The Sustainability Dilemma

June 20, 2012

Although almost everyone seems to agree that our world needs to be sustainable (what is the alternative anyway?), making it happen seems much more challenging. The good intentions have difficulties to turn into action. The reason is simple. To make human activities sustainable, we will need to accept some serious trade-offs. That is where it hurts. There is the dilemma. Are we willing to change and sacrifice on the superfluous today to have a bright future, or do we want to keep instant gratification as the way of life and risk to lose it all later? Even though the answer to this question is obvious, it is only human to choose the short term. The issue in the background is one of change, not so much one of a choice about sustainability. To understand why this is so, one needs to realize that fear of change is not about change. It is about the fear of loss. This fear is even stronger when there is little certainty about what will come next.

Making the move towards sustainability presents many short-term challenges. There is a lot of money at stake, but this is not just about the financial aspects of the economy. There is a social cost, too. Changing the economic model into a sustainable one means that many jobs will be threatened. In these times of economic hardships, the fear of unemployment and of the social unrest that would result from it is reason for many politicians to be reluctant to take drastic action. They also think about their jobs. Sustainability is about the long term. It is about later and somewhere else. On the contrary, personal consequences of the change are here and now. There is no need to look any further to understand why there is resistance and inertia. In the debate about sustainability, shortcomings appear in several areas.

A first area is the lack of strong vision from the leaders about which alternative to offer to the current consumption society. Actually, consumption society is not an accurate description. The purpose is not so much about consumption as it is about buying stuff, use them or not, throw them away and buy new stuff instead. Clearly, with more people having more disposable income, this is going to hit a wall. As more people want to have a piece of the shrinking pie, and as finite resources deplete gradually, excessive consumption and waste are not going to last for much longer. It is simple math and it is common sense. Supply and demand will readjust markets by sending prices up. High prices will make consumption slow down, and so will the world economy. Regardless of which one between market forces or the environment will cause the current system to collapse, the economic model will change. The time has come to bring a clear vision for an alternative system. The alternative must ensure that the economy is prosperous, that people have work that pays well enough for them to cover their needs and to ensure that human societies can have a future for generations to come. Until this day, nobody has come with a vision and a road map that make the change acceptable here and now. This is why all international conferences lead to little action. As long as this is the case, the only thing that will force a change in attitude is a major crisis in which the wealthy are at risk of losing what they have. As long as crises touch only the poor and the powerless, nothing really changes, unfortunately.

A second area of weakness is the lack of collaborative action. Every group of stakeholders look at its interest first, while the proper approach would have to be altruistic and empathic. This is another case of the here and now vs. the elsewhere and later. If we want to succeed, it is necessary to transcend differences and borders. We need to find ways of going beyond simple accountability, and impose co-responsibility. This is much easier said than done.

A third area to address is the numbers. In the end, it is about money and jobs. Actions to make the world sustainable must also work financially. If change is not sustainable financially, change will not happen. If businesses go bankrupt and if people are at risk of losing their livelihoods, they will not go for the change. The new economic model needs to consider this. The transition towards a better world needs to consider it, too. The externalities need to be internalized in some way, but the new model must be robust as well, otherwise all efforts would be for nothing.

A fourth area is about definitions. What is sustainability? How can we monitor and measure all human activities to know which ones are within sustainable limits and which ones have no future? How and where to draw the line, and how to enforce it? In the case of agriculture, every particular activity has its own specific impact. Depending on the nature of the environment, the nature of the impact and the range of sustainability vary, too. Monitoring must be tailor-made to each particular situation.

A fifth area is the consumer’s behavior. It is impossible to address sustainability without addressing consumption habits, and in particular excessive consumption and waste. As long as consumers will not eliminate the use of products that have an unsustainable effect on the environment, very little will improve. Putting the emphasis on production only is not enough. Production methods certainly can improve, but a substantial share of the damage is the result of consumers wanting more of what is not so good. Consumers are the largest group of influence. They are the people. What and how they consume is democracy in action. Businesses and governments follow their lead to quite some extent. When the majority chooses for a different economic model, things will change fast, but for now, the majority is still choosing for the old model.

Whether our world will move towards sustainability or choose a more hazardous way depends on us all. It depends on how we want to solve the dilemma that we face. The choice is not easy, but it is essential. There are many questions still unanswered, simply because they have not been asked. These important questions are mostly of a practical nature. They are more about how to make the system work not only environmentally and socially, but also financially. If businesses tend to focus mostly on financial aspects, environmental and social movement tend to neglect it too much. Like everything else in life and nature, it is about balance.

In my latest book, We Will Reap What We Sow, I address in much more details many of these questions and discuss the value of possible alternatives in relation with our future ability to feed a growing population.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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Q&A on We Will Reap What We Sow on twitter

June 12, 2012

I will be available to answer any questions about my new book We Will Reap What We Sow on twitter. I believe this could be a good way to interact in a concise manner with readers.

The participants will have to include the hashtag #WWRWWS on their tweets to be noticed.

This will take place over three days, with two sessions of one hour each day.

The dates and times are June 13 – 14 – 15 2012 at:

  • 2.00 pm EST = 7.00 pm in England = 8.00 pm in Western Europe
  • 7.00 pm EST = noon in Sydney, Australia = 7.30 am in Mumbai

It is also possible to ask questions outside of these times, but I will answer them only when I am available again.