Friday, October 19, 2012

Creating a Sustainable World

This essay was first published in February, 2012.

The Useful Common:

The Secretary General's Report of a High-level Panel on Global Sustainability.

This report has had quite a bit of attention. It's part of the preparation for the Earth Summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June, 2012. I suggest that Kiwi you print five pages, 10 to 14, of that report, the section called "The Panel's Vision". (Pages 14 to 18 of the PDF.) The rest is very detailed and technical.

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum said, "For most of the last century, economic growth was fuelled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. ... We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone. Climate change is showing us that the old model is more than obsolete. It is dangerous. Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact."

Our New Knowledge

I refer you back to a previous Kiwi Scrum Newsletter, August 2011, for some of the history on the development of new knowledge during your own lifetime. None of us (those over 30 anyway) learned about these changes in school or university. In fact your professional training, if it was anything like mine, taught you that with careful planning, innovation, sound financial management and good teamwork, any objective was achievable.

We now know that no amount of apparent financial wealth and military might can do the impossible. The USA and Russia are pulling back from the space adventure for sound practical reasons. Infrastructure in most developed countries is running down, roads, bridges, power grids, sewerage systems, airports and harbours are less usable and less resilient today, than they were 10 years ago.

Donella Meadows in that excellent article, "Leverage Points; Places to Intervene in a System" tells us that when we are faced with problems human beings spend almost all their time changing parts of the system that can never be really effective in changing the outcome. We change the budget, we find a new manager, we elect different people, or we build bigger stocks and resources. We start to be effective when we look at feedback loops and information flows and the rules that govern the system, especially so if we re-examine the goals and objectives we've set ourselves. So often we defeat ourselves by the simple process of choosing a short sighted and ultimately foolish objective.

Meadows explains that the real power of an individual, the driving force for greater democracy and the Achilles heal of existing power structures and governments, is the ability to shift thinking systems, the ability to make a paradigm shift. Alvin Toffler wrote in 1980, about the responsibility for change being with the public, because the elites. the power brokers in any country are always the last to see the need for change.

Given the foolishness of the objectives human beings have pursued for the last 100 years, and the effect we now discover that has had on the Planet, humanity is badly in need of a paradigm shift. The political system in most countries remains primitive and unresponsive to public needs. There is a lack of anything resembling an effective world government. The prospects for reorganising ourselves to have a sustainable future, using the existing structure, look bleak. Looking to the elites to drive change is naive. As Alvin Toffler says, the elites of the western world have been avoiding change for 30 years. They will accept change, but will do so only after they've exhausted every possible alternative.

Events like the Arab Spring and the Russian Winter, and Occupy Wall Street, show us that a new paradigm to drive the twenty-first century may be in development. If so, it will suddenly appear almost everywhere, in a short space of time. The logic of change captured in that paradigm will be inescapable. Those who find it impossible to acknowledge the new thinking will be swept aside.

James Gustave Speth says we need to make eight transitions. This is only possible if we begin to think about our place on Earth in a new way. "What we need now is an international movement of citizens and scientists, one capable of dramatically advancing the political and personal actions needed for the transition to sustainability."

A Revolution in Political Economy:

The established elites have resisted the call for change made in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Agenda 21, identified what we need to do, but action was not taken. As a result we have a world plagued with illogical political and economic decisions. There's too much debt, economies can't grow, and the call for austerity makes matters worse, not better. There is no reasonable solution to the current problems, within the existing paradigm. The world has entered an extended crisis that refuses to go away. Capitalism will be reinvented, sooner or later. Reinvented in such a way that the achievement of Speth's eight transitions is possible.

The Secretary General's Report of a High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, argues for a new approach to political economy. "We will bring the sustainable development paradigm from the margins to the mainstream of the global economic debate. Thus, both the cost of action and the cost of inaction will become transparent. Only then will the political process be able to summon both the arguments and the political will necessary to act for a sustainable future."

"For too long, economists, social activists and environmental scientists have talked past each other. ... The time has come to unify the disciplines to develop a common language for sustainable development." The document argues for economists to price environmental externalities instead of ignoring them. A similar approach is called for regarding social exclusion. The effect of the recommendations is to force the market to recognise what economist call "real prices". This is a political challenge, not an economic challenge. Existing producers everywhere will stand strongly against such a proposal. National governments have to find the strength to stand against that pressure. This is one of the eight transitions Gus Speth is calling for too.

If we can create "real prices", economic theory tells us that the market will protect the environment, ensure the use of appropriate technology, create full employment, and reduce consumption to sustainable levels. The development of "right prices" requires a little experimenting but that need not be a big problem. The wrong price for "externalities" is zero. Any non-zero price is an improvement. As prices approach "real prices" both producer and consumer behaviour will change in a desirable direction.


Each of us is responsible for our own deschooling. We have to learn to understand some very complex things, many of which are new to us. In particular we have to appreciate that some of the things we currently believe, things taught to us by our parents, teachers and other people we trust, are likely to be wrong given our new knowledge.

I've spent part of today (Sunday) at an Occupy Christchurch University. The "university" ran continuously for some 10 hours. I listened to people who put forward many arguments that simply don't stand up to the test of recent history. Christchurch as you may know has a long history of Marxist thinking. That understanding is widely supported, but in my view it's a completely barren field. A class based analysis of society doesn't help us solve the very real current problems we face. Alvin Toffler argues that our elites are trapped in the past. It's not helpful if the rest of us make the same mistake.

Whatever the truth about our situation is, each of us only has our own understanding of it. The test for us is to engage in the discussion and to shift our view as our knowledge grows. To give those in the park some credit, many different views were heard and treated with respect.

The Value of Engagement

The Secretary General's Report of a High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, claims that city councils and community groups have a vital role to play in sustainability. There needs to be a huge shift in public knowledge and attitudes, if the programme is to be enacted. What happens on the ground depends on the quality of public discussion, engagement and willingness to accept major changes in our lifestyles.

Former Czech President, the late Václav Havel said; "The only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It's not enough to have new machines, new regulations and new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose for our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behaviour and a new set of values for the planet."

John Stephen Veitch
The Network Ambassador
Open Future Limited - You may comment privately to John S Veitch here:

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