With Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Lorenzo Fioramonti, Maja Goepel, Dirk Philipsen and Stewart Wallis
Donald Trump’s narrow victory in November has shocked many around the world. Made possible only by an antiquated electoral system, his claim to the most powerful position in world politics seemed previously inconceivable. Controversial decisions on immigration, climate change and energy policy represent a massive regression to parochial governance: the America he wants to make ‘great’ again is one of vintage 1950s white, male privilege, and unhinged corporate control over the future. Claiming to drain the swamp of Washington, he is turning the whole country into a morass.
Hard as it is to understand why working Americans saw a savior in the most self-centered capitalist ever to run for President, it is time to acknowledge the range of very real, very legitimate grievances underlying this popular expression of discontent. The problems are real, and official statistics rarely represent them adequately. The country’s focus on GDP growth—inherited from Reagan but intensified by Clinton, Bush and Obama—does not serve people or communities well. It damages the environment, destroying livelihoods for many, and it fuels inequality. Piketty’s research shows that, over the last 30 years, growth in incomes of the bottom 50% has been virtually zero, while incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%. Jobs have become ever more precarious, and provide ever fewer rewards. Change, meanwhile, is speeding up, and leaving millions lost or behind. Ironically, the more “conservative” the political leaders, the more un-conserving their policies.
Trump neither understands these underlying problems, nor has he any discernible desire or ability to address them. He has surrounded himself with billionaires and their lackeys stuffing their bulging pockets further.
Perhaps, however, there is a silver lining. People are waking up. Trump has barely begun swinging his right-wing wrecking ball, but four to five million people marched in over 500 locations across the US in the largest political protest in American history. A week later airports filled with a spontaneous “no” to all that Trump’s administration represents. Mobilizations continue, from Canada to Europe, Africa and Asia, at Congressional offices, embassies and street corners.
The creativity of the protesters and their dedication to a future devoid of discrimination and destruction invite us to dream (and organize) bigger: to address climate change and inequality on a deeper, structural level. It’s time to re-think work and security and the value of life. To reject blind pursuit of growth. It is time to build an economy that provides wellbeing to all—people and species—rather than to just a few.
This is cold, hard realism. Utopia is believing that unsustainable and inequitable approaches to development can continue. Building a more democratic society and a sustainable economy is not fiction; it is the only available reality. The great transition is the practical necessity.”
Dramatic change often happens when a when a confluence of factors reaches a point of no return. Humanity is in a race with catastrophe, facing several tipping points. The first is the climate. Science shows our earth systems being disrupted at a rate much faster than foreseen. We are losing access to fresh water, forests, coral reefs, species—all at unsustainable rates. The world is overpopulated, and overpolluted. Biodiversity is in freefall, contributing to a biophysical tipping point that, quite simply, poses an existential risk for humanity.
This is not the whole story. Innovations and solutions can reverse destruction and decline. What’s been missing is the political will to apply them at scale. As the Trump crisis becomes clear and stark, it is raising interest in the good work of millions of people across the world. It is an opportunity—perhaps the best yet—to bring people together and collectively push for a shift toward a future that is both sustainable and desirable. When leadership fails us, we have no other option than to become leaders ourselves.
Those signs of possibility are all around us. Actions to create an economy that promotes wellbeing for all, rather than riches for a few include:
- Ability to communicate in real time with everyone. This empowers millions of people at virtually no cost and makes social organizing easier than ever before. Peer-to-peer has become a reality, whether sharing information, data, software, goods, services, car rides, accommodation, or political strategies.
- Renewable energy allows for a decentralized systems of production and consumption, turning households into independent nodes of a global network. Costs are now below fossil fuels, despite the $10 million a minute in subsidies that fossil energy still enjoys. Advanced economies could transition to 100% renewable energy in as little as 20 years while helping poorer countries avoid the addiction to fossils. Jobs are being lost in the fossil fuel industry, they are on the rise in renewable energies: are more than made up: the US solar sector employs 77% more people than coal mining, creating employment opportunities 12 times as fast as the job creation of the economy as a whole. By 2015, China, alone, had created 3.5 million renewable energy jobs. In 2016, renewable energy employment was growing at 5% a year globally.
- Despite deniers, scientific consensus says man-made alteration of global temperatures is real. The world shifts toward the ‘anthropocene’ and accepts the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Businesses around the world begin to protect natural capital and ecosystems.
- As central authorities fail citizens, more states, regions and cities take the lead. From Vermont to California, states defy Washington by adopting sustainability plans. California committed to double energy efficiency and generate half of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Nine New England states require car makers to shift to zero-emission vehicles. New York launched an energy plan to help residents produce and share their own energy. Smart villages using off-the-grid solutions are mushrooming in Asia and Africa.
- Regenerative agriculture pioneered in Africa, South America and South Asia offers sufficient food for all using methods that restore ecosystems and capture carbon.
The world is in a tug of war between conflict, depletion, destruction, and shared prosperity, well-being, and unprecedented opportunity. Trump promises to give Team Conflict his support. But Team Sustainability is growing and learning—and only getting started. We’ve believed the “growth at all costs economic model,” will give us the good life. It hasn’t. But Trump may be the crisis needed to shake us from this addiction and open the door for the transition to the sustainable, equitable, and prosperous world we really want.