This week, the WorldWatch Institute, an independent research organization that focuses on energy, resource and environmental issues, released State of the World 2015: Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability. The report details a diverse range of threats, driven directly or indirectly by growing stress on the planet's resources, which have the potential to upend social systems, environmental balance and even entire economies.
"These threats are hidden in the sense that they are commonly overlooked or underappreciated," said Ed Groark, acting president of Worldwatch. "But addressing them is critical to building sustainable societies."
The report outlines a set of issues whose roots in resource overconsumption are typically left out of the news. The threats range from emerging diseases that originate in animals and growing dependence on imported food, to energy availability problems and increasingly degraded oceans. The common link among these challenges — resource depletion — suggests the need to commit to sustainable economies in which resources are monitored and the environment is protected.
Over the last few decades, it’s become apparent that we are depleting resources at unsustainable rates, spreading dangerous pollutants, undermining ecosystems, and threatening Earth's climate balance. Righting these imbalances is difficult because complete environmental impacts are often camouflaged and multiplied by discontinuities, synergisms, feedback loops, and cascading effects. Additionally, the manner in which environmental impacts trickle into social and economic spheres further complicate the picture by producing unexpected consequences.
"These are significant threats, but each and every one of them has solutions, especially if we commit to an ethic of stewardship, robust citizenship, and a systems approach to addressing the challenges that we face," Groark says.
According to the report, common sense may be the best solution to these hidden threats. For example, more rapid adoption of renewable energy systems would reduce the pressure to find more sources of fossil fuels. And the pressure to import food could be reduced by effectively reducing food waste (about a third of the global harvest is lost each year). However, many of these approaches require economics ministers and others to set human well-being as the primary economic objective, ahead of growth.
The WorldWatch report is not a singular effort; several recent reports focus on ways businesses can combat climate change. While a CDP report in January showed that lack of preparation left supply chains in Brazil, China, India and the United States more vulnerable to climate risks than those in Europe and Japan, a March report from the World Economic Forum identified 31 proven practices to help companies achieve increased revenue, a reduction in supply chain cost and added brand value while also shrinking their carbon footprint and contributing to local development.