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Sustainability – I like it. What is it? 

Short definition: Sustainability is a systemic property emerging from the interactions between the environment, the society and the economy. It refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilisation to co-exist.

To put this definition into action, it means things like the end of the fossil based economy, shifting capitalism towards new directions, finding ways to turn the biodiversity loss into enabling the lost species to make a comeback, managing to keep the climate warming below  and transform societies into circular economy where there is no space for overconsumption and the GDP growth and use of natural resources are finally decoupled.

To make this shift happen, there’s tons of global agreements and national commitments signed. However, the future remains to be more unclear and heading towards crisis-mode rather than a sustainable future where we all – humans, other animals and the environment – could co-exist and flourish. One could even say that even if the current decade is a decade of action, 21st century society doesn’t seem to be a future-oriented one. The essential realisation is: If we let the progress continue as before, we will in the end use up the renewable and nonrenewable resources and eventually destroy the whole life capacity of the Earth. In other words we might take our own future away.

It feels quite evident that instead of witnessing the tragicomic end of the human race, we desire to keep on existing on planet earth. That’s why we must become more keen on alternative sustainable futures. This means understanding the changes on societal level and how daily lives are to be organised. It means re-inventing economic activities and introducing new alternative economies. It means that human activity doesn’t have a negative footprint on the planet but has a positive handprint.



Image: The interconnected nature of the SDGs, by Stockholm Resilience Centre

The three levels of change 

Economical level – changing the way we treat the environment as a free and endless resource.

Let’s rewind a bit; the most relevant economic changes regarding sustainable development happened when industrialism took off. Over time, this led the society first to mercantilism and capitalism before we entered the current operating system, neo-liberal economy. This story of growth felt awesome. 70 years later we can make the following observation: Infinite economic growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron. We are currently operating as the money would be scarce and the (natural) resources would be unlimited – when it’s actually the exact opposite. Money is just an instrument of our modern capitalistic system and shouldn’t even be compared to the very scarce natural resources at all.

But no need to panic! Growth dynamics is not a natural law that cant be changed. There’s many modern and resilient views on economic models. For example Gibson-Graham sees the economy in a wider perspective: as a model to maintain and enable livelihoods filled with wellbeing. The basis of this thinking is the recognition that even if we are living on a finite planet which’s resources and systems we have messed up, we still have hope as there are individuals and communities acting and addressing these messy challenges. Another example worth mentioning is the doughnut economics, by Kate Raworth. It explores the mindset and ways of thinking and draws on insights from diverse schools of economic thought – ecological, feminist, institutional, behavioural and complexity economics – and sets out seven ways to think in order to bring the world’s economies into the safe and just space for humanity. 

Social level is all about satisfying human needs.

Social level of sustainability covers topics from ending hunger and poverty to human rights, equity, gender equality and women’s empowerment as well as increasing health and well-being, opening free education for all and enabling people to live in sustainable cities and communities with clear energy solutions. In general, these issues are  interlinked, intertwined and wicked by nature. They are at the core of the sustainable transition because without healthy, educated and empowered active people it’s pretty much impossible to fix the state of the planet.

Solving these wicked problems requires a high level of systematic and holistic understanding. We can’t, for example, prototype new income or healthcare models and simulate them in a closed environment or a laboratory. Instead, the improvement ideas related to these designs need to be tested in a real life environment with the possibility of these tests leaving traces, understanding and emotions into the society that can’t be undone.

A UK-based social enterprise called Social Life defines social sustainability as “a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.” The definition continues by taking it closer to action, by stating that: “Social sustainability combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.

Environmental level ultimately sets the boundaries to everything.

While the economy is looking forward in yearly quarters, the planetary changes happen in longer periods. Comparing these two, a climate impact 100,000 years from now feels easily irrelevant to the present time economical and political decision-making. It seems that our society is shifting from the steady epoch of the holocene towards the anthropocene. In other words, we are entering an era in human history where we have shifted from the consumption of natural resources – without any doubt we might run out of them – into an era where we simply just have to start aligning human activity in line with the planetary boundaries.

What are planetary boundaries? Stockholm Resilience Center’s researchers have proposed nine planetary boundaries that are set to meet the holocene state and to give safe operating spaces that don’t disrupt Earth’s systems. Three of the boundaries, the climate change, the biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle, have already peaked into unsustainable levels. And in order to influence climate change we must take care of other boundaries too, in this case the freshwater usage, land use, aerosol, nitrogen-phosphorus, ocean and stratospheric boundaries.

