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Sustainability biggest challenge: us

Goods consumption is making life easier and better. Below a certain thresholds people live in poverty and the social landscape is unsustainable. A given societal foundation (changing over time) is what determine the boundary between wellbeing and poverty. Above that there is an environmental sustainability and in many societies today we are seeing goods consumption exceeding that thresholds. Image credit: WEF

For most part of human life on the planet, humans have been an insignificant species, barely noticeable to anybody from another world visiting Earth nor from other species coexisting with them. From the point of view of humans, however, this species was the most important one, particularly so once they become aware of their existence as a social-thinking fabric.  From that moment on the quest for better life conditions moved from being a personal quest to be a societal quest. First human beings were not “poor”, they did not know what poor meant (nor “rich” for that matter). It was a societal achievement to recognise poor life condition and of course to fight against it.

The definition of poor has changed over the centuries, now in some Countries being without internet means being “poor” (just to underline how much this notion changes).

Whatever it may mean at a specific area it is now an accepted principle that everybody should live a life where the basic necessities are granted. Poverty is socially unsustainable.

Much more recently our species has become notable in the way it affects the environment and along with it all other species. We have turned chicken in the most successful bird species on Earth, if one measure it in terms of sheer number, likewise for cattle, sheep and goats. At the same time the number of all other big animals have dwindled to the point of extinction.

The amount of natural resources being used and transformed far exceed their replenishment by natural processes so that they are bound to disappear. This is pointing to the environmental unsustainable situation, a relatively new issue, as world population increased 6 folds in the last hundred years. The expected addition of 2 billion people in the next 30 years and even more significant the increased consumption by all humans is breaking the table.

By using the metric stick of consumption (in general them more consumption of goods, energy, proteins… the better the wellbeing and health, the longer the life span) we can see that less than one quarter of the Earth population uses over 80% of energy resources… But what is most scaring is that to satisfy the use of resources of the average US citizen if all people on the planet would use the same amount we would need 5 Earth (and yes, we only have one).

The World Economic Forum is pointing to the need of understanding the boundaries of our life style: on one hand we want everyone to live in a socially sustainable way (education, healthcare, food, …) but on the other hand we need to remain environmentally sustainable (see graphic). To do so we can take advantage of the “Great Reset” (as they call the changes forced by the pandemic) to reinvent our lifestyle. Technology is not sufficient to make our voracious use of resources environmentally sustainable. In addition, technology, in particular the Digital Transformation, may may some areas socially unsustainable (e.g. loss of jobs resulting from insourcing and from blue and white collar automation).

Our society and economy is based, by far, on the idea of consumption. What has worked so far is not turning into a problem and the solution is not handy.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.