The grandest challenge: Overcoming un-sustainability

This is an appeal to conceive today’s grand societal challenges as interconnected problems of sustainability. The prime question asked is therefore how current unsustainability can be overcome by realizing just transformations towards economies that thrive within planetary boundaries. Un-sustainability, overshadowed today only by the news of ruthless war and repression, manifests as existentially threatening social and environmental outcomes. These include the likely depletion of 1.5° C carbon budgets that risks crossing dangerous tipping thresholds already this decade1,2, the continued and irreversible loss of biodiversity worldwide3, and the mostly diametrically opposed distribution of the causes and consequences of ecological breakdown between the rich and the poor, the global North and South, and between settlers and Indigenous people.4 To contribute to the resolution of such problems as students, researchers, and teachers, following good intentions or the conventions of ‘cumulative’ science is not enough. We need to act, ask the right questions, and challenge much of the status quo, especially the economic ideas and practices that underpin un-sustainability. This post highlights three – hopefully thought provoking – contentions to spark future debate at economics and business faculties and in related fields. 

It’s a problem of scale, not scarcity

The allocation of scarce resources is often posited as the central problem of economics. In a context of sustainability, the real problem however is one of scale: not only do our economies produce too much to stay within planetary limits, at the same time this overproduction is also incommensurate with human needs and inequitably distributed. Consider the example of energy. Average final energy demand in OECD countries and the rest of Europe (here referred to as ‘global North’) amounts to about 130 GJ per capita per year, which is about ten times than that of the global South.5 This inequality aggravates with income: the bottom half of the population is responsible for less than 20% of final energy consumption, which is less of what the top 5% income earners consume.6 Meanwhile, research on decent energy living standards quantifies human needs at about 13 to 50 GJ per year and person, depending on context and estimate.7,8 Hence, in Western-industrialized economies we consume energy above scale – energy that continues to come with more than two-thirds from fossil-based sources and whose combustion causes more than 80% of global CO2 emissions.1,5 On the production side of energy, the problem of scale, not scarcity, is illustrated by the roughly 55.000 still undeveloped upstream oil and gas projects for which official exploration permits exist but whose final investment decisions are still pending.9 None of these projects should be developed in a 1.5° C scenario and the International Energy Agency estimates that this would not even be needed given new technologies.10 That many of these projects are still likely to be developed is due to a combination of factors relating to the political economy of fossil fuels. These include state-industry alliances (e.g., through investment protection treaties), the targeted dissemination of legitimizing narratives of fossil fuels (e.g., through ‘technological fixes’ such as large-scale carbon capture, utilization and storage) as well as the largely unfettered and exorbitant profitability of satisfying energy demand. As the latter is shifting to the global South where demand is growing and carbon prices low, it appears more urgent than ever to seriously confront the problem of scale. 

Human and planetary well-being before profits 

The question of a good life has been central in ancient Greek philosophy and is constitutive in the meaning of oikonomia, the etymological origin of the term economics. Oikos is generally translated with household, nemein with management or dispensation, and a good oikonomia included next to material provisions also ethical virtues.11 Following Dan O’Neill et al. (2018)12 and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economy approach13, research and policy communities should root the modernized question of a good life – one for all and within planetary boundaries – at the center of the attention. Put into practice, this has profound implications for the way of organizing and thinking about economic life. One example is the provisioning of essential services, i.e., those catering for basic human needs, say housing, food and water, energy, transport, health, care, and education. Prominent in the literature as well as partially present in some (especially Nordic) countries is the approach of social provisioning systems.14,15 As opposed to market-based provisioning systems, social provisioning is distinct insofar as it aims to provide for the most essential services through co-operatives or other democratically controlled structures. Such models of de-commodified services emphasize equitable access and use over ownership.16 While far more research on the organization and efficacy of social provisioning is still needed, the Nordic experience suggests an association with high trust in public institutions.17 Complementary policies that go in tandem with social provisioning include, to only give some examples, a reduction of the working time, better recognition of parenting and gender equality, as well as a general re-orientation and strict incentivization of production towards quality, the common good and environmental sustainability, rather than quantitative expansion and growth.  

Sustainability transformations need pragmatism, but also deeper epistemological reflection and change  

In today’s geopolitically tense world, pragmatic solutions are needed – but they will likely not suffice to attain a transformation at the scale and speed that is necessary. What is here meant with ‘pragmatic’ solutions is positive incremental change at international level. Recent milestone examples include the COP26 and G7 commitments to end most support for overseas fossil fuels, the emerging coalition around a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, or the landmark adoption of a global biodiversity framework. In the financial and corporate sectors several developments stand out, such as the creation of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) or Patagonia’s move to dedicate all its profits to nature protection. Yet, pragmatism can work in favor or against sustainability in today’s politically unstable and fragmented world: Putin’s war in Ukraine changed the global energy landscape and prompted governments, like Germany, to backslide on their commitments made at COP26, and others, like the United States or the Netherlands, to plan new fossil fuel projects at home. GFANZ opted for broad institutional membership – instead of a smaller ambitious ‘coalition of the willing’ with tight rules on fossil fuels – which has been criticized to dilute ambition. While positive incrementalism is necessary and welcome, to translate it into systemic change, efforts need to be concerted and ambitions steep. What that means – both practically and in conceptual terms – is hardly present in economics and business curricula nowadays, despite the indispensable societal need of fostering the ability of future leaders to ignite and embrace systemic change. This ultimately requires critical reflection on and change of the epistemologies that underpin social constructs like fossil-driven economic growth or planned obsolescence as well as many other economic ills. A tangible example is the growing realization among scholars and the IPCC that staying below the global carbon budget will require reductions in energy-intensive production and consumption, the latter especially in high-income segments.8 However, economics and business curricula do not or not sufficiently provide for rigorous training in conceptually understanding or equitably managing such transitions. Responding to this need should imply following the principle of urgency and first and foremost address interconnected problems of (un-)sustainability in teaching and research on grand challenges. Such recognition may even help to reconcile diverging positions on the usefulness of the grand challenges concept referred to in management scholarship. Concretely, for teaching and research this should mean adopting and fostering (i) sustainability management that considers the co-evolution, interrelation, and complexity of human-environment systems under capitalism; (ii) inter- and transdisciplinarity of theories and methods; as well as (iii) critical reflectivity and a post-normal understanding of science in which researchers are agents of change and not only observes.16 The good news is that seeds of transformative change are abound, yet the quest for sustainability has only just begun. 


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