A Tale of Two Worlds

May 21, 2024
Wild tulips blossom in spring. Photo: Andrea Egan/UNDP

Wild tulips blossom in spring.

Photo: Andrea Egan/UNDP

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..., it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

So began ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens. 

This quote is especially resonant today as we mark this year’s International Day of Biological Diversity. We have already achieved much progress.  Since 1990, extreme poverty in the world has fallen from 36% to 9.2%. The maternal mortality rate dropped by 34% between 2000 and 2020. Global GDP is at $100 trillion, up from $3 trillion in 1970.  We have achieved remarkable leaps forward in digitalization, technology, medicine and the creative arts.

But this is also the ‘age of foolishness’. The construct of development was previously premised on the assumptions that natural resources are infinite, and that environmental destruction and pollution are an inevitable part of progress. Our myopic vision of growth has been blind to the value of nature upon which all economic and social activities depend.  We somehow lost sight of the fact that we too are part of nature, and that overexploitation of natural resources is detrimental to our own survival and wellbeing as a species. Simply stated, there is no sustainable development on an unlivable planet, no 1.5° target without nature, and no human rights without a healthy environment. 

We have become inveigled by the notion of exponential economic growth. Growth based on resource extraction and environmental degradation, and the production of products. Growth based on the sale of harmful substances, hazardous chemicals, compromised food, polluted air in our lungs, and microplastics in our bodies. Growth that brings with it inequity, debt, and deteriorating physical and mental health. Within the GDP growth fallacy, lives and livelihoods are put at stake when GDP growth slows down.

We know that exponential growth without end doesn’t exist in nature.  We know we have transgressed six out of nine planetary boundaries, exploiting the natural world beyond its limit for natural recovery and regeneration. Climate change is directly contributing to humanitarian emergencies from heatwaves, wildfires, floods, tropical storms and hurricanes; pollution is killing 9 million people per year, and we’re losing as many as 1,000 species per day, impacting the ecological health of our land, water and food. Are we living in a time of wisdom?

Wisdom dictates that we have no choice but to internalize the environmental consequences within our current economic paradigm as part of the solution to the many challenges we face.  For example, if renewable energy development is dependent on non-renewable resources (e.g. critical minerals), how can we transition to a decarbonized energy system while avoiding the additional environmental and social costs of mining? How do we overhaul our food systems to ensure nature-positive, low-carbon, and climate-resilient production, and to ensure that everyone has enough food to live a decent life? 

New economic paradigms are is needed to translate the decades-old ‘Beyond GDP’ concept into action, to create a world where people are happy and content. 

We need our economies to serve human needs and wellbeing rather than one that thrives on the misery of people. We need a new economy that supports equity and inclusivity. 

We need to conceptualize what was previously inconceivable.  Do we really need to increase food production to solve hunger? UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report 2024 says nearly one-fifth of food available to consumers is wasted. This is in addition to the 13% of food lost in the supply chain. If we eliminate food waste in households, this can provide 1.3 meals every day for everyone affected by hunger. Do we really need to produce dramatically more energy to ensure universal access?  Scientists tells us that despite population growth, by 2050 global energy use could be reduced to 1960 levels  to meet the minimum universal energy needs for a decent living.  This would require advanced technologies and a reduction in energy demands, but crucially - it does not require a fallacious 'infinite growth' mindset.

Today is the International Day for Biodiversity.  To be ‘Part of the Plan’ towards living in harmony with nature by 2050, we have no choice but to create a new economic paradigm. An economy that serves people, that does not maintain or increase inequality, that thrives on an increase in people’s happiness and welfare, that protects and regenerates essential ecosystem services, and that creates jobs and livelihoods for social and environmental goods. In short, we must create an economy that produces what we really need. 

This will require shifts in how we value our lives, how we value the natural world on which we depend, and how we define success and a wider vision of our purpose on this planet. We need comprehensive change. With UNDP’s Nature Pledge and its focus on working with all partners to catalyse shifts in how we value nature, how we make economic and financial decisions, and how we change our policies and practices, we can all be Part of the Plan. And with the UNDP Nature Pledge, with its focus on value, economic and finance, and policy and practice shift, we can be part of Dickens’ ‘Spring of Hope’ as well.