Sorry for the cliche, but that is true, the “world is changing”. Beyond natural, perpetual changes, we’ve reached a point where we change because there is no other choice. Because the current state is not stable, not “sustainable”. What is sustainability ? It is the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Why are we not sustainable?
Picture yourself on a long, long car journey with your family (3 kids) on windy mountain roads with no one in sight since you started driving. The car is our planet, the family our society. Turns out we’re low on fuel, we’re overheating the engine, and the kids are becoming unruly…
In such a situation, either you slow down, switch to another kind of engine and open the windows so everyone gets some fresh air and calms down, or you’re at a serious risk of an accident — ultimately you’ll run out of fuel if nothing worse has happened in the meantime. Humanity is more diverse and resilient than a single family, so it will likely not collapse at once, but it is certainly changing. In the next three sections I’ll describe part of those changes and give an idea of how fast they are likely to impact us.
It’s hard to say this change will be “good” or “bad”. Humanity has been there for a few hundreds of thousands of years, and the long term consequences of the steps we’ll take in the next century are way too unpredictable to be judged. Fact is, change is happening, it impacts you and it will impact your children and/or the children of your friends. Up to you to decide if you want to take part in the process, and where to push.
a. We’re running out of fuel (are we?) – the physical limits
That is the first challenge: we chose to use a gas engine (because it allows us to drive faster), but there is no gas station on the way. Fossil fuels, they’re called, Oil, Gas and Coal. They’ve been created underground by very high pressure and temperature over hundreds of millions of years based on the huge amount of biomass generated during a whole era of intense vegetal growth, the Carboniferous. As such, there is a limited amount of them.
How much? You might have read we have enough oil for 60 years… Well, that has been the case since the last 30 years at least ! And we don’t seem to be decreasing their consumption by any amount, on the contrary. Nope, what happens is this: every time we start depleting what’s called the “proven reserves”, the prices go up (remember 2008’s 100$/barrel?) and that triggers intense research for more resources, in new places or using new technologies (conventional technologies allow to extract barely 80% of a good reservoir), so the “proven reserves” expand. The problem with this is that we rely on those price peaks to keep fuelling our economy, with impacts on our society. From the moment a finite ressource becomes really needed and the first, easy reserves are extracted, the price goes unstable. That is a threat for the supply security. Moreover, the rush to extract as much as possible at the lowest possible price often results in precarious working conditions and local social instability.
The same happens with a lot of other ressources (more price peaks here). Rare earths, you might have heard about, are used in all our electronic devices and for now extracted almost exclusively in China (except for a mine in California which has gone through severe ups and downs), which is a worry for many countries. Lithium, used in batteries, is relatively abundant on earth, but there is little extractions capacity for now to ensure shifting our energy system to full-electric, which would require lots of batteries. You might have heard of cobalt, also used in batteries and electronic devices, which has been at the core of violent wars and child labor in Congo – because that’s where it is cheaper to extract at the moment.
Back to oil, how much is there left? Nobody knows. You can find estimates more or less official and scientific estimates here. To give an order of magnitude, assume there are twice more real reserves than the proven reserves. That’s enough oil for 180 years at current rate of production. There is also way more gas and coal than that. As for metals, there are mineral nodules on our ocean floor meant to be a huge unexplored reserve. We are not goin through more detailed numbers because they are useless. Lack of ressources is not what will stop our car in the next couple of centuries (it will though, ultimately, if nothing else does)…
It is like carrying a large tank trailer of gas with the car, but being connected to it by a defective pipe. The pipe keeps interrupting the supply of the car, resulting in bumps that are damaging the engine and making your family sick.
b. The engine is overheating – the environmental limits
Of course, driving that fast is causing the engine to overheat. Not only that actually, but also with all the curves you can feel the steering wheel is not responding normally, and one of the tires might be about to burst. Same with the environment: we are asking more from it than what it can provide.
The most known of these effects is greenhouse gas emissions. We are emitting more greenhouse gas than what the environment is able to absorb (we are heating our engine faster than what the cooling system can cool it). As a result, that gas (carbon, but also methane and others) is accumulating in the atmosphere and causing the heat from the sun to be trapped on earth (similar to a greenhouse heating up under the sun, thus the name). Note that the environment itself has always emitted and absorbed carbon – through breathing and photosynthesis namely. That’s why it is called the carbon cycle. Actually, compared to the volumes circulating in that cycle, our emissions might seem quite small – and some of it is resorbed by the oceans. However, because it is carbon added to the cycle, it is building up, and so are concerns about its consequences (climate change, if it needs to be named, but also the acidification of the oceans).
