By Lucia Goodwin
Every year, the Global Sustainable Development department’s essay competitions aims to engage prospective students within the sustainability debate. This year, one of the potential questions the competition essayists were able to talk about was: “To what extent is sustainability about creation?”.
This essay was written by runner-up, Lucia Goodwin. Lucia brings a fresh philosophical take on the concept of creation. As the article argues – ‘creation‘ provides a myriad of solutions to socio-economic problems as well as climate-related issues; nevertheless, it can also bring numerous unexpected side-effects and its overzealousness can get trap us in a vicious cycle of consumerism…
Albert Einstein said that ‘we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’. That is to say, creation can simultaneously cause global ‘problems’, but also solve them, depending on the creation itself. However, walking this line between the positive and negative uses of creation can be tricky when trying to ensure sustainable development. According to the Brundtland Report, a publication released by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) which first outlined sustainable development in 1987, the term is defined as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the capabilities of the future, whilst allowing society to advance socially, environmentally and economically’. This very specific criterion means that the relationship between creation and sustainability is complex, as any “creation” must satisfy all aspects of this definition.
On the one hand, the creation of newer, sustainable technologies is the key to solving global environmental issues. For example, energy production is one of the most unsustainable sectors of development due to the use of fossil fuels. This is both in terms of natural resource depletion (it is estimated that coal and gas reserves will only last another 115 and 50 years respectively), as well as air pollution, with energy production accounting for 65% of greenhouse gas emissions annually. However, the creation of renewable energy technology has no doubt revolutionised this sector. These technologies have existed for a long time, with the first photovoltaic cell being invented in 1839, hydroelectric power station in 1882, and the wind turbines in 1888. At that time, these technologies were not widely used due to their expense and inefficiency, yet now they are a major player, accounting for 26% of current production. This has only become possible through the constant creation of cheaper and more efficient technologies. Indeed, the UN has also identified creation, in this technological sense, as the key to a more sustainable future, setting a target within sustainable development goal nine to ‘enhance scientific research… including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing and public and private research and development spending’. As this demonstrates, the creation of new technologies is the key to ensuring a more sustainable future.
However, it is impossible to know the long-term consequences of these technological creations. Even if they are created for a sustainable purpose, it is still likely that although they are sustainable in one sense, they may not be in another. Therefore, it can lead to a situation where the things created as a solution to unsustainability are actually the cause of it. Take the move towards diesel cars, for example. Worldwide, so-called “clean diesel” was once thought to be a wonder fuel – more efficient and emitting less carbon dioxide per kilometre than standard petrol cars. It was for this reason that they were widely promoted – such as the tax incentives introduced by Gordon Brown in 2001 in the UK. However, as research developed and their long-term consequences unfolded, the cracks soon began to appear. Nitrogen oxides emitted by diesel exhausts were named as silent killers. The European Environment Agency published a report saying that diesel fumes had caused around 71,000 premature deaths across the continent in a single year, and the World Health Organisation declared diesel exhaust to be carcinogenic, classing it in the same category as mustard gas. Though this creation was environmentally sustainable in one sense– by emitting less CO2 – they were not socially sustainable as they are harmful to human health. Therefore, how can it be agreed that creation plays a large role in securing a sustainable future when it can be the source of such issues?
Furthermore, if we extend ‘creation’ in the title to mean the creation of goods, then surely it is over-creation that has led to many current environmental issues. This is because production depletes natural resources, and, having served their purpose, goods are thrown away, generating issues with disposal such as plastic pollution. Indeed, during a panel discussion at the 2010 UN Commission on Sustainable Development, Professor Tim Jackson said that there exists an ‘iron-cage of consumerism’ which prevents us from reaching a sustainable future. Consumerism is an economic order which encourages the constant creation of goods, playing upon our constant search for novelty. There is no doubt that this structure is unsustainable: in fact, if everyone maintained the love for creation as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain them. The extent of the issues that consumerism creates – namely resource depletion, pollution and waste management – is further exacerbated by the linear economic system, where goods are constantly created and disposed of. Rather, a circular system is needed, where goods are – and here are the three magic words – reduced, reused and recycled. By creating less new goods, and simply reusing and remaking materials already in circulation, we can reduce the stress on our natural resources and waste disposal. In this sense, creation is not the solution to, but rather the very cause of, unsustainability.
Finally, having discussed both environmental and economic sustainability, creation must also be considered in terms of social capacity. This relationship is complex. On the one hand, technology offers great opportunities for reducing inequality, e.g. by encouraging the use of technology in developing nations, we can help reduce issues such as poor water quality, energy poverty and the effect of natural disasters. One example would be the installation micro-hydro schemes in Ghandruck, northern Nepal. Here, only 5-10 percent of the population has reliable electricity access. This has greatly restricted the country’s ability to develop, as lack of mechanisation in the agricultural industry prominent in the rural area – in which two-thirds of their population is employed – inhibits maximum crop yields, hence limiting income. In a bid to change this, the World Bank has funded projects to install small hydroelectric plants in Nepal, which has helped to provide a source of renewable energy to 700 households throughout five villages. This example shows us how, by encouraging the installation of appropriate technology in a bottom-up approach, technological creation can achieve development whilst also reducing inequality.
On the other hand, the fact remains that technological creation is a luxury only afforded by the affluent, requiring substantial financial investment and an educated workforce. This disparity in accessing creation can simply help developed countries to advance whilst developing countries are left behind, widening global inequality. Therefore, if creation is to increase social sustainability in the ways mentioned above, it must be equally accessible to everyone. Indeed, this has been recognised by the UN. The sustainable development goals were initially created in 2000, with 8 goals to achieve socially, environmentally and economically sustainable future. After their review in 2015, these were subdivided into 17 goals to build their progress so far, including ‘climate action’ and ‘clean energy’ (goals 13 and 7 respectively). However, The UN recognised that achieving these goals requires technological investment – an investment which some developing countries cannot afford. Hence, the Green Climate Fund was created so that all countries could have the opportunity to invest in technological creations. As of 2019, this was accessed by 28 countries, of which 67% were developing nations. Hence, creation can help to achieve social sustainability, but only if all nations have equal access.
In summary, creation’s role in ensuring a sustainable future is important to an extent, but there exist limitations. Firstly, in relation to technology, creation poses significant opportunities, but caution must be taken to ensure that they have no adverse long-term consequences which may cause further issues. Secondly, in relation to the creation of goods, creation’s role in sustainability is limited and, rather, reduction may prove a more appropriate solution. Finally, creation holds huge possibilities for social sustainability, but only if access to it is equal worldwide.
But, given that this is a very specific application, how can we ensure that creation is utilised in this way? Can there ever be a straightforward answer? Perhaps, then, there is one final interpretation of creation that has the biggest role to play: the creation of a new global mindset. Returning to my quote from Albert Einstein in the introduction, ‘we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’. A more nuanced interpretation of this is that, though creation can either help or harm us, if we have the right ‘kind of thinking’, we can ensure that creation can be used to its potential. The creation of sustainable technologies will mean nothing if nations are not committed to investing in them. Making technologies safe and sustainable will only be possible if companies establish more rigorous testing. Reducing consumerism and slowly adopting a circular economy will require willpower from both individuals and companies. Creation could possibly be the key to a sustainable future, but only if we adopt an enthusiastic mindset in which creation can be interpreted sustainably.