Sustainable Utopia: will it remain a non-place?
With sustainable development we refer to economic and social development which is compatible with social equity, environmental protection and rights of future generations. It was discussed, for the first time, in 1987 in the report “Our Common Future”, also known as Brundtland Report, named after commission president Gro Harlem Brundtland. The concept of sustainable development was aimed at the research of strategies to promote economic and social progress in ways to avoid environmental degradation, over-exploitation and pollution (Brundtland Report 1987).
Enrico Giovannini is an Italian Professor of Economic Statistics and Public Management. In 2016, he founded the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development (ASviS) whose mission is to grow awareness of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the Italian society, in the economic actors and in political and civil institutions and to shake all players concerned towards concrete actions to undertake to fulfill the Sustainable Development Objectives. Giovannini published in 2018 an academic book entitled “Sustainable Utopia” (Utopia Sostenibile, in Italian), which does not have an English translation. The book presents critiques towards the current model of production based on capitalism and progressive growth, which is claimed to be unsustainable. He has been the guest in a conference organized by Think Tank Trinità dei Monti, last February 18th, in which he discussed topics that go beyond what he focused on in his book.
Unlimited growth with limited resources
The main concept is that the traditional current model of development is founded on future infinitive economic growth, with an increasing GDP every year, even if it is based on the use of limited available resources. Not only we will run out of fossil fuels, but also of the resources that the Planet has in larger quantities, such as arable lands and water. This system is evidently unsustainable, not only from an environmental, social and economic point of view. Extremely destabilizing atmospheric phenomena are progressively noticeable. Some examples are abnormal temperatures, unexpected meteorological conditions leading to mass migrations and inequalities among populations. The instability of weather brings to non-linearity and, to extreme events.
Ezio Tarantelli, Italian economist murdered by the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades, in English), reminded and important idea: climate change will kill mankind, nevertheless the Planet itself will survive (Tarantelli 1988). The UN Stockholm Conference in 1972 on Human Environment underlined the necessity of a better management of natural resources and greater attention on shared responsibility. The Report of the Club of Rome, “Limits to Growth” (1972), raised a debate on the socio-economic collapse of modern development model. Reports’ projections on future, have become reality by now: global population and pollution have augmented exponentially, and natural resources diminished (Giovannini 2018). The report makes an estimation – Giovannini said during the conference – that in 2030 the world will be inhabited by 8 billion people and only in 2100 the population will be reduced to 6 billion. The estimation is, thus, the collapse of mankind.
Sustainable development must assure the fulfillment of the necessities of present generation without undermining the ones of future generations. According to Giovannini, this is the intergenerational justice, and to enact it we must concretize four pillars: social, economic, institutional and environmental pillars.. Sustainable development does not only concern the protection of the environment. Rather, it represents a strategy, according to which, models of industrial production and social protections must be modified. Because if we keep producing with the traditional model of development, we will inevitably have to face the limits of resources available on our Planet.
The Four Pillars
The first unsustainability that we’ll have to face, according to Giovannini, is the social one. An example is given by one of the most discussed problems of our time: migration. According to the Italian Caritas, between 2008 and 2017, approximately 25,2 million people had to leave their residences due to environmental disasters (Italian Caritas 2017). Furthermore, this cause has tripled the possibilities of being displaced from their home during the last 40 years. That is why we are already living the effects of climate change. According to Giovannini, the social unsustainability will be the assumption that will compromise the economical sustainability of the current system.
The economic pillar will have to be able to renew its operating rules. A critique that Giovannini raised concerns the labor market. For years it has been thought that technology could save anything, and there is no guarantee that it will not happen in this era. For instance, in a globalized world, there is no guarantee that the old jobs, eliminated by technology, will be replaced by new ones. Institutions, both national and local, play a fundamental role, but due to the radical change that we are witnessing, they seem to be in a crisis (Giovannini 2018). It is clearly obvious that it is impossible to win an electoral campaign by describing disastrous future scenarios. However, it is also unreal to make promises based on the old model – not followed by a lasting improvement. Therefore, this phenomenon generates a widespread sense of mistrust towards politics and institutions.
The traditional model, as said before, is based on continuous growth which is measured by the GDP of a country. Using GDP as a measure of wellness has been an error, according to Giovannini, because it does not take into consideration environmental and social consequences deriving from its growth. For instance, inequality at national and international level. Such error has been made because sustainable development is harder to measure in statistical terms, while the GDP is a numeric measure, easier and more efficient.
Around mid 2000s, the UNECE* project was aimed at the research of a measure which would surpass GDP. A conceptual scheme based on four forms of capital (social, economic, natural and human) whose impoverishment makes the system unsustainable. Such system is consolidated at international level, especially in the academic one, but exact indicators are still lacking, and, for the moment, approximations are still in use. A measure like this one is, notwithstanding its hard feasibility, necessary if we want to reach a sustainable wellness, without exploitation of resources, not only natural ones, but also human. Particularly, it has, to gather broad consensus among international stakeholders (Speroni 2014).
