Kaupo Vipp: Our natural environment should be the first priority of a good citizen

22. Jun 2018
Photo: private collection
Sustainability activist and ecological thinker Kaupo Vipp on why we need to rethink our values, cultural norms and lifestyles.

Sustainability is a term that originated in the domain of ecology and denotes the tendency of biological systems to maintain their diversity, balanced development and vitality over an undefined period. It is not a theoretical framework for creating of designing systems but rather the result of different systems working together.

Sustainability entered the general discourse in the 1980s, as environmental problems were becoming more acute, and in conjunction with the rise in so-called green thinking. Today, sustainability has become one of the most widely-used terms in all kinds of administrative and policy documents. Initially, sustainable development used to refer to developmental problems plaguing the human population but nowadays is has become a parasitic term that is constantly overused in various contexts, often as an oxymoron, e.g. sustainable economic growth. As anyone who puts some thought in it can surmise, it is impossible to maintain growth indefinitely in a finite space (e.g. economic activities of the human population on planet Earth). However, due to political deliberations such logical fallacies have crept even into the list on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In the context of environmental protection, there is widespread hope that our sustainability (i.e. the sustained coexistence of human civilization and the natural environment) could be ensured by reduced resource consumption. At the same time, population continues to grow exponentially, adding 230,000 new inhabitants on this planet each day, totalling in 88 million annually [1]. Each one of these individuals is going to have to use the Earth’s resources to survive. What is more, unrelenting growth is prescribed by established social systems, banking, etc. Thus, this kind of economic growth needs to be accompanied by the incessant growth in the consumption of the planet’s renewable and non-renewable resources, precluding sustainability.

For example, by August 2017, humankind had consumed the amount of resources that will take one year to renew naturally (e.g. forest, fish, etc.). Globalised economy is on a collision course with the planet’s resources whether its minerals, wildlife, clean drinking water, pollution resistance, climate stability, etc. Experts have long predicted that this course will also lead to increased inequality, fading of the middle class (serving a balancing role in society), civil wars, resource wars between countries and a flux of economic, climate and war refugees, starting with the most overpopulated regions of the world.

Each person’s consumption habits contribute to the global “footprint” of the whole human race. Those who have amassed the most stuff by the time they die are not winners. If we tried to ensure each person on this planet the kind of lifestyle that is enjoyed in the most affluent countries then it would take five Earths’ worth of resources. That is clearly impossible. Thus, the real sustainability challenge is in the transformative change of people’s current values, cultural norms and lifestyles – assessing critically what is it that we actually need for living. However, even then it is hard to imagine that all nations would accept their current situation. Today there are more people on this planet who are suffering from constant malnutrition, water shortages, permanent state of war, etc., than there were people in the beginning of the 20th century.

In these circumstances, a responsible citizen who contemplates the future from a realistic perspective, cannot aspire to pursue in the long term a lifestyle akin to that of the industrial society. In order to prevent spiralling into an all-out global crisis, we need an organised withdrawal towards a considerably lower but still tolerable level of well-being. The relatively well-preserved state of Estonian nature, clean groundwater, and partially sustained (against all odds) biodiversity in our forests, marshes and rivers, gives hope for the possibility of achieving local sustainability. Therefore, today’s responsible citizens should focus their efforts mainly on preserving the health of our natural environment, the foundation of our future sustainability. We must refrain from exchanging these riches for cheap trinkets as has been the fate of so many nations and peoples of the world. May we have wisdom and courage to do what’s right!

[1] The growth rate reached its peak during 1965–1970 with 2.1% per year meaning (ca 3.5 billion*2,1%) approximately +70 million people annually. The current lowest annual rate that stands at 1.18% represents the highest total growth rate in human history (ca 7,5 billion*1,18%=) which amounts to +88 million per year.