Questions of survival: How to live within planetary boundaries?

Lumiset männyt, voimakas kulm alhaalta ylös.

Photo: Pentti Sormunen/Vastavalo

To overcome the environmental crisis, human consumption must be reduced to fit within planetary boundaries. The idea of ecological sufficiency and its potential in policy-making and societal upheaval will be explored in a forthcoming doctoral thesis, supported by Tiina and Antti Herlin Foundation.

The new thesis by Tina Nyfors will focus on the notion of ‘ecological sufficiency’ and more precisely, how such a concept could be applied in environmental policy. A major underlying theme of the research concerns the fundamentals of our current society which is based on economic growth, and goes in many ways contrary to the goal of ecological sustainability. On another hand, large societal changes in history have often started at grassroots level. The impact and interplay between bottom-top vs. top-down approaches are therefore other key concerns of Nyfors’s thesis.

The global goal of limiting global warming to 1,5 or 2 degrees is ambitious, but the means on how to reach the ambitious targets are largely missing. Given that around 70% of the consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions originate in households (66% in Finland), showing good examples on how to address consumption, as well as expanding the use of already existing alternatives to current high-carbon lifestyles, may be decisive in reaching the target. 

Solutions needed top-down and bottom-up

The magnitude of the challenges to reduce emissions is highlighted by the fact that even individuals living according to what is now perceived to be a social minimum, as presented in the Finnish ‘reference budget’, exceed ecological limits. In short, there is a need for coordinated political action, Nyfors presumes, including the exploration of sufficiency policy ideas both from ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ perspectives. 

The Finnish sufficiency – or degrowth – network ‘Kohtuusliike’ is in key focus of the study, as it represents an interesting case of a bottom-up approach. Nyfors aims to understand how sufficiency is understood among persons in the Kohtuusliike network, what considerations of environmental justice are voiced out and, how the different understandings of sufficiency in Kohtuusliike could inform environmental policy – ‘bottom-up’. A non-parliamentary actor such as the Kohtuusliike  network can be seen as a “niche”, where new ideas and alternative types of solutions can develop. 

The bottom-up perspective is contrasted with a top-down perspective on sufficiency. The research seeks answers for how sufficiency could be integrated in policy making, and which instruments to use in practical terms, for effectively addressing over-consumption. 

Looking for wide-spreading policy instruments

Since there is no agreed definition of what sufficiency is, it makes sense to explore understandings of the idea in more detail. The specific study focus is on what sufficiency means for the people in the ‘Kohtuusliike’ network (‘kohtuus’ in Finnish means approximately sufficiency). 

The reason for studying a grassroots movement in this context is the concern that the root causes of the current sustainability challenges are deeply connected to how the state works. One example is the need of economic growth, which goes contrary to the goal of ecological sustainability. The state still holds a unique position with capacities like regulation, controlling material flows and providing social welfare. Yet historically, change has often begun with pioneering organisations like grassroots movements. 

Balancing between the insights, Nyfors’ study finally aims at bringing together the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ perspectives, discussing to what extent there is common ground and disagreement, and what novel policy instrument(s) regarding sufficiency and degrowth could be developed. Such instruments that would have potential to spread more widely in society.