What is our goal here on earth

Strategies for the future

Sustainability is repeatedly mentioned as an alternative to previous developments. This page describes where the term comes from, what it means and what challenges sustainable development poses. But if we want to avoid wars over dwindling resources and keep climate change within tolerable limits, energy and resource productivity, renewable energies and the protection and restoration of natural capital will be the issues of the future.

If we look back on the development of the earth since the beginning of the industrial revolution (>> here), our scientific and technical means have allowed us to use an ever larger proportion of the natural resources of the planet for ourselves - and at the same time the shape of the Use led to profound changes in natural ecosystems and control loops (>> here). Two examples show that this development will not continue like this: Climate change (>> more) and the loss of biological diversity (>> more). If we humans use 40 percent of all resources, there will not be enough left to supply the existing stock of species, populations and their diversity - but these are the basis for the services on which we and our economy depend. And climate change shows us that even when disposing of our waste in the atmosphere, we have reached a limit where it is no longer free: We are now producing such quantities that the consequences are reflected back on us. It cannot go on as before. But how can we change our lives and our society in such a way that it can continue like this?

The goal is sustainability

The term sustainability originally comes from forestry: Wood should only be taken to the extent that the forest was not permanently impaired and was therefore still available to future generations. In 1987, a UN commission chaired by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (often called the Brundtlandt Commission after her) redefined the term in a more general way: “Sustainable development is development that satisfies the needs of the present without losing it risk that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs. " In this general form, the idea of ​​sustainability is widely accepted. It is also often shown in the form of the so-called "sustainability triangle":

Sustainability triangle. This figure suggests that the
Sustainability is about weighing up aspects of the economy and
of the social (which represent the needs of the present) with them
ecology (as the basis for meeting the needs of future generations)
goes. But this picture is wrong, see the following text.

There is always less agreement when it comes to the specific design of sustainability. Then economic growth is often declared a prerequisite for ecology in the traditional way, because this is the only way to pay for expensive environmental protection. But the other way round it turns into a shoe, as the attempt to define applicable ecological rules by an inquiry commission of the 13th German Bundestag shows. These are:

  • The use of renewable raw materials should not exceed their regeneration rate.
  • Non-renewable natural resources may only be used to the extent that their functions can be replaced by other materials.
  • In the long run, the release of substances or energy must not be greater than the adaptability of the ecosystems.
  • Unacceptable risks to human health from anthropogenic impacts must be avoided.

In view of the fact that functional ecosystems are the prerequisite for our existence and our economy, it cannot be otherwise: Maintaining this functionality sets the framework for all human activity. So it cannot be a question of “compromises” between ecology and economy and social issues, but economic development can only take place within a framework that ensures that it does not destroy its own basis.

What does sustainability mean in concrete terms?

The example shows how far we are still from this goal: Human activities release 26.5 billion tons of the most important greenhouse gas carbon dioxide every year. The Framework Convention on Climate Change contains the obligation to “achieve a stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level at which a dangerous anthropogenic disturbance of the climate system is prevented.” According to many scientists, the limit is reached with a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, which would be reached with a carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere of 400 ppm (>> more). We would achieve this value in less than 10 years with constant emissions. Overall, carbon dioxide emissions would have to drop by 60 percent quickly if the target were to be achieved.

A look at the current emissions on the left also shows that they are by no means evenly distributed: the principle of “equity” (for example: equal rights for all), which is fundamental to social sustainability, means that the industrialized countries save more than the poor today Countries. It must be taken into account that the population will probably increase from 6.7 billion today to over 9 billion people by 2050: If we assume that the per capita right to carbon dioxide emissions is the same worldwide, today's industrialized countries like Germany will have to do so in the future Avoid 80 to 90 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions. (More details on this calculation can be found >> here). Similar reduction targets can also be found in many other areas (>> more); and this makes it clear: The goal of sustainability is demanding, it requires far-reaching changes in our way of thinking and acting. And if you think about 80 to 90 percent less carbon dioxide, you already have an inkling: When it becomes concrete, the general agreement with the goal of sustainability is quickly over. Coal lobby, energy industry, auto industry, ... - they will all have to reinvent themselves, but try to delay this as long as possible.

