A sustainable future is a high priority for many. The core value of the sustainability movement is to live our lives in a manner such that we do not deprive future generations of an equitable life. That is a moral issue. Another issue is the destructive potential of climate change as the result of massive consumption of fossil fuel.
Can we achieve either of these objectives? Do we have a clear plan for what has to be done in order to do so? Can we quantify what must be done? Do we have the leadership and organizational capacity to mobilize the resources needed to achieve these objectives? These are the questions “The Road to a Sustainable Future” addresses.
By the Numbers
Perhaps the most dramatic fact is the steady increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These concentrations have been precisely measured and ice core samples have given us hundreds of thousands of years of data. The science is there. The evidence of human causation is clear, and yet there are many deniers.
The steady rise in greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution is merely an indication of the progress of economic development; first in Europe and North America and increasingly the rest of the world. Economic progress is grounded upon the production of energy and that means burning fossil fuels.
The rise in greenhouse gases and the associate increase in global warming are represented as a “J,” or “hockey stick” curve. Another, and congruent (closely correlated), J-curve is the development of technology as defined by the number of major scientific discoveries and the number of patents issued. The third, also congruent, J-curve, is the rise in human population. In short, these trends represent a compounded, geometric rate of growth.
Another fact is that most of the resources we use are non-renewable, that is, there is a fixed quantity of them; for example, energy resources like coal, oil and gas (and we could include uranium). As we use these resources, remaining reserves become increasingly difficult to exploit and cost per unit of energy inevitably rises. At some point, if we haven’t already, we will deplete half the known reserves. At some point the cost of production will become prohibitive.
The beginning of the industrial revolution roughly coincides with the perfection of the steam engine by James Watt and a new model of capitalistic economics established by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Let’s call it the 1770s. By the 1870s, industry had become the dominate economic model and progress has continued at an ever-accelerating pace since.
The idea of progress is a relatively new one. It became popular just about the time the industrial revolution took hold. Before the modern age there was little sense of a thing called “history;” people expected to live out their lives much as their ancestors had. Since the ideas of history and progress became popular, a lot of thoughtful people have been trying to predict the future. Nobody has ever got it right. A lot of science fiction visions didn’t happen. What did happen was pretty much unexpected, like the personal computer and internet.
Humans have become a major force on this planet. The change we cause has a profound effect of the life of the planet as a whole and upon the biosphere that sustains all life. We are getting much better at measuring change. Many intelligent, well informed, people are concerned about the effect of continued change as we have experienced it during the last few decades. We will either get our game together for a Start Trek future, or something else. It’s going to take a lot of hard thinking and a lot of hard work to take control of the economy and the effects it is creating.
If we had some type of dashboard, a set of gauges to measure the “speed, temperature and pressure” elements of the economy, there would be a panel of them that would be troubling. We might add another gauge for the economy. Its metric would be world GNP. The ideal of progress is continued growth. The reality is the adverse effect this continued develop might have on society and the environment.
Measures of Sustainability
The classical model of sustainability has three “pillars:” Economy, society and environment. The economy is the driver, the independent variable. There is, however, a feedback loop and that is the effect the economy has on society and the environment and also the impact of environmental degradation and social instability on the economy. Overall, most people think the effect on society has been positive: growth and the good life are coeval. A declining world economy would, in fact, have a weighty impact on billions of people.
When the UN defined sustainable development, its objective was, in fact, global economic growth. The goal was to eliminate poverty and hunger, to provide health and education benefits, to reduce the causes of conflict, for all of humankind. But they asked how we could sustain it.
The UN is a governmental entity. The foundation of government – global, national or local – is human health and safety, not the environment per se. Concern about the environment, is preservation of health and safety and particularly for future generations. But there is a Catch 22 involved. However you cut the deck, development demands more resources. Ideally, we learn to make better use of what we have, to employ renewable resource. Bottom line, however, growth comes first. You can blame corporations and governments all you want but ordinary people, your friends and neighbors, and those in the developing world, want a better life.
