In January 2023, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced the Doomsday Clock has been moved forward to 90 seconds to midnight - the closest to global catastrophe it has ever measured. The climate crisis was a significant threat and threat multiplier analyzed for reaching this decision. Rising temperatures, weather extremes and sea levels rising are among just a few of the daunting statistics that often leave people feeling incapable of creating necessary and significant change.
For Dr. Trond Arne Undheim, a Futurist and Research Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, the environment has been a concern of his since his teens in the nineties. Among the first environmentalists at his school, Undheim cultivated a passion for improving the environment that was amplified as an adult through having kids and engaging in outdoor physical activity. He knew from a young age he needed to take action and now as a Futurist, has the tools to equip more than just individuals to create lasting change.
In a new book, Undheim fuses insight from thought leaders with his own considerable experience to explore scenarios for 2050 and discuss eco-effectiveness as an established practice for governments, corporations, startups, and individuals. Eco Tech: Investing in Regenerative Futures, outlines how to progress through adversity and avoid returning to the status quo while providing the reader with the materials to engage confidently in eco-discussions.
Here, Undheim discusses how implementing eco-effective models for corporations and individually being stewards of biodiversity will define the future for generations to come.
One of your many professional titles is Futurist. Can you describe what that means?
Futurists engage with the long-term development of society. However, I use the title futurist reluctantly, because it has many different connotations. To me, it refers to someone who attempts to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present. I’m much more interested and able to explore possibilities, which stimulate reflection, than predictions, which, as useful as they would be, can be a fool’s errand. In practice, this means I strive to develop plausible scenarios, using a myriad of insights and driving forces, and then explore those with stakeholders to prepare for a crisis or to steer towards desirable outcomes.
Your book opens with scenarios from the year 2050. Is there a specific reason this year was chosen and what do you believe are the benefits of including these scenarios?
The year 2050 is the midpoint in the next fifty-year cycle during which I firmly believe we will decide the fate of humanity over the next 500 years. It is the cutoff for a lot of environmental tipping points regarding both climate change and biodiversity. It is also far enough away that it is possible to imagine a different future taking shape. Scenarios have a lot to do with using your imagination. They might derive from science-informed insight and population-based statistics but when trying to illustrate how the world might shape up that far into the future, futurists use their imagination more than they rely on forecasting existing graphs based on past statistical trends.
You critique what you call “Eco-flavors,” corporate social responsibility, carbon accounting and eco-efficiency, for being obsessed with measurement and obstructing innovative approaches. How can corporations progress out of eco-flavors and adopt a regenerative investment framework?
The key to creating lasting change is to set a new course that realistically can be sustained over time. The direction needs to be both clear and correct, but the speed with which it progresses cannot be so high that one risks major setbacks, disagreements over policy, or even huge reversals. At the same time, the concern cannot always be to keep all major interests happy and unscathed by the changes we set in motion. Change is always painful and although disadvantaged groups tend to experience the sharpest impacts, the biggest actors will feel it, too. The eco-flavor approaches we have seen so far, over the last 30 years at least, have not only barely been incremental, but they quite possibly don't even have the right direction. If you measure the wrong thing, measurement is counterproductive. In fact, if the future vision is broadly shared and the direction is right, no measurement is needed. But I’m careful about pointing towards a strict degrowth path that forecasts or even encourages economic decline. That won’t fly either. Corporates, for the most part, should realize that innovation does not end when you have come up with something new, but when you have mapped out all the use case scenarios for the new product over a period of time such as 50, 100, and 500 years. Degrowth, properly construed, means responsible growth, even exponential growth as long as it considers long term effects. It does not have to mean negative growth. Right now, the only technology we do this with is nuclear reactors. Imagine if we had imposed the same rules for digital technologies? We might have saved ourselves from the lost decades of social media during which we nearly destroyed democracy and the free media.
As individuals, how has our own human behavior acted as a catalyst for climate change and how can we evolve ourselves to lead more eco-effective futures?
