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Ecological civilisation: GDP is killing the planet, but we can change

This article was first published in D/sruption

In February 2019, the UK logged the warmest winter days on record, with the mercury topping 20ºC and people rushing to parks in shorts and t-shirts. Everybody loves the sunshine but temperatures like this should ring alarm bells – they aren’t normal for late February. Such anomalies are the latest in a growing list that suggests climate breakdown is no longer some abstract future event, but an evolving process with consequences we’re increasingly feeling today.

The UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights disastrous consequences if global average temperatures rise 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. The latest research points to a rapidly closing window for any kind of effective mitigating action with just 12 years to act to keep temperature rise below a 1.5 ºC “guardrail”. And our children are taking more action than many governments and businesses with regular protests taking place outside many schools. Now is the time for everyone to think about the massive shifts and ingenious transformations we need to secure a positive future for humanity.

The consequences of continual economic growth…

Our global economy currently prizes growth above all other measures. The health of nations is measured by their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) within a classical economic framework built around the myth of ‘Homo Economicus’ making rational choices to maximise their utility (a theory that, despite having some utility, doesn’t recognise many basic elements of human nature and behaviour).

This dominant economic model ignores the environment, ecology, the natural world, energy and materials, treating them as ‘externalities’ – often costs but sometimes benefit to a third party who has no control over how they were created, air pollution being a great example. Yet a recent UN report highlights the importance of protecting the environment for the health and prosperity of humanity.

…on a finite planet

The challenges we face due to this demand for continual growth are now sharply in focus. More chaotic and costly climate events, ecosystem degradation, loss of biodiversity, rising pollution and resource scarcity are already evident. Meanwhile, growing levels of income inequality and resource consumption that requires at least four Earths to sustain characterise most countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A time for radical thinking

It’s abundantly clear that the current trajectory is unsustainable. We need radical new thinking to affect change on the scale of the Agrarian and Scientific Revolutions that fundamentally overhauled global society in the past. We need to pivot from an economy that prioritises wealth production to one that values human wellbeing through the health and cultivation of living systems.

This must be based on more than just tinkering with the current formula. Although laudable, initiatives such as the New Growth Agenda, which offers to maintain GDP growth and create jobs and investment through a transition to a low-carbon economy, will fail to address the structural problems of a growth-driven system.

Technology is not a panacea

No one can deny technology is a major driver of change, but it’s not a panacea for the climate challenges we face. Technology has a critical role to play – providing alternative energy sources for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, for example – but banking on successfully deploying and scaling immature technologies such as carbon capture and storage (removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground) and geoengineering (the deliberate manipulation of environmental processes affecting the earth’s climate) is unwise.

What we need is a holistic, joined up approach to transformation that spans industry, government and academia. We need an endeavour on the scale of the ‘moon shot’ that took humanity into space. We need an effort that looks beyond technologies to create a global shift in social values and worldview underpinned by a new economic system.

Time for a doughnut

In 2017, the economist Kate Raworth published a new economic model focused on balancing essential human needs with hard ecological and planetary boundaries. She called it Doughnut Economics due to its doughnut-like graphical representation as two rings. The inner ring reflects the basics of a decent modern life – clean water, food, sanitation, housing, education, healthcare, energy and good governance. The outer ring reflects the Earth’s limits that, if exceeded, will have dangerous consequences for humanity’s future. Between the two rings is the doughnut of an “ecologically safe and socially just space” where humanity should aim to live.

Figure 1: The doughnut of social and planetary wellbeing. Copyright Kate Raworth.

A powerful vision for a new ecological civilisation

The beauty of the doughnut model – alongside its simplicity – is that it points economics towards a better world while holding a mirror to our present state. It highlights the deprivation of those living in the ‘hole’ in the doughnut and the consequences of breaching the outer boundary and overshooting ecological limitations.

Redefining our economic system so it focuses on the genuine prosperity of living within the doughnut, rather than continuous growth and wealth generation, would let us address many critical issues. We could share natural resources more equitably and refocus regulation, markets, taxation and investment on sustaining, conserving and regenerating resources, for example.

In this future, cutting-edge agroecology (food production that optimises the use of natural resources whilst ensuring they are not depleted or damaged) would replace fossil-fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides to transform localised food production. Circular flows that minimise waste would become the norm throughout manufacturing. And technological innovation would prioritise improving social wellbeing and enhancing living systems.

Key to making such a change would be a transition from GDP to something more human, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator – a metric that measures a nations wellbeing and incorporates environmental and social as well as economic factors. This would provide a better measure of a positive human future.

An opportunity for business to take the lead

The scale of climate and environmental challenges creates a strong motivation for businesses to act. The good news is that sustainability is also a huge financial opportunity – the UN estimates its value at US$12 trillion. Opportunities include creating new products or redesigning old ones, capturing value from waste and coming up with innovative responses to new environmental regulation. This is not always easy. The complexities and challenges faced by businesses and consumers in combatting the plastics pollution provide a good illustration where standardisation of recycling approaches and comprehensive social education campaigns must be orchestrated with better communication and harmonisation of objectives across the supply chain.

Businesses that adopt sustainability throughout their operations will also improve their reputation among increasingly concerned and demanding customers. And they’ll find it easier to attract and retain staff who increasingly prioritise sustainable practices in their employers.

In capturing these opportunities, the most challenging change businesses will need to make will be a rethink of their purpose and how they measure value. They will need to replace total shareholder return with alternative measures that prioritise sustainability, such as the Global Reporting Initiative’s frameworks and emerging Sustainability Reporting Tools.

Inspiring signals of future change

Limiting global temperature rises to 1.5ºC requires “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” according to the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming published in October 2018. Projections based on current policies suggest a significant overshoot that pushes us towards dangerous and unpredictable rises of more than 3ºC above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Given this alarming situation, it would be easy to despair. But we can see many signals of a transformation all over the world:

  • the Earth Charter set the core principles for transitioning to an economically sustainable civilisation at the turn of the millennium, and more than 6,000 organisations and governments endorsed it
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping declared his intention to build an ecological civilisation that “ensures harmony between human and nature” in his inaugural address
  • countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia are writing the requirement for ‘good living’ into their constitutions
  • in Europe, scientists came together with policy makers and civil servants to call for the EU to prioritise sustainability and human wellbeing over GDP
  • new global groups such as the Wellbeing Economies Alliance are emerging to bring together multiple change initiatives.

Time to act

Ultimately, we will only be able to create a positive human future through unified action by governments, businesses and wider society. We have a choice between business-as-usual – a path that leads to collapse – or a global transformation that will shift us onto a sustainable path. The benefits of acting now really could not be clearer.

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