However, we are currently living in a time when the biggest decisions related to the environment are to be made. This means that we have understood what this all is about but nothing grande hasn’t happened. Instead, still in 2022, the troubling expansion of oil, gas and coal projects, despite science telling that fossil fuels must stay in the ground to avert the worst impacts of climate change is making the 1.5°C future even less possible. This to be said it’s also worth noticing that IPCC’s best estimate remains at 3 °C.

4. Steps towards taking action.

Because Infinite growth powered by finite natural resources is simply an oxymoron, we face two options. We can be part of the status quo and bathe in guilt or we can become part of the solution, take action and become agents of sustainable change. From these options it’s pretty easy to choose from. The wicked and action oriented question is, how to transform towards a more sustainable future where we have a flourishing livelihood while keeping human activity within the planetary boundaries? Here’s four themes that are the most important ones in my opinion for us to figure out together.



1. Decoupling the environmental bads from the economical goods.

The idea is to separate the environmental impact from growth with the help of technology, new consumption habits and focusing on for example circular economy and design.

To make this a bit more tricky, there’s actually two kinds of decoupling:

  1. Relative decoupling in which the environmental impact or resource use grows slower than the economy means seeking sustainable equilibrium between economics and planetary boundaries.
  2. Absolute decoupling where the impact or use declines in absolute terms – meaning decoupling the environmental impacts and GDP, for good.

From these two, relative decoupling is easier but won’t actually enable the needed transformation and keep the planet in safe operating space in relation to the planetary boundaries as it still leads to increasing resource use. Instead, absolute decoupling is the ambitious one that actually has more potential. However, it is worth acknowledging that there seems to be almost none successful examples of decoupling on a global scale, but at regional level it has been achieved. In addition, some experts say that even a 2% raise in GDP per year will slowly but steadily lead to double sized consumption in every 35 years and that with the current climate politics the world is going towards approx. 3°decree future, so we as a humankind are on a huge mission.

2. Guide organisations to adopt new mindsets and raise their sustainability ambitions as regenerative economics is the future proof way to do business.

Aligning industrial strategy with climate and circular economy objectives. By applying circular principles, the EU could reduce its emissions from resource-intensive industries, including steel, plastics, aluminium and cement production, by 56% by 2050. By enhancing material recirculation, production and material efficiency and applying new circular business models, the reduction is achievable. It is of utmost importance that the new European Industrial Strategy is aligned with climate and circular economy objectives, since half of the CO2 emissions and 90 percent of biodiversity loss and water stress comes from the extraction and processing of materials (IRP 2019: Global Resources Outlook 2019). We need to start moving towards a regenerative economy. In addition to the new kind of thinking, businesses have to embed sustainability into their core and strategies and also set some  measurable principles.

3. Develop radical solutions by developing disruptive technologies for circularity.

Digitisation, servicification and data are surely enablers for circularity – especially in the near future where we have better data models to drive circularity and digital product passports that will bring life-cycle assessment and traceability across value chains to a new level.

It’s worth keeping in mind the elements of digitisation that accelerate climate change and reduce biodiversity. These include the increasing use of energy and natural resources, and, therefore, we need a better understanding of the systemic effects of digitisation and to find means to drive development in a sustainable direction.

We can’t count on inventing totally new technologies but look at the solutions within the existing and emerging technologies.

Luckily we have great technologies and foremost people who are passionate about changing the future for good so we have all it takes to say ‘bye bye’ to solutions that accelerate mass consumption culture and ‘hello’ to circular thinking.

4. Ensure that you are building democratic futures by making sustainable choices accessible and inclusive for all.

A just transition. Ensuring that no one is left behind is critical to the implementation of the action plan. The plan spells out valuable ways to enhance lifelong learning opportunities and provide regional support to the most significantly impacted sectors and areas. Sitra will be facilitating dialogue on the social and employment impacts of the circular economy transition across countries, regions and internationally, drawing on experiences in Finland. Changing production and consumption patterns will have impacts globally, and developing countries need to be fully integrated into new sustainable global value chains based on the circular economy. Sitra, together with the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the African Development Bank, will be supporting African countries in drawing up their own circular economy road maps, identifying their own strengths, priorities and support needs from their development partners to enable them to become circular.

Key take-a-ways

 

To sum up, sustainability is a systemic property emerging from the interactions between the environment, society and economy. What we are dealing with is a complex, interlinked and interconnected system of which casualties we can’t even predict. We have to learn how to adapt our activities to the planetary boundaries that ultimately sets all the limits and the environmental changes that are unavoidable – and ensure that new innovations are regenerative by nature.

Infinite growth powered by finite natural resources is simply an oxymoron. Nevertheless, there’s no time to bathe in guilt and despair for too long. We must say ‘bye bye’ to solutions that accelerate mass consumption culture and ‘hello’ to decoupling, regenerative business, circular thinking and true inclusivity.

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