Positive Thought One: Sustainability will happen

One obvious but rarely stated positive thought is that sustainability is inevitable. Why?  Because unsustainability is unsustainable – the clue is in the word.  Unsustainability is, by definition,  the state of affairs before sustainability arrives. As such it cannot last forever. To do so, it would have to be sustainable!

Would you agree that a growth based economy requiring 3 planets worth of natural resources to supply the 7 billion population locks too many people into poverty? That those who have access to modern lives suffering from obesity and diabetes while failing to achieve satisfaction is unsustainable?  If so, you agree that something will change.

We cannot choose unsustainability from sustainability. The only choice we have is the nature of the sustainable outcome:  Do we want one that favours modern living and commerce, or one that hinders it?

There are three extreme possible sustainable outcomes:

  • Nature-led sustainability – nature takes control, eco-system collapses, and disease culls mankind to balance our population with other species. Nature has done this throughout the fossil record and could well do so again. Why should the human species be safe from virtual or actual  extinction?
  • Human-nature led sustainability – the darker elements of human greed, denial, and conflict lead us to ignore the opportunity of global collaboration. Instead, we seek to protect what is ours. Tensions become conflicts, and conflicts become wars: water wars, climate change migration leading to wars, and so on. As a consequence, human populations and the quality of their lives decline to levels where such tensions are elevated, either through victory or negotiation.
  • Human intellect-led sustainability – we seek the right balance between nature and our appetite for modern lifestyles (aka ‘civilisation’). This is the positive outcome to which the sustainability agenda is driving.

The claim that famine, natural disaster, and war are one path to sustainability is at one level true, since they take out an excess of people and consumption, and manage growth by default.  But it is not a outcome that serves mankind well, which is why an outcome based on the lives we want (using the best of human intellect, spirit and creativity) must be the right outcome for sustainability. The challenge is that we have to do many things differently: unlike with the other two approaches to sustainability, where we only need to wait, then complain.

These extremes are deliberately crude. I wanted to make the point that, with 9 billion people on the way by 2050, and with most enjoying or wanting to enjoy the modern, comfortable, ‘Plasma TV’ lifestyle that many in the west do, we should deploy the best available intellect to make sustainability the tool by which that lifestyle is available for all of the 9 billion , and for every generation that follows.

In reality, natural disasters, war, and innovation will always occur at the same time, but the key question sustainable development raises is: just how much effort or inventions do we want to make now so that society can shape sustainable outcomes for the future?  How do we develop ‘civilisations’ which are resilient to unavoidable disaster?  What civil processes should we create to develop the right interventions and drive the right changes, rather than always just reacting to famine, war and natural disaster?

We have to believe in the potential of civilisation to develop the technological and policy advances which allow business, governments, and the general public to make and deliver the right interventions. These interventions will be aimed at; much lower levels of poverty; more efficient use of natural resources; reduced pollution, improved levels of wellbeing; and at mitigating and slowing the impacts of climate change. 

Halloween is a good example of what can be seen as the paradox of modern lives. Up until the 1990s, Halloween was just a fun evening; turning scrap clothes and empty boxes into a costumes and props. Combine that scrap with quality family time, and you end up with an innocent, cheap, and magical evening. 

Now, in October, shops bulge with orange and plastic Halloween merchandise, which by definition,  will only be used for a few dark hours on October 31st.

Current forecasts from the United Nations are for the global population to reach nine billion (9.15 billion) by 2050, rising to as much as fifteen billion by 2100.

In 2011, Halloween  day was marked by a extensive news coverage of the the birth of a child somewhere meant that there were at that moment seven billion humans living on the planet – a number which would continue to grow and grow.  The second story on the UK BBC news was freak weather in New York. Many had already made the connection between the population and climate change, whilst many news programmes made reference to the children and Halloween the link between Halloween fancy dress and climate change was naturally not made, but there is a link. ,

Seven billion people wanting plastic Halloween hats and costumes and sweets will lead to more plastic being used and more being thrown away. Yes, it is that simple. The obvious solution is to say, “Don’t provide plastic based Halloween hats and outfits.”, and change expectations with respect to candy, sweets and treats.

But behind plastic based Halloween hats and costumes are jobs; people working in factories making hats and costumes for the lifestyle we currently enjoy. So how do we square this circle of lifestyle choices and moving people out of poverty through manufacturing, employment and consumption?

Poverty is cruel, and eradicating poverty requires commerce and trade – business ends poverty. At the moment, business includes coffee, tea, flowers, sweets and candies, mobile phones, plasma TVs, and plastic goods.