Eco-effectiveness is all about aligning real interests with visionary targets using a limited set of indicators but not getting lost in the measurement details. Investing in regenerative futures is equally important for governments, corporations, and individuals. Individuals far too often think of themselves as inconsequential in the bigger picture. However, individual action matters, and it inspires others. The reality is also that there would have been no climate change without individuals. We cannot just blame profit seeking corporations. Those are always a reflection of the society they appear, operate and grow within. There are two ways in which this matters: an increasing number of individuals (a bigger population) strains the land. Also, as individuals, on average, become more and more resource-intensive, their activity further strains the land. Humanity has, so far, been a highly extractive species. We dig minerals out of the earth. It doesn’t really matter whether we put it in cell phones or electric cars, mining is a one-off environmental strain and cannot be undone. What’s new is that just recycling or walking to public transportation instead of taking the car everywhere is not going to cut it this time. We need wholesale transformative lifestyle choices. We need to consume less. We need to travel less. We need to steward our little piece of the natural environment every day. Short of that we need to completely rethink how we travel and what we consume. Perhaps we need to travel and consume differently, not less. The upside is that those who explore deep rooted change might find themselves innovating and enjoying their new eco-effective behavior more than their past, excessively resource-intensive one. I’m particularly interested in local approaches to sustainability, such as maintaining your own garden, growing vegetables, and taking responsibility for the biodiversity of your own land. If we all did that, it would make a major difference. But systemic changes that involve advanced, emerging technology can also contribute. Having said that, I think the eco-modernists who believe technology can solve all of humanity's problems are overstating their case.
Are there connections between climate change and global security? If so, what can policymakers draw from Eco Tech to assess and address the possible threats?
Global security paradigms have only recently started to consider ecology as a major driving force, and that has been a major omission. State actors are still key, but broad territorial factors have shaped all major conflicts since the beginning of time as they intersect with population growth, consumption patterns, energy use, land use, and pollution. Geopolitical conflicts have always been about access to natural resources. Now that this is threatened on a regular basis by natural disasters, water shortages and famine, even well-resourced nations need to adapt their security paradigms to accommodate ecological security within and beyond their borders. This is now realpolitik not environmental activism. There is some evidence that areas with well-managed natural resources have less conflicts. There is certainly evidence that military conflict causes environmental damage. As fertile soil becomes more scarce, climate change creates conflict over land use both in developed and developing countries. As states realign to ensure their long-term survival, meaning beyond this century, the concept of global security will broaden to include securing the natural environment.
The added stakes is that ecological overreach might not just damage regional climates but might irreparably (in human time scales) affect the planet’s climate. EcoTech charts several plausible regenerative paths that maintain the pace of innovation and growth yet adopt eco-effective approaches based on resilience that will slowly but surely turn the tide back towards ecological balance. The secret, to my mind, is resilience, and patience to let the daily grind do the job for us instead of trusting 180-degree shifts that may end up being overcorrections.
As a Futurist, what could the year 2050 look like if systemic and individual changes to lead eco-effective lives aren’t made? Are there risks, or even opportunities, we aren’t seeing?
The year 2050 could be the defining moment for humanity’s response to both climate change and biodiversity. We will either have defined a path towards controlling carbon emissions or not. We will either have stalled mass species extinction or not. On the current path, 2050 would be a dreaded time marked by unequivocal ecological decline and the beginning of very difficult everyday lives for people in the global south, those working outdoors, or those without climate-controlled shelter. Conversely, 2050 could also mark a new beginning, where the results of thirty-some years of synthetic biology research merges with advances in artificial intelligence to provide technology-enhanced solutions to major ecological problems, including crop failures, drought, species extinction, sea level rise, energy infrastructure failures, carbon footprint, and more. The opportunity to rethink innovation, particularly the need to include long term scenario-based use case planning for downside risks, should not be missed. The most significant risk might be that of cascading changes from areas only indirectly affected by ecological decline, such as negative health impacts, or even adverse social dynamics brought about by our fear of further destruction. There is also opportunity in building a shared understanding and awareness of the value of balancing extractive growth with the wellbeing of Earth’s ecological systems.