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  • Sudhir Shetty

Humanity's 21st Century Sustainability Predicament & Challenge

Sudhir Shetty

 

Outline:


I. Restoring the understanding of and the credibility Sustainability

Original meaning (Ecological Sustenance or Deep-Green Environmentalism)

Vs

Co-opted meaning by mainstream system (Sustenance of ‘Industrial Way of Life’ or Bright Green Environmentalism)

II. Redirecting strategic focus of global sustainability response towards Ecological Overshoot led Biospheric Collapse:

Climate Change is only one of the 9 symptoms of Planetary Overshoot. Merely replacing the Fossil Fuels powering the ‘Megamachine’ called Industrial Capitalism (IC) with 100% Clean & renewable power source will not avert Biospheric collapse.

III. Climate Change: A Case of ‘Double-Bind’ or a tough Predicament?

No Action: BAU trajectory will lead to Hot-House Earth scenario, rapidly unraravelling Sixth-Mass Extinction

Vs

Strong action: Radical global fossil fuel Stranding policy will trigger an uncontrolled, violent Societal Collapse


IV. Framing of the Predicament graphically:

Distractive Messaging Vs Constructive Messaging


V. Conclusion:

Need to approach existential risk of Global Crisis (GC) from a ‘Big-Picture’ perspective rather than ‘Fragmented Parts’ for effective articulation and navigation.


I. Restoring the understanding of and the credibility to Sustainability

Original meaning: Strong Sustainability as understood by Deep Green Environmentalism

The original sustainability perspective emerging during the Counter culture movements in the 1960’s emphasized an ecological health perspective i.e. integrity & perpetuity of the Biosphere. The articulation (by the World Commission on Environment and Development's 1987 Brundtland report ´Our Common Future`) of 'development’ that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' does resonate with this concept of Sustainability.


Gradually an anthropogenically accommodative concept of Sustainability evolved to become the mainstream of global political-economic system that gave lip service to ecological sustenance while in practice implied the primacy of the economic sustainability (even at the cost of long term Biospheric collapse). Any policy measures prioritizing perpetuity of Ecological Sustainability over Economic Sustainability can be henceforth referred to as ‘Strong Sustainability’. It was a very radical and powerful mobilization idea used by eco-centric activists back then and unfathomable to the mainstream economists & business interests. This kind of environmentalism can be henceforth referred to as the ‘Deep Green Environmentalism’ (Derek Jensen).

Corrupted (Co-opted) meaning: Weak Sustainability promoted by Bright Green Environmentalism

With the expansion of Neo-Liberal Economics, its institutions and exponential rise of Trans-national Corporations (TNCs), the radicalism associated with ‘Sustainability’ has faded away. The system has very skillfully co-opted ‘Sustainability’ that now represents indispensability & perpetuity of ‘Dominant Economic Paradigm’ sustaining Industrial Civilization (IC)’. Today almost everybody (including some of the producers of ‘social bad’) can claim to be a sustainable brand. Any policy measures prioritizing perpetuity of Economic Sustainability over Ecological Sustainability can be henceforth referred to as ‘Weak Sustainability’. It is devoid of any radicalism or systemic transformation intent. This kind of environmentalism can be henceforth referred to as the ‘Bright Green Environmentalism’.


Citizens & consumers are often mis-lead by the deliberate misuse of this term in subtle and benign ways. For example whenever one hears the words like ‘Sustainable – policy, business, products, services, etc.’ you would assume that the term sustainable refers to a certain practice or policy that will improve the health of the Biosphere and aid in the perpetual sustainability of life on Earth. But almost always when mainstream institutions use the term Sustainability with any practice or policy or strategy, they are basically suggesting a way to continue the smooth operation of the Industrial Civilization (IC) while attempting to reduce its ecological impacts by means of applying certain technology & market based solutions (even if credible scientific evidence confirms humanity’s ecocidal trajectory).


II.Redirecting strategic focus of global sustainability responses towards the risks of Ecological Overshoot led Biospheric Collapse:

The Bright Green standpoint has presented the nature of humanity’s existential predicament in the following manner:

  • Global Warming/Climate Change is the key existential crisis to be focused upon

  • It can be addressed by replacing fossil powered Industrial Civilization (IC) with Renewable Energy or clean energy source (irrespective of its actual economic & technological feasibility)

  • Industrial Civilization (IC) driven by the current economic paradigm is compatible with ecological sustainability i.e. BAU trajectory will not lead to Societal Collapse & Biospheric Collapse.

