Planetary thinking to save humanity




The Swedish climate truthsayer, Greta Thunberg, arrived in the United States in a zero-emissions yacht on August 28 to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York at the end of this month. She arrived in the US at a time of growing trans­atlantic awareness of the threat posed by­ ­climate change.

Taking sustainability seriously means we can no longer ignore our boundaries. We need to start designing tools and policies to make all aspects of society more sustainable, before the costs of doing so become so large as to impoverish us. This has increasingly become a task not just for academics who specialise in the field, but for scholars and researchers generally. Sustainability should now be the lens through which we approach all policy-related empirical questions. We need challenge-driven, mission-oriented research, and that calls for a broad multidisciplinary effort.

To that end, Michael Grubb, of the University of Cambridge, along with two co-authors, made a monumental contribution with the 2014 book Planetary Economics: Energy, Climate Change, and the Three Domains of Sustainable Development. Grubb marshals a broad range of tools from within the economics discipline to chart the way to a sustainable society. That framework will need to be broadened beyond economics, but it provides a useful starting point.

The three domains in the book’s subtitle concern human behaviour, and how it can be influenced through regulation, traditional market-based pricing and innovation. Transforming a system requires action in all three areas. For example, better regulation can change human behaviour in a way that reduces prices and spurs innovation, in turn yielding even better regulation and lower costs.

Unfortunately, these three traditional domains in economics have each evolved separately, developing their own languages, evidence, policy recommendations, professional societies and journals. The goal of a “planetary economics” is to integrate the domains into a single community, whose sole objective is to build a civilisation that can exist within Earth’s boundaries.

This is already happening on the margins. Evolutionary and institutional economists are talking to organisational and behavioural economists about how individual social and economic choices make up complex systems over time. Complexity economists such as W Brian Arthur have been studying such questions for decades. And, in parallel, Solow residual economists have drawn on all three domains to make sense of unexplained factors in economic growth.

But this multidisciplinary intermingling is not happening fast enough. What we need is a new field of planetary social science to unite different perspectives, conceptual frameworks, and analytical tools — from political science, sociology, anthropology and psychology. Just as we cannot ignore the climate science, nor can we ignore the geopolitical and security challenges that will confront a warming planet.

Beyond the participation of individual consumers, private corporations and civil society, building a sustainable global economy will require active state intervention. Governments must adjust regulatory frameworks, reset market incentives and expand the hard and soft infrastructure needed for innovation to thrive. Moreover, policymakers should be prepared to take calculated risks, and to recalibrate policies based on feedback.

The sub-discipline that has perhaps come closest to integrating other disciplines, including medicine and environmental science, is public health. In Survival: One Health, One Planet, One Future, George R Lueddeke, the chair of the One Health Education Task Force, formed under the One Health Commission in the US, shows how public health can be incorporated into a wide range of fields to address individual, population and ecosystem health.

In 2015, the international community adopted the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the 17 sustainable development goals, one of which regards high-quality universal education as a key to building “peaceful, just and inclusive societies”. Yet progress toward this goal, particularly in developing countries, is being hampered by inequality, poverty, financial shortfalls, extremism and armed conflict.

In advanced economies, education systems need to prepare people for a world that is undergoing fundamental social, economic and technological change. Young people today will need the skills not just to cope with the ongoing transformation, but to lead it. That means education policy, too, must become challenge-driven. In practical terms, every university should consider creating a compulsory course on systems thinking and cross-disciplinary approaches.

Meanwhile, public- and private-sector organisations around the world are being asked to integrate the sustainable development goals into their daily operations. In Lueddeke’s book, 17 organisations, ranging from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the World Wildlife Fund, tell the author how they are adopting a more multidisciplinary approach.

But, in general, it is clear that many — if not most — countries have yet to consider the costs of implementing the sustainable development goals fully. Without their active participation, success is unlikely.

In fact, most national finance ministries have not fully bought into the 2030 Agenda. In advocating sustainability, we must not create new vulnerabilities in the form of over-indebtedness. Recent experience shows that financial crises can rapidly undermine economic and political achievements, sometimes reversing decades of development or jeopardising future economic growth and stability.

With Thunberg in the US, those in power should consider their responsibility to all generations. We urgently need to create the conditions for the emergence of a planetary social science that can inform our policy decisions.

Ultimately, the planet will carry on, but whether humanity survives will depend on the leadership shown today, and on the systems of governance and scholarship that we build for the future. There is nothing like the prospect of extinction to focus the mind. — © Project Syndicate

Erik Berglöf is professor and director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science

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Erik Berglof
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