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State of the future: challenge one; sustainable development and climate change

Darkness visible: we’re driving animals to extinction, burning through resources, and throwing out natural balances, yet consumption still reigns. Flickr/NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

State of the Future 2012, a quick introduction

What is the “state of the future”? How successfully are we tackling global challenges threatening our collective future? These questions are asked annually by the Millennium Project.

The Millennium Project is a non-profit think tank of futurists, scholars, business planners, and policy makers from around the world. Each year, it asks its 40 Nodes to collect judgements on emerging trends and developments. This work is distilled into an annual State of the Future report.

The Millennium Project identifies 15 global challenges facing humanity. They include sustainable development and climate change, democratisation, bridging the rich-poor gap, improving women’s status and tackling transnational organised crime.

The Australian node of the Millennium Project is hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. This year we decided to do something a bit different. In partnership with The Conversation, we have assembled 15 articles by leading academics, each giving an Australian perspective. Together, they provide a fascinating snapshot of Australia grappling with a shifting future.

These articles will be submitted to the Millennium Project’s State of the Future 2012 report. Over coming days, we hope you enjoy these glimpses into Australia’s future.

Global Challenge 1: How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change?

Human civilisation uses 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably provide. In other words, we would need one and a half planets to sustain our current way of life into the future. By 2030, if we keep going the way we are going, we will need two planets.

Assuming an extra planet is not available, how are we going with the challenge of living within the boundaries of the one we’ve got? And what role is Australia playing in meeting this challenge?

In 2009, a paper in Nature by Johan Rockström and colleagues identified nine planetary boundaries that “must not be transgressed”. They found that we are already overstepping three of these boundaries: biodiversity loss, interference with nutrient cycles, and climate change. Let’s look at each in turn before considering the fundamental driver behind each of these challenges - unconstrained growth.

Biodiversity loss

Humans are sending species extinct at a rate 100 to 1,000 times greater than the natural background rate. WWF’s global Living Planet Index indicates that animal populations fell by 28% between 1970 and 2008. In Australia, more than 1,700 species and ecological communities are known to be threatened and at risk of extinction.

Scientists recognise five previous mass extinctions of species on Earth. Humans are now causing the sixth. The main drivers of biodiversity loss are conversion of habitats to provide land for farms and cities, and the impacts of introduced species.

Sound the trumpets: other life vanishes as we spread and conquer. Flickr/khteWisconsin

Nutrient cycles and food production

Modern agriculture interferes with natural cycles of the two major nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus. We use fertilisers containing these nutrients to increase the productivity of farming land and provide the food we need to support growing human populations.

However, runoff of nitrogen-based fertilisers pollutes waterways and contributes to the creation of “dead zones” in lakes and oceans. Phosphorus for fertilisers comes from phosphate rock, which is a diminishing resource.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, global food production systems are under increasing pressure from declining growth in agricultural productivity, competition from biofuel crops, strong demand for agricultural products from emerging economies and weather shocks. These pressures have led to food price hikes in recent years that have contributed to millions of people being hungry or malnourished.

Our existing farming systems are not sustainable and new farming practices need to be developed.

Climate change

Of these three challenges, climate change receives the most public and political attention. This is not surprising because changes in the climate have the potential to worsen many other problems, including biodiversity loss and food production.

In 2011, global carbon dioxide emissions grew by 3.2% to a new record high. Global efforts to respond to climate change have not halted rising emissions, which are now driven mainly by emerging economies such as China and India.

While world leaders have set a goal of keeping global warming to less than two degrees, the current trends are on track to deliver a world that is six degrees warmer. The window of opportunity to keep global warming below two degrees appears to be closing.

Stoking is a health hazard: coal to be loaded at a port at Gladstone, QLD. AAP/Dave Hunt

Despite dipping during the global financial crisis, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions rose again in 2011. Under United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change accounting rules, emissions were 13.6% higher in 2010 than they were in 1990. After all the messy and divisive debate over climate change in Australia, we still have not begun the challenging task of actually reducing our emissions.

Towards sustainable prosperity

At the heart of these three challenges is one central problem - indefinite growth is not possible on a bounded planet. As Paul Gilding points out in his excellent book, The Great Disruption, “the Earth is full.” Indeed, it is overflowing.

Growth in the number of people and our material consumption drives demand for land, food, energy and water and creates the challenges I have described above. Yet there is very little serious discussion about curbing growth as a response to these challenges. Instead, we pursue endless political negotiations, like those under the Convention of Biological Diversity and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, that deliver change at a glacial pace. We invest in renewable energy while continuing to expand coal and gas mining as if global growth in fossil fuel consumption is inevitable. We endlessly discuss market initiatives like carbon pricing to deliver incremental change without talking about the scale of change needed to achieve the ultimate goal of a zero-carbon economy.

There have been some valiant attempts to open up discussion about the sustainability of a growth-based economy in recent years. Gilding’s book is one. He argues that we are headed towards an inevitable series of economic crises that will lead us to measure growth in a new way, based not on quantity of stuff but quality and happiness of life.

iPad fever: queuing to buy the latest replacement for the last exercise in planned obsolescence. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

In a similar vein, Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth - nicely summarised in this TED talk - argues that we need to shift focus from pursuit of material economic growth to pursuit of sustainable prosperity. Jackson argues that our blind faith in our ability to decouple material consumption and ecological impact from economic growth is misplaced. He contends that we need a broader concept of prosperity that is more tailored to real human needs. For Jackson, prosperity is our ability to flourish as human beings within the ecological limits of a finite planet. Having more stuff doesn’t help us to flourish and can even get in the way.

As Jackson puts it in Prosperity Without Growth:

To do well is in part about the ability to give and receive love, to enjoy the respect of our peers, to contribute usefully to society, to have a sense of belonging and trust in the community, to help create the social world and to find a credible place in it. In short, an important component of prosperity is the ability to participate meaningfully in the life of society.

Participation in the life of society is also central to sustainable development. On one level, sustainability is a simple concept, which we could define as the ability to maintain human civilisation indefinitely. But what is it we wish to sustain? What is it we value about human civilisation? We all need to be engaged in an ongoing conversation about what it is we value and wish to sustain.

So, how can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change? The many political, technological and market responses to climate change are valuable and necessary but not sufficient. I would argue that we need to find a way to transition from a civilisation based on material economic growth (measured as GDP) to one based on sustainable prosperity with as little disruption as possible. At present, despite the efforts of Gilding, Jackson and others, the mantra of economic growth and unbridled consumption remains largely unquestioned in public debate.

To make progress in tackling the challenge of sustainable development we need to genuinely engage people in discussions and decisions about what it is they value and wish to sustain about society. We also need to begin a serious debate about the nature of a post-growth economy and how we can move towards it. Sadly, there seems to be little appetite for either of these conversations in Australian political debate.

Coming next: Challenge 2, How can everyone have clean water without conflict?

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