However, that is only one cycle we are saturating. There are a few others, which have been named the “planetary boundaries” – and we are off a few of them already. You might be surprised to know it’s not the carbon cycle saturating the most yet… It is nitrogen, phosphorus cycles (although these are more difficult to quantify), as well as biodiversity (which you can think of as a « gene cycle »).
Phosphorus? Nitrogen? Under certain chemical forms, that is what chemical fertilisers contain. The industrial production and use of fertilisers is adding phosphorus and nitrogen to the soil at a faster pace than what it can process. As a result, those substances accumulate in the soil and the water, with damaging impacts on eco-systems (among the most visible of them: lakes turning green with algae that kill pretty much everything else in the water). It is quite telling to look at a field or a garden that is being “well kept” (meaning sprayed regularly with chemicals): whatever is being planted and cared for will be large, colourful and lively. But if you look at the earth at the bottom, you will usually find it bare and dry. A very different picture than if you go for a walk on a healthy prairie and look at the variety of plants that densely cover the ground.
As for gene circulation, there is a loss of biodiversity due to the intensive use of pesticides. You might have heard of the neonicotinoids threatening bees – all kinds of other bugs and animals are being killed by those. The destruction of ecosystems, namely rainforests, is another major cause of this depletion.
Another cycle that we are impacting, although it is not yet a major issue at global scale, is that of freshwater. By capturing it for our agriculture and daily uses before releasing it, soiled (with pesticides, but also your soap, paints, oils etc) in the environment, we are exceeding nature’s capacity to clean it back. As a result, other users of the water, downstream from the rivers, are seeing their reserves shrink, which can result in conflicts locally. And with changing rain patterns, due to climate change, that is only going to exacerbate, which is an example of how interconnected the planetary boundaries are. Similarly, air pollutants released namely when burning fossil fuels and when spraying chemicals accumulate in the air faster than they can be filtered by natural processes, with damaging impacts on human health.
Note that a common point of these human impacts is how they are related to food and energy. Which of course are strongly linked: producing chemicals requires a large amount of energy. Adding the energy, thus fossil fuels, required for the transportation and transformation of industrial food, and the emissions linked to cattle, the food industry turns out to amount to over a quarter of human-made emissions, besides being the main factor for the depletion of our soils. Indeed food and energy make most of our days, directly, to eat, move and heat and indirectly through waste and consumption.
So, how much have we left before we completely saturate a cycle? Hard to say, again. There is a measure, the ecological footprint, which quantifies the surface of natural land that would be needed to regenerate the ressources we use. In 2007, we would have needed 1.5 planets to sustain our activity (with “developed” countries needing way more). But knowing for how many years the planet can absorb that extra 0.5 is complicated. What is for sure is that we are already seing severe impacts on the environment. If you believe the IPCC (International Panel for Climate Change, which has been created to provide governments with insights on the particular issue of climate change), it is a matter of decades before we see catastrophic damages due to climate change, and we have a few years to react.
These predictions are made difficult because of positive and negative « feedback loops ». For instance, 2019 has been a year of unprecedented fires not only in the Amazon but also in the arctic forest. Such fires are not followed by normal forest regrowth (in the Amazon because the nutrients contained in the ashes are easily washed by the rain, in the Arctic because the peat soils that have burned are formed through accumulation of biomass over long periods of time), so they trigger the emissions of large amounts of CO2 that will worsen climate change and in turn trigger more fires. Wildfires in these regions are not new, but the surfaces burned have sharply increased lately and it seems to be the first time that peat soils are burning so intensely. This and other feedback loops could mean we reach an unhabitable planet faster than expected. We will come back to this uncertainty in the next section.
But even before that, we might face the third and most threatening limit. With the engine overheating, the air-conditioning broken and very uncomfortable smells penetrating the cabin from the tank and the engine, not to speak about the worrying noise coming from the wheel spindles, the kids, your partner and yourself are getting very upset.
c. The family is breaking down – the social limits
You never know with kids… One of them might try to open a door, or kick you from the back, and you’re loosing the concentration to drive properly. As for your partner, you’ve never seen that face expression, looking as if wanting to just push you off your seat and take the wheel. Society is taking a similar path, with political tensions building up and international conflits threatening to escalate.
