Contributors: Bernal Herrera-Fernández, Liette Vasseur
International treaties, such as the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, have taken on the daunting task of mobilizing the world against the civilization-threatening challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Two core concepts underpin these efforts: sustainable development and the green economy. In 1987, the United Nations formally recognized sustainable development as essential in seeking equilibrium between environmental, social, and economic development. Alternatively, the green economy attempts to integrate environment and economy. What these two efforts share, however, is an assumption that the economy can grow without limit and that the Earth’s resources are infinite and inexhaustible. We can always develop suitable technologies and new materials so humanity can continue its current trajectory driven by uninhibited growth— but what is wrong with that picture?
In the 1972 book Limits to Growth, author Donella Meadows and her collaborators used a computer model of the world, known as World3, to show that the unlimited growth paradigm is not possible under certain conditions of population growth and natural resource use. The Club of Rome, a think tank comprised of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, modelled different scenarios for the future of planet Earth in the book, taking into account varying scenarios of human population growth, agricultural productivity, natural resource extraction, industrial production, and pollution. The authors applied various assumptions and policy options across 12 different scenarios, most of which pointed to eventual global economic collapse. Beyond the Limits, the 1992 sequel to that book, subsequently presented evidence that civilization had already surpassed Earth’s limits and that humanity was heading down an unsustainable development path.
Although both books were initially criticized post-publication, research has increasingly pointed to the alignment of the author’s forecasts to the Earth’s current trajectory.
So, what is the solution? Can these international treaties help change the forecasted path of this planet—or is it too late?
These treaties, although they seek social, financial, and economic transformations to achieve sustainability, use a reductionist approach for solutions. Although this approach can make a large and complex problem seem less intimidating (by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces) this approach often loses sight of the interconnectedness of the overall situation. For example, the green economy argues predominantly in favour of green energies as the great solution to addressing climate change, especially focusing on the decarbonization of national economies. That solution centres on technological change without considering the multitude of factors associated with this necessary global transformation: such as the governance of natural resource management, or the impact of the materials required to build that technology (e.g., scarce chemical and nonrenewable mineral resources).
Based on assumptions of unlimited growth and reductionism, are we not then headed toward a new form of extractivism? This acceptance of wide-scale removal and subsequent processing of natural resources stands in complete contradiction with sustainable development.
The answers are not simple, but the current international political architecture requires approaches to climate change and biodiversity loss that are systemic and holistic to achieve successful outcomes. They must consider all the components and interrelationships involved in true transformation. Then, and only then, can we work to avoid the collapse scenarios of which science warns.