In this article the authors argue for a utopia driven by SDG's and respectful engagement with nature.
Human history is ridden with dreams of utopias. Ideas and visions outlining societies or communities that are free from faults and flaws, running perfectly according to plan. There is no shortage of examples. Many are political, some religious and others stacked somewhere in between.
Plato (428-348 BCE) presented a utopia that appeared to be an improved version of the society it was compared to. Here the ideal city (Kallipolis), ruled by supremely enlightened philosophers, would provide the necessary services and constraints so that just and good human beings could develop and thrive. In contrast, early 20th century communism proposed a utopia which was radically different from the grim industrial reality it rose from – a place with no suppression, a direct democracy and where the proverb «From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would be the guiding principle».
It can be said that both visions seemed feasible, but that they failed in making the transition from ideas to reality, although ardent attempts were made. Using an ‘ideal world’ to motivate change is an exercise that has shadowed human history for millennia, whereas the concept itself can be dated more accurately.
It was Sir Thomas More (1478-1536 CE) who in 1516 came up with the concept in the book called “Utopia”. And just like Plato, he introduced his contemporary readers to a well-reasoned republic where life is communal, free from private property (a recurring theme in many utopias) and with something that resembled a welfare state. In the end, and regardless of More’s initial political- and literary motives for writing Utopia, it never amounted to more than a literary fantasy. Despite obvious room for improvement, it could be argued that the survival of the society More lived in did not critically depend on the realisation of his literary Utopia. The same can be said of Plato’s ideal state, and of communism. Perhaps that is, in part, the reason why they ultimately never came into realisation in a desired way?
The ideas forwarded in these three different utopias certainly gave rise to new ideas about what humans could strive for, how we organise ourselves and what motivates change. Now a new type of utopia is emerging on the horizon.
Nature at the core
What is both curious and striking is that it was not until the very recent launch of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 that governments around the world agreed on a vision for a utopia that did not presuppose Nature.
The SDGs set nature centre stage – it is presented as the premise that everything else follows from, and something that is fundamentally intertwined with humanity. At risk, if the natural world is damaged, are not only single societies or nations, but modern civilization in its entirety. The impetus required for change is no longer just an aspiration for an improved life, but for survival – which just might be the reason why this utopia is likely to come closer to realisation than those that were imagined before.
Many disparate lines of thinking and observations have contributed to an SDG Utopia that governments around the world have voluntarily subscribed to. One important thread in these SDGs can be traced back to a book released 60 years ago that still reverberates whenever environmental policies are discussed.
Rachel Carson’s seminal «Silent Spring» was published in 1962. It pointed out that the road to the glorious wealth of the western world came with a terrible price – the eradication of nature and the life within. It presented a planet without the sounds that life makes when it thrives and grows and forewarned of the coming of a universal dystopia.
In the decades that followed, it became evident that there was indeed a dangerous consequence of our way of living: global climate change. Through an unprecedented community effort, climate scientists produced and pieced together observations that explained why massive emissions of greenhouse gases would steer the planet towards a permanent climate crisis unless trends reversed.
When combined, these realisations spurred the thinking and understanding that culminated in the SDGs and the Paris Agreement back in 2015. The utopia of our time. The ultimate target of the SDGs is to eliminate the environmental and climate threats we have created, albeit in uneven ways. However, it says nothing about how we are to achieve that colossal goal. Finding effective ways to do so is another major challenge humanity is facing. The complexity of that challenge is, among other things, rooted in the obvious predicament that many of the 17 goals are in obvious conflict with each other.
The Challenge of our times
The existential dilemma we have trapped ourselves in is a perfectly valid reason for despair. A timely question is, given the scale of the imminent threats of global climate change, biodiversity loss, and other (potentially) non-reversible processes, can humanity find a safe passage through the thorny thicket and come up with, and subsequently implement, the solutions required? Or simply put, can we turn our SDG utopia to reality?
