Sustainable Society

A holistic view

Gains from piecemeal measures can be easily nullified by setbacks in unattended areas. A holistic view with the following key measures can help us transition to a sustainable society:
  1. Focus on 'slow things' first: Address aspects that will take a long time to correct.
  2. Accurate and relevant information: Focus on accuracy of information with continuous feedback and improvement.
  3. Driving sustainability through innovation: Experiment. Invent. Learn. Adapt.
  4. Systems thinking: Find and accept solutions that do not shift demand from one ecosystem to another.

Focus on 'slow things' first

Time is of the essence.

Even moderate United Nations projections for the growth of the world population and consumption show humanity using double the bioproductivity of planet Earth by 2050.

Reaching this level of consumption may be impossible, however, as the natural capital being used to enable this overshoot may well be depleted before the mid-century mark.

Efforts to stem this rapid escalation of overshoot and avoid ecosystem collapse must take into account the slow response times of human populations and infrastructure.

Even after birth rates fall below replacement levels, populations continue to expand for many years. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the 20th century alone – a child born today will, on average, consume resources for the next 65 years.

Human-made infrastructure, too, can last many decades.

The graph below compares typical lifespans for some human and physical assets with the timeframe for the growth of overshoot in a future business-as-usual scenario based on the United Nations projections.

Together, the people born and the infrastructure built today will shape resource consumption for much of the rest of the century.

The assets we create can be future friendly - or not.

Transport and urban infrastructures become traps if they can only operate on large footprints.

In contrast, future friendly infrastructure – cities designed as resource efficient, with carbon-neutral buildings and pedestrian and public transport oriented systems – can support a high quality of life with a small footprint. If, as is now predicted, the global population grows to 9 billion, and if we want to leave a minimal buffer for the preservation of some biodiversity, we need to find ways for the average person to live well on less than half the current global average footprint.

The longer infrastructure is designed to last, the more critical it is to ensure that we are not building a destructive legacy that will undermine our social and physical wellbeing.

Cities, nations, and regions might consider how economic competitiveness will be impacted if economic activity is hampered by infrastructure that cannot operate without large resource demands.

Driving sustainability through innovation

Which strategies will succeed?

Effective sustainability strategies invite participation and stimulate human ingenuity. Such strategies evoke images of an attractive future and work to build consensus.

These are the common features of successful pioneering urban designs such as Curitiba in Brazil, Gaviotas in Colombia, and BedZED in the United Kingdom.

Innovative approaches to meeting human needs are called for if we are to move beyond the belief that greater well-being necessarily entails more consumption, especially in societies where basic needs are already being met.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking plays a key role: it helps to identify synergies and ensure that proposed solutions bring about an overall footprint reduction, rather than simply shifting demand from one ecosystem to another.

Experts from many disciplines have important roles to play in the transition to a sustainable society.

Social scientists can study institutional arrangements to determine how to effectively facilitate and move forward the necessary global dialogue and decision-making process.

Engineers, architects, and urban planners can contribute knowledge on ways to transform human infrastructure and the built environment so that they enable a high quality of life while keeping ecological demand within the available resource budget. Research and planning into ways to appropriately decelerate and eventually reverse continuing population growth will also play a key role.

Ecologists, biologists, farmers, and resource managers can find ways to increase the Earth’s biocapacity without putting further pressure on biodiversity, while avoiding technologies that risk significant negative consequences in the future.

The development of low-impact energy sources will play an important role, as will a shift to sustainable agricultural and food production and distribution systems. Economists in particular are needed to estimate how much of our global financial, human, and ecological resource base will be required to shift humanity’s current trajectory on to a path that will remain within the biological capacity of the planet.
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