines Sustainability Development as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’. It’s a simple but very clear statement that we need to live in such a way that our children, and their children, and life on earth can be sustained indefinitely.
Population growth is definitely a major factor exacerbating environmental problems today and that is one reason why the UN has for many years put an enormous effort into family planning activities worldwide. This is also an opportunity because there is an enormous amount of work necessary to make the changes to a sustainability future and we need everyone’s help, participation and ideas. Climate change and many environmental problems are already so serious that they may seem intractable today, however I would argue that better to make changes now than not at all, a more rational and environmentally-friendly way of life is good for our health and well-being, and will keep humanity away from conflict by keeping us busy, cooperating, and building a better future for everyone.
Economists, governments, and industry leaders desperately push for increased economic growth, and consumption, by arguing that only by doing so can we survive as an industrial society, and provide jobs for everyone. I do not agree. The planet is finite in many ways, in terms of natural resources including oil, fresh water, and clean air; and in terms of all the services that nature provides us. We need a different economic model.
Today’s economic growth is based for a large part on fossil fuels for cars, aircraft and plastics. Prices of products and services do not include even a fraction of the actual cost of producing them in terms of natural capital and environmental degradation. Growth also means that we need to consume exponentially more of everything irrespective of the real environmental cost, materials footprint, workers safety, and health. Pollution also increases as our economies grow, and there is a detrimental trend towards disposable products that cannot be repaired, maintained, up-cycled or recycled.
So how can we possibly survive by consuming less? The answer in my opinion is the sharing economy. An economy based on a much smaller cycle of physical products, but products that are shared, built to last, can be easily repaired and maintained, and are easy to up-cycle or recycle. We need to move from a product- based economy to a service-based economy. We will end up hoarding less products, but still have everything that we need. One example would be a storeroom in an apartment block with a vacuum cleaner, a power drill, a clothes iron, a washing machine, and other tools and appliances we only use occasionally. There could even be a common workshop and entertainment/TV lounge. A bit like a student house. You pay for using the appliance rather than owning it. The manufacturer maintains, repairs, and up-cycles, or recycles the appliance at it’s end of life, or when a newer version is available. This model also provides a secured source of raw materials for manufacturers for the next generation of products.
Some say the answer will come from a gradual switch to greener products and from technological innovation. Certainly this will play a part, however the problems we face are so severe already today that change has to come much faster than industry or governments can cater for. You can compare this to your PC or telephone. Change is happening so fast that we need to drastically rethink the way we live to be able to survive on this planet.