History vs. Innovation in Addressing Challenges to Sustainability in the 21st Century.

Many times, I have heard the phrase that ‘history is deemed to repeat itself’. This led me to wonder if this is the case; and if so, what this means for sustainability?

If history really does repeat itself, surely there are several cases in which humanity (or the Earth’s ecosystems) has faced small scale challenges which can be likened to the global ones we are now facing. Looking back at these cases can provide examples of how and how not to best deal with the sustainability challenges of the 21st century.

Several examples come to mind including the collapse of the Mayan civilisation and more recently the use of the Montreal Protocol to address the issue of ozone depletion.

In regards to the collapse of the Mayans and other early civilisations, it is unclear exactly what factors contributed to their decline.

However, it is evident that unsustainable resource depletion played at least a significant part in their demise. Throughout history, the rapid exhaustion of food sources along with extensive deforestation is said to have greatly influenced the breakdown of various cultures and should therefore serve as an example to those interested in achieving sustainability for the 21st century.

A more positive and recent example is that of the 1989 Montreal Protocol which was used to avert a major threat to sustainability and biodiversity. During the 1980’s it became clear that the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in products such as aerosol cans and fridges was leading to a reduction in the ozone, a layer of the atmosphere which limits UV light from reaching the Earth’s surface. Swift action was taken under the United Nations Montreal Protocol and cooperation between various nations was largely successful in addressing the issue.

Therefore, it is clear that looking back at historical examples of environmental problems is useful to assist the development of solutions to current issues. In many ways, we need to revert to old practices of sustainability including thriftiness, frugality and sharing. We need to look back to a time in which consumerism wasn’t the norm and traditional knowledge about the environment was passed down from generation to generation.

In saying this, with the human population now exceeding 7 Billion, we now face an unprecedented challenge to human and environmental systems. Global threats such as climate change, food and water security present challenges on a scale that has never been seen before. As such, we need to develop new ways of addressing them.

Now more than ever, we need a paradigm shift in the way global issues are perceived and resolved. In my opinion, Innovation and creativity will be paramount in overcoming many of the concerns we now face. As a society, we will need to change the ways in which we consider ourselves in relation to the Earth and its ecosystems.

We will need to move from a consumer driven economy to one that is based on conservation and the equal distribution of vital resources. Essentially, the way we live, work and play will need to change. We can no longer afford to consider ourselves to be above or somehow separate to other species and the Earth itself.

Evidently, we will need to achieve a balance between using historical examples as well as new innovations in order to move forward to create a sustainable and just future for the 21st century and beyond.


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