Achieving a sustainable Europe will require far-reaching societal change, engaging all areas of the economy and society according to the EEA web report ‘Imagining sustainable futures for Europe in 2050’. Since 2020, the EEA and Eionet (Environmental Information and Observation Network) have been exploring how to use qualitative scenarios or ‘imaginaries’ to support environmental assessment and governance.

The EEA report is the first output from this process. It sets out four engaging, plausible and clearly contrasting images of a sustainable Europe, reflecting different assumptions about how socio-economic, environmental, technological and political trends will develop and interact, as well as contrasting visions of desirable futures.

None of these imaginaries are expected to be fully realised. Yet, they provide a valuable tool to understand the assumptions and trade-offs inherent in different futures and how innovation, policy, finance and public participation can drive transitions. They also provide the basis for further research.For example, the EEA will use these imaginaries to inform analysis of future sustainability for Europe’s key production-consumption systems (food, energy, mobility, buildings) and to support deeper understanding of the EU’s long-term sustainability and resilience to potential global shocks.

The EU’s flagship policy framework, the European Green Deal, identifies the need for ‘deeply transformative’ policies and actions in coming decades. Meanwhile, questions about the viability of the current economic models and concepts are moving to the mainstream of academic and policy debates. Recent global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the vulnerabilities of the existing socio-economic system and challenged assumptions about how Europeans will live and work in coming decades.

In this complex and uncertain context, Europe’s governments and societies are increasingly looking to so-called strategic foresight approaches to explore possible futures and their implications for policy and planning today. Foresight methods can assist decision-making in a variety of ways, for example in scanning for emerging trends, innovations and risks; drawing out tacit values and assumptions about the future; building common ground and shared visions; and developing a shared understanding of barriers and opportunities.

Imagining Sustainable Futures for Europe

The need for fundamental change

It is now widely understood that achieving a sustainable Europe will require far-reaching societal change, engaging all areas of the economy and society. The European Green Deal identifies the need for ‘deeply transformative’ policies and actions in the coming decades to put the EU onto a sustainable path. Like the EEA’s 5-yearly report, SOER 2020, it highlights the need to fundamentally transform the production-consumption systems that meet Europe’s demand for energy, food, mobility and shelter. Yet there is also a growing recognition that achieving the EU’s vision of ‘living well, within environmental limits’ will require a deeper transformation of the socio-economic system.

In recent years, questions about the viability of the dominant economic paradigm have moved from the fringe of academic and policy debates into the mainstream (EEA, 2021). The language used is sometimes surprisingly radical. According to Martin Wolf (2019) of the Financial Times, for example, ‘The way our economic and political systems work must change, or they will perish.’ Klaus Schwab (2020), Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, likewise argues that ‘we will need to reconsider our collective commitment to capitalism as we have known it’.

Recurrent global crises have focused attention on the vulnerabilities of the existing socio-economic order and the deep uncertainty about what the future holds. The financial crisis of 2008-2009, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the recent war in Ukraine have each challenged widely held assumptions, for example about how best to organise and regulate the economy; where and how people can work together and socialise; the feasibility and desirability of increasing global trade and economic integration; and the outlook for geopolitical security.

These disruptions have generated enormous social and economic difficulties, and could trigger further risks, for example if they lead to increasing militarism or weaker commitment to mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet the same disruptions have also created windows of opportunity for new technologies, social practices and business models to break into the mainstream. They have necessitated fresh thinking about what a sustainable Europe might look like and how to get there.

Europe has seen these kinds of opportunities before, for example in the aftermath of World War II, when previously utopian ideas such as universal welfare and healthcare suddenly became integral pillars of European democracy. The question today is whether and how societies can turn current and future crises into opportunities; and whether they can shape the impact of new technologies and social innovations in ways that serve society’s interests, rather than reproducing or amplifying existing inequalities and environmental pressures.

