Between optimism and pessimism: Should I keep fighting for sustainability?

Given the global landscape, it is easy to lose hope. But from a realistic perspective, we must reaffirm that it is imperative to pursue sustainability.

Juan Pablo Casadiego

“Two years to save the world,” said the United Nations executive Climate Secretary Simon Stiell on April 10, 2024. The 2030 horizon of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement has now been reduced to this short period of time, raising a dramatic and urgent call to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

Not surprisingly, climate events are increasing globally, from severe hurricanes and wildfires to floods and droughts. This year, Colorado State University predicts an "extremely active" Atlantic hurricane season, while Southern Africa faces food insecurity due to drought and El Niño, exemplified by Zimbabwe's crop loss of up to 80%. In my hometown Bogotá, Colombia, authorities are implementing water rationing as reservoir levels hit historic lows, impacting over 9 million residents. 

All these events have happened for many years now and are, to a certain extent, natural and inevitable. However, there is strong scientific evidence that their intensity and likelihood of occurrence are the result of anthropogenic activity. Our production and consumption patterns are depleting resources and ecosystems at an accelerated pace, generating instabilities in biological and chemical cycles as well as a tremendous level of biodiversity loss. By looking at the Earth Overshoot Day, which refers to the estimation of human demand for ecological resources against their regenerative capacity per year, we would need 1.7 Earths to maintain human activity. Of course, estimations of the biocapacity vary across countries. 

Earth Overshoot Day

With an increasing global population that continues to generate pressures on the planetary boundaries and the clear lack of effectiveness of corporate sustainability programs, environmental laws, and multilateral development plans, I lost hope. Are we still able to keep a safe operating space for humanity and life to flourish? According to scientists, this might be possible, but it needs urgent and radical changes on the unsustainable and degenerative human-nature relationships. Something I believe we are not doing and might not do soon.  

Is there any hope?

I started my Ph.D. almost three years ago in management sciences with a focus on sustainable business models. Even before, I’ve been working closely on environmental and sustainability issues, as when I worked for the Sustainable Development Goals Solutions Network in Colombia. All this time I’ve put effort into the expectation that things will change and together we could co-create a more sustainable, just, and regenerative future. I’ve thought that companies have a big influence and capabilities to encourage this change to happen. But today, when I look at the critical state of the Earth and the lack of collective action, this hope is pretty much gone.  

Unsustainability has been institutionalized and is intrinsically embedded in our cultures, values, and actions

There are several reasons that gave me this disillusionment and frustration. Like many of you, I have attributed responsibilities to governments, politicians, and big companies (especially oil companies). Clearly, national and corporate agendas are driven by market logics that prioritize profit maximization and economic growth at the expense of social-ecological degradation. They have failed to incorporate strong sustainability strategies into policies and value chains.  

We have blamed others, companies, governments, institutions… and we have not blamed or judged our own guilt. I think this is the major issue that we have yet to address. Unsustainability has been institutionalized and is intrinsically embedded in our cultures, values, and actions. As such, we have dangerously delinked our behavior with our sustainability aspirations, leading us to look like fools that enact inconsistent moral standards. We know the threats and effects of climate change, but we continue to engage in environmentally harmful behaviors.  

In researching regenerative sustainability as a central topic in my Ph.D. dissertation, I have noticed that regeneration looks at the mindset shift. Regeneration is based on ecocentric principles that recognize the interdependent and interconnected human-nature relationships. It addresses the inner aspects of sustainability, which refer to personal qualities, attitudes, self-awareness, and introspection to understand one's role and impact on the environment. I think this is a crucial aspect for achieving a sustainable future. 

Regeneration addresses the inner aspects of sustainability, such as self-awareness to understand our impact on the environment

However, I have lost hope when looking at many regenerative sustainability initiatives. Many think that regeneration is nothing more than a new term for sustainability. We can see that suddenly a bunch of companies are going regenerative while a focus is being put on agricultural activities. Advocates for regenerative livestock or ranching, for example, argue that through holistic management techniques to improve soil health, we can reverse desertification and climate change despite scientific evidence to the contrary.  

A hopeful realism

I have shared my concerns with two special women during my Ph.D. visiting period in Rio de Janeiro in the last months. They are Thais Corral, Director and Founder of the regenerative sustainability biohub Sinal do Vale, and Juliany Rodrigues, biologist, and Director of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro – Duque de Caxias campus. Both of them are environmentalists who have devoted their lives to work for sustainability at different levels and with the conviction that education and inner transformation are the most important tools for achieving a regenerative future.  

Thais has shared many insights, ideas, and visions she has in relation to regeneration. She is an environmental activist with more than 35 years of experience of sustainability and Advisory Council Member of the United Nations Restoration Decade program. Through hours of discussions and interesting talks, she has been trying to give me hope and motivate me to continue this endeavor. She places emphasis on the need to reconnect people with essential ecocentric principles based on relational and reciprocity values as well as compassion for other animal species and nature. Thais also taught me to integrate ecological principles with practical, achievable actions and embrace a continuous-improvement mindset to work from a position of inspired pragmatism. 

I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Optimists are naive, and pessimists are bitter. I am a hopeful realist

Furthermore, Juliany raised my hope last week while we were stuck in a traffic jam in Rio. We were returning from an inspiring talk by Professor Fabio Rubio Scarano, a leading Brazilian sustainability intellectual and regeneration advocate. Definitely, Fabio gave us hope, but it was Juliany who told me “don’t give up; talking to you today had an effect on me already, and this is valuable”. She made me realize the power of collective action, changing people’s perspectives has an impact which resonates with my purpose as a researcher and future professor. Juliany quoted Ariano Suassuna, a Brazilian poet that reminds her the importance of hope: "I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Optimists are naive, and pessimists are bitter. I am a hopeful realist. I am a man of hope." 

Upon reflection, I've come to realize that I don't neatly fit into the categories of an optimist or a pessimist. As Suassuna, I see myself as a hopeful realist who firmly believes that achieving sustainability is imperative and must be urgently pursued. We might have the chance to do so in the next two, three, or six years. As such, I recognize the importance of accountability for each individual's actions in this endeavor. 

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