The Thin Green Wedge
We live in a world that is increasingly “democratic:” the opinion of the majority determines the course of events. True, some countries are marginally democratic at best, but it is hard to find any country in which the majority of its citizens want to stop economic growth. The Paris Agreement did evoke a consensus about the importance of curbing climate change. It did not reach agreement about how that would be achieved. The US, which consumes a quarter of the world’s energy and the lion’s share of other resources (either directly or indirectly) is now under an administration that is not in agreement with either climate claims or efforts to curb energy and other resource consumption. Yes, there is increasing use of renewable energy but, for the most part as a supplement, not a replacement, for fossil fuel consumption. The prospect for holding global warming to 20C, which is the theoretical threshold to runaway climate effects, is vanishingly small.
Some people have an urgent sense that we need to take control of our world; a lot more simply want more of the good things industrial life offers. In the US, around one in eight people have some lifestyle commitment to sustainability, about one percent are highly committed. However, nearly one in three do not believe in climate change and half again as many don’t think it is caused by humans. This is about half of us. Another third of the population is concerned about climate change but more interested in maintaining the good life. In short, about half (the yellow wedge) are more or less on the fence.
The weak link in the climate – economy – environment triptych, is the economy. The economy is the driver. It has immense inertia. Only a radical few (in the hard-green one percent) want to end economic growth.
Sustainability focuses mostly either on society or on the environment rather than on the economy. A green lifestyle (the thin green wedge) involves using fewer resources, installing solar panels, buying efficient appliances and cars, recycling and other things one can do for the good of the planet. Activist seek to influence political leaders to adopt and support environmental friendly policies; and pressure major corporations to become responsible.
The economy is market driven: it is the result of what people want to buy. It is the result of producing products and services that are better and/or less costly than those of competitors. Governments do regulate because that is their job. They make a lot of compromises. Few have anything like a comprehensive plan. Corporations, and governments and nonprofits, do seek cost savings found in reduction in energy and other resource uses – just sound management.
The production and distribution of goods and services is the foundation of society. Business entrepreneurship is one of the most effective methods we know for organizing human capability. But business is about making profits. It has a short-term outlook. When the economy begins to deplete resources and spoil the environment, business becomes a problem.
Do we have a good idea of what a sustainable economy would look like; an economy that lives within the energy and resource budget of the planet? Will achieving that involve government regulation to control the economy to the degree required? If so, where does the money come from to create new industries, new markets, new technologies, and develop the new workforce? Does government come up with the trillions of dollars (equivalent) needed for the transformation? Or do we have to go to the market?
Bottom line (that lovely business term) is that economic transformation must pay for itself and that means it must take command of the marketplace. We do, in fact, have good ideas how to proceed along these lines. There are excellent models of green business and social entrepreneurship. We now have a legal framework for the Benefit Corporation, a business model that mandates social and environmental benefit. Technological innovation is driving new markets. The cost of renewable energy is expected soon to be lower than that produced by fossil fuels. The cost of energy is a cornerstone of corporate sustainability. Rising cost of energy and other resources drive business innovation. Major corporations are developing risk management models around the scarcity of water, land, energy and other mineral resources. As conditions change, more major corporations are finding sustainability just makes good business sense. The economy constantly transforms itself. We need only to accelerate and direct the forces already at work. But first we need to decide what to do. That takes leadership.
The key element in transformation is leadership. Do we need a new style of leadership? I believe the answer is clearly yes.
Each era of human history has had its own form of leadership. From tribal to aristocratic to corporate, there has been a steady progression of knowledge and skills in the management of human affairs. This is in no small part due to the increasing complexity of life especially during the industrial era. The industrial era itself has gone through stages, and done so quickly. Scientific management, for example, dominated the corporate landscape a century ago. Our economy has transformed from manufacturing to services, from blue collar to white, from manual skill to information and knowledge. We have now gone digital and virtual.
What type of leadership do we need? The past century relied heavily on the specialized expert. The demand for such will not diminish in the future but it is increasingly clear that a more generalized, comprehensive, style is required. We need people who know a lot of things but most importantly, who can see patterns of activity and make the connections.
As Einstein so famously said, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them. Great scientist and inventors have steadily pushed human progress. Since Einstein’s breakthroughs, our knowledge of the universe and our understanding of the human mind have developed immensely. We now need a leadership style that can bring order to progress and achieve a secure and stable future. This will take a new kind of thinking.
The vast complexity of World War II produced not only the computer but a new thinking style, general systems theory. The two are, in fact, closely interrelated. The general systems model has, however, been slow to evolve in a specialist-driven academic and work environment. There have been a number of innovators in this thinking style. One of them, Bucky Fuller, call this new type “comprehensivists,” or generalists if you prefer. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are examples of this emerging style. It was a Microsoft principle that a good programmer can hold the entire structure of the application in his or her mind. Jobs approached his work from a design perspective; Apple devices are built to embed themselves into the behavior of the user.