Imagining Sustainable Futures for Europe

The value of imagination

Faced with these complex and systemic challenges, Europe’s governments and societies are increasingly looking to strategic foresight approaches to support governance and enable public participation in exploring possible futures. Foresight methods can assist in a variety of ways, for example in scanning for emerging trends, innovations and risks; making sense of megatrends and their implications; drawing out tacit values and assumptions about the future; helping find common ground among participants and build shared visions; and developing a shared understanding of the barriers and opportunities ahead.

Qualitative scenarios or imaginaries (i.e. plausible, well-researched and imaginative descriptions of possible and plausible futures) can play an important role in opening up new ways of thinking about how the future could develop. This is important. As Jim Dator, a leading foresight researcher, has noted, ‘we know from years of working in the futures field that “the future” that most people have in mind when they are first asked to think about the future usually is that “whatever is happening now will continue”.’ Imaginaries can help people to detach from seeing the present as fixed and recognise that rapid and far-reaching change might be imminent and could open pathways to diverse futures.

A sustainable Europe could also take very different forms, depending in part on society’s response to unexpected disruption, ranging from geopolitical and economic shocks to the impacts of disruptive innovations. Developing imaginaries can help societies to navigate these uncertainties and cope with challenges like climate change and population ageing because they expand the range of available ideas and options (Mulgan, 2021).

Equally importantly, imaginaries provide an opportunity to explore different normative visions of the future. Different people may have strongly contrasting visions of a desirable future. For example, some might view a strong state equipped with abundant information as indispensable for coordinating action across society, while others would see it as a grave threat to individual liberty. Some people might see economic growth as a fountain of prosperity, while others regard it as an engine of self-defeating consumerism and environmental degradation.

The diversity of values across society means that there are many possible futures that are broadly consistent with the vision of ‘living well, within environmental limits’. It is not possible to define a single imaginary for a sustainable future that will appeal to everyone. But this reality makes it all the more useful to crystallise possible futures in the form of fully elaborated imaginaries. This can help clarify the trade-offs between different sustainability goals; the winners and losers inherent in each future. It can also bring to the surface the implicit assumptions that the imaginary depends on, for example in terms of technological or social change. This, in turn, can help build a shared understanding of where society is currently heading, which alternative paths forward look credible or feasible, and what that means for policy and governance.

Imagining Sustainable Futures for Europe

One of those imaginary is called “ecotopia”. Let’s see the main lines of this new vision:

Rejecting consumerism 

By 2050, Europe has undergone a profound socio-political and economic shift, reversing some of the societal changes of past centuries. This change in mentality has partly been driven by the impact of climate change, with weather extremes and disasters affecting large parts of the population, and the wish of the younger generations to live at peace with nature.

But some researchers also argue that the Ukraine war and its aftermath contributed to the emergence of a counterculture (a little like in the 1960s), which emphasised the capacity to live a good life in times of hardship, in preference to consumerism. Consequently, markets and centralised national governments are no longer so dominant in shaping collective thinking and action. Power has shifted to local communities and civil society organisations.

This profound shift should be understood in the context of an equally profound generational change. The ‘Greta and post-Greta generations’ developed a deep scepticism about market-driven or ‘liberal’ economic models and about strong central states and their ability to stop climate change. Profit maximisation and conspicuous consumption, according to their credo, should be replaced by sufficiency, equity and respect for nature. The new generations favour sharing and collaboration over competition, especially at local and regional levels.

Empowered by social media, young people have become much more engaged politically, balancing the influence of the large constituency of elderly voters. Public pressure — with the incessant activity of powerful non-governmental organisations — has forced companies to rethink their business models and to really implement corporate social responsibility. As a result of more frugal lifestyles, the consumption of a broad variety of goods declined. Consequently, economic output and finally resource use were scaled back.

Imagining Sustainable Futures for Europe

Growing role for civil society

The full impact of this shift hit governments in the late 2030s. Reduced economic output implied a reduction in the fiscal resources available to central governments. This contributed to a reduction in the state’s capacities and roles, including its ability to finance public health and welfare expenditure. While this has created challenges, it also created space for civil society and grassroots initiatives to play a more important role in devising and delivering novel ways of providing care and support. Family ties and neighbourhoods regained importance, in keeping with the mentality of the younger generations. With the spread of ‘repair and exchange cafés’, old crafts have been revived.

