A Livable Future for All on Earth?: A New Report Offers a Plan–and Some Hope

As a teacher and a parent, I lament the absence of clear, positive visions for the future offered to young people by the media, the world of politics, or even from the arena of social activism. We older people have dumped a pile of terrifying problems in the laps of our children’s generation without offering them much hope–or even a utopian vision to strive for.

I hear anxiety about the future of the world from my students almost every day. What I want is a quick response, in which I can say, “read this book,” or “listen to that band,” or “follow this person.” But in the place I live, no such roadmaps seem to exist.

So I am intrigued by a new article in the journal Nature Sustainability. Put together by Daniel W. O’Neill, Andrew L. Fanning, and Julia K. Steinberger of the University of Leeds and William F. Lamb of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, in Berlin, “A good life for all within planetary boundaries” tackles the big question: how can the earth sustainably support everyone alive while offering them a somewhat high quality of life?

The curriculum for second-years at my secondary school examines this notion of “quality of life” over the past two centuries or so, considering how the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the nation state, and the era of European imperialism dramatically impacted the quality of life for everyone on earth, for good or ill. This new study takes that investigation and points into the future.

Co-author Daniel W. O’Neill has penned an article on the website The Conversation, “Is it possible for everyone to live a good life within our planet’s limits?” that summarizes the study. He begins by noting that no nation on earth promises all its citizens a “long, healthy, happy and prosperous life,” at the same time “using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.”

limitsNo country makes this grade. Some are wealthy but over-consume; others don’t use too many resources but suffer from poverty. So where from here? One thing we know: if everyone consumed resources as we do in the West, environmental catastrophe wouldn’t come far behind.

But what struck me was the claim that economic growth is just not something the US, the UK, and other such nations should even try to do. “Worryingly, the more social thresholds that a country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries it tends to transgress.” We in America simply don’t need more. We need to redistribute what we have and prepare to use less in the future. It’s impossible to imagine a successful politician who calls on us to have and use less (I’m thinking of Jimmy Carter), but such are the leaders we truly need.

susatinable future

So what should we be doing in wealthy nations? According to the study, our ethic should be efficiency. We have to figure out how to do more globally with less. This study makes me reconsider global aid models. It also suggests that the most “balanced,” and thereby successful, country is Vietnam.

I could imagine a great course based on this question (–it could follow our course on the Modern World). The first semester would chart how we got here; the second would use this study as a road map toward solutions.

In the end, the authors offer a series of recommendations:

“two broad strategies may help move nations closer to a safe and just space. The first is to focus on achieving ‘sufficiency’ in resource consumption. … Our results suggest resource use could be reduced significantly in many wealthy countries without affecting social outcomes, while also achieving a more equitable distribution among countries. A focus on sufficiency would involve recognizing that overconsumption burdens societies with a variety of social and environmental problems, and moving beyond the pursuit of GDP growth to embrace new measures of progress. It could also involve the pursuit of ‘degrowth’ in wealthy nations, and the shift towards alternative economic models such as a steady-state economy.

“Second, there is a clear need to characterize and improve both physical and social provisioning systems. Physical improvements include switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, producing products with longer lifetimes, reducing unnecessary waste, shifting from animal to crop products, and investing in new technologies. … Moreover, improvements in resource efficiency are unlikely to be enough on their own, in part because more efficient technologies tend to lower costs, freeing up money that is inevitably spent on additional consumption (the so-called rebound effect).”

So here is the huge, planetary challenge before us. The researchers also offer a cool third website on which students can compare how any two nations compare in terms of both social and environmental factors.

With sustainability as a goal, Finland reappears as wealthy and consumptive: From https://goodlife.leeds.ac.uk/countries/

I have to admit, the diagnosis is a bit scary: I have not been raised to consider “degrowth” to be anything but failure. But this report has the invigorating feel of truth.


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