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Business as usual outlook: where are we headed?

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading” is the famous Chinese quote of Lao Tzu.

On our current trajectory, continuing business as usual will lead us to a grim future. Changing our direction will depend on our ability to identify and understand risks and opportunities, so that we can take the right actions to counter them.

So what are the current trends if we continue business as usual?

Environment

  • Acceleration of greenhouse gas emissions. From 1850 to today emissions have grown more than 100 fold, from 200 million tonnes a year to 36 million tonnes in 2013, and continues steadily to increase.
  • Natural resources: ravenous hunger, limited supply. Global consumption of almost every commodity has increased dramatically over the past century, and this trend looks to continue aggressively in the foreseeable future.
  • Escalating freshwater stress. The demand for water has quadrupled in the second half of the 20th century and will increase by approximately 55% before 2050.
  • A brown haze descending over us. Urban air quality is deteriorating and concentrations in some cities, particularly in Asia, are already above acceptable health standards. In China air pollution is estimated to kill up to 500.000 people a year.
  • Excessive nutrient release, a little known killer. More intense agriculture practices to meet increasing food demand will have devastating consequences for biodiversity.
  • Soaring global garbage. The unwanted by-product of modern economic activity is the increasing volume and complexity of waste flowing back into the environment.
  • Fertile Soil out of stock. Land degradation significantly reduces the quality and productive capacity of fertile land, and is caused by population growth, migration patterns, unsustainable agricultural land use, poor soil and water management practices, deforestation and overgrazing.

Society

  • The world is getting crowded. The world population is projected to grow from 7 billion people today to 9.6 billion in 2050
  • We are getting older. We are on average living longer. For the first time the world will soon have more elderly people than children, and global average life expectancy is projected to exceed 75 years in 2050 compared to 70 today.
  • We are moving to cities. In 2008 the world became predominantly urban for the first time in human history, and this trend is set to continue. By 2050, 70% of the global population is expected to live in urban areas with the fastest urbanization rate occurring in Africa.
  • Urban time bombs. Poverty, conflict and natural disasters in rural areas drive urbanization in hopes for a better future. Rapid, unmanaged urbanization has resulted in overcrowded slums with poor sanitation, polluted air, poverty, unemployment high level of crime and social tension.
  • Hunger exists amidst adequate supply. A total of 12% of the global population – 868 million people – are chronically hungry with the vast majority residing in developing countries.
  • New Health risks on the horizon. In global terms, we are witnessing a shift towards non-communicable disasters relating to ageing and unhealthy lifestyles and general decrease in infectious diseases.
  • Pockets of inadequate education. Education is the gateway to opportunities and key to ensuring social equity and stability, informed decision-making, and sustainable population growth and development. But despite great progress 57 mill children are currently out of school and 120 million youth remain illiterate.
  • Striking a better gender balance. Empowerment of woman is key to improved health, stabilized fertility rates, a boost in economic growth and improved environmental policy. Whereas women are assuming more power in the world’s parliaments, the average remains low at 20%.
  • New challenges, old structures. The emergence of new complex, cross border challenges such as climate change, resource shortage, terrorism and pollution have shown that many governance structures do not have the needed mechanism for collective actions.
  • Persistent high level corruption. High levels of corruption prevail in many countries and continue to distort markets, undermine democratic institutions, slow economic development, widen inequality gaps and contribute to government instability.
  • Bourgeoning social tension and unrest. In recent years, protests, social tension and unrest have erupted in a variety of locations around the world, including Greece, UK, Thailand and several Arab nations.

Economic

  • Slowing growth and growing pains. The global financial crisis revealed long-term structural weaknesses in the global economy. Macroeconomic imbalances, fiscal crises in developed economies, massive unfunded social liabilities and weak financial markets are all present in a complex nexus of economic risks.
  • Economic gravity shifts east and south. The bulk of future economic growth will occur in emerging economies with China and India leading the way. Growth in advanced economies will slow in the next decade.
  • Widening gaps and growing concentrations. Income inequality has been widening both between and within countries in recent years. Almost half of the words wealth is owned by just 1% of the population
  • Consumption beyond limits. Worldwide consumption of goods and services has risen steadily for decades by virtual any measure. A growing share of the consumer class now resides in emerging economies.
  • Externalities are still external. We are entering an era where the concept of uneconomic growth, meaning growth that costs more than it is worth, is gaining relevance.
  • Brown and linear dominates. A world economy four times larger than today is projected to use 80% more energy in 2050. Production of fossil fuel will continue to increase.
  • Stuck with the wrong kind of growth. Current capital investment practices reinforce status quo and contribute to decade’s long lock in to the current economic system.

A planet under pressure

In short, this is the current trends that will shape our future if we do not change course. Clearly, business as usual is not an option.

So, is it all hopeless?

No!

It is this business as usual scenario that is the utopian fantasy. Humanity will have to create something different and better, or risk collapse into something far worse.

We believe it is possible to create a thriving economy where growth is decoupled from environmental destruction and material consumption. We believe it is possible to stay within the limits of the planet while still enjoying decent quality of life. And we believe it is possible for a society of nine billion people to live well and enjoy universal access to basics needed to live a healthy, safe and flourishing life.

You can learn more about these trends, our vision for a Safe and Sustainable Future and how we go from vision to impact in our report “A Safe and Sustainable Future, Enabling the Transition”.

I am eager to hear your reflections, viewpoints and ideas.

This is my first blog post in a series about “enabling the transition towards a safe and sustainable future”. Stay tuned for more insight about our vision 2050, barriers, and the pathways to change.  

2 Comments Add your comment
Avatar Kannan Natesan says:

Bjorn,

Excellent write-up – this gives a succinct yet comprehensive summary of the current affairs!

It is scary, but it is indeed important to view all of this together. Solving one without concern for another will again keep us going in circles. As Dr. John Ehrenfeld put it in his book “Sustainability by Design”, we seem to be treating symptoms than the root cause itself. This may lead to undesired side effects which needs more concerted effort to clean up. So, looking at these together in a single canvas and trying to understand how one affects the other is important, before we even think of solving any of these in isolation.

It is heartening to see that despite the gloomy state of affairs there is still a lot of optimism. Rightly so, and we need to back this with measurable action – afterall, we owe it to our successors in this planet. But I am still apprehensive of ‘economic growth’ which is still fuelled by consumption. Do we need such growth at all?

Concepts like circular economy or sharing economy are indeed welcome. But as you have written in another post, we need a bottom-up revolution: I understand bottom-up as something that is stems out of conscious consumerism. We also have to get out of this use-and-throw culture and start building and buying things that last longer.

Thanks,
Kannan

Avatar William Duron says:

Vertical farming (http://www.verticalfarm.com/) will be a necessary option for the sustainability of world population. Not only will these “stacked-greenhouses” create food, but with careful planning, may have near ZERO impact on the environment. New green-technologies may provide the buildings with all the power necessary to move and recycle the water necessary for crops. The windows may also be fitted with new bird-friendly glass panes (http://www.sciencealert.com.au/features/20141505-25519-2.html), that would benefit nearby and migratory bird populations.
The economic potential may boost jobs associated with farming and distribution. As land real estate becomes scarce, UP is a necessary direction.

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