This is visible through several aspects. In link with climate change, there is climate injustice: regions of the world that are more arid and poorer are experiencing more severe impacts from changes in rain patterns and low-ressource regions are less prepared to face extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent. As a result, populations in these regions are trying to move under better skies or defy their governments with dramatic consequences in some regions of the world (the war in Syria is the most spoken of these indirect impacts of climate change, but others are following).
Even in countries spared by climate change so far, there is growing unrest (think about the polarisation of the political life in Europe and the US). With all kinds of reasons (ask yourself, why are you unhappy with your government?). One of them better documented: raising inequalities.
Figures change, but in 2017 it was: the 8 richer people in the world (out of about 8 billion) had as much as the poorer 50%! And why are inequalities growing?
Explanations are multiple, but try this one: picture wealth flowing in society. Until a couple of decades, most of the wealth was flowing between individuals, with wealthy bosses paying their employees, house-maids and drivers who would in turn spend that money on first necessity products sold by farmers or retailers, who would then buy more complex products, which required factories to be produced, which were run by those bosses. In parallel, everyone would pay taxes to the state, which could contribute to wealth redistribution by providing cheap public services (from providing water to transportation or energy). Nowadays, money essentially flows between companies, whose goal is to maximise profits, thus minimise wages. There is a specialised company for nearly any function you need: cleaning, programming, baby-sitting, hosting… Reciprocally, people buy their goods now almost exclusively from large companies (supermarkets, mutinational brands). The top-down faucet is closing as tightly as possible while the bottom-up one opens wider and wider. Ultimately these companies are owned by a few, who collect the gains. And because the few of the few with the most money are the ones with the means to buy other companies, they can become even wealthier. As for taxes, they’re lower for companies in the first place, and it is way more difficult for states to run after something that grows with no substance from a signature on a paper than after an individual with a birthplace.
And why are economic inequalities a problem? It has been proven that levels of inequality are linked to several conditions to a good quality of life, not only for the ones at the bottom of the social ladder, but also those at the top. However, on top of that, wealth inequalities are increasingly linked to quality of life inequalities. With more people working in companies with a salary as only income, we’re increasingly unable to cater independently for our own needs and desires. And with more and more product differentiation and creation, we increasingly need to pay for anything we need. Food is free to plant and to harvest, but we have no time nor land to do so. Walking (and biking) is free, but again we have no time for such, and cities are more often than not designed for fuel-consuming cars. Nice landscapes are free to enjoy, but increasingly we’re being lead to the nearest viewpoint, at a fee. Meeting with friends and having a nice conversation is free, but time is scarce and we’re now meant to rely on data plans, online platforms and expensive phones to keep in touch.
Which brings us to the last point, maybe the most critical one. When communication, information, transportation, food, are in the hands of a few, those also have way too much power over our lives. What’s worse, they’re handing it further to algorithms. I don’t believe Mr. Zuckerberg (do you know this means “sugar mountain” in German?) meant to manipulate the US elections or Mr. Bezos meant to waste his workers to exhaustion. But those are the paths generating the most profit, as calculated by algorithms (and business analysts), so those are the paths chosen. As long as the workers (and the consumers) have a penny and a second left unallocated in their lives, there is a margin for optimisation – from the purely economic point of view. As a side effect for this, wherever a job place can be automated, subcontracted or deleted, it is, leading to growing levels of unemployment that deepen the social divide.
And if someone pushes for a change, how easy is it give her/him the impression s/he is heard when only her/his likeminded friends are reading her/his posts? How easy is it now to shut her/him off, to track her/his steps and thoughts and muffle them before they even come to clear conscience, through advertising or well targeted distractions?
But for how long can society stand this situation? When will someone in the car go completely nuts? In any case, these are changes that are happening right now, and will only accentuate in the coming years.
This section gives the basics to the “sustainability triangle” (in a slightly changed format). Humanity is on a completely unsustainable course: basing it’s development on finite ressources is depleting them at the scale of the century while creating economic instability; releasing the products of this extraction in the environment is breaking natural cycles and leading to mass extinctions at the scale of the decade; doing this process at the expense of the majority for the profit of a minority is creating social unrest we’re already seeing around us.
You could argue this is all relevant, but by definition this unsustainable way of functioning will change, thus there is no worry to have about it. Whatever the situation in a couple of centuries, it will be a sustainable one. True. But is a sustainable situation really a nice situation? The next section shows the 3 sustainable long-run scenarios, for you to evaluate which one you prefer. If there is a preference, the section after gives more reasons to act, and clues on what to do.
Thanks for the reading so far, anyway.
Next page: II. What are we changing to?