Home Biology Each technological improvements and cultural change are key to a sustainability transition

Each technological improvements and cultural change are key to a sustainability transition

Each technological improvements and cultural change are key to a sustainability transition


Quotation: Ramankutty N (2023) Each technological improvements and cultural change are key to a sustainability transition. PLoS Biol 21(9):


Printed: September 21, 2023

Copyright: © 2023 Navin Ramankutty. That is an open entry article distributed underneath the phrases of the Inventive Commons Attribution License, which allows unrestricted use, distribution, and copy in any medium, offered the unique writer and supply are credited.

Funding: The writer acquired no particular funding for this work.

Competing pursuits: The authors have declared that no competing pursuits exist.

We’re mentioned to be dwelling within the Anthropocene, a time when human actions are having as nice an affect on the Earth system as different geological forces. In accordance with the “Planetary Boundaries” framework, which makes use of the previous 10,000 years (the Holocene) as a benchmark, human affect on the Earth system has vastly exceeded the “protected working area” throughout a number of indicators, together with local weather change, biodiversity loss, and nutrient air pollution [1]. A vital message is that even when we clear up the local weather downside, the biodiversity and nutrient air pollution challenges will stay.

Taking biodiversity loss, its largest trigger is habitat loss for crops and animals due to land-use change [2]. And the largest reason for land-use change is agriculture [3]. So the primary leverage for addressing the biodiversity disaster is thru modifying land use for agriculture.

How will we do this? We basically have 2 choices. One is to restrict the quantity of land used for farming by intensifying agriculture. Expertise has vastly elevated the productiveness of agriculture for the reason that Forties by rising inputs (e.g., by use of irrigation and fertilizers) and thru the event of recent seed varieties [3]. Corn yields in the USA of America, for instance, elevated 6-fold, from roughly 2 tonnes/ha throughout 1866 to 1940 to just about 12 tonnes/ha in 2022. Equally, the Inexperienced Revolution elevated wheat and rice yields in Asia and Latin America for the reason that Nineteen Sixties [3]. However enter intensification itself can exacerbate biodiversity loss and likewise result in the depletion of freshwater, soil degradation, nutrient air pollution, and greenhouse gasoline emissions [3].

Alternatively, we may undertake agroecological farming practices that tread extra flippantly on the land [4]. Agroecological practices (e.g., intercropping and agroforestry) intention to include ecological processes resembling pure pest regulation and organic nitrogen fixation however are sometimes dismissed for having decrease yields. Natural agriculture (used right here as a proxy for agroecology within the absence of broadscale assessments of the latter) has many environmental advantages per unit space; nonetheless, the environmental advantages per unit product are comparable to traditional farming as a result of its roughly 20% decrease yields [5]. In different phrases, for rising the identical quantity of meals, natural farms should not discernibly higher for the surroundings than standard farms (though extra analysis and growth funding in natural farming would possibly shut yield gaps, and natural additionally has different advantages resembling limiting pesticide publicity).

Debate has raged over these 2 various methods and their trade-offs, popularly labeled “land sparing versus land sharing” [3]. However the debate on which various is best has missed an vital consideration of simply how significantly better. Finally, my opinion is that we’re fiddling on the margins with both strategy when fascinated with meals system sustainability from a purely provide perspective [6]. The sheer magnitude of the variety of individuals on this planet, and extra importantly, our consumption, is driving surroundings impacts, and small enhancements on the margins of manufacturing methods won’t make an enormous distinction. Such “fiddling on the margins” of manufacturing methods is frequent throughout many domains, and is perhaps why, regardless of increasing renewable power and setting apart protected areas, the planet retains warming and biodiversity retains crashing. The place does that depart us?

