February 27, 2024

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opinion.  Can we stop polarizing?  (Chris Verheyen)

opinion. Can we stop polarizing? (Chris Verheyen)

Last week, a debate about the meaning and nonsense of innovation arose in the opinion section of De Standaard. Jean Rozier And Avil Verbruggen (DS January 8) He called for innovation at a gentler pace and focused on the public interest, while Peter Van Nouvel And Gerard Govers (DS January 12) This statement radically undermines and states that we are talking into the deep end by such appeals. According to them, a stronger focus on technological innovation is the recipe for bringing our world to a safer haven.

As a bioengineer and environmental scientist, I would like to make a few comments about this discussion. Although, as an engineer, I strongly believe in human creativity and in our ability to find creative and innovative solutions to countless problems, after 25 years of researching all kinds of environmental issues, I have become convinced that technological innovation alone will not be enough. To transform the Earth into an environmentally safe and socially just space where all of humanity has the opportunity to thrive. “Business as usual” and focusing solely on technology to address major global challenges without simultaneously implementing radical and transformative system changes, a trend reflected in Van Nouvel and Govers’ article, seems naive and irresponsible.

Planetary boundaries

To reinforce this point, I would like to draw attention to the recently published update to the Planetary Boundaries Framework. This framework was first proposed in 2009 by a team led by an honorary doctor from UGent Johan RockströmAffiliated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The “planetary boundaries” framework has now gained widespread support from the scientific community.

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On the one hand, it shows the critical threshold value for a total of nine key processes that are of paramount importance to keeping the Earth livable in the future. On the other hand, it also shows how far these limits have been exceeded. For example, for the climate change process, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is used as an indicator with a suggested threshold value of 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million parts of air. The current concentration is 423 molecules. Huge surplus.

The other eight major processes used are biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, changes in global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of global forest cover, changes in freshwater supplies, atmospheric particulate matter concentrations, and finally, the number of human-created organisms. Chemicals released into the environment (such as PFAS).

System changes

In a recent update to the “Planetary Boundaries” framework – published in the top journal Science Advances – they state: Catherine Richardson He and his colleagues demonstrated that in 2023 the critical limit value was exceeded for six of the nine processes (significantly), while in the first publication in 2009 “only” three limit values ​​were exceeded. So things are moving fast, the challenges are enormous, and despite all the technological innovations, we have not yet been able to bend the curves in the right direction.

The latter will only be possible if transformational system changes are implemented at scale and across the board, far from a “business as usual” path. These include a radical reorganization of the way societies are governed, and a radical change in patterns of production and consumption. Also innovations but of a completely different nature from purely technological innovations.

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In order to find solutions to the complex challenges we face, we will need many different perspectives. Both technology-oriented future thinkers and transformation-oriented systems thinkers. One thing is certain: polarization will take us no further. Let us avoid putting forward one point of view as the only one that will save us, and certainly do not advocate the silencing of alternative points of view, as Van Nouvel and Govers suggest at the end of their article.

Chris Verheyen He is a professor at the Department of Environment at Ghent University. This opinion article previously appeared in the newspaper Standard.