The previous section shows how the world is changing. How those change factors interact is extremely complex. We are seeing financial and oil crisis, hurricanes increasing in frequency and intensity, political extremes earning votes, with international tensions building up to the point of locally degenerating in wars. It is impossible to say where all this is leading us. But looking ahead it is possible to imagine which are the sustainable scenarios on the long run.
In short, the car might break and send us down the cliff; the driver could turn on the movie player to entertain the kids while turning on the self-repair function of the car (hoping it works) or the whole family could decide to slow down so all can listen to the noises the car is doing and help fixing it.
There is no right or wrong with these scenarios. It is up to you pick which one you prefer and decide to fight for it or not. I will only take position in the next section, and in posts linked to each subsection.
a. Environmentally sustainable – the extinction scenario
That is objectively how to minimise human impact on the environment. Extinction, and more generally catastrophe scenarios are filling our imaginaries through movies and alarming political reports. The kids are crying with fear of a car crash. It is an environmentally sustainable path since life is extremely resilient, if not at our level at least at the bacterial level. Even in the event of a nuclear war, there would be no strategic reason for armies to cover the entire globe with sanitising fire. Somewhere in the depths of the oceans or the heart of the deserts there will be life struggling to keep on and radioactivity only lasts for a couple of hundreds of thousands of years.
This is not a very stimulating scenario to think about though, because if we ever get close to it there will be a very natural push to resist it, and it is likely some would survive (either in bunkers or in very remote territories) and re-develop into one of the other scenarios. Whoever is not part of those lucky few has little to worry about, just as it is always too early to plan for your own death.
b. Technically sustainable – the artificialization scenario
There seems to always be a technical solution out of the challenges we are facing, more or less mature. We can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy (or use nuclear fusion – although that is a far from mature solution), replace raw materials with recycled ones, grow hydroponic crops, cultivate meat in vitro for food, capture and store excess carbon from the atmosphere and install mass surveillance algorithms to manage social unrest. It is then a matter of calculations and optimisation to dimension these solutions properly as to optimise survival rates (or happiness rates).
Deploying such solutions in a coordinated way requires setting up complex standards and regulations, market based or not, and ideally have them adjusted by algorithms (artificial intelligence?) as we go. Choosing one of the solutions usually raises new challenges (e.g. carbon capture requires a lot of energy, which to be provided by crops or solar power requires to increase land use), so to reach sustainability the used models should reach a complexity comparable to that of the entire human and natural system, if such a thing is possible. Large companies and/or powerful states are the stakeholders which have the means to implement such a comprehensive modelling. However, the chosen solutions would be way too complex to be explained to every individual, so the majority would be provided with just the necessary elements to remain happy and quiet. Because these solutions are complex and expensive to set up, they would be applied first in regions with more ressources and know-how, leaving part of the population to survive with traditional means until they disappear or are assimilated in the modern system.
Nevertheless, this is ultimately a sustainable scenario, and again one that is very present in our imaginaries. Be it in integrated cities as in Black Mirror’s Fifteen Million Merits episode or aboard a spaceship like in Wall-e, we know what it could look like. It could probably happen relatively well even.
c. Socially sustainable – the sobriety scenario
Another scenario is one where we reduce our use of the resources and distribute them better (to everyone and to every use) so all have enough of what is needed. It comes down to a few fundamental needs. The intuition is that we are today over 7 billion humans surviving on earth, a share of them with very confortable living conditions and with a lot of surplus. Sharing that surplus should allow to reach decent living conditions for all.
In parallel, we would need to cater for these needs while preserving the environment, and there are plenty of ways to do so. Some of them using technology (like renewable energy), others understanding better how ecosystems work (as with organic agriculture) and others relying on cooperation between and within communities (like building housing from natural materials and maintaining them accros generations). The only limit is our imagination, and what human creativity can provide. However, to do so we can not rely on the current socio-economic mechanisms, which rely on increasing consumption to structurally increase inequalities, as exposed in I.c. Another logic would be needed, where goods are made to last so less can be produced (did you notice buildings are nowadays meant to last for a couple of decades only, while we still have some centenary houses around?) and where sharing what we have is the default before growing it further if really needed. Such a system can be designed and run at all levels of governance, from the individual to the international cooperation going through local authorities and states, provided that competences and opportunities are fairly distributed.
