Is sustainability a utopian ideal?

Why sustainability is so difficult – and why it’s worth working towards nonetheless. A guest contribution from Prof. Dr Christian Berg.

Sustainability Utopia

When my grandmother was born, there weren’t even 2 billion people on the planet. Today there are almost 8 billion of us. In the same period, resource consumption has increased eightfold and energy consumption tenfold. We have been debating for decades about sustainability and ‘the limits to growth’, as the title of the 1st report to the Club of Rome from 1972 formulated it. In Rio in 1992, the world community agreed on the goal of sustainable development, and in 2015, on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals that are to be reached by 2030. Still, there is no trend reversal in sight. Climate change, the felling of the rainforests and the extinction of species proceed unchecked.

Why is this? And what can be done about it?

Unfortunately, there isn’t just one reason for this, but a plethora of very different reasons. These include, among others, the fact that prices don’t speak the ecological truth, because they don’t reflect the environmental costs associated with the respective products; that there is no effective global regulatory framework for meeting global challenges; that we have massive social differences in the world – those who can’t even feed their children today can’t think about future generations; and that all of us are often too comfortable and don’t actually do what we believe is right.

Thus, there are many such ‘sustainability barriers’. If we want to achieve more sustainability, we would do well to dismantle these barriers step by step. We know from history that major social upheavals have multiple causes. History can never be explained monocausally. The goal, then, must be to remove as many barriers to sustainability as possible so that change can happen.

The problem, however, is that changes are needed simultaneously at many points, but there is no global helmsman. Change can’t come by decree, from the top down. It depends on the interplay of a multitude of actors. And every actor has to participate: governments, corporations, NGOs, all of us.

Utopia Berg

To support these various players in the concrete actions they take, I have formulated principles of sustainable action based on my research. These principles concern diverse areas of life – including our treatment of the natural world, our coexistence as human beings, our relationship with ourselves and our dealings with systems. Some principles are directed at individual groups of actors. The ‘polluter-pays principle’, for instance, addresses government. It says that whoever causes damage is also responsible for its redress – the idea behind the carbon tax. Other principles are directed at all groups of actors. For example, every one of us can contribute to decarbonisation, or the avoidance of fossil energy sources – through choices in how we travel, where we get our electricity, how we holiday, where we invest our money and, of course, how we consume goods and services.

When it comes to diet, I suggest a principle of my own. The more local, seasonal and plant-based our diet is, the more we can reduce our ecological footprint. Local, because this spares the environment the burden of long transport routes. Seasonal, because this saves the need for long-term cold storage. And plant-based, because the production and use of meat and fish as food sources has a high environmental impact. This doesn’t mean we must all immediately become vegetarians – but for health reasons alone, the German Nutrition Society (DGE) recommends eating only about 50 g of meat per day, a third of what we consume on average.

Utopia Birds

Moreover, there is a general benefit to dealing mindfully with food. Those who have ever fasted for a few days will have rubbed their eyes in disbelief about how thoughtless we often are in our eating habits. When was the last time I just ate – and thoroughly enjoyed what I was eating? Without distraction? Without watching television, talking to someone on the phone, or perhaps even working? Am I conscious of the value of what I eat? Of how much work and effort has gone into it by the time it gets to my plate? And in the case of meat or fish, of the fact that animals had to give their lives so that I can enjoy it? Less can be more. It isn’t about prohibitions – it’s about quality of life.

Is sustainability a utopian ideal, then?

That depends. The historian Thomas Nipperdey understood a utopia to be ‘a world which is right’; one ‘ordered in such a way that man’s life succeeds in it.’ A world in which life succeeds – a notion no less relevant in Grandmother’s time than today. Who wouldn’t want that? In this sense, sustainability can indeed be described as a utopia. One that can come true. Whether that happens is up to us.


Dr Christian Berg

About … Prof. Dr Christian Berg 

Prof. Dr Christian Berg teaches sustainability at various universities (TU Clausthal, Saarland University, Kiel University) and is active as a sustainability coach and author. Berg studied physics and philosophy, and later theology. In various works, he examines the question of how we can deal responsibly with Creation and utilise technology accordingly.

His latest book, Sustainable Action. Overcoming the Barriers (Routledge 2020), is a new report to the Club of Rome, a non-profit network for a sustainable future for humanity, and was nominated by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung for its Political Book of 2021. More at

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