Sustainability in the 21st Century: The Crisis of the Earth

In the last 50 years, the population has doubled, but resource and energy extraction have tripled. Sustainability strategies must be considered a fundamental part of the vision for the future. In 60 years, our ecological footprint has more than doubled due to the excessive use of energy.

Sustainability in the 21st Century: The Crisis of the Earth
Global crisis requires new food and energy strategies to solve it. Photo by Anders J / Unsplash

An academic at UNAM's Faculty of Sciences, Julia Carabias Lillo, said that the planet is facing several crises in the areas of energy, the environment, the economy, and society. These crises are caused by development models that rely on intensive resource extraction, degradation of biophysical systems, and unequal distribution of resources among people.

"If these crises were caused by humans, it is also up to us to solve them," said the honorary doctor of this house of studies at the Forum 20.20 "Designing the future," which was held by the UNAM Foundation and was focused on sustainability.

In the last 50 years, the world's population has doubled, but the amount of resources and energy used has tripled. Trade has increased tenfold, and the global economy has grown fivefold. But almost half of the world's people live in poverty, 700 million people go hungry, 3.5 billion people are affected by land degradation, and pollution kills 9 million people every year.

Environmental crises pose a threat to the stability of the biophysical systems on Earth that made life possible as we know it today. These crises are caused by humans. Among the causes are deforestation, pollution, overexploitation, climate change, food production, species trafficking, urban discharges, solid waste, transportation, and electricity, as well as urban development and infrastructure.

To change these things, we need to focus on sustainably managing biodiversity, make new plans for food and energy, and plan for sustainable cities.

In the case of sustainable biodiversity management, this would mean promoting zero deforestation, strengthening the system of protected areas, setting up different market chains for green products, giving landless people options for work, and promoting sustainable forestry, wildlife, and ecotourism.

We would reach these balances if we could keep at least 37 percent of marine ecosystems and 30 percent of land area as they are now. Carabias Lillo said that the new food strategy should cut waste, promote sustainable farming methods, regulate and control agribusiness, organize fisheries, and cut meat and dairy consumption.

Contaminating sources

In his speech, Meade y Garcia de León said that the COVID-19 pandemic taught us many things and that now that we know this, we need to talk about how public policies should be made for the future.

Sustainability strategies can't be thought of as extras; they're an important part of how we see the future. During the confinement, different species were seen wandering the streets of cities as if they wanted to be treated differently and interact with humans in different ways.

Luca Ferrari, a researcher at the Geosciences Center, said that the limits of the planet's energy resources have also been reached and that our ecological footprint has grown by more than double in just 60 years because we use too much energy.

Even though the discovery of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas has led to an 18-fold increase in energy and a growth of human activities in the last two hundred years, this has had harmful effects on the environment and ecology.

"We have to remember that this industrial civilization, in which some people always have access to water, electricity, the internet, gas, and food, was built on polluting sources," he said.

80 percent of the energy consumed on the planet comes from fossil fuels.

They are increasingly expensive due to the difficulty of obtaining them. For example, from 2005 to 2010, conventional oil production reached its maximum and unconventional oil and gas began to be extracted through fracking. These are very low-quality resources, which require a lot of energy and have a very large environmental impact.

The energy crisis is linked to the social crisis and an example of this is that 10 percent of the world's richest population is responsible for almost 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and historically the 23 richest countries have emitted the same as the remaining 150. This inequality is also reproduced within nations. In Mexico, for example, the richest decile of the population emits seven times more emissions than the poorest deciles.

There have been studies that warn of biodiversity threats if mining is promoted to generate materials for renewable energies. A sustainable future needs to take into account the biophysical limits of the planet, reduce the overconsumption of energy, mainly in the richest countries and sectors, consume what is produced locally, promote agriculture that is not dependent on fossil fuels, and create more durable goods that can be recycled.

The growth of avocado farms is a key worry in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Diego Rafael Pérez Salicrup, director of the Institute for Research on Ecosystems and Sustainability, presented the conference "The adequate management of socio-ecosystems as an unavoidable condition for sustainability", in which he explained part of his studies on the ecology of fire, related to the migration of monarch butterflies from the United States and Canada to forests in the central part of our country, in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

This area covers 56,259 hectares, 600 of which are in the hands of the federal government and the rest of which belong to rural and indigenous people. It is home to more than 27,000 people in 63 settlements, in which, historically, there have been low-intensity fires.

A participatory management plan for the reserve was produced with these communities, which includes their expertise in the use of fire for agriculture, cattle, forestry, and road and canal maintenance. In addition, analyses were undertaken to establish that the oyamel, pine, and oak forests regrow due to the fire regime in the area.

Although the issue of fires in the site has not been resolved, the most important concern is the expansion of avocado orchards - with high economic value - for which areas are set on fire and insecticides are also used. This is a reserve that was created to maintain the migratory flow of an insect.