While it is easy for me to challenge the 2011 ‘plastic Halloween’, somebody somewhere saw the business opportunity, unleashed their creative and entrepreneurial spirit, and brought products to market that people would buy; creating jobs and income for thousands. This is why ’trade, not aid’ is the most successful approach to poverty reduction.

But eradicating poverty through ‘trade not aid’ has significant consequences for sustainability. The key challenge is, for now at least,  that the numbers don’t add up. To give seven billion people a ‘plasma TV’ lifestyle today would require three planets’ worth of natural resources.

Wal-Mart would not run a promotion on say shorts if they knew that the demand would outstrip supply by three fold. The desire and need to see more people enjoy a better life is doing the same, we are creating demand for something we cannot supply.

What this (admittedly speculative) example suggests is simple: we need to rethink our supply arrangements to enable sustainability.

Notice something about this type of narrative: that there are no ethics in it thus far.  People talk about the issue being driven by ethics, morals and values. Ending poverty, it can be argued, is a morals- and values- driven imperative. But it is also a major commercial challenge and opportunity. This is where we can begin to develop parallels with retailers, and speak of the planet as being like a shop. Retailers would never intentionally set up a proposition to their customers on which they could not deliver. But, in our ‘planet as a shop’ analogy, this is precisely what we are doing.

The challenge we have is simple: there isn’t enough ‘stuff’ in existence to give everybody the lifestyle they are seeking. Our real challenge, then, is about preserving the lifestyle currently enjoyed in the developed world, while finding the mechanisms to make it available to more people.

Shops and modern ‘plasma TV’ lifestyles are not just a Western phenomenon – go to China, India, the Middle East and see shopping malls, local stores, and streets full of stalls, markets and shops. The desire for a modern lifestyles crosses cultures, religions, and wealth brackets – as is evident everywhere.  Shopping creates lifestyles people prefer, and millions of jobs in the supply chain to enable others to afford that lifestyle. I am not saying that this lifestyle is a free from problems; what I am saying is that we need to  acknowledge the buying and shopping trends around the world, and be positive because they may be the key to unlocking the challenges of sustainability.

Many environmental campaigners worry about the link between shopping and over consumption. They are, at one level, dead right. But you can see this challenge another way and think,

  • “Aren’t we clever, as human beings, that we can build the world’s tallest building and shopping malls in a desert like Dubai?”
  • “Aren’t we clever? Isn’t the plasma T.V. lifestyle clever?”
  • “Aren’t human beings clever, that they can invent that lifestyle?”

Over 9,000 years of human spirit and innovation have taken as from flint axes to plasma TVs. What a clever, adaptable people we are. What will we create next, what should we create next, and why don’t we?

My question is simple: can we apply some of that cleverness and an ability to adopt, adapt, and innovate to some of the challenges facing the world today? What appears to be wrong with the Dubai situation is that the tall building, the Burj Khalifa, is a wonderfully correct answer to the wrong exam question.

Rather than ask “what can we do to make us distinctive?”, or, “how can we create an air conditioned shopping mall in a desert and make money from it?”, we might have been better asking the question:  “how do we create and develop a low-carbon city, and apply technology developed to make the world’s tallest sustainable building functional to actually create a Green Energy centre?”.

By getting the right answer to the wrong question, the Burj Khalifa is a symbol of our ingenuity and creativity failing to focus on what matters most and, consequently, our ingenuity and imagination being underused.

Mankind can at times be cruel and greedy, but these bad habits are not a function of modern lifestyles. They are rooted in something deeper and long lasting. Let us hope that we have consigned many of the worst atrocities to history: the pharaoh’s pyramids were perhaps a bit greedy; the slaves and gladiators of Roman times would have struggled to get through today’s humans rights laws; and the English habit of burning witches was perhaps an overreaction! So, let’s not link today’s human cruelty with modern lifestyles: cruelty  is something that lies much deeper in our psychology.

Encouraging guilt and finding blame among those who aspire to modern day lifestyles fails to acknowledge that they are the result of inner human nature and technical genius.  More importantly, the income generated by those lifestyles ultimately creates the educational opportunities and technological and scientific innovations that will finally lift the world from poverty. 

So the good news is sustainability can happen and I believe we have the skills to create the sustainable outcome most people one.  I offer this as my first of nine positive thoughts on sustainability. Success, however, needs  the emergence of a positive, guilt-free and practical tone of voice and that is my second positive thought,

Rethinking Corporate Sustainability – If Only We Ran the Planet Like a Shop! (374.8 KB)