Vanessa M. Smith
The planet is at a crossroad. The decisions we make today will define what world our children and children’s children will inherit.
Carbon-intensive production and process are counterproductive, costing society and our planet much more that we currently price in our market, fueling some of the most pressing challenges our globe faces today, leading to hunger and poverty, habitat loss, health disparities, ecosystem degradation, species extinction, and mass migration. To achieve global goals we must act in a manner that is aggressive and proactive. One way to achieve this is by decoupling material consumption from economic growth.
What is decoupling? Decoupling as defined by UNEP 2011 “economic growth by reducing negative impacts on the environment and the reduction of the rate of use of resources per unit of economic activity.” Impact decoupling requires increased economic output while reducing environmental footprint.
“Decoupling occurs when resource use or a pressure on the environment or human well-being grows at a slower rate than the activity causing it (relative decoupling) or declines while the economic activity continues to grow (absolute decoupling) (IRP, 2011).” Oberle et al. 2019
More recently, new dimensions to qualify decoupling include human well-being dimensions. As we continue to expand on this principle, human well-being dimensions have been accepted and could be defined to include “health, work-life balance, education & skills, social connections, civic engagement, environmental quality, personal security, and subjective well-being” (Stiglitz). As the issues of social justice are weighted, factors surrounding racial equality underscore the principle of subjective well-being and personal security.
How we design the new economy is critical at this moment. The COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movements all call for a more inclusive, balanced, healthier planet. At the core of these dimensions is that which Stiglitz defines as “what we measure affects what we do.”
Investing in people, infrastructure, products, and processes that not only improve the environment and society but add value while driving the economy, is essential. Localized clean energy, sustainable food, and agriculture supply, reduction in fossils and plastics are all key to achieving these goals. Investing in our communities and people and valuing equity is also imperative as we move forward. Harnessing the power of technology to achieve these goals is critical and should also be part of a new green economy and supply chain matrix and as part of the pandemic recovery.
Increasing feedback loops to production and global supply chains, extending product life cycles, deliberating on end-of-life process to close loops, and decreasing waste are elements of a zero-waste future as defined in the new circular economy model.
Another important element to design is a new approach to managing our waters. Our water systems will be the most prized possession on this planet, if not already, and taking steps to ensure that our marine waters and life are healthy and fisheries balanced, that our freshwaters are clear of pollutants and retained for the public, and not for privatization, is also crucial for planetary health.
Although not many global organizations are focused on water security by decreasing open and free corporate use and privatization, it is self-defeating to attempt to carry this dialogue without addressing this paradox. The agriculture industry consumes the largest portion of freshwater in the world at around 70 %, and poses one of the greatest global challenges in terms of water scarcity issues. Geopolitics and water play another important role in terms of national and global security.
The private bottled water industry is catastrophic at its very essence, causing significant carbon-intensive pollution through transportation, processing and packaging of water, and plastic bottle pollution, which consequently leads to the very reason why bottled water is consumed in the first place.
Clean, healthy potable water is a basic human right, and as we move towards a more sustainable future, it is imperative that we prioritize long-term objectives rather than short-term goals. Short-term goals have led to the increasing stress on global water supplies, and are leading us down a short and narrow path of the planet’s most vital resource.
Securing the safety and long-term priorities of our global water supplies by addressing these problems is critical. Current models that improve water systems systematically gloss over many of the issues at hand, increasing the burden on the global industrial-military-complex. Moreover, if fossils were a resource we fought over in recent history, water may certainly be one of the next.
The year 2020 is defining our civilization and who we are as a society. Economic, environmental, and societal advancement are interwoven and as we move towards drafting new approaches for sustainable development, our decisions today will define us for years to come. We have a great opportunity to really transform the way we design Earth and her systems. A green, blue and promising economy with an emphasis on environmental and societal growth carefully designed into the economic matrix should be a clear objective for sustained prosperity.