Sustainable Europe 2050: The four C’s

Christian Lamker, University of Groningen

The turbulent year 2020 makes it hard to be confident about imaginations of the distant future, the future processes that transform places in our cities and regions and the impacts that we will all have on it. More than ever, this pathway is an open exploration with spatial planners – and many others – exploring pathways to transform our living environment. To start with a clear statement: we will still be living here. We will have an enjoyable and healthy environment. We will work together on improving the living environment for us, for nature and for future generations. Even in times of crisis, this statement is both a baseline and an aspiration.
Strong understandings of sustainability have been brought back on the agenda by an increasing occurrence and magnitude of extreme weather events,by global social movements like Fridays for Future and gradually through global agreements and goals. Most notably, the Sustainable Development Goals serve as a reference for a transformation around the globe. While it is important to understand sustainability as maintaining the integrity of ecological systems, it has an enormously important social dimension and human factor. Kate Rawowth (2018) mirrors this in her Doughnut Economics and her Doughnut model that is already in application to urban politics and planning in cities such as Amsterdam. The future lies between societal baselines that need to be met and planetary boundaries that direct (sometimes also limit) our ways to fulfil aspirational targets.

There is important manoeuvring space available. I would like to stress four elements that make a difference. The Netherlands – home of my university in Groningen – and Europe 2050 will be a society that is collective, critical, caring, and circular. What does this mean?

1. First, collective perspectives and communities are crucial. We cannot define ourselves without the society and our role in it. I am optimistic that we find better ways to strengthen local communities, but also as part of a large European community. Look at Europe from space: there are no natural borders between most neighbours.
2. The last six months have emphasised how important caring for each other is. Technology can help, but is basically human actions that make us survive deep crises. Corona crisis has exacerbated cruel inequalities that need bold action. On the other side, the crisis opens a motivating picture about our communities and our society. It may well be that it is a fast-tracked version to understand the climate crisis as it opens windows to see how social activities reorganize, and how we can adapt and support each other (Lamker et al. 2020).
3. Third, we must remain a critical society. Critical towards unsustainable actions, critical towards inequalities, and against hidden and open racism. We learn and keep on moving through our communities with open eyes for tensions and problems arising, and take collective actions.
4. Last, Europe 2050 will be circular. It will be circular at different scales. Local where possible, but also European where beneficial. We will have dynamic places. We have implemented ways to make all of us thrive personally, without overstressing environmental resources. New allies emerge here from health disciplines, urging “to challenge society’s normal obsessions— efficiency, consumption, and growth” (The Lancet 2020).
What causes such an optimism in times when we see hate, fake news, and catastrophic scenarios on the rise in many places? Most of what I have said is already taking off! Much is on the way and can easily be taken up and accelerated by all of us! As an example, the Dutch government developed a timeline towards a circular economy in 2050 and the Dutch degrowth movement is growing. This spring, 174 scholars have signed a manifesto with proposals for planning in post-corona times, calling for a more sustainable and equal world. They ask to move away from pure GDP focus, to work on redistribution, regenerative agriculture, thoughtful consumption and travel and our global responsibility. No rocket scientist necessary to see that at least some of this engagement is inevitable. Personally, I have been engaged in the debate on post-growth and planning since 2016 and see so much inspiration in these discussions.
It is not an impossible way up, but moving along a ladder that lies ahead of us. We know the first steps already, but need to move further along. We need to be aware of institutional power and agency on the one side and individual psychological and mental constraints within us on the other side. We need to develop and enact roles in this ongoing transformation to sustainability.
My call for you is for “Conscious climbing instead of greedy growing!”. Take the four C’s – collective, caring, critical, circular – serious as major elements of the human factor in sustainability and a social understanding that acknowledges human needs, manoeuvring space for guiding a transformation and ecological boundaries to our activities. If we all start, we will have much lifetime left to enjoy ourselves, not to say about future generations.

This blog post is based upon an earlier version written in September 2020. It deliberately puts forward a positive story here that aims to motivate, given the amount of environmental and social problems visible to us.
Lamker, C. W., Horlings, L. G., & Puerari, E. (2020). Communities and space – post-corona avenues for ‘new normals’ in planning research. Local Development & Society. Advance online publication. (Commentary).
The Lancet (2020). No more normal. The Lancet, 396(10245), 143. (Editorial).
Raworth, K. (2018). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Random House UK.

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