The models are plentiful but the development of this style of leadership is, at best, hit-or-miss. Curiously, many of these innovators were college dropouts. I’m not sure where you can find a degree program in comprehensivists leadership. There are, however, some very good books, training programs and some consultants who do address this issue. Transition Centre is pursuing a more systematic educational program for what it calls Deep Leadership.
The Deep Leader, in short, is a generalist, or comprehensivists lifelong learner, thinks critically, thinks in an ecological (social as well as natural) framework, has a big-picture view of the world, is an avid networker, an excellent communicator, possess a wide variety of mental and manual skills, and is a talented organizer. They are good at connecting the dots.
The third element of our model is community. As the organizational style has evolved from authority and hierarchy to flat and fluid, consensus has largely replaced rules in the formation of social groups. Social capital in the US, however, has become increasingly problematic. The urban-industrial economy has eroded traditional forms of community and the digital media has created an entirely new dynamic of association.
Margaret Mead’s theory of small groups changing the world is not a romantic myth. It starts with someone who has an idea and the first few people (it takes about four of them) who support that idea. If they work hard enough, an organization forms around them.
New groups do not appear out of a vacuum; they arise out of a conversation. In short, there is some type of community, however tenuous, involved. This brings us to the question of what does it take to make a community? The short answer is a common set of values, a shared set of ideas and beliefs, a common vision of the world, and a sense of mutuality.
The sustainability movement has been said to be the largest in the history of the planet. Does it represent a community? Unfortunately, no. It is diverse, fragmented, incoherent, poorly focused, unorganized; it lacks social cohesion. The one thing its adherents have in common is that we need to do something to make the future livable; but too little real organization.
Green entrepreneur Paul Hawkins once created a web site to list sustainable organizations around the world. There were at least 100,000 of them. In my community, a region of some 160,000 people, we have identified nearly 600 local organizations, groups, programs and a few outstanding individuals, who are involved in sustainability. Few of these, however, know much about the rest of the list.
A community is an ecosystem, it is a spontaneous organization, but we have little comprehension of how it works. An ecosystem is a natural economic model; it is the way nature works. We need to better understand this and we need to developing better tools for building functional networks that weave our community into a self-aware, coherent, whole.
One of our major problems is how little people know about the sustainability movement, at home or around the world, and how little they know of the long and rich tradition of the movement. A community must have a common understanding of its traditions. Attached is a partial list of names, of people and organizations, that have defined this movement. See how many you can identify. And then there is a sustainability quiz to check your perception.
Sustainability is becoming a tradition, a culture if you will, in a small, but increasing, number of communities. It takes about a generation for a culture to form, now about the time since the founding of the sustainability movement in the 1970s and 1980s. A considerable literature is forming about the sustainability movement and this emerging culture. It seems an appropriate time to systemize this knowledge and create a model to promotes its progress, to form a common vision, gain a stronger sense of community, and to mobilize more effective, more focused, better resourced, initiatives.
It’s going to take a plan make this happen. It’s going to take leadership. And it’s going to take organization to accelerate the transformative change needed to reshape the future. This is the mission that Transition Centre and allied groups have undertaken.
How many names do you recognize on this list?
How many can you give a 25-word description of?
What is missing?
John James Audubon
Henry David Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson
School of Living
Scott and Helen Nearing
Georges I. Gurdjieff
G. J. Bennett
General Systems Theory
E. F. Schumacher
P. A. Sorokin
E. O. Wilson
Make your own list of key local organizations, groups and activities.
Some answers are factual. The remainder should be your own thoughts.
1. What is the current probability of achieving a 20C limit on global warming?
2. What do you think life will be like in your community in ten years?
3. TRUE OR FALSE: The most critical resources today are land, water, energy, other mineral resources and grown products.
4. Which is the most critical resource?
5. In the sustainability model (environment, economy and society) where is the weakest link?
6. What is the projected population of the Earth in 2050?
7. What is the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth?
8. What is REconomy?
9. What is the most effective type of organization for transformative change?
10. What is the most effective style of leadership for transformative change?
11. What is the most effective level to bring about change: Global, National or Local?
12. What other questions do you have?