9 OBSTACLES TO ACHIEVE SUSTAINABILITY
A report by Marcelo Juanicó
The first step
to overcome an obstacle
is to properly identify it.
Updated December 2021
Human population has grown fast since the industrial revolution surpassing 7.7 billion, in parallel with a sharp increase of the environmental “impact per person”. The combined impact of these two rising variables on biosphere is devastating.
Biosphere is disintegrating and concerned scientists and environmental activists are trying to call the attention of decision-makers and general public on the problem.
Unfortunately, several main obstacles and multiple minor ones limit the success of these efforts.
Some of these obstacles are evident, others more difficult to identify.
The objective of the present report is to identify major obstacles to achieve sustainability, being the proper identification of an obstacle the first step to overcome it.
Synoptic diagnosis of
present situation and
counter-effects on humankind.
Biosphere is being disintegrated by the combination of a growing human population multiplied by an increasing "impact per person": massive pollution, global warming, exhaustion of natural resources, habitat destruction and biodiversity decline.
And humankind is already paying a heavy price for this disintegration that affects human safety, health, nutrition, economy and quality of life.
This is not a forecasting but a running reality.
The message that unsustainability is a forecasted possibility
The repeated calls for urgent sustainability action are failing to influence both decision-makers and general public, because scientists present unsustainability as a forecasted potential problem. The reality is that there exists a huge amount of evidence on the PRESENT disintegration of the biosphere and on the ALREADY running negative counter-effects on humankind. This is not a forecasted possibility but a tangible reality.
Calls for sustainability actions should clearly separate factual data on the present disintegration of the biosphere, from forecastings of potential future calamities.
The taboos and misconceptions regarding population degrowth
Many scientists and environmental activists do not address overpopulation because the issue is surrounded by misconceptions and fears; the issue of population degrowth has become a politically-incorrect taboo. Some of these misconceptions are the prejudice that coercion is the single means to stop population growth, the fear of conspirations and “ecofascist” ideologies, the misconception that overpopulation is a phenomenon limited to under-developed countries, and the misconception that “it is too late” to address overpopulation.
Population degrowth should be discussed without fear as a key issue regarding sustainability.
The overlook of overpopulation while addressing only overconsumption as the cause of unsustainability
The impact of humankind on biosphere depends not only on the high “impact per person” but also on the growing “number of persons” in the biosphere . At the present growing rate of world population (ca 220,000 persons per day) it would be necessary to reduce “impact per person” by 70% in 30 years from now to achieve sustainability (an impossible goal). However, the overpopulation issue is neglected in most efforts to make biosphere sustainable, including scientific papers, reports and recommendations by international conferences and agreements.
The overpopulation issue must be included in any analysis regarding sustainability.
The conceptual distortion created by the overvalued “green” actions
Numerous “green” actions to reduce the “impact per person” are recommended again and again by both international organizations and the media: live car free, reduce flights, switch to renewable energies, switch to a vegan diet, high investments in pollution control, recycle garbage, forbid disposable plastics, tax overpacked products, avoid waste of food, etc. The obstacle does not reside in these “green” actions to reduce the “impact per person” (many of them are really necessary) but in the illusion created in the public that sustainability can be achieved by just following them.
The public should be informed that green actions are necessary but by far not sufficient to achieve sustainability.
Techno-optimism: the blind faith in the deity “Technology” that should solve any problem
Techno-optimism is the belief that technology will solve any present or future problem that could eventually arise, an almost omnipotent solution for everything. It has been identified as a main obstacle to sustainability because it provides general public and decision-makers an escapism to ignore problems and delay decisions.
The blind faith in technology is dangerous and must be rebutted.
The conceptual distortion created by climate change
The threat of climate change has got the headlines and the sustainability attention is concentrated on reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. In many cases this is the single issue considered when addressing sustainability. This single-issue approach is blurring other impacts which are not less destructive to biosphere: pollution, habitat destruction, exhaustion of natural resources. Seeking only for climate-change restraint results into recommended actions that are simplistic when not contra productive to biosphere.
It is necessary to abandon the conception of global warming as a stand-alone problem and switch to a multi-parameter approach to sustainability.
Obstacle 9 - Our limited knowledge on the impact of mixtures of multiple pollutants
Most existing legislation on pollution control is restricted to the control of single pollutants, while massive pollution by thousands of pollutants is one of the main drivers of biosphere’s disintegration. Our knowledge on the accumulative and synergistic effects of mixtures of multiple pollutants is still very limited and the lack of proper tools to control pollution becomes a conspicuous obstacle to achieve sustainability.
It is required to urgently invest R&D on the combined effects and control of mixtures of multiple pollutants.
Obstacle 8 - The lack of a sustainable socio-economic model and the inertia of the present one
The present socio-economic model pursues constant economic growth based on an always growing market and an unlimited exploitation of natural resources, constituting one of the reasons for biosphere’s disintegration. But natural resources are already over-exploited and sooner or later the world population will decrease.
An alternative socio-economic model based on finite resources, limited pollution and a degrowing population will be necessarily different from the present one. Meanwhile, the proposals for such alternative socio-economic models are still vague.
It is required to urgently invest R&D on alternative socio-economic models.
The misconception that the drift of ecosystems is reversible
The media and grey-literature misinform that affected ecosystems will be easily and promptly recovered if the right actions are performed. General public and decision-makers understand that an ecosystem is “recovered” when the area is clean and biodiversity increases, without considering ecological structures, functions and services which are much more difficult to recover and much less noticeable by non-professionals. Unfortunately, the recovery of collapsed ecosystems is difficult, sometimes impossible, and even partial recovery takes decades. The final result is that public and decision-makers believe that a collapsed Biosphere could be eventually recovered if the counter-effects are too heavy. A misconception that encourages decision-delays.
Public and decision-makers must be clearly informed that the recovery of altered ecosystems (and biosphera) is very difficult and requires much time.
Biosphere is disintegrating.
Many of the running and proposed efforts to achieve biosphere's sustainability are biased.
Only two of the 9 major obstacles identified in this report are the result of knowledge gaps and require R&D. The other seven arise from wrong approaches, neglected issues, distortions of reality, misconceptions, prejudices and taboos.