Social and cultural innovations (such as these cafés) often have more impact on society and the economy than new technologies, although there are many exceptions. For example, information and communication technologies are important in engaging communities and enabling individuals to help each other via non-market transactions. Paradoxically, the nature-loving youngsters spend a large part of their time in the digital sphere.

By 2050, families have benefited from reduced working hours and work-life balance is no longer an issue. Stress-induced mental disorders have nearly vanished, although even volunteers sometimes still overexert themselves.

Imagining Sustainable Futures for Europe

Local empowerment

Social, economic and political systems are decentralised. As far as possible, public policies are debated and adopted with the involvement of citizens, and non-governmental groups are actively engaged in political processes. As in society at large, there is a strong emphasis on experimentation in governance, with the lessons learned widely shared and discussed on social media, at the market or in the town hall. At the European scale, the EU persists but is relatively weak, although it is not exactly an unnecessary ‘empty shell’, as some complain. Member States normally join forces flexibly in ‘coalitions of the willing’ to tackle policy areas such as defence, taxation or social affairs. Cities, regions and non-governmental groups and networks have a strong voice in EU policy discussions.

Europe is inward looking. It contributes massively to climate change mitigation and reacts to disaster relief calls from the United Nations. But it does not see its role as including engaging in conflicts and local wars elsewhere in the world. In retrospect, most people regard the development and aid programmes of past decades as counterproductive. Asylum seekers — politically persecuted people — are welcome; war refugees are welcome to a certain extent; migrants are mostly unwelcome. Some people have a simple ecological interpretation: ‘Europe has reached carrying capacity’.

Economic activities and sectors are similarly fragmented and localised. Decentralised digital currencies (some of them successors to local and regional currencies) are used to boost local economies or reward unpaid work (e.g. care for the elderly). Businesses are often managed by stakeholders, including customers, employees and local communities. The energy sector is likewise highly decentralised. Private households and commercial units produce and store energy through a mix of renewable sources. Many homeowners and communities aim to be completely self-sufficient. Centralised energy production is largely reserved for industries. Nuclear power plants are close to being completely decommissioned.

Declining economic activity has alleviated some of the social and environmental pressures that previously demanded public spending. Finding ways to live and do business within nature’s limits is now part of society’s ‘common sense’. Ecosystems are prized for their inherent value rather than their capacity to generate profits. The widespread desire to reconnect with the natural world (together with other factors such as new technologies enabling remote working) has encouraged people to move out of cities to ecovillages and local sustainable communities in rural areas. Some have adopted a specific philosophical or religious orientation, sometimes in line with traditional forms of esotericism.

Imagining Sustainable Futures for Europe

Reconnecting with nature

Many agricultural regions that had previously been abandoned have been reinhabited. Natural resources are managed with the aim of maximising biodiversity and ecosystem health and resilience, rather than economic returns. Agriculture is generally smaller scale and much more diverse. Small farms, often run by cooperatives, provide high-quality nutritious food and recreational opportunities for families; some are an integral part of ecosystem rehabilitation schemes. Just as citizens wish to reconnect with nature, more engaged consumers want to reconnect with their food, understanding more about how it is sourced, processed and produced. Environmental and health problems associated with intensive agriculture and long food chains, now almost a spectre of the past, have led most consumers to favour organic and local food.

Meanwhile, nature has been invited back into towns and cities, with public authorities making land and resources available for engaged citizens to greatly expand blue and green urban areas. In many places, decommissioned infrastructures — such as former motorway junctions — have been dismantled. Their space has been given back to nature. ‘Gardening’ is a widely used catchphrase: let’s undo the harm done to nature and transform the spoilt environment into a garden.

In the middle of the century, lifestyles across Europe, in villages as in cities, have become more relaxed, more frugal, more cheerful than in previous years. Some of the older people would add that life is more sedate, even more complacent. Deceleration, once an academic concept, has become reality.

Imagining Sustainable Futures for Europe

Source: EEA, Eionet