One thing is clear: the impact of humanity on nature, which is made up of the factors number of people and per capita consumption of nature, will not be reduced by a declining world population. On the contrary: The world population is expected to grow to over 9.2 million people in 2050 (>> more). (Probably - of course no one can guarantee that a meteor strike or an epidemic will not kill two thirds of the world's population in 2042 - but do we want to base our action on such “hopes”?) 9.2 billion people who don't just have to eat (what alone is a challenge, >> more), but a larger proportion of them will probably live the way the middle classes will live in 2050 - an assumption that is derived from the development of the past decades, from the rapid growth of the Middle classes were particularly marked in populous emerging countries such as China and India. So the crucial question will be: How will the middle classes (and the rich) live in 2050? (For ecosystems, this question is much more important than the equally urgent question for reasons of humanity - and social sustainability - whether we can succeed in liberating the poor from the worst of poverty: If they are supplied with electricity and stoves, they will Consume more electricity and (bio) gas, but other forms of environmental pollution - such as collecting firewood will decrease.)

There are two options: Either we ignore the warning signs and try to continue our “proven system” for a while - then the growing middle classes will fight over increasingly scarce resources; and at some point we will know exactly whether the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was right in its fears about the consequences of climate change. Or we start to change direction. This change of direction requires activities in three areas:

Energy and resource productivity

The price of our use of raw materials and energy is already high today; It is all the worse that only a small part of these raw materials and energy is actually used (see here for >> raw materials, >> energy). We must - and can - multiply the productivity of materials and energy if we want to meet foreseeable demands on the one hand and take into account the efficiency of ecosystems on the other. This development is by no means an unreasonable burden for innovative companies (employees, architects, ...), but offers them a huge opportunity to conquer new markets with raw material and energy-efficient products. These new markets are already emerging today - for example in the case of energy generation from renewable sources - but they will develop a completely different dynamic in the future due to different framework conditions (e.g. in connection with the fight against climate change or the dependence on Arab oil).
>> more (economy with much less raw material consumption)
>> more (energy for tomorrow)
>> more (How can we stop climate change?)

Renewable energy

Energy supply is the lifeblood of a modern society, and at the same time the predominant burning of fossil fuels is the most important cause of climate change (and of the transfer of enormous amounts of money to countries that use it to finance terrorism). We need an energy supply that does not produce carbon dioxide. The development of renewable energies has meanwhile reached a level at which, depending on the location and energy form, it will be competitive with fossil energy generation either today, soon or in the foreseeable future (>> more). Not only will one (fossil) energy source be exchanged for another (renewable) one, but the entire system of energy generation will change: In addition to a large, international electricity network, solar power from the Sahara and wind power from the Atlantic coast will be linked and distributed The production of electricity and heat on the roof of your own house (solar cells and solar collectors) or in your own cellar (small combined heat and power plants or fuel cells) and the storage of electricity in the batteries of your own (electric) car come (>> more) - also offer here opportunities for innovative companies (employees, architects, ...) that offer solar cells, solar collectors, combined heat and power plants, fuel cells, ...
>> more (renewable energies)

Ecological ethics - protection of natural capital

Even energy-efficient technologies that are operated with renewable energies are not good per se and in any case - this is shown, for example, by the discussion about the use of >> bioenergy. It must be supplemented by an ecological ethic that takes the protection of our natural capital seriously. We have to understand that our (survival) life and our economy depend on this natural capital: the services of ecosystems such as clean air and clean water are indispensable. Careful handling of these services will become more and more important for the markets - forerunners are, for example, certificates for wood from sustainable cultivation and for food from organic farming. The protection of forests in developing countries can be paid for by trading in licenses for carbon dioxide emissions (>> here). Agriculture plays a central role in protecting natural capital: it is the basis of all economies, but it threatens the ecosystems on which it depends. Approaches such as organic farming and aqua culture for rearing fish will gain in importance. The careful handling of the raw material water - water will be scarcer and more expensive in the future - will also be one of the challenges of the future.
>> more (protection of ecosystems and biodiversity)
>> more (water for life, water for people)

Living in a sustainable world

These developments will change our lives. It will be a different world in which 9 billion people can live (well) without destroying the future prospects of their children. We will not be able to grow infinitely as humanity, we will produce our food differently, we will live differently and we will use different means of transport.
>> more (population & health)
>> more (healthy food for everyone)

Continue with:
>> Population and health - How 9 billion people can live on earth

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>> Overview of future strategies

© Jürgen Paeger 2006 - 2020