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Not long after the new coronavirus arrived in Europe, the EEA published Drivers of change of relevance for Europe’s environment and sustainability. The report’s main key message is bold: the desirable normal does not exist.
Narratives for change:
The ways in which societies, institutions and citizens relate to and value nature have played a key role in the interconnected biodiversity, climate change, natural resource and health crises we face. This briefing explores how to reframe the relationships between humans and nature. It examines how holistically understanding humans’ deep interconnection with other life forms and ecosystems could lead to new motivations to protect nature and accelerate the societal transformation we need to live well within the limits of the planet.
Economic growth is closely linked to increases in production, consumption and resource use and has detrimental effects on the natural environment and human health. It is unlikely that a long-lasting, absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures and impacts can be achieved at the global scale; therefore, societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress and their meaning for global sustainability.
Innovation is both a primary source of systemic environmental and sustainability challenges and an essential element in society’s response to such challenges. Technological innovation, which is a policy priority across Europe, has historically been a major ‘driver of change’ for society and the ecosphere. Although technological innovations deliver a multitude of benefits, they are also associated with significant collateral hazards and new challenges.
This briefing reflects on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. It asks how these lessons can be applied to our quest for sustainability and how we can govern our societies in a way that respects planetary health as a precondition for human and economic health.
While global food chains, market competition, industrial processes and increasing productivity have turned agriculture into a profitable economic sector, it is also one of the biggest contributors to environmental and sustainability challenges in Europe and worldwide. This briefing reflects on what makes agriculture unsustainable today — and the types of agriculture we may want to preserve and support.
Below the surface of apparent normality, the reality is stark: we face increasing resource scarcity, ecosystem disruption, climate change, mass extinction, pollution, democratic decline, and geopolitical instability. The COVID-19 pandemic could even be considered a manageable challenge, compared with the environmental disruptions that may lie ahead.
The early warnings date back 60 years: Silent spring, The limits to growth, and the EEA’s Late lessons from early warnings among others. Today, our collective knowledge of ‘wicked’ problems, and understanding of the relationship between nature, science, politics and society has matured such that uncertainty should no longer be a legitimate reason to postpone action.
The concepts of sustainability transitions and transformations have gradually taken centre stage in science and policy, and are increasingly at the core of the EEA’s knowledge base. At the European scale, the transition narrative has contributed to the most ambitious and comprehensive policy framework to date, aimed at addressing environment and sustainability challenges: the European Green Deal.
How do the ‘Narratives for change’ link to EU environmental and sustainability policy?
In its Eighth Environment Action Programme (8th EAP), the EU endorsed long-term sustainability goals and developed a long-term vision to accelerate the transition to a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and regenerative economy, which gives back to the planet more than it takes.
Building on that, the European Green Deal aims to achieve this vision by mainstreaming sustainability in all EU policies and achieving climate and environmental objectives by 2030 and 2050. However, incremental change is no longer an option, particularly for achieving long-term goals, and more fundamental changes in lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production are likely to be necessary to achieve sustainability goals.
Such fundamental transformations call for reflections on the principles, paradigms and narratives that shape our collective and individual action. The Narratives for Change series supports this process by bringing new perspectives to the fore that support reflections and could trigger change in the way we think and act towards sustainability.
In parallel, the COVID-19 crisis has spurred European society into action, reminding us that sustainability and change are intrinsically linked and that fundamental change is possible, especially in response to threats that are perceived as imminent. It has also reminded us that the (old) normal is not desirable and that, to become sustainable, our societies have to stop many of their practices.
Post-COVID-19 societies must change. Already before the pandemic, environmental and social movements questioned established socio-economic paradigms such as consumerism and growth at all costs. Fundamental changes in lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production are likely to be necessary to overcome deep lock-ins. However, achieving fundamental change will be difficult and involve painful trade-offs.
Against this backdrop, and building on a wide array of findings, the EEA is launching the Narratives for Change series to bring new perspectives to the fore, enhance societal dialogue around alternatives to dominant paradigms, and enable agency and deliberation through debates and participation. The publication of each of the narratives within the series will be followed by webinars aimed at bringing together multiple perspectives and expertise to collectively explore and discuss avenues for steering European societies away from the old, unsustainable normal.