By any measure, humanity is not proving sustainable. Two recent reports highlight just how bad we’re doing.
Used and abused
‘Sustainability’ is one of the slipperiest, most overused and abused terms going around. It’s rolled out by political leaders, scientists, corporations and managers with alarming ease to describe everything from the latest environmental policy through to the newest shiny hair conditioner. Whether it’s greenwash or facewash, you’ll usually find the thing being sold to you is desirable, affordable and sustainable.
Most of us have our own idea on what ‘sustainability’ means – having our cake but ensuring coming generations can have their own cake, too – and most of us discount most claims we hear on sustainability as simple spin.
By the same token, the notion of keeping options open for our kids (and their kids) is a pretty powerful and important idea. And we all subscribe to it in principle. When it comes to the practice, however, we tend not to worry about the details.
Deep down we know that, as a species, we are not living sustainably. Most of us cope with this cognitive dissonance with an array of myths and subterfuges, often sold to us by our political leaders (including ‘my contribution to climate change is too small to make a difference’, ‘why should I make sacrifices when Jones next door isn’t’, and ‘technology will save us’).
The last couple of years has seen an acceleration in climate disruption. On that score, it seems we’re moving away from ‘being sustainable’. But climate is only one dimension of sustainability. Are there frameworks around to help us get a handle on how we’re going with sustainability – to create a ‘mud map’ so to speak?
Frameworks for sustainability
Armies of researchers have been toiling away for decades in an effort to characterise and measure different aspects of sustainability.
Over half a century ago, for example, a group of system modellers produced a report called The Limits to Growth which considered the possibility of exponential economic and population growth with finite supply of resources. The report found that in the absence of significant alterations in resource utilization, it is highly likely that there would be an abrupt and unmanageable decrease in both population and industrial capacity – in other words, our current trajectory is leading us towards collapse.
The report was widely dismissed, particularly by economists and businessmen. One prominent economist stated that technology could solve all the problems outlined in the book. Despite this, subsequent efforts to reanalyse their results (with updated data) suggest the report’s predictions are still on track. (For a recent discussion of this seminal work, I’d highly recommend listening to the podcast Tipping Point: The True Story of “The Limits to Growth”.)
That was 1972. It wasn’t really until the late 1980s that the ideas of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ were formally articulated and considered as policy principles. Pivotal in this process was the publication of the report Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report)
by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (or, in my words: “having your cake but ensuring you kids can have their cake too”).
Sustainability scholars claim this means meeting four basic principles: (1) safeguarding the planet’s ecosystems; (2) satisfying basic human needs; (3) promoting fairness between today’s people; and (4) ensuring we’re not compromising the opportunities of future generations. Sounds like a plan, but, as always, the Devil is in the detail. What do you measure to represent each of these four dimensions?
In the decades since this formulation there have been many efforts to measure our progress towards sustainability. Two of the biggest and most widely discussed frameworks are planetary boundaries, which looked at the planet’s ecological integrity, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aimed to be a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”
The planetary boundaries framework focussed more on the biophysical context of sustainability (principle 1) while the SDGs are more on the social and equity dimensions (principles 2-4).
A safe space for humanity
The planetary boundaries concept was published in 2009 by a group of Earth systems scientists. It set out nine planetary boundaries that our planet needed to stay within if it is to continue functioning in much the same way as it has over the past 10,000 years, the period during which humanity has prospered and grown.
“Together, the set of boundaries represents the dynamic biophysical ‘space’ of the Earth System within which humanity has evolved and thrived,” the authors said. “The boundaries respect Earth’s ‘rules of the game’ or, as it were, define the ‘planetary playing field’ for the human enterprise.”
At the time it was published, the scientists believed that human modification of the planet had led to the breaching of three planetary boundaries; those relating to carbon emissions into the atmosphere (climate change), the flow of nutrients (primarily nitrogen) and the loss of species and ecosystems (biodiversity).
The framework was reviewed in 2015 at which times it was revealed that it was believed an additional boundary had been breached in relation to land clearing.
Earlier this year a third review was published of the framework in which an additional two boundaries had been crossed (relating to freshwater and pollution).
The framework has many critics but to my mind is still one of the best ways of engaging people with the idea of an Earth system under pressure from human activity. And, over time, it is clearly demonstrating that we are moving away from anything remotely resembling sustainability.
Reviewing the SDG blueprint
There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 193 countries signed up to them following the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio (Rio+20 Conference). Each goal typically has 8–12 targets, and each target has between one and four indicators used to measure progress toward reaching the targets. The aim was for the goals to be achieved by 2030 (with 2015 as a starting point).
That makes 2023 roughly the halfway point, a suitable time to take stock. A few months ago (at about the same time as the third revision of the planetary boundaries came out), the UN released the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023 as a candid assessment of the SDGs based on the latest data and estimates. And the assessment was not good. Indeed, the UN said it was “time to sound the alarm”.
The Sustainable Development Goals are in deep trouble. An assessment of the around 140 targets for which trend data is available shows that about half of these targets are moderately or severely off track; and over 30 per cent have either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline.
As a few examples of the failure: Under current trends, 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty in 2030, and only about one third of countries will meet the target to halve national poverty levels. Shockingly, the world is back at hunger levels not seen since 2005, and food prices remain higher in more countries than in the period 2015–2019. The way things are going, it will take 286 years to close gender gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws.
Crushing the doughnut
Despite all the cynicism and greenwashing that flows around and through the idea of sustainability, the idea itself is the existential challenge of our age. A big part of that challenge is the basic step of understanding and measuring what it is, what it means.
When I lecture on this topic I usually begin by talking about planetary boundaries and then moving onto the SDGs. In recent years the economist Kate Raworth combined the framings into a single idea that she called ‘doughnut economics’. In this conceptualisation, the environmental ceiling consists of the nine planetary boundaries beyond which lie unacceptable environmental degradation.
The twelve dimensions of the social foundation are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, based on the SDGs.
Between social and planetary boundaries lies the doughnut, the environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.
This only touches on the concept of donut economics but it’s an idea I have found very appealing because it incorporates both biophysical elements and social justice elements in one framing, something few other approaches to sustainability do in a comprehensive manner.
Unfortunately, 2023 is revealing solid evidence that the doughnut of sustainability is being remorselessly crushed. We’re breaching our ecological ceiling at the same time we are failing on most of our internationally agreed minimum social standards. Humanity’s space for sustainability is shrinking before our eyes, right at the same time climate disruption is beginning to tear apart society’s foundations.
So, if I were asked to draw a mud map of sustainability, I’d give you the doughnut and point out that by any measure, humanity is failing on the challenge of sustainable development. How would you respond?
The way forward?
And a little postscript on the ideas of Kate Raworth and doughnut economics. Professor Raworth was recently the guest on the popular UK podcast ‘The rest is politics Leading’ in which she reiterated that the current model of endless economic growth using up the finite resources of the planet is not the way forward. She gave an excellent and rational account of her ideas and how they might be implemented in the real world (indeed, how she was actively engaged in pushing this implementation).
But the show’s hosts, Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, two highly intelligent and experienced political players, couldn’t see how Raworth’s ideas could engage the political class because these concepts went against the mantra of endless economic growth. Stewart and Campbell lamented this at the end of the program because they acknowledged the basic truth that humanity is unsustainable (and their children would pay as a result) but were at a loss on how to get our leaders on side.
Therein lies the real challenge of sustainability.