The urgency, gravity of the existential risks posed by Climate Change & its likely responses have now entered the public imagination to a degree that is comparable only to awareness about risks from Nuclear Winter & Pandemic. Since it is far easier to commoditize Climate Change (by promoting Renewables energy) it is not very hard to observe why it has been co-opted in order to promote a solution that is compatible with ‘Economic Sustainability’ but does nothing to avoid ecological overshoot led Biospheric collapse. We can arrive at this conclusion if we conduct a short hypothetical survey and analyze the responses from an ecologically aware citizen about the following questions:

Q.1. For the sake of discussion can we agree on the following simplistic definition of Climate Change as an excess emission of GHGs (esp. CO2) into the atmosphere (> 350 ppm for CO2) causing Global Warming and the resultant heat imbalance leading to Climate Change?

Ans: Yes


Q.2. Do you agree Climate Change is a near term existential crisis facing humanity/Life in general?

Ans: Yes, if un-addressed, a 2-8 degrees rise in temperature could lead us to Hot-house Earth Scenario (Uninhabitable earth) that could rapidly unravel Societal & Biospheric Collapse --- rapidly unraveling the Sixth-Mass Extinction phenomenon


Q.3. Now imagine a hypothetical scenario in which, States, Scientists & businesses collaboratively come up with a breakthrough ‘Tech & Market based Solution’ to Climate crisisallowing humanity to continue to burn fossil fuels but no GHG will be emitted into the atmosphere, in fact we can also ‘drawdown’ all the excess GHG within safe operating levels (< 350 ppm CO2). Alternatively humanity succeeds in (hypothetically) completely replace fossil fuels with RE sources. In that case, can we say the Climate Crisis has been addressed successfully?

Ans: Very unlikely scenario, but Yes with such a solution it looks like we seem to have overcome the Climate Crisis just like we did in the 1980’s after discovering ‘Ozone-Hole’ Crisis.

Q.4. In that case do you think humanity has ‘dodged the bullet’ i.e. averted The Existential Crisis? Can we continue our long business as usual (BAU) journey towards ‘eternal progress?

Ans: Most governments, COP meetings, UN, Businesses etc. are evaluated on their Sustainability performances based on exactly this extremely difficult outcome—so Yes, I guess if we address Climate Change (via Bright Green Solutions) than we are heading for a Sustainable future.


This is a PROBLEMATIC RESPONSE which needs to be contested to avoid dangerous distraction.


Bright Greens would like us to believe that merely replacing the ‘Dirty-Source of Energy’ (Fossil Fuels) powering the ‘The Megamachine’ (Fabian Scheidler, 2015) called Industrial Capitalism (IC) with 100% Clean & renewable Power Source will address Climate Change (well hypothetically may be) but what about Ecological Overshoot & Biospheric Collapse resulting from the continued destruction of the Planet from the ‘Clean-Green’ source of energy? Agreed, Climate Change is the most urgent of all the existential risks but even if we somehow manage to avert it, genuine Ecological Sustainability of Industrial Civilization will continue to be under threat simultaneously from multiple other sources (Resource Scarcity & Pollution). Identifying and Mitigating the driving force behind the Ecological Overshoot (of which Climate Change is one of the 9 other symptoms) must be the key focus of all Sustainability strategies & policies. A ‘fragmented’ policy approach characterized by excessive focus on one symptom (namely Climate Change) at the cost of others is a dangerous distraction that we cannot afford.


III. Is the Humanity truly facing a ‘Double-Bind’ or a tough Predicament?


A Double-bind is an argument where you are presented with two options, both of which seem bad. It is another way of suggesting that the treatment is as bad as the disease. One such case of ‘Double-bind’ seems to be presented by the ‘Bright Greens’, in response to the challenge of Climate Change - a problem framed exclusively & conveniently in terms of Global Warming arising out of GHG emission from burning of fossil fuels that simply needs to be replaced with renewable energy sources. The two (simplified & extreme) response scenarios before humanity are as follows:


DO NOTHING SCENARIO:

If we continue with BAU measures emissions (CO2 > 550-1000 ppm by 2100 i.e. 2-8 degrees rise in Temperature) will lead us to Hot-house Earth Scenario (Uninhabitable earth). This will unravel uncontrolled & involuntary Collapse of Industrial Civilization (Societal Collapse) & ultimately Biospheric Collapse in the near term. In short unravel Sixth Mass Extinction much faster than current trajectory would suggest.

