How We Achieved Sustainability
Is a fair, healthy, climate-friendly world possible? Yes it is, but only if humanity learns lessons from the coronavirus pandemic.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Wednesday, April 22, 2071. Earth Day, a public holiday now. People have good reason to celebrate. First and foremost, the world is actually (still) there for human beings to live in. Human beings who managed to understand, just in time, how badly they needed to protect that world. Human beings who learned how to do it, if they really want to.
The story began with a pandemic. Or rather: it began with the world that made the pandemic possible. Back then, people believed so much in cheap meat they had come to accept food production systems that burdened, damaged, and were destroying almost every other form of life. Huge swathes of land were devastated for the sake of animal feed. Species after species went extinct. Zoonoses spread rapidly: infectious diseases transmittable from animal to human and human to animal. Every ecological system was worn to destruction. And as if that were not enough, the so-called global community kept going, developing materials and technologies to take away the future as well as the present. “The arrogance of the early 21st century,” people would mutter, decades later. “What on earth were they thinking?” children would ask.
Around the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mental health phenomenon arose that later historians would call “global mental paradox disorder.” People knew more about the world than ever before, and could precisely calculate the consequences of their own actions, and the results of government decisions. But it became impossible to develop social policies combining sustainability and people’s economic wellbeing. It seemed equally difficult to work out the necessary economic systems and political grammar. Externalized costs increased so much they could no longer be ignored. Ships transported plastic and electronic waste back and forth across the planet’s oceans. Had they been forced to pay, the environmental costs of fossil fuels would have exceeded businesses’ entire revenues. So, it was people who paid the price, not corporations. In 2013, Ella, a London schoolgirl, was officially declared to have died of “air pollution.”
A Population Heading for Despair
Leading a sustainable life had, to all intents and purposes, become impossible. For a while, children took to the streets while adults imagined they had everything under control. Governments found it increasingly difficult to take political advice from or even cooperate with experts: the critique coming from scientists was simply too overwhelming. Even in liberal democracies like Germany, science and the free press were damaged by close cooperation between governments, fossil fuel industries, and big media corporations.
The Pandemic Era changed everything. Faced with mutating strains and ongoing lockdowns, whole populations were heading for despair. It became clear that counting the sick and dead was not enough to understand the pros and cons of countermeasures. As a result, people began to take a serious interest in overall well-being. Corona apps helped with this, since they allowed people to keep track of their own health.
Initial skepticism quickly disappeared with the introduction of regionalized data analysis. Through locally-based analysis, populations felt addressed more directly and expressed their political reactions more quickly. The psychologization of stressed-out mothers, isolated children and impoverished artists came to an end; the so-called “overall wellbeing parameter” was introduced as a measure of mental and physical health.
“Healthy World Research” brought together the health of ecosystems with that of human beings, identifying how and where environmental pollution was making people sick. The 20th century had seen great innovations created by the war and defense industries above all. In the 21st century, it was the struggle for health that drove excellence and fostered innovation. A new era dawned: the age of resilient societies.
Small Sustainability Revolutions
Transport and agriculture policymakers were put in an uncomfortable position when people learned just how badly poor nutrition and unsafe transport affected human health. Local and state governments began to implement counter-measures, working with the European Union to do this while also pushing development.
Agricultural reform turned into a series of small sustainability revolutions, as more and more farms worked hand in hand with local populations. When people rented an apartment, they could also sign up for cheap weekly delivery of regional products.
The fragility of global networks became all too clear in late 2021, when global supply chains were briefly shut down against the deadly Florida mutation. Local producers stepped in to fill the gap. A socially-fair CO2 price was established and increased rapidly, so environmental impacts were no longer a huge unknown quantity. When borders reopened, comprehensive new supply chain laws were quickly introduced, as were laws mandating a circular economy. Waste production fell rapidly, to a sixth of its previous level.
Making such huge changes in a very short time presented major difficulties. Political decision-making processes came under great strain. There was negative economic fallout, and to relieve social problems, a provisional citizens’ basic income was introduced. In some communities, citizens' councils were established. Under pressure to learn from others’ mistakes, countries within the international community moved closer together. The largest benefits were seen in so-called emerging markets, which gained more flexible economic structures. In time, global power structures became unrecognizable. Supply chains and political crises had first brought the world to a new age of cooperation. But now the peoples of the world also grew far closer in social and emotional terms.
Luisa Neubauer is a climate activist with Fridays for Future, an author, and the host of the climate podcast 1.5 Degrees.