We believe the answer to this question leans towards yes rather than no. Here are some observations that may explain why we are moderately optimistic about the future in times when news about the human-planet relationship is mostly injurious.
In many countries, environmentally friendly values are highly appreciated, but even then, they often lose out in competition with other pressing needs. Marshes and mires are revered for their carbon storage, but their preservation usually has to give way to the construction of roads and wind farms, in the name of progress, growth, jobs and innovation. But what are the values of nature and the long-term stability that resilient ecosystems provide to humanity?
For a long time now, cities worldwide have continued to grow at the expense of local habitats without proper estimates of their environmental impacts. Typically, claims on previously untouched (or rather, relatively less-impacted) nature is usually done in a piecemeal manner, which obscures the amassed negative effect of the loss of this nature. Until recently, the true effect of this process or the value of nature somehow never made it to the upper floor of international politics. With the launch and release of the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in 2019, the true and diverse value of nature became evident to a wider audience just as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring initially did.
Despite this recurring pattern of systematically undervaluing the economical, biophysical, sociocultural, holistic, and health value of nature, there is also ample evidence of how we actively choose more responsible solutions and act as if we care for the nature that surrounds us. The widespread implementation of national parks worldwide serves both as a reminder and as an example that nature can be protected by effective policies. The same is true for marine protected areas, recently underscored by turning over 1.5 million square kilometres of the Ross Sea in Antarctica into an area with reduced human intervention (Brooks et al., 2021).
Multilateral agreements protecting nature continue to be a necessity, but we need to not only rethink the dichotomy between humans and nature, but also the perception of nature as something that provides resources to humanity. We must embrace a perception of being part of and dependent on nature. This is a humble approach that requires action at all scales, including at the most local scale: at home.
Examples from everyday life show that individuals are in fact happy to engage in pro-environmental behaviours. This could include changing the energy source they rely on, means of transport, the food or clothing consumed, or reducing travel. This inclination, and willingness to change behaviour is evident of wilful actions and is more likely to occur if they are socially reinforced. If your neighbour decides to install a solar panel on her house, you are more likely to do so as well. This type of energy-positive deeds is not only contagious, but also empowering.
A green tendency, if you like, is gaining ground and it’s oriented towards cleaner energy, lower emission transport, and reduced meat consumption all of which, in sum, carry the potential to make a difference that indirectly benefits nature. Having said that, the absence of real progress in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases suggests that the realisation of our utopia hangs by a very thin thread and requires action at other scales and by other actors.
The will to collaborate
Many companies are responding to the global sustainability challenges in part because having a social licence to operate will, to an increasing extent, require companies to act responsibly. With policy frameworks like the EU-taxonomy in place, they are also encouraged to comply.
This is perhaps why the number of net zero-emission strategies have skyrocketed during the last 2-3 years. Roadmaps have been fleshed out by major players like the EU and the IEA, but funds and companies also have their own plans. The net-effect of the net-zero emission strategies remains to be evaluated, but awareness-wise they serve a purpose by illustrating what socially acceptable behaviour should consist of.
In addition to changes in individual “consumer” behaviour, government actions aimed at protecting nature within national boundaries and through international cooperation, including ambitious pledges by corporations, there are also more fundamental changes taking place in how humans cooperate and relate to nature.
The initiatives «High Level Coalition on Health and Energy», and «High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People» suggest that governments are indeed exploring new options for multilateralism to address shared problems. Engagements are found on different sociological scales, for instance a growing global network of city mayors working together to fight climate change, but there are many other ways in which people are collaborating to realise new futures. The «Seeds of a Good Anthropocene» project has collected more than 500 examples, bringing hope to a utopian vision of a healthy and resilient planet for all (see e.g., Bennet et al., 2016 and links below).
This widespread willingness to find new ways to level negative effects of climate change and loss of nature suggests that now’s the time to scale up measures.
We think that these tendencies express a fundamental value shift. People across the political spectrum understand that it is in our best interest, in fact it is in the interest of the survival of our species, to act responsibly in our encounters with nature and the planet we live on.
