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Sustainable Development-Solution to the climate crisis, or an oxymoron?

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Sustainable Development-Solution to the climate crisis, or an oxymoron?

The climate crisis is a contemporary threat, which requires contemporary solutions. I argue that systemic change on socioeconomic fronts could reverse the impact of the Anthropocene.

Visiting author: Emily Wallerstrom

In 2019, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly President warned that there are only 11 years left to reverse the environmental damage created by the Anthropocene and to avoid a climate catastrophe. [1] Urgent action has been advocated for by scientists since the discovery of the anthropogenic causes of climate change, which range back to 1970s investigations on the environmental impact of rapid urbanisation, to the 1989 Montreal Protocol necessitating a worldwide elimination of ozone-depleting chemicals. Indeed, the Montreal Protocol has been praised for its success in engineering a collective response to an environmental challenge, and within a decade led to the slow reparation of the ozone layer. Many attribute its success to the scientific community working closely with the private sector to develop alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons and use new technologies to alleviate the environmental burden of humanity. [2] Such a transition, embracing technological change to protect the environment, is rooted in the environmental philosophy, ecomodernism– one which has since dominated discourse on the climate emergency as a solution prioritising sustainable development.  

Ecomodernism argues that sustainable development, i.e. the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future, can be achieved through utilising modernisation and technology to reduce the environmental impact of humanity without compromising economic growth gains. [3] [4] Examples of ecomodernism can be seen all across the world, such as Costa Rica leading the path towards carbon neutrality by prioritising renewable energy, or through European Union countries providing financial incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles. Such practices allow for human activity to continue in less environmentally taxing ways- for production factories to continue to operate, for car dependent cities to remain accessible. Eco-modernity is thus seen as a win-win opportunity, in which limited structural change is needed, as the industry can be ‘greened’ through technology and the new opportunities provided by the advancement of human effort.

Is this enough though? Is sustainable development truly possible?

An important caveat of ecomodernist philosophy is that environmental protection should not come at the expense of economic development. The market is expected to adapt to the market desiring an eco-friendly transition, and in doing so any externalities would be accounted for in the form of higher prices.

But the days of relying on market mechanisms are over. 

While highly polluting industries are reportedly regulated by national governments and supranational institutions like the UN and EU, enforcement is limited or inconsequential. Due to the profitable nature of the most polluting industries, such as energy generation, any financial accountability is limited in its repercussions. For instance, the 2010 British Petroleum (BP) oil spill was the largest environmental disaster in US history, releasing over three million barrels of oil into the Mexican Gulf, and yet the company was granted a $15 billion tax settlement out of the total $20 billion fine imposed by the US government. [5] Similarly, the $32billion clean up effort was partially subsidised by the US taxpayer, accounting for $10 billion of the sum. At the time of the spill, BP was worth $180 billion. [6]

Prior to the spill, British Petroleum was one of the leading proponents of the concept of the ‘carbon footprint’. While humans have been aware of the environmental toll of their daily lives, in 2003 BP embarked on a marketing campaign to spread the word on the direct impact of our lifestyles on carbon resources. [7] The irony is uncanny. Using the carbon footprint calculator, found on BP’s website, responsibility over the climate crisis was shifted onto the individual. Individuals living ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles would receive a ‘bad’ score and eco-guilt began to spread. By utilising eco-friendly rhetoric, aimed at using discourse to collectively guilt individuals into changing their habits, a new profit motive emerges. Not only can companies convert environmentalism into sales and further consumption, but they can distract from their own environmental wrongdoing.

Such dissonance between firms and consumers, industry and government, capitalism and environmental protection can only be resolved by a change in the human ethos.

Rather than viewing the environment as something to be exploited to serve humanity’s purpose, dismantling the hierarchy between human and non-human can, perhaps, yield a different result to the climate crisis. Rather than ‘rebranding’ development to serve the same material needs as before, under a veil of sustainability concerns, a more radical change is necessary. 

Degrowth can serve as a worthwhile alternative, one in which production and consumption are limited, not only in quantitative terms, but also through a cultural reformation of the power relationships between humans and the environment. [8]

Humans have an innate ability to adapt, persevere, and through that, produce themselves to adhere to the needs of the biophysical and sociopolitical landscapes around us. Those who argue that human behaviour is rigid have failed to reflect on the plethora of attitudes and habits which have both risen and disappeared over the course of history. [9] [10]

As scholar Susan Paulson argues, “a stubborn blindness to these and other historical facts is enabled by certain architectural features of Western language, science and philosophy.” Environmental destruction shares common characteristics with economic or social hierarchies, which enable the exploitation of one over the other. Only by questioning, and further dismantling the binary between nature and humanity can we truly combat the climate crisis, and see this as an opportunity for change- an evolution- of human behaviour. By restructuring our relationship with the material world and the ‘need’ of development, we can leave behind failed attempts at sustainability, and instead move towards something that we have proven to be successful at- learn from our mistakes to discard systems which do not work, and replace them with new constructs, patterns, and behaviours to carry us to the next juncture in our evolution. 


[1] United Nations. 2019. “Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting | UN Press.” Press.un.org. March 28, 2019. https://press.un.org/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm.

[2] Murdoch, James C., and Todd Sandler. 1997. “The Voluntary Provision of a Pure Public Good: The Case of Reduced CFC Emissions and the Montreal Protocol.” Journal of Public Economics 63 (3): 331–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0047-2727(96)01598-8.

[3] “Decoupled Ideals.” 2015. Nature 520 (7548): 407–8. https://doi.org/10.1038/520407b.

[4] Asafu-Adjaye, John et al. 2015. “ENGLISH.” An ECOMODERNIST MANIFESTO. http://www.ecomodernism.org/manifesto-english.

‌[5] Wood, Robert W. 2016. “In BP’s Final $20 Billion Gulf Settlement, U.S. Taxpayers Subsidize $15.3 Billion.” Forbes. April 6, 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2016/04/06/in-bps-final-20-billion-gulf-settlement-u-s-taxpayers-subsidize-15-3-billion/.

[6] “BP Net Worth 2006-2019 | BP.” 2019. Macrotrends.net. 2019. https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/BP/bp/net-worth.

‌[7] ClimateTrade. 2022. “The Evolution of Carbon Footprint Measurement.” ClimateTrade. August 18, 2022. https://climatetrade.com/the-evolution-of-carbon-footprint-measurement/.

[8] ‌Kallis, Giorgos. 2011. “In Defence of Degrowth.” Ecological Economics 70 (5): 873–80.

[9] Paulson, Susan. 2017. “Degrowth: culture, power and change.” Journal of political ecology 24 (1): 425-448.[10] ‌Perkins, Patricia E. (Ellie). 2019. “Climate Justice, Commons, and Degrowth.” Ecological Economics 160 (June): 183–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.02.005.




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