Why has there not been enough action towards sustainability? Reason #1 of many

This mini text series is called: Why has there not been enough action towards sustainability? And to keep it hopeful and solution-oriented: What promising, recent ideas and solutions are out there to make it happen? And what has art got to do with that? The text is based on scientific evidence, data from strong institutions and peer-reviewed papers.

Times of records

We are living in times of records… in a negative sense: record heat waves, record amount of least ice at North Pole, record ocean temperatures, record of the warmest decade since the beginning of temperature measurements, record warmest year in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 … With disastrous already present or projected consequences, such as food and water insecurities, conflict and instabilities, mass migrations, diseases … While there has been progress in some areas (in another post I will look at those), there is progress lacking or even reversing in others. Particularly in the current pandemic, a concern for environmental sustainability is not necessarily seen as priority.

Reason #1: Spatial diffusion of causes and effects

But already before the pandemic, sustainable action has been insufficient. Why? There are numerous reasons. Here is one, looking at climate change in particular.
There exists a spatial diffusion of causes and effects: On the one hand, the countries contributing the most to climate change will be less impacted (or they have the resources to protect themselves). On the other hand, the countries among those contributing the least, will be hit hard by climate change impacts.

What solutions are being suggested?
The USA and European Union are considered to have an extraordinarily high responsibility to work on sustainable solutions, to cut emissions … to lead by good example. Not only do they have one of the highest total emissions (measured in 2017), but also one of the highest total historic emissions, and CO² emissions per person. They also have the resources to develop affordable, sustainable solutions, which can be spread globally and initiate positive domino effects. This can prevent other countries, which are currently rapidly developing, to follow in the footsteps of our unsustainable patterns.

… and which doubts are raised?

Will other countries use the opportunity to drive their country’s economy by use of cheap, unsustainable practices, leaving those behind that did implement sustainable solutions, a fear voiced at times in tabloids? If standards are put in place, other countries will follow to keep trading with those countries starting the process. If sustainability becomes affordable and accessible, others will want to follow because it makes financial sense. Will the currently wealthy lose their wealth? Part of the wealth was and is achieved at the expense of others, through exploitation, unfair trade conditions. In the process of sustainable development, environmental and social justice is of high importance, not only between countries but also within, to have just systems in place and protect the most vulnerable.

USA and EU… can they lead by good example?

So what are the USA and European Union doing? The USA has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. The European Union has presented its European Green Deal in 2019, aiming to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. But do we need changes faster?

And then there is still the current pandemic, bringing our society to its limits. It remains to be seen what is possible. Numerous scholars and sustainability experts see it as an opportunity. They argue for seeing the pandemic as a turning point in moving towards authentic social and environmental justice to prevent future crises of the same or even larger scale. They also underline: Ecological crises and societal crises cannot be understood without considering the other… everything is connected.

What is art’s role in all of this?

How can we better understand the urgency to act, even if some of the negative impacts might be far away? Some artists are working to render the distant proximate, the remote personal. They let us see and listen to glaciers moving (yes, listen!), experience smog (safely…) or bring the impact of climate change on vulnerable parts of society to our attention through activist art. Is such art reaching wider publics, is it featured in mass media articles? Stay tuned for more insights!


A lot of today’s practices, power relations and exploitations reach back hundreds of years. The next text will look at the origins of ecological crises: Reason #2 – Are we living in the Capitalocene?

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