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OPINION: Global sustainability challenges in 21st century

The concept of this iconic building for the Technopark of Dubai, is a building which will reflect the state of Planet Earth in the current and future times.

Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture
The concept of this iconic building for the Technopark of Dubai, is a building which will reflect the state of Planet Earth in the current and future times. Courtesy of James Law Cybertecture - The Guardian

We have behaved as though we could indefinitely burn and consume our way to prosperity

BY PALANISAMY NAGARAJAN
GUEST OPINION

Myriads interconnected and interdependent global challenges, with complex feedback effects, have engulfed the world now. These challenges range from unsustainable growth trajectory, grim future of work for a growing population arising from artificial intelligence-driven robotics technology, food, energy and water insecurity, worsening environmental degradation, climate chaos, global warming and looming health crisis. 


These problems did not arise from nowhere. They are mostly the dire consequences of the development traps we have set ourselves, especially since the mid-20th century. Under the illusions of scientific and technological advancements to promote economic growth, we have unwittingly embarked upon the process of accelerating the transformation of the only known livable planet Earth without fully comprehending the inevitable long-term consequences. 



Unfortunately, there is no easy out. To get out of it, we must escape from the mainstream economics fundamental myth that sky is the limit to economic growth. Also, it is long overdue to dethrone a seriously flawed GDP metrics to measure economic progress. Besides, it is imperative to escape from our trapped thinking that an ever-increasing economic growth, of any kind and at any cost, is the only solution to most social and economic problems as well as for the enhancement of human well-being. It is long overdue to dethrone a seriously flawed GDP metrics to measure economic progress.

Now, we have entered the Age of Humans or Anthropocene, with an incredible growth of technosphere. We have yet to fully grasp that we have been slowly endangering the planet Earth's life-supporting system of all the living beings.
Our Earth's technosphere now is estimated to weigh some 30 trillion tons, signifying a mass of more than 50 kilos for every square meter of Earth's surface, according to a recent paper published in the journal The Anthropocene Review. The study was led by professors Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams and Colin Waters from the University Of Leicester Department Of Geology.

"The technosphere is the brainchild of the USA scientist Peter Haff - also one of the co-authors of this paper. It is all the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive, in very numbers now, on the planet: houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports, and shipping ports, computer systems, together with its discarded waste," says Professor Zalasiewicz.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that our technosphere, a human-made system in the planet Earth's system, with its intricate dynamics and energy flows, is on a collision course with the Earth's natural systems. Long-term consequences for the sustainability of the biosphere are yet to be known.

Forty-five years ago, the first UN Conference on the Human Environment, pointed out the growing evidence of human-caused harm in many parts of the earth and unacceptable disruptions to the ecological balance of the biosphere. 
In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), warned that unbearable environmental damages and human sufferings are inevitable if we fail to change many of our unsustainable production and consumption patterns conflicting with the planet Earth's carrying capacity. 


In 2012, speaking at the ceremonial Opening Session of Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon said: “We gather in Rio de Janerio to shape the future of humankind. Let us not mistake this for mere hyperbole rhetoric. To the contrary, we are here to face the existential threat. For too long, we have behaved as though we could indefinitely burn and consume our way to prosperity. Today, we recognize that we can no longer do so." 



Two years ago, governments worldwide adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and agreed to a 15-year plan to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. It is one of 17 quixotic goals governments are trying to achieve in the next 13 years.

We are at a crossroads, stuck with a flawed economic paradigm and a broken development model. The present world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030. In this context, the probability of ending poverty in all its forms everywhere is almost zero.

Without an integrated trans disciplinary paradigm, we would be just muddling through the global sustainability challenges forever.

- Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajanis Emeritus Professor of Economics & Island Studies Teaching Fellow, University of Prince Edward Island

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