Tapio Kanninen. Crisis of Global Sustainability, (The Global Institutions Series, New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 208.

Reviewed by: Miriam Aczel (Imperial College London)

Crisis of Global Sustainability by Tapio Kanninen, published in 2013 as part of the Global Institutions Series, is a valuable historical introduction to global sustainability and survivability. It analyzes the role of organizations and institutions in solving complex problems that threaten our future. After analyzing the global state of affairs and existing institutional mechanisms for remedying crises, Kanninen concludes with the tempered but hopeful message that while we face a global existential crisis, we can transform how we as institutions and individuals respond. This transformation, however, will require new ways of thinking and a commitment to change at the local, regional, national, and global levels.

The book is scholarly in its depth of analysis, yet manages to be approachable for a general audience. Because of its emphasis on developing policy solutions, it is best suited to policy makers, scholars, and students. Kanninen uses pertinent examples and case studies to illustrate past failings in how individuals and institutions have responded to dire warnings about the Earth’s future. For example, he illustrates how the scientific community may criticize — and reject—innovative solutions or approaches to problems because they run counter to accepted beliefs or methodologies.

In 2016, Kanninen’s analysis is more relevant than ever. Recent events, such as the United Kingdom’s populist vote to leave the European Union, referred to colloquially as ‘Brexit’, arguably point to the loss of confidence in international institutions and in their ability to handle critical issues such as climate change and growing economic inequality and instability. Kanninen identifies key reasons that have prevented international institutions from solving these problems, but, most importantly, he provides thoughtful recommendations on how to address deficiencies in these institutions that have impeded their success.

Aurelio Peccei, 1976 Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons /  Koen Suyk / Anefo

In the first few chapters of the book, Kanninen walks the readers through the history of attempts to define and address the crisis of sustainability. He begins by describing the formation of the Club of Rome in 1968—now a global think tank that began as a collection of 30 scientists concerned about our common global future—and then summarizes intergovernmental actions taken to promote sustainability from the 1970s to 2012. He says that 45 years after the first warnings regarding the unsustainability of pace and mode of our development, and exploitation of resources, we are still talking about the same crises and approaching them with the same perspective and tools. Underlying the message of the book is the disturbing question: are we too late? Is it still possible to bring about the transformations needed to create a sustainable future or at least a survivable one?

The story of the founding of the Club of Rome, is a compelling model for what Kanninen believes a new generation of visionary leaders can accomplish. Led by the charismatic entrepreneur Aurelio Peccei, this small group of committed individuals with diverse viewpoints came together with a shared goal of tackling pressing world problems. In 1972, they commissioned Limits to Growth, a groundbreaking study that applied a system dynamics approach to simulate interactions between the Earth, with its finite resources, and exponential economic and population growth. The methodology of the study was widely criticized at the time of its publication because, according to Kanninen, the approach was in conflict with the “mainstream paradigm in economics” (p. 40). Kanninen uses this example to illustrate that the intractable problems, associated with creating a sustainable future, need radically new paradigms because our conventional methods have not worked. He says that “new competing paradigms are attacked, ignored, even demonized”, and sometimes may only be accepted when a subsequent generation of new scientists arises (p. 40).

Kanninen says that one of the problems that has led to the failure of international bodies to act is that people still rely on the conventional definition of sustainable development promulgated by the Brundtland Commission Report in 1987. The Report defined sustainable development as a “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Despite “intentions, declarations, and resolutions to change the nature of conventional growth”, environmental degradation has persisted (pp. 44-45). Kanninen says that we need a stronger and more comprehensive definition of global sustainability that reflects new realities: global survivability. Another issue he identifies is how we currently think about growth. He quotes Penetti Malaska for whom “growth” is an “innate part of our thinking.” Yet, we measure economic growth through GDP, which does not accurately account for sustainability metrics, such as environmental quality or quality of life. One proposal is that a new definition of growth, “neogrowth, might keep growth in our vocabulary but give it a positive, optimistic, and environmentally sustainable meaning” (p. 57).

The final few chapters of the book are particularly valuable for policy makers. In these chapters, Kanninen examines the United Nations, its early warning mechanisms, policy planning, and response capacity to interrelated issues. He then asks if the UN could be reformed to help address future issues. Kanninen concludes that, although UN agencies have developed threat-specific systems, there is no “comprehensive early warning mechanism on interrelated global challenges…with the necessary information gathering, scenario building, and modeling capabilities” (p. 111). If such a system were to exist, it still would be necessary to move from “warning to action.” Kanninen encourages a more centralized approach. One possibility is to create a central UN body to respond to “multifaceted and interconnected crises” (p. 112). However, he thinks this will be unlikely because of “political difficulties.” Another possibility is to create “analytical and research capacity for independent long-range thinking and planning outside the U.N. system” (p. 112). This new body will work in close cooperation with the Secretary General’s staff. He calls this possibility “promising” (p. 112) and provides more detail in the book’s last two chapters.

In the Epilogue, Kanninen concludes that “understanding the issues is the first step; the second is action” (p. 144). He proposes that we need an Agenda for the Survival of Mankind, which will act as an enthusiastic and rapidly evolving plan to implement a radical change. The role of cutting-edge analysis and tools are increasingly significant today and we need to be able to better understand their application. This will be the first step in confronting the global crisis currently facing us. Only after seeking to understand these interrelated problems, we can begin to develop a worldwide response to the crisis of global sustainability.

Useful resources:

History: Club of Rome