Changing the way we interact with nature is essential to avoid further climate change and biodiversity loss – but there’s more to it than that. Transitioning our societies into more sustainable ones helps secure a stable future, by ensuring that everything we do, we can do forever.
Infinite Growth in a Finite World
Economies around the world are built around growth. As the backbone of our economies, companies are drivers of growth. A successful company will expand and hire more employees, leading to growth in the society. The quest for growth is the main reason that companies are always innovating and integrating new markets. If they instead stay stagnant with their current products and customers, another company with newer products will leave them in the dust.
Unfortunately, maintaining growth isn’t an easy task. And doing so forever in a finite world constrained by limited resources– well that’s simply impossible.
Innovating at the expense of the environment is understandable when it means lifting populations out of poverty and increasing quality of life. It’s even encouraged. And although innovation will continue to lead to fantastic advances where it matters, like medical brain-scanning devices or low-emission materials, everything has a cost. As we try to reduce our global impacts on the environment, it’ll be our responsibility to determine which inventions are worth extracting/polluting for and which ones aren’t.
Adapting to a Declining Economy in a Sustainable Future
As stated previously, current economies are built on growth. Unfortunately, developed countries are just that – developed. Modern economic growth relies on infinite resources and population, but that’s not realistic. We can’t open more markets once we’ve already achieved full globalization, and combining that with limited resources and declining population growth, we get a declining GDP growth rate [gross domestic product – more on that below]. That sounds bad, but it doesn’t have to be. Economic systems don’t need to be centered around growth.
With a good transition plan in place, countries can engage in “degrowth” or other economic systems that don’t consider the GDP to be the prime indicator of prosperity. Degrowth can help economies focus on a multitude of issues, like happiness, quality of life, or the environmental crisis. Switching from the GDP to these metrics can help our societies track stability and sustainability – which would help us focus our efforts there.
It’s without the transition plan that it gets a bit trickier. We won’t attempt to predict the future here, but we’ll note a few important things:
- Our planet’s resources are finite, which means that businesses that rely on the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources will fail in the long term [in other words, if we can’t do something forever, then at some point we’ll have to stop]. There’s no getting around that.
- Governments that are unprepared will – by definition – not be ready to change. Unfortunately, creating the right conditions for a sustainable transition takes time. Consequently, if we don’t come up with a plan soon, we’re effectively telling workers in unsustainable industries that their eventual unemployment [see 1.] doesn’t matter.
- When large chunks of the population are unemployed at the same time [see 1.], shit happens. If history repeats itself, then that either takes the form of direct violence, political extremism, or clashes between different ethnic groups.
So it’d be best if the transition to a more sustainable society started sooner rather than later. On top of being a reasonable thing to do based on the arguments presented above, it would also help us reduce our impacts on the environment before it’s too late.
Where should we focus our efforts to reduce our impacts on the planet as efficiently as possible? For many individuals trying to get more familiar with the environmental crisis and its solutions, this is the million-dollar question. In essence, it amounts to asking: who’s responsible for the situation we’re in, and what can the culprits do differently?
Unfortunately, neither individuals, companies, nor governments can be blamed for 100% of the global warming or biodiversity loss that has occurred to date. That’s too bad – it could have made our job of fixing this mess a whole lot easier. Instead, it’s pretty clear that all 3 parties contributed in their own ways to the progressive release of GHG emissions and destruction of natural habitats.
Now this doesn’t mean that certain companies and governments are off the hook for purposefully slowing down environmental action and interfering with the scientific community – something that’s still very common today. It simply means that individuals have also had a negative impact on the planet, and it’s important to understand that.
However, it’s hard to say whether that means individuals share some of the responsibility of where we’re at with the environment today. For the longest time, nobody had a clue that there was a problem. And when many of us recently realized that there was, climate change and biodiversity loss had already become systemic issues.
As such, to mitigate both climate change and biodiversity loss, solutions first and foremost have to come from governments and companies to affect change at large scales. For individuals, there are solutions that can help us reduce our personal impacts on the environment – and we’ll see plenty in later sections – but it’s important to note that uprooting the unsustainable system currently in place is much more impactful.
At the same time, it’s important for individuals to understand that some of our habits are purely unsustainable, and sacrifices will have to be made. Governments can pass strong policies to ensure those habits change, but should expect significant pushback from individuals – since we lose the liberty of choosing unsustainable habits.
Improving education and equity can help governments get more individuals on board for these types of necessary policies.
Adopting a more sustainable economic model will be essential. Not only because the current unsustainable model can’t go on forever, but also because it’s an opportunity for us to focus our attention on happiness, employment, the environment, and much more.
At the same time, we’ll have to voice our support for policies that can affect change at the larger scales – while being ready to adapt to more sustainable lifestyles.