Many argue for transformative change [7]. What does this imply? For some, it means reworking our manufacturing practices and financial methods to be extra environmentally pleasant. For me, it means the necessity to take a a lot tougher take a look at the very foundation of our consumption. Ten billion individuals consuming as we just do can’t engineer or mannequin our means out of this disaster. We have to not solely change how we produce our meals, however to additionally cut back our consumption. Right now’s crop harvests ship solely roughly 60% of their energy to people, the remaining is misplaced to the metabolism of livestock and to bioenergy [8]. Shifting to plant-based diets may be good for the planet and likewise good for human well being [9]. We additionally want to scale back meals waste, on condition that roughly 30% is wasted. Transformative change can also be vital as a result of our consumption touches on a number of environmental crises on the similar time. With out transformative change, we’d find yourself fixing one downside whereas making one other worse, or creating new ones. For instance, nuclear fusion might assist to unravel the local weather downside however the plentiful availability of carbon-free power will improve our capability to clear and modify the land much more and should exacerbate the biodiversity and nutrient air pollution issues. Lastly, transformative change is vital to addressing the large inequalities in society (financial, environmental, and food-related, amongst others).

As we take into consideration what transformative change means, we might do effectively to embrace some rules from the peoples who’ve had a sustained and lengthy historical past of accountable useful resource use—Indigenous Peoples and conventional native communities. These conventional communities have had a really completely different relationship with the land and assets than fashionable societies do. Their data–follow–perception system, constructed on centuries of “diachronic observations” [10], emphasizes the coevolution of people and nature and embodies respect for the surroundings and accountable use of land and assets over a number of generations, together with by no means taking extra from the land than wanted and giving again to the land in reciprocity for what you’re taking from it [11]. So transformative change is about altering cultural norms to embrace vital concepts of respect, accountability, sufficiency, and reciprocity.

Each time the subject of conventional and Indigenous Information comes up, there’s the frequent chorus, “however we can’t return”. Human civilizations have basically gorged on pure assets and grown our numbers, and we’re approaching 10 billion individuals. We now have additionally improved our wellbeing and achieved a top quality of life that we don’t want to surrender (though inequality has worsened and excessive extra is widespread in some components of the world). There may be path dependency to our issues. So we will solely go forwards. Is the Holocene (the idea of the Planetary Boundaries framework) a superb benchmark for the Anthropocene? How related are classes of the previous in going ahead? What new classes do we have to study?

I shouldn’t have solutions to those questions, however here’s what I consider (Fig 1). First, within the brief time period, we’ve got quite a few sustainability challenges that must be addressed urgently. Failing to take action will end in large human struggling, particularly by those that are most deprived. We can’t forgo the chance offered by technological improvements [12], for instance, genetic engineering or plant-based meat alternate options, to scale back our environmental impacts within the brief time period. Rising the effectivity of agricultural productiveness progress (i.e., extra output per enter) can enhance the sustainability and resilience of agriculture [13]. However technological improvements may enhance general consumption (Jevons paradox); to keep away from that, in the long run, we’ll want shifts in cultural norms, from a progress mindset to considered one of sufficiency, and for wellbeing to be extra about high quality of time than about abundance of products.


Fig 1. Interactions between expertise, tradition, consumption, and surroundings.

The strong arrows present the affect of technological improvements and tradition on consumption, of expertise on surroundings, and of consumption on surroundings, whereas the dashed arrows present the societal responses (i.e., elevated use of expertise or cultural shifts) to environmental degradation. Technological improvements (applied sciences explicitly designed to attenuate environmental harms and which are realistically accessible and never a chimera (e.g., nuclear fusion) promised sooner or later) are urgently wanted to deal with our environmental challenges. Nonetheless, such technological improvements, in the long run, may improve consumption and improve environmental hurt. We’d like cultural change (rules resembling respect, accountability, sufficiency, and reciprocity) to scale back our consumption in the long run.


Many conversations immediately pit expertise towards social change, typically with good purpose. There are techno-utopians who consider expertise can repair all our sustainability challenges and see no have to restrict consumption, and conversely techno-dystopians who don’t see any position for progressive new applied sciences. Neither of those excessive views goes to deal with our sustainability transition challenges. As an alternative, we have to concurrently embrace key technological improvements within the brief time period to attenuate human struggling and environmental hurt and stop overshoot of Earth’s carrying capability and long-standing and land-based data and knowledge in the long run to shift norms and behaviors to scale back our consumption (Fig 1).



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