Who is able to bring about change?
Therefore, It is, fundamental, to radically change the point of view: politics alone is not able to modify the direction in which we are going. Globalization has changed today’s international relations which are not anymore led only by states, but they are intervened on a global network of companies, Multinational Corporations, financial markets, international organizations. Consequently, everyone is called to question oneself to find solutions in the long run. According to Giovannini, the context in which we live has transformed, and business strategies and consumeristic choices should be reformed as well.
The United Nations have encouraged a practice framework to follow. This is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which contains precise and feasible objectives that political and economic players are invited to pursue, at national and international level. It has 17 objectives, among others: end global hunger and poverty, grant education to all children and hygienic services, adopt urgent measures towards climate change, reduce inequalities, in particular between women and men. It is evident that these objectives are hardly achievable in the short period, especially if applied by a small number of people. Everyone is necessarily called to mobilize for sustainable measures. The impact that mankind has had on the Planet, caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, is already having negative consequences and it finds consensus in the scientific world (Oreskes 2005).
A Trilemma posed by Giovannini during the conference concerns which path to undertake at this point. The first choice is dystopic: future is seen as an uncertain chaos, in which billionaires of the world will build underground bunkers in New Zeland to escape a potential apocalypse. The second is retropic: the utopia to go back in history to avoid going forward. However, this vision implies to renounce to the current model of development, which has inevitably brought benefits and innovations to our lives and lifestyles.
The last option is the one of a sustainable utopia, in which all components of the global system aim at the modification of the development model, implementing different strategies. For instance, a sustainable finance based on “green bonds”, bonds financing projects designed for energetic efficiency grounded in sustainability and environmental-friendly projects preventing pollution. Moreover, circular economy should be the new sector of investment, because it is an economic system planned to reuse materials in following productive cycles, hence reducing waste. It represents a consumption model which does not discard “used” goods, rather it re-integrates them into the system, with a new aim.
Following these considerations, action towards change is necessary. Much depends on the direction characterizing decisional systems. The new international political scenario may be a further reduction of the future vision or may represent a new phase of true awakening. However, the Planet still has the above-mentioned limits, and no politician or entrepreneur will eliminate them. We are exploiting them at its maximum rate, rather than respecting them. It is a task of the several international actors to take into consideration more sustainable projects.
I have asked to Professor Giovannini, as a student, what can young people do in this situation. He answered “Study, read and get informed because you are the future. And, if you can, participateto the 15th March Global Strike for Future, to demand world-decision makers to discuss such topic in order to find more concrete solutions”.
It is fundamental to organize and demonstrate at the strike for the future of climate and the earth (and, consequently, of humans) because it induces sensibilization and helps to be heard. Nevertheless, it is, important to add that demonstrating is not enough. We, humans, must start to act. National and global institutions have a crucial task and they have been called to put in the agenda the discussion on how to face climate change and pollution. But common citizens, like us, can act in the smaller context, carrying out daily actions which do not require huge efforts, but, if repeated in the long term and by a large amount of people, they can have an impact on institutions and on the environment.
Some small mindful actions might be: take a less lengthy shower, do not let water of the sink run too long. Always try to bring a reusable grocery bag, use an aluminum or reusable water bottle, follow the separate collection of trash (Corriere della Sera 2019). Another effort could be to not run to extremely high temperature the heating during winter (20 C°/68 F° are sufficient) and wear a heavier sweater. These practices are simple guidelines. It is essential that they become an endowment of everyone, beginning in primary school, to start a certain path towards a more sustainable direction.
Corriere della Sera. 2019. Ambiente, 10 piccole azioni (quotidiane) per salvare il Pianeta. Online. https://www.corriere.it/cronache/cards/ambiente-10-piccole-azioni-quotidiane-salvare-pianeta/auto.shtml
Oreskes, Naomi. 2005. The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. In Science. 306(5702): 1686.
Rapporto Brundtland. 1987. Disponibile all’indirizzo http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf
Speroni, Donato. 2014. È ora di superare il Pil. Corriere della Sera.Online http://numerus.corriere.it/2014/01/17/giovannini-e-altri-esperti-e-ora-di-superare-il-pil/
Tarantelli, Ezio. 1988. L’utopia dei deboli è la paura dei forti: saggi, relazioni e altri scritti accademici, FrancoAngeli, Milano.
*UNECE: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
Photo Credits: Giulia Garzia
Autore dell’articolo *Roberta Croce, addetta alla comunicazione del think tank trinità dei monti. Studentessa in Politics, Philosophy and Economics all’Università LUISS Guido Carli, Roma, Italia. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.
* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.