Author’s copy of an opinion essay published 2022.3.12 in The Globe and Mail
It’s Overshoot Day on a cataclysmic planet, but we can find hope in working together using science to change systems and society.
By Kai Chan, Professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.
Heat domes, forest fires, continent-wide smoke, and flooding: these extreme events are exactly what climate scientists have been warning us about for decades. They are symptoms of a society overshooting its capacity: March 13 marks the day that Americans and Canadians have used up their share of the planet’s resources for 2022.
Usually, the conclusion is that we each need to do more to reduce our environmental footprints. That narrative is a distraction from what’s really needed: an unprecedented collaboration that revamps laws, politics, and economies to change the systems we live in for good.
If you’ve heard about the need for broader and deeper system change, chances are it wasn’t from science, but advocacy. “Change the system, not the climate!” goes the protest poster. You might wonder if that’s really needed. Doesn’t climate science suggest that nations just need to be more aggressive with their emissions targets? And that we all need to switch to electric cars, eat plant-based diets, take public transit, and fly less?
No: the science is clear on the need for ‘system change’, which goes well beyond national targets and individual choices. Especially if we want not just a livable climate but also sufficient food, clean water, shared resources, and vibrant biodiversity. This vision is “The World We Want” according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, which stemmed from the world’s largest participatory process.
We need to address the problem at its root: transforming the ideas, institutions, and practices that make polluting lifestyles the norm, such as consumer culture and economic growth as progress.
The need for system change was demonstrated by a 2019 intergovernmental report called the IPBES Global Assessment, which found that up to a million species are at risk of extinction. In the chapter I led, we reviewed all available studies that modeled and analyzed optimistic scenarios of the future and found several key systemic changes. Scenarios without these changes in global social, political and economic systems failed—too little food, freshwater, energy, resources, or nature.
Those changes necessary for sustainability included controversial ones: reforming subsidies, overhauling management, passing and enforcing strong environmental laws, measuring success and progress differently (not via income and economic growth). All this is system change. Or, in the words of the Global Assessment, “transformative change”: “A fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.” By negotiating those words and the surrounding text, 132 countries agreed that transformative change was necessary for a sustainable future.
It’s troubling that despite agreeing to this publicly, those 132 countries have done precious little to initiate that system change.
A second piece of science finds that system change is feasible, if we play a different role than many of us have realized. You may have absorbed the message that, if you care about the planet, the onus is on you to be sustainable. Somehow, it seems up to us as individuals to become carbon neutral, plastic-free, and zero-impact. Every bit helps, but we can’t win that way. According to ecological footprint calculators, even perfect eco-angels would consume two planets’ production of resources if living in North America.
This myth of individual ecological perfection also has perverse effects. We’ve been expecting individuals to somehow live sustainably within deeply unsustainable systems. It’s too hard, too time-consuming, too disempowering. Some who care most become occupied with the endless task of avoiding all plastic, creating no waste, buying conscientiously, reusing continuously, and recycling everything. Made busy with these little impossibilities, there’s no time for anything else. The rest throw up their hands, thinking, “That’s too much!”
The science of transformation provides a different answer. System change is possible but doesn’t stem from purely private action. Transformation happens when enough of us take aim at particular system changes as parts of one vision, and at the social norms that reinforce those systems.
This means pushing politicians to change specific laws and policies, like environmental human rights and fossil fuel subsidies, through petitions and protests. We do need to model lifestyles consistent with values we state, but the key here isn’t perfection. Rather, it’s to have a solid foundation to spark social change by signaling our approval and disapproval for others’ actions on substantial issues where change is possible.
“The World We Want” needs us to be bold, strategic, and coordinated—all rooted in science.
The eco/climate movement hasn’t yet seen this combination, although most pieces are there. The climate protests haven’t yet converged on shared demands. Countless NGOs are doing great work on many fronts, but from the outside the sum seems chaotic. At global scales, systems are so complex and intertwined that well-meaning efforts can backfire without coordination through constant engagement with science.
Science needs to play a central role—not just documenting the decline, but steering the solution. Viewed through the lens of natural and social science, many disparate parts could transform into one compelling whole. Key threads like overconsumption can be identified as central to the fabric, so they can receive the attention they deserve from us all. Thus small-scale efforts can swell to upend longstanding but problematic notions, like our unhealthy collective obsession with luxury, thereby shifting our future path on this planet.
With social norms, the tables of power turn toward young activists. As one of several changes we might need, can you imagine a world where lives of luxury and leisure are not sought and celebrated, but spurned? I’m guessing that youth activists can—and they can make it happen. They see society’s trajectory for what it is, and it’s not a future they want or accept. And whereas young people may have little power now by votes or dollars, they have immense influence over what’s acceptable or cool.
But turning intention and action into system change requires a center for connection. A way for those who are concerned to find hope and community while coordinating for meaningful action. A place to turn for help and resources about what to aim for and how to achieve it. And a coalition committed to a shared vision of a better future.
In ocean terms, what we need is an octopus. We’ve already got the arms—the many organizations and individuals, each doing something special, each with their own brains. (Most of an octopus’s neurons are in its arms, which can move without input from the center). We just need to link and coordinate them to accomplish a change bigger than any of us.
Following Overshoot Day, we at UBC are launching a body for the octopus, with our partners, including the David Suzuki Foundation, CPAWS, Raincoast Conservation, and Plastic Oceans. This combined platform and coalition is called CoSphere, for a Community of Small-Planet Heroes.
Regardless of where we organize, we need to act differently, not to strive for individual perfection. What we really need is the heroics to change systems that drive the ecological and inequity crises so we can all be eco-angels—together.