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

Sustainability
– I like it! What is it?

In this article the three levels of sustainability are described in order to compose a definition for sustainability. This definition is then taken towards action by explaining what kind of change we are actually heading towards. This change, that has a name: sustainable transformation, is opened up by looking four themes that are essential on the path towards achieving the sustainable transformation.

3 levels of sustainability

Let me start but describing the 3 levels of sustainability by opening up how I think we ended up here and how to move forward towards (more) sustainable futures. These levels are linked to UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which again is a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. These goals are interlinked and intertwined – meaning that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.

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

The most relevant economic changes regarding sustainable development happened when industrialism took off and the growth skyrocketed. Now, in approx. 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 actually is multiple ways to update the concept of market economy – which is shaking like a jelly dessert on the Titanic.

The economic system has been built on the idea of linearity. It takes materials from the Earth, makes products that eventually turn into waste. The other option would be circular economy. It eliminates the concept of waste and pollution by utilising renewable energy and materials, circulating products and materials and aims to regenerate nature. The old school capitalism is also a degenerative system, predicated on the extraction of incremental value from labor. These kind old systems and structures of a post-industrial hyper-consumerist culture are slowly breaking down and it’s coming pretty obvious that businesses cannot keep on rocking in a reality where the breakdown of global systems has become impossible to ignore. Leaders – both political and business – are being forced to cope with rising challenges: resource scarcity, high levels of stress in the work place, unpredictable and disruptive innovations, inequality, constant competition for top talent, increasing volatility and changing stakeholder expectations, rapid digitization and globalization, mass migrations and refugee population, fragile supply chains, mounting social tensions, political extremism… you get the picture. The new system(s) has to be regenerative instead of continuing the path that won’t lead to flourishing livelihoods for anyone, not even the ultra-high-net-worth individuals who are 0.003% of the world’s population and  hold 13% and $27 trillion of the world’s total wealth because their wealth is also connected with others. Regenerative business strives from developing healthy, resilient systems of work and civic engagement. focuses on cultivating the foundational pools of social, cultural, spiritual, and living capital by providing goods and services in a way that creates net positive gains for the system as a whole.

 

There’s many modern and resilient views on economic models that aren’t so growth oriented. 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.

These alternative ideas are the most promising to challenge the mainstream economic models:

  • Post-Growth tackles the limits-to-growth dilemma: growth can generate beneficial effects up to a point, but beyond that point it is necessary to look for other indicators and techniques to increase human wellbeing. It focuses more on developing existing ideas and concepts rather than producing answers the the growth dilemma.
  • Doughnut economics, explores the mindset and ways of thinking and draws on insights from diverse schools of economic thought – ecological, feminist, institutional, behavioural and complexity economics.
  • Well-being economy is the way that we produce and provide for one another. We often think of the economy as something given, fixed and unchangeable – but it’s not. The rules, social norms and stories that underpin our current system were designed by people, and that means they can also be changed by people.
  • Community economies is a concept that is based on the thinking that economy can be understood and practiced more widely as currently thought. It aims at taking control of the economy and changing it in everyday life, for example through participation in the production of the used goods as prosumers.

2. Social level is all about satisfying human needs.

Social sustainability is a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. 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 society with a high degree of social sustainability would lead to livable communities with a good quality of life (being fair, diverse, connected and democratic).

3. Environmental level that 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, for example, in order to influence into the 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.

When in comes to the climate we are living the decade of action, meaning that we are currently living in a time when the biggest decisions related to the environment are to be made. However, even if we understand what need to happen, 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. Instead, the global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. The estimations of the global climate warming during this century are rising somewhere between 2.5°C and 3°C – even 4°C. Already, global temperatures has risen about 1°C above pre-industrial levels and unless emissions are rapidly reduced, temperatures could rise 1.5°C by 2040, 2°C by 2065 and 4°C by 2100.

So the heat will one of the key factors determining the future of our planet. And heat will bring friends along. When air warms by 1°C, it can hold 7% more moisture. Warmer air pulls more moisture from the land (and from plants, animals, and our bodies, in the form of sweat) and tends to release it more rapidly. As a result, both droughts and deluges are becoming more common. Also the carbon is also locked in trees, plants, and soil and trapped in frozen land called permafrost in the Arctic are unlocked by heat. This leafs to further warming. Accelerated warming can create large forest fires or thaw tundra, which releases yet more carbon and further increases warming—this is known as a biotic feedback loop.

Here we are not talking about something that might happen. It is already happening. Forests are burning fiercely, droughts are expanding and glaciers are melting. The good news is that we know the sources of rising risks and have the power to affect them.

 

From definition towards action

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 such as the end of the fossil based economy, finding ways to turn biodiversity loss towards enabling the lost species to make a comeback, managing to keep the climate warming below, transform societies from pure capitalism into circular economy where there is no space for overconsumption and decouple GDP growth and use of natural resources for good.

