Thursday, 23 July 2009

Sing, not bling

It is now recognized that societies in developed countries have ceased to be sustainable. The World Commission on Environment and Development convened by the UN in 1983 defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

If present population growth and fossil fuel consumption trends continue; humankind will eventually consume our planet’s available resources and poison the planet’s air, earth and water, rendering its eco-systems unable to support humankind any further. In the most simplistic terms: the activities of the developed world releases carbon dioxide in excess of the biosphere’s capacity to absorb it, heating up the planet’s atmosphere causing extreme changes to climate and land usage that threatens food availability. Declining supply of resources against ever increasing demand adds up to catastrophic failure.

Sustainability is a broad term which has environmental, social, and economic, and some say, cultural dimensions. One of the most fundamental challenges for all societies today is how can consumerist, capitalist societies adapt their traditional economies into sustainable models?

It is often said that the most sustainable business is one that doesn’t happen. Faced with all the ramifications of present practice and the complex interdependency of the issues and related science, say nothing of the resistance from those whose interests suffer from any change, it can be overwhelming to determine a strategy to improve an organization’s sustainability. Determining whether waste reduction or energy reduction would be a better strategy for an organization could employ expensive consultants for years before an answer is definitive. Every scenario is different and it is staggeringly complex to unravel what exactly is for the best.

A factor I think is significant on both the global and individual scale is that the effects of climate change for most of us in Western Europe have been incremental and this distances us from responsibility for taking action. The trend of an increasing frequency of hurricanes or droughts has taken place over several decades while the evidence is distorted by natural cycles. [1] Both statesmen and individuals can defend inaction by expressing doubts or offering a ‘wait and see’ strategy, or even, in the case of India and the USA, engage in brinksmanship over treaty terms, leaving a legacy they cannot be held to account for.

Evidence for climate change is often contradictory, a fact leapt upon by climate change deniers. For example, recent research shows that global warming is actually reversing desertification in the Sahel region due to increased rainfall (which has been catastrophic for others).[2] Many interests are served by denying climate change exists and they claim we cannot be sure of anything but not having all the answers doesn’t abrogate the need to change from our present practice. If if we get it wrong, reducing carbon emissions is a better strategy than doing nothing as that certainly does no harm, whereas the latter is much more certain to. In fundamental terms, at some time, a need for change is undeniable as the planet’s eco-system is self-regulating; if we affect our environment, it affects us.

My reading has shown me this is a very complex issue to understand and this complexity, from my experience, is a factor in people’s ignorance and aversion to considering it. As this was not a topic I had considered in any depth before, I created a simplified diagram to summarize my own understanding and I think using such a process would aid in explaining to people what kind of cause and effect their actions have and assist their analysis of their strategic options. Under each of my headings are more complex cycles and issues such as the many mechanisms by which material consumption directly causes biosphere destruction from urbanization, overfishing, mineral extraction, deforestation, waste disposal and so on, besides the indirect effect of CO2 emissions that will have to be explored further.

Many current strategies; such as carbon-offsets by tree planting to improve CO2 absorption or switching to renewable energy sources can be expressed in the diagram. It can also show that it may be necessary to change our culture of materialism, to consume less non-renewable resources, or that biosphere protection, such as designation of nature reserves and so on, is another option. And, bearing in mind the failure of Malthus to account for the increased productivity of the land to feed the exploding population,[3] it also shows that technological improvements such as increased efficiency is also a valid strategy. It is obvious though that climate change must be tackled on all fronts.

An interesting topic for me as it must be relevant to forming a sustainability strategy in my own work, is my analysis raises questions on the role our cultural wealth will have in this adaptation of our economies in the future. I conclude that in the developed world, people’s lives may have to be less tangibly material and those people will have to find more meaning and significance for their lives in the intangible wealth of culture. Perhaps a new proverb will arise; ‘sing, not bling’.

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