A Two-Faced Challenge: Is Sustainability Always Sustainable? – Una Europa hosts a discussion on the paradoxes of living sustainably

This blog post is written by a member of the Local Task Force Logan Sunnarborg:

Una Europa organized a riveting discussion on sustainability solutions as part of the annual Night of Science (Tieteiden ), which offers the Helsinki community a chance to engage with scientific and research efforts in different forms. This event gathered Helsinki University panelists across disciplines, including professor Michiru Nagatsu, senior researcher Silvia Gaiani, lecturer Laura Riuttanen, and doctoral researcher Riina Bhatia.

The moderator Eugenia Castellazzi kicks off the evening with examples of paradoxes to prime the audience to consider how solving for sustainability can present paradoxes. 

The motif of the evening was about the paradoxes that arise when we confront the fact that living sustainably requires personal sacrifice. For example, this means that climate experts need to reckon with the environmental impacts of flying to forums, research sites, and governmental institutions. It means that we must really learn to differentiate between what is a need versus a want. As the moderator of the evening, doctoral researcher Eugenia Castellazzi, rightly pointed out, addressing these questions contributes to a crisis of thought –a conumdrum.

The panelists leveraged their expertise and experiences to offer a different angle to each question that was lodged. Gaiani, who researches sustainable food systems, mentioned that we are not using well enough what the world already provides, resulting in human caused shortages, for example, food scarcity. We often think that technology will be the solution to solving problems, but the panelists made the case that this thinking also presents a paradox.  

The dominant paradigm, as Bhatia voiced, is that innovation and technology will solve the climate crises and enable us to live sustainably, however technology is often outpaced by the growing demands, and only fuels this need to prioritize economic growth to progress forward. As they pointed out, we often forget that indigenous communities have lived sustainably for centuries. We need to look around at the existing knowledge and expertise rather than solely view innovation as our savior.  

 The panelists also discussed the tension between a “good quality of life” and living sustainably. If we are to live within the bounds dictated by nature, humanity will need to make sacrifices. Perhaps this entails consuming less meat, not purchasing a new coat every winter, or flying less – all choices that perhaps incur a social cost. However, that is a small price to pay given the developing climate crises. Of course, to live sustainability will also require sacrifices by broader structures such as corporations and governments, so these actors need to be reviewed when building out sustainable solutions.  

 Another paradox raised is the necessity of including diverse voices in policy making. Yet, this can make finding consensus a challenge, and lead to a policy based on the “lowest common denominator” rather than setting high standards for sustainable action. Nonetheless, this should not stop us from seeking diversity in decision making and consider new mechanisms of inclusion.  

The pitch of the Micro-Credential that enables folks to learn about sustainability and other avenues to address the climate crises. It is accessible to all.

Some of the panelists raised that one of the necessary changes is “degrowth and decoupling”. This means less dependence on fossil fuels, less emphasis on GDP growth, and reorganizing the “pie” of resources. The paradox comes into consideration when we acknowledge that no government or country has ever implemented a policy to “shrink the pie” or effectively redistribute goods, as Nagatsu stated. However, it was noted that regardless of whether this process must happen, the how is not clear to humankind and up for debate. Gaiani highlighted a more personal approach, saying that sustainability is a personal choice and will clash with personal freedoms at times. 

 While the evening’s discussion did not generate concrete answers, it prompted all participants to consider how creating a sustainable world requires change, which for some will involve sacrifice. It made us consider what a different world model would encompass. If anything, people left with more awareness of the difficult questions that need to be answered to find solutions to our global problems. While this is not intended to generate “climate anxiety”, it should rather challenge us to consider how we contribute to this issue and ponder what we can offer as an answer.  

 Perhaps that is the biggest paradox of all – that we are both part of the problem and the solution.  

 If this blog post provoked some thoughts or feelings in you, please share them in the comments! We would love to hear from you! 

Written by Logan Sunnarborg

Photos by Logan Sunnarborg 

 To learn more about the Micro-credential in Sustainability created by Una Europa, please find more details on the webpage here.

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