Outdated paradigms

Shaping a common sustainable future

Societies and economic systems must be transformed towards greater sustainability and resource efficiency. That is the single biggest challenge humanity faces. Experts are proposing various solutions. The German political economist Maja Göpel is one of them. She has been working on related issues for years. She questions established mindsets and wants to change attitudes.
Black Friday shopping in New Jersey, USA. picture alliance / AA / Tayfun Coskun Black Friday shopping in New Jersey, USA.

Maja Göpel, who teaches at Leuphana University Lüneburg, has held prominent positions in major consultative bodies, including serving as secretary general of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). For the transformation to a sustainable society, she wants concepts such as “productivity” and “economic activity” to be reconsidered, reappraised and redefined in ways that seriously take into account planetary boundaries and ecosystem services. Society must not strive for growth and individual gain, she says, but for individual and societal well-being.

In her book “Unsere Welt neu denken” (Rethinking Our World) she takes a sweeping look at the challenges facing humanity. She considers “the broad outline of the transformations that can be seen today”. With sights set on a “common sustainable future”, she offers ideas that mediate between people who demand change and the “preservers and blockers”.

Planetary boundaries

Göpel shows very clearly that "business as usual" cannot continue because it will destroy the very foundations of human life. The plain truth is that growth and resource-exploitation will end once “nature and its ecosystems are deprived of the ability to regenerate reliably”.

The present economic system fails to respect planetary boundaries, but is still geared to the pursuit of unchecked growth. The fact that this cannot continue indefinitely has been understood by scientists since the 1970s and was accepted by the international community at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Nonetheless, there has been no significant change in resource consumption. The reason, according to Göpel, is: “We have refused to face the new reality. We have spent nearly 50 years in a bubble of self-deception, paying heed to financial indicators rather than biological ones.”

Göpel sees proof of her assessment in the current economic system. According to her, it is a manifestation of human presumption. “By subordinating natural systems to human needs, we reduce their diversity, make them more vulnerable and need to make ever-increasing efforts to stabilise them.” Unless we learn to rebuild social systems, she warns, they will inevitably collapse. 

New mindset

Göpel stresses that we must first recognise the rules on which our economic system is based. Only then will we be able to change it. She recommends reconsidering “what prosperity will mean for people in tomorrow's world”. New language and terminology will be crucially important. She sees a need for new concepts for “expressing what will be relevant in the future”. At present, Göpel says, “growth” means “destroying the planet”, while “adding value” is nothing more than “making money”.  

The scholar also sees social equity as key to achieving a sustainable economy. Where the gap between rich and poor is widening, she sees at risk social cohesion and perceived standards of living. However, she is not only interested in equity within societies, but also between rich and poor nations. She considers it a huge problem that high-income countries outsource environmentally harmful industries to low-income countries and exploit commodities from those countries.

Göpel assess what “technological progress” means in the transformation she wants to see. She laments that technology is not seriously taken into account in environmental debates. High-tech solutions mean both opportunities and risks (see my article on www.dandc.eu). For example, electric cars and high-performance internet require a lot of energy and consume resources, thus contributing to global warming. On the other hand, high hopes rest on technological options for carbon sequestration.

In “Unsere Welt neu denken”, which is currently published only in German, the author's focus is on explaining the problems to readers. Her book “The Great Mindshift” was published in English in 2016 and focuses on how to make transformation happen.

Göpel, M., 2021: Unsere Welt neu denken (“Rethinking our World”). Berlin: Ullstein Berlin.

Sabine Balk is a member of the editorial team of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.