Dreaming sustainability

When I was a teenager and woke up to the state of the world, I was often very apprehensive about the future. Indeed I didn’t think the planet would survive the cold war, the “population bomb” and the acceleration of environmental collapse. I got involved in the organisation called ”friends of the earth” and tried to overcome my nightmares by joining recycling campaigns and assorted demonstrations, by ”working weekends on organic farms”, by learning about alternative energy and so on. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were lots of dreamers – hippies, rock n rollers, communards, levellers and others – whose awareness of the limits to growth gradually filled more and more space. In particular I remember being astonished by the whole earth catalogue published with the famous photograph on the cover of the earth as seen by astronauts orbiting the moon.[1]


Almost 50 years later the analysis of economic growth on a finite planet by the Club of Rome seems to have been a major milestone on the road to understanding the human predicament.[2] The latest twist in the story has been provided recently by a research team at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (of Stockholm University) in a new report to the same Club of Rome called: ”transformation is possible – how to achieve the sustainable development goals within planetary boundaries.” There are seventeen goals (SDGs) – ranging from reducing poverty and inequality to improving health and education, from ensuring greater justice to ensuring life on land and in the oceans – and the nine planetary boundaries are:

  • global warming (temperature rise above the level in 1850);
  • ozone depletion;
  • ocean acidification (pH level);
  • forest degradation;
  • nutrient overloading (tonnes of ”bioactive N and P”);
  • freshwater overuse;
  • biodiversity loss;
  • air pollution;
  • toxics contamination (e.g. tonnes of lead released).

The research team has found that business as usual – a scenario which entails more or less the same rates of economic growth as different regions of the world are currently experiencing – will mean that in 2050 most of the above boundaries will be exceeded (moving from ”safe space” into the “high risk” zone). In other words, growth may result in fewer destitute people and better standards of health, etc. But without tackling the environmental problems – notably biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions – overall the planet will be in a poor state.

Five transformational actions are proposed in order to shift onto a sustainable pathway, which keeps within the planetary boundaries:

  • accelerated renewable energy growth (to halve carbon emissions every decade from 2020);
  • accelerated productivity in food chains;
  • new development models in poorer countries;
  • active reduction in inequality (ensuring the richest 10 per cent take no more than 40 per cent of income…);
  • investment in education for all, gender equality and family planning.

However, as the authors of the report emphasise, the problem is that most politicians and powerful (rich) minorities appear to be unwilling to take the limits to growth and the transformational agenda seriously. Much lip service is paid to ”green growth.” But the policies and measures to transform our economies in the comprehensive manner that is necessary seem to be mostly off limits. Nonetheless, the latest generation of dreamers is more than welcome![3]

[1] Of course as we have reached 2018 there’s a catalogue website: http://www.wholeearth.com/index.php

[2] The report was published in 1972, see: https://www.clubofrome.org/report/the-limits-to-growth/

[3] Go to https://www.stockholmresilience.org/publications/artiklar/2018-10-17-transformation-is-feasible—how-to-achieve-the-sustainable–development-goals-within-planetary-boundaries.html The dual adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together with the Paris Climate Agreement, both in 2015, represents a global turning point. We have never before had such a universal development plan for people and planet. For the first time in human history the world has agreed on a democratically adopted roadmap for humanity’s future, which aims at attaining socially inclusive and highly aspirational socio-economic development goals, within globally defined environmental targets. Humanity’s grand ambition is surely to aim at an inclusive and prosperous world development within a stable and resilient Earth system. This human quest is to attain as many of the SDGs as possible by 2030, and then continue following a sustainable global trajectory well beyond the next 12 years. This report has identified one such possible, smarter pathway to success through five transformative and synergistic actions.

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