DO THE RIGHT THING SCENARIO:

On the other hand if humanity musters the necessary political will to deploy Strong Sustainability Measures for example if we rapidly decarbonize (by fossil fuel stranding and rationing) causing ‘Energy Descent’ conditions (since purely renewable based energy sources cannot sustain an Industrial Capitalist Society) it will lead to radical contraction of global economy (or Degrowth implying radical decline Throughput & Complexity levels). Such a move will risk the voluntary & controlled Collapse of IC without severely endangering ecological Sustainability of Post-collapse societies.



The set of possible futures include a great variety of pathways. There may be abrupt collapse and a very bleak possibility of a smooth transition. But the possible futures do not include endless growth in physical throughput (energy & material demands of our economy on the planet). That is not an option on a finite planet. The only real choices are to bring the throughputs that support human activities down to sustainable levels through human choice, human technology, and human organization, or to let nature force the decision through lack of food, energy, or materials or through an increasingly unhealthy environment. (LTE-30 year Update Pg 13, 139).


Both cases (action & inaction) will result into the collapse of the IC (LTG, 2004).


It is possible to interpret an addiction therapy related withdrawal symptoms to be a case of double-bind but it is clearly not; similarly giving up of ‘Our habitual, destructive Industrial way of Life’ to save the Planet (for human & non-human species) is not a case of Double-Bind but rather a case of a tough moral choice (a sacrifice today to create possibilities of a tomorrow). Overshoot (including Climate Change) represents not a problem but a predicament (a tough moral choice). Never before had any generation of human species had to pay such a huge price to protect the interests & existential needs of future generations. Problems are situations without solutions. But solutions to the problems of Climate Change & Overshoot are well understood --- simply

§ Stop burning fossil fuels and deforestation

§ Give up ‘Our habitual Way of Life’ i.e. Extractive - Linear –Capitalist-Industrial Civilization

§ Transition to an alternative ‘Life-sustaining Society’ (100% RE based –low throughput & Complexity)

Then it is just a question of what moral choices can humanity make collectively today.


IV. Framing of the Predicament:


DISTRACTIVE FRAMING: (disaster/gloomy/fear/despair framing of messages deployed for affecting behavior change)

How can humanity continue to pursue higher levels of material prosperity (powered by fossil fuels) by the continued application of technology & market based ‘solutions’ while effectively tackling the existential crisis of Societal & Biospheric Collapse?


(a classic human tendency to have one’s cake and eat it too!)


CONSTRUCTIVE FRAMING: (Constructive, purposeful, inviting, action oriented message framing for voluntary & proactive action)


What kind of new alternative human systems (organizing economically, socially & politically) powered mostly by renewable (material & energy) resources can sustain current population levels in the post-collapse-post-Industrial futures?



V. Conclusion:


As of today, not many people understand humanity’s existential predicament (even among those who genuinely care about sustainability). Change leaders are confronted with the twin challenge of not just effectively presenting this complex message of predicament but also communicating the grim reality to an inherently bad-news averse & short-sighted proclivity of the majority of humans. We at GCR are attempting to communicate this predicament in a constructive manner aimed at

  • Increasing awareness & understanding of humanity’s existential predicament

  • Affecting a paradigm shift in attitudes & behavior that facilitates a transition to Strong Sustainability future (a combination of bottom-up & top-down approach).


References:

  • Limits To Growth (LTG) - 30 year Update (2004/2012) Routledge

  • Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/461472a

  • Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, Derek Jensen (2021)

  • Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity (Johan Rockström et.al. 2009)

  • The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization. Fabian Scheidler (2021)


(The author is the founder & CEO of Global Crisis Response (GCR). He also writes and publishes on medium. For any query feel free to write to him directly at sudhir@globalcrisisresponse.org)


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