You might argue there is not enough for everyone – that is what markets were created for: allocation of scarce goods. But if we look at those fundamental needs, does it hold? Because this is a scenario less present in our everyday thoughts, let us detail a bit:
- Food: we produce enough for everyone : 2884kCal/capita/day, against about 2000kCal/capita/day of recommended diet. Indeed 821 million people lack food, but that is because enough for 250 million is simply wasted between the US and Europe while “developed” countries eat way more than what they need, a good part of it imported from countries where people are starving. Add to that the over-consumption of meat (which requires a lot of land and means compared to vegetables), and you get huge surpluses, even if the population was to increase. You could argue that it will be barely enough with the population increase, but trivially a population can not increase above the level allowed by its food supply.
- Energy: We do not think about it much, so it is natural we waste large amounts of it. Think about each time you cook pasta and pour the boiling water down the pipe. Any idea how many energy that is? Less directly, have a look at where the products you buy come from. Imagine how many kilometres of transportation were required to bring all the raw materials to that place, then send the finished product to you (transportation accounts for about a quarter of the world’s energy consumption). Besides a good margin for improvement on consumption, it is worth noticing the sun alone irradiates on earth about 7500 more energy than how much we consume. That is a wealth of energy available to everyone, everywhere (except at the poles), in the form of PV electricity, but also wind and heat.
- Living space: Over half of the world’s population is living in cities, which might give the impression of a crowded world if you live in one. However, most of the surface is free and if we were to be more independent from our urban centres there are a lot of former rural centres which we could come back to. It is more a matter of managing that ressource in a way that is integrated with the environment rather than destroying parts of it for optimal management.
- Money: per se, it has no value. What is a currency worth if you can not buy food with it? However, nowadays it is an indicator of how much other goods you can buy, so what your quality of material life is. World wealth average is 63’100$ owned per adult. That might seem a lot or very little, depending on where you live. It is more relevant to look at whether everyone earns enough money for daily purchases. In that respect, thousands of billions of dollars are exchanged everyday (5.1 trillion $/day on the Foreign Exchange market alone in 2016 – it’s a market where currencies are sold and bought : like 1 euro for 1.10 francs). If only a fraction of that was flowing through individuals, we would be earning (and spending) hundreds of dollars per day and per inhabitant.
- Natural sinks: This is where we might not have that much margin. Natural sinks are the mechanisms through which our waste (for instance CO2, plastic, chemicals etc.) is reabsorbed by the environment. They require well functioning ecosystems and natural cycles (forests, deepwater ocean, bugs and bacteria etc.). That is where we are at the highest overshoot today and where we will need to drastically reduce our production of waste and the damage we are causing to those sinks.
Note that, besides those material needs, what we also need are recreation moments and those are often a matter of time and company. Both things that are pretty much free and require nothing else than having someone physically around. Both things that the current trends are taking away from individuals.
We know the world is changing but its incredible complexity makes it impossible to predict the path it is going through. Instead this section used an physical approach of studying the “steady states” of the system. No mater through where we develop, we should get to one of the three: either we go extinct, or we totally artificialize our environment and social interactions, or we reduce pressure on natural ressources by better sharing what we have and re-centring our societal goals around satisfying vital needs and spending time together.
Note that the planet is vast, so the later two could coexist to an extent for a certain time, but a system that has its own growth as a goal will always get into conflict with any other kind of system, which is actually already happening, so ultimately one or the other state will prevail globally. However, can you think of another final state that relies on a completely different logic? Please post it as a comment.
Now that we know how we are changing and where that is leading us, should we do something about it? And is there anything we can do in the first place? Keep reading for my opinion on that, but beware that we are leaving the realm of objective facts to get into the more complicated one of values, so you might want to go for a walk before. Thanks again for reading, though.
Next page: III. Why the rush?