To make these grand shifts happen, there’s tons of global agreements and national commitments signed. However, the pace of the transformation looks way too slow and there’s uncertainty if we are actually heading towards ‘crisis-mode’ where the planetary boundaries will be exceeded and tipping points are met rather than ‘building-mode’ where we could adapt into the changes we can’t avoid anymore and create new possibilities where we all – humans, other animals and the environment – could co-exist or even flourish.

Even if the current decade is stated to be a decade of action, 21st century society doesn’t seem to be a future-oriented one. To me, the essential realisation is this: 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 be taking our own future away. Not the next generations but our future selves.

Because infinite growth that is 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 and make the sustainable transformation happen. It feels quite evident that instead of witnessing the tragicomic end of the human race, it would be nice to keep on existing on planet Earth.

If this is what we want, we must become more keen on alternative sustainable futures. We need to start understanding the essential changes on societal level and how our daily lives are to be organised differently. We need to re-invent economic activities and introduce new alternative economies and ways to build livelihood. We need to live in a way that the human activity doesn’t have a negative footprint on the planet but has instead a positive handprint.

4 themes that will help us to achieve sustainable transformation

The difficult and action oriented question is, how to transform towards a more sustainable future of flourishing livelihoods and keeping human activity within the planetary boundaries? Here’s four themes that I think are the most important ones.
 

1. Decoupling the environmental bads from the economical goods.

The idea of decoupling 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. Shift towards regenerative & circular economy.

Linear economy takes materials from the Earth, makes products that eventually turn into waste. Circular economy eliminates the concept of waste and pollution by utilising renewable energy and materials, circulating products and materials and aims to regenerate nature. It is based on decoupling and aims to tackle global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.

However in 2023 the planet is only 7,3 circularIn order to achieve circularity, we must transform every element of our take-make-waste system: how we manage resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. Only then can we create a thriving circular economy that can benefit everyone within the limits of our planet.

The change is achievable but we need all onboard.

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. 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). Businesses ought to embed sustainability into their core and strategies and enhance material recirculation, production and material efficiency and applying new circular business modelsThe consumers have to transform from throwaway culture into one where refusing, reducing, reusing, repairing, remaking and recycling are the new black. It’s worth to highlight, that even this push from bottom to up is impactful, businesses and nations have the biggest responsibility. 

3. Need for developing radical solutions and disruptive technologies.

Technology is not a silver bullet. And we don’t have time become techno optimists who would wait that eventually someone would invent totally new technologies that would solve it all. Instead we have to find sustainable solutions within the existing and emerging technologies. 

Radical innovation looks the existing technology and figures out new applications that focus on long-term impact by displacing current products, altering the relationship between customers and suppliers and creating completely new product categories. Disruptive technology makes products and services more accessible, affordable, and available to a larger population. It has the potential to serve as a significantly positive force across all industries and areas of society.

We need technology for sustainability and the technology needs to be sustainable.

Digitalisation, servicisation and data science are surely enablers for circularity – especially in the near future where we have better data models to drive circularity (e.g. digital product passports that will bring life-cycle assessment and traceability across value chains to a new level). Simultaneously digitisation can accelerate climate change and reduce biodiversity. This is why we need a better understanding of the systemic effects of digitisation (e.g. the use of energy and natural resources) and to find means to drive development in a sustainable direction.

4. Enabling responsible, just, democratic and inclusive choices for all.

There’s an international consensus on the urgency of addressing climate change and environmental degradation along the fact that human wellbeing is dependent on the planet’s life-support systems. Still there is not enough transparency and participation. There simply has to be greater transparency towards citizens, society, media, businesses and the international community so that they can deeply understand what is happening in relation to their close and global environment and how their governments are responding. When it comes to nations, there should be ways to participate especially those who are the most affected by climate change and environmental degradation. This means e.g. the poorest, slum residents, subsistence farmers, rural women, minorities, indigenous groups and young people. Ensuring that they are included in political processes and that decision makers listen to their political voices is critical.

We have to stop designing things if it ultimately further contributes to pollution, landfill mass, and exploitation of cheap labour. Instead, creating good life in just societies in harmony with nature and ensuring that no one is left behind should be the goal for all our actions. The term climate justice is worth emphasising. Climate justice describes the movement to ensure that the impact of climate change is not disproportionate for marginalized, disadvantaged, living with low-income who are living where the climate crisis hits the biggest force. These “frontline communities” are hyper-exposed to climate risk and under-resourced with opportunities to mitigate that risk. Therefore it is crucial to design solutions that don’t increase this phenomena but instead helps to promote sustainability policies and actions that just for all.

A good questions to ask are “What is the impact of todays decision in ten years from now not just environmental point of view but also in terms of race, class, and gender?” and “What are the impact for the local communities providing materials / devices needed to use this design outcome?” Both, the ethical impacts, also in long-term, and the implications to the wider society should be positive. E.g. changing the 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.

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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