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Humanity at a Crossroads

Do we have the will, individually and collectively, to implement the changes in attitude and lifestyle that are required?

October 12, 2013

Credit: pinkypills -

Humanity is at a crossroads. The choice is between the continuation of present modes of economic growth, with potentially catastrophic results, and the transition to a new development model. That model would focus on reducing poverty, while enhancing sustainability and social equity.

The choice is ours to make. It is nerve-wracking and anything but easy, and the outcome is profoundly uncertain. One thing is for sure: The cumulative pressure the human species is putting on the planet is sapping its resources and resilience.

The combination of population growth and economic growth (including changes in lifestyle and consumption patterns as wealth increases) places excessive demands on the environment.

We are using more resources than the earth can provide, exceeding its capacity to sustain us. Unless we change course radically, the consequences will be severe, affecting the habitability for life on earth, including humans.

This inconvenient truth is by now well established, scientifically validated and globally acknowledged, except for some voices in the United States.

Growth offers false comfort

Even so, we continue to live as if we had an extra planet at our disposal. As Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow in Hong Kong, argues, the world community is in denial and refuses to face the harsh realities of constraints and limits to growth.

The reasons for this denial are manifold. One key factor is the unbowed belief in the prevailing “growth paradigm.” The notion that economic growth, fueled by technological innovation, free markets and finance will solve all global challenges, including ecological sustainability and resource scarcity, has carried us forward until now.

In addition, economic growth continues to be seen as indispensable for ensuring political and social stability. In the wake of the global financial and economic crisis that commenced in 2008, restoring the global economy to robust growth has again become the key priority in almost all countries, including the eurozone, which is struggling with its sovereign debt crisis.

At the same time, the traditional growth paradigm offers false comfort. An increasing number of citizens in all parts of the world are demanding improved environmental conditions, including fresh water, food security and more quality of life in general. Concerns about climate change and environmental degradation are now global — as is the realization that no country can act on these problems alone.

Do we have the will?

The idea that we need a more sustainable model of economic development is not new. It, too, can offer false comfort. Scientists and activists have long since established what needs to be done: Emissions have to be radically reduced, ways of production and life must change, with sustainability becoming the chief principle of human action.

But do we have the will, individually and collectively, to implement the required changes, including changes in attitude and lifestyle?

As Lydia Powell of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi points out, “the question that needs to be asked is not whether a new model is needed, but why the models that have been proposed are failing to make even a marginal impact on the current growth model.”

Economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are indissolubly linked to the question of social justice and equity. We are living in an era of global “triple unsustainability — economic, social and environmental,” as Andreas Illy, the chairman and CEO of illycaffè, puts it.

Consequently, sustainable development — understood as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” — has to address not only environmental concerns, but also issues of social and economic sustain ability.

Any call for a switch from a growth-centered mindset to one that focuses on developing in a way that gives greatest priority to combating poverty and promoting education, while ensuring access to clean energy, will require a new approach in the political sphere.

What is needed are laws that provide an incentive to conserve natural resources, such as energy supplies and water, along with technologies that recycle those resources.

Concrete time frames and standards must be put into place on a global scale if specific goals are to be achieved at all. Otherwise, the differences in culture and economic development among countries are too large to develop a common agenda for addressing challenges.

Why global governance is so difficult

Existing international institutions and fora have proven unable to produce collective action to effectively address the challenges of sustainable development.

There is a broad consensus that more effective and inclusive forms of global governance — broadly defined as the collective management of common problems at the international and transnational level — are needed.

Yet, diverging interests as well as different perspectives on how to approach these problems have encouraged the pursuit of national interests and led to greater fragmentation in international politics.

At the heart of the problem of global governance, as Seán Cleary, founder of the FutureWorld Foundation, argues, is the fact that political leaders are accountable to national electorates, while many threats are transnational, even global.

The “Westphalian system” of international politics, says Pascal Lamy, until recently the director general of the World Trade Organization, “allows all nations to dismiss any requirements coming from the global system to safeguard humanity’s long-term survival as acts of interference in their internal, national affairs.”

As a result, the prospects for effective global governance are deteriorating. Yet there are no local or national solutions to global problems, as Beatrice Weder de Mauro, professor of international macroeconomics at the Johannes-Gutenberg-University in Mainz, Germany, emphasizes.

We must overcome the current deadlock and create new forms of global governance that are able to take a long-term view. Hence, she calls for “a new era of building international institutions.”

Another kind of “coalitions of the willing”

In the meantime, progress can only be achieved through increased collaboration among governments, business and civil society. We need the creation of “coalitions of the willing” consisting of government agencies, corporations and civil society organizations that can show the way, bringing their vision and experience to bear on a political level.

In the absence of an overarching approach to global governance, collaborative efforts by those coalitions have to provide the framework for addressing the issues of economic growth, environmental sustainability and social equity.

In order to overcome resistance to the necessary sweeping reforms, it is essential to provide more information and raise awareness.

In concrete terms, it is important to unveil reasons for the gap between civil society’s disclosed expectations about a new development model and political interests that prevent these changes from being implemented. Ways and means on how this gap can be addressed have to be further explored and revealed to the public in order to spark desire for action.

Editor’s note: This text is the introductory essay of the book “In Search of a Sustainable Future,” which was just published by the Brookings Institution Press.

The essays compiled in this publication, of which the Bertelsmann Stiftung and The Globalist are co-editors, were adapted from statements and presentations given by their authors at the Salzburg Trilogue conferences in 2011 and 2012, hosted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Austrian Ministry for European and International Affairs.


We continue to live as if we had an extra planet at our disposal.

Growth continues to be seen as indispensable for political and social stability.

The traditional growth paradigm offers false comfort. No country can act on these problems alone.

Economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are indissolubly linked to social justice and equity.

Political leaders are accountable to national electorates, while many threats are transnational, even global.