• Matteo De Vos

The dumbing down of sustainability

How simple solutions and substitutes spur delusion and denial of the climate crisis.

Much like rivers and electricity, humans like to take the path of least resistance.

It's tempting to take shortcuts. Sadly, when it comes to tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis, there are none. No quick-fix, silver-bullet, one-size fits all solutions exist that are truly sustainable. On the contrary, such approaches encourage a dangerous form of delusion and denial. They halt more ambitious action, cut politicians undue slack, and give the rest of us false hope. What's worse, they do little to stop a climate crisis that is spiraling out of control.

Quick substitutes replace one problem with another

From paper straws and edible cups to geoengineering, ‘clean cows’ and nuclear fusion, our obsession with quick substitutes and farfetched technological wonders to ‘save the planet’ seems endless. With such reductionist silo thinking, problems are not solved but replaced by new ones. We ignore at our peril the wider complex ecosystems that regulate all life on earth.

Choosing chicken over beef

Cows are often the symbolic culprit (methane emissions, excess land and water use) of our failing food system. One suggested substitute for beef is chicken (no methane, less space, less water). In reality, we're substituting nuance for simplicity — with little regard for the wider repercussions these choices have on a complex global food system.

With global poultry production increasing 12-fold between 1961 and 2014, over one-third (37%) of global soy is now fed to chickens and other poultry.

It is well documented that soy expansion leads to widespreaad destruction of ecosystems and indigenous communities. So is the effect of air pollution from concentrated streams of waste on poultry farms — which for instance increases the risk of pneumonia for surrounding communities. There are global health risks too: the increased risk of developing "super bugs" (antimicrobial resistance) and the spread of avian influenza viruses via poultry are stark reminders of the ticking time bomb that are crowded factory farms.

To be clear, we should still drastically reduce our beef consumption. Ranching today is a leading cause of deforestation and ecosystem destruction in the Brazilian Cerrado and the Amazon, and cattle alone emit about one third of global methane emissions.

A myopic analysis of the carbon footprint of a chicken versus a cow is not the solution because the problem is not the (unwitting) cow or chicken per se. The problem is a system of industrial (animal) agriculture which puts mass production and profit over people, animals and planet.

That system is hard to escape if you eat animals in the 21st century. It's ubiquitous and expanding and there are no simple solutions or substitutes.

Swapping diesel engines for electric ones

Electrifying transportation is a vital step towards carbon neutrality in the transportation sector. We need to rapidly phase out internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) are by and large a better alternative: they have a much lower GHG emission lifecycle than ICE vehicles and do not release toxic emissions from tailpipes that uneccessarily kill tens of thousands of people every year in cities around the globe.

But substituting every personal fossil fuel-powered vehicle for an electric one will not work. Not even if we manage to decarbonise electricity production — a prerequisite in making BEVs a sustainable mode of transport. BEV skeptics like to (rightly) point out that mining and processing minerals for electric vehicle batteries and electronics is also environmentally destructive. Conclusion: billions of BEVs replacing ICEs won't work.

It's time to rethink private car ownership in cities. If we're speaking about resource efficiency, let's start with a baffling statistic: private vehicles are idle 94–96% of the time. A Tesla does nothing to solve that problem. Investing in efficient public transportation systems does. Car-sharing options and redesigning urban spaces altogether to promote cycling and walking do too. They are a far better use of resources and space. We need a mobility shift, not just a production shift, in transport.

Substituting current action for future promises

The coup de grace of delusion and denial are of course "net zero by 2050" pledges and policies.

COP26 once again showed the world that rich nations would rather bet on future (unproven) technologies to offset and capture emissions than invest today in (proven) technologies and act on reducing real emissions now. Policies continue to rely on kicking the can down the road, ranging from lousy ineffective shortcuts (i.e. afforestation projects relying on monoculture tree plantations that store 40 times less carbon than natural forests) to outright deception (Carbon Capture and Storage facilities failing to, you guessed it, capture carbon).

Net-zero pledges and offsetting policies are (deliberately) vague, full of loop-holes and too often non-verifiable. In reality, it's a "burn now, pay later" approach that writes a blank cheque to polluters to continue the business-as-usual burning of fossil-fuels.

Dare to imagine radical revolutionary change

Simple subsitutes and solutions are a death sentence. On the other hand, a narrative of sacrifices, oftentimes (mis)attributed to the environmental movement, also desperately lack imagination.

A more hopeful, just and humane society is possible, yet we seem either too impatient or too terrified to imagine it.

It starts with passing the mic and listening to the stories and voices behind the many converging global struggles for social and environmental justice. Act with and amplify the causes championed by MAPA communities and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) activists. For our freedoms and liberations are bound together. Therein lie the kernels of multifaceted, complex, systemic solutions we so urgently need to turn the tide.