We suggest that a new norm of “Earth Altruism” is coming to life (Österblom & Paasche, 2021), and what motivates us perhaps the most, is the understanding that the future won’t hold unless we scale up the number of good deeds. The core force that mobilises and motivates these networks and initiatives are young people.
They already recognize and fear what is coming. It is in their lifetime that the many deadlines will have to be met if a civilised humanity is to prevail. What sets them apart is their digital experience and presence. They command tools and platforms that can disseminate and combine their engagement and expectations. Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movements are but one example among many.
Platforms for change
The contours of a new movement are emerging. Here young and hyper-connected role models, including YouTubers, musicians, athletes, and activists, employ their global platforms and connectivity to inspire change. Examples abound, and include Xiye Bastida, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Nyombi Morris and many more. They have an unprecedented reach to communicate that creative and generous engagement for the future of our planet, sharing their thoughts and actions with millions of followers.
Restoring planetary balance should, however, not be the sole responsibility of young people, but also those of us responsible for our shared past. We invite you to consider how you can engage in this endeavour, and perhaps how your daily life can be part of realising a new responsible world.
Responding to degradation
This invitation should not come as a surprise. Some have already engaged in unprecedented acts of altruism during the recent and ongoing pandemic. The global Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing refugee crisis, and the Russian war in Ukraine, are forcing many of us to re-evaluate how we engage in altruism. Global climate change and environmental degradation will demand even more of us, and for many decades to come. In fact, since acknowledging the consequences of the «Great Acceleration» (Steffen et al., 2015), people have exhibited multiple acts of generosity serving higher goals, and these activities can be regarded as preparation for what needs to develop.
When faced with an existential threat, humans have historically displayed an enormous capacity to act in ways that serve a common good. Time and again this ability has pushed us forward, and now we need to face the climate and biodiversity threat with that same resolve we have been able to muster in earlier times – such as the willingness to help people in need during the Second World War.
Sadly, it’s become easy to fall prey to thinking that all hope is lost. That the road to ruin is set in stone. That politicians do not command the will nor the ability to invoke change that counts, that the self-interests of individuals and powerful corporations will always win, despite progressive ambitions, strategy notes and pledges to net zero emissions, that social media will continue to the spread of polarising disinformation and those growing social inequalities will inevitably result in rippling violent conflicts.
There is indeed evidence of gloomy prospects, but as we have emphasised here, another future can be had. We believe this because throughout human history, we have always managed to adapt to change – no matter how destructive and detrimental it has been. Our ability to weather troubled times is based on collaboration, cooperation, care, collective learning, and cultural evolution. These basic human qualities have enabled us to move forward and make amends for past misbehaviour. The shared global challenges require that we start acting like a global community. This is where young role models of today have started to show remarkable resolve and leadership. We need more engagement of this sort.
We argue that “Earth Altruism”, can be a concept that helps clarify human responsibilities towards a shared utopia of a sustainable planet, but that acts of altruism will require a feeling of empathy towards the subject in question. Interestingly, such empathy towards natural objects or entities is increasingly made explicit in national laws – including in Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama, Columbia, New Zealand, and India – and applicable to natural features such as rivers, forests, mountains, and coral reefs (see e.g., Sheber 2020). It seems as if we are building the legal case for understanding how to relate and develop humanity as part of nature. This is becoming clarified by the increased legal recognition of not just individual humans, corporations, and governments – but also of nature.
These legal changes and related court cases have often been initiated by grassroots movements and indigenous groups – and it should come as no surprise that the countries leading this development – represent countries with diverse value systems. Interestingly, countries are mimicking and learning from each other, in an emerging national legal practice. The momentum for earth Altruism is gaining traction.
We could be on the brink of a new humanity. One that successfully reaches a utopia where nature is recognized as the premise on which everything else is built. The management of this utopia depends on the direction and pace of change that has already begun. Which is why we think that with Earth Altruism as a guiding principle, our SDG utopia might be closer to home than many anticipate.