Why is society in the situation it is in?
1. We’re not moving the needle. The sum total of all this green/sustainable business activity hasn’t changed things much. Most global environmental indicators continue to head in the wrong direction. And where progress is evident, it isn’t taking place at the scale and speed needed to address climate change, water and air quality, toxicity, food security, and biodiversity let alone human rights, equity and justice among others. Even in developed economies like the U.S. and Europe, key indicators of progress — for example, the amount of energy and water consumed or waste and pollution emitted per unit of gross domestic product — has only mildly improved. In fast-growing developing economies — China, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and others — the story, in terms of consumption and emissions trends, is frightening.
2. The public still isn’t getting it. Most people on the planet are focused like a laser on getting through the day — feeding and sheltering their families, staying alive and well, finding work, maintaining basic human dignities — and have little time or interest in protecting the commons. Meanwhile, the “haves” are largely focused on keeping what they’ve amassed, if not adding to it, and generally can’t be bothered with the greater good. Most individuals have little understanding of the impact of their lives, content to make a few simple, largely symbolic changes in their shopping or personal habits. As a result, consumer pressure on companies to transform their products and processes is relatively meek. Yes, there is a growing cadre of citizens concerned about the climate and other planetary ills, and a new generation entering the marketplace with a greater green ethic, but their power to effect change to date has been tepid at best.
3. There’s little sense of urgency. In generations past, people took to the streets to protest wholesale injustices and inequities and, in the process, helped bring about sweeping changes, from the U.S. to the U.S.S.R. We were supported by leaders who saw great opportunity in dramatic change, for both themselves and society in general. So, where are the masses marching in the streets demanding action on climate change in the name of future generations? Where is the anger over more tax breaks for millionaires and inaction on climate issues — arguably among the greatest civil and human rights issues we’ve ever faced? Where is the bandwagon of consumer boycotts and shareholder actions forcing companies to respond? Where are the politicians expending their political capital fighting barriers to sustainable economy? Why aren’t the threats to our security — food security, housing security, water security, energy security, national security — fomenting scores of green Manhattan and Apollo projects? Yes, there are encouraging examples of all of these things, but they are happening much too slowly and don’t seem to be making much headway.
What principles should guide a “necessary” revolution?
We must reframe the challenges we face, and approach them not from the compartmentalized perspective with which we tend to frame and separate all our many problems—from climate change and declining fresh water resources to the obsessive accumulation of stuff and the twin evils of poverty and hunger—but from a systemic perspective that attempts to identify the common root causes of all of these symptoms of an overarching disease.
Gus Speth in his recent book, “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis to Sustainability” succinctly outlines the principles that must guide this game plan. Speth writes:
“We must change the very nature of corporations so they become legally accountable to society at large, not just to themselves and their shareholders.”
“We must challenge the current obsession with GDP growth and focus on growth in the areas that truly enhance human well-being: growth in good jobs, in the availability of health care, in education, in the deployment of green technologies, in the incomes of the poor, in security against illness and disability, in infrastructure, and more.”
“We must challenge materialism and consumerism as the source of happiness and seek new values about quality of life, social solidarity, and connectedness to nature.”
“We must transform the market through government action so that it works for the environment, rather than against it.”
“We must transform democracy through deep political reforms that reassert popular control, encouraging locally strong, deliberative democracy and limiting corporate influence.”
“We must forge a new environmental politics that recognizes links among environmentalism, social liberalism, human and civil rights, the fight against poverty, and other issues.”
From “Siloed Interests To Shared Purpose”. The economic crisis, the energy crisis, the water crisis, the food crisis, the security crisis, the leadership crisis, the health care crisis, the educational crisis, the climate crisis. You name it. The crisis conversation is happening all over the place. What’s interesting is that each of the aforementioned crises has its own discourse, its own NGO group (each working with a single-issue mindset), its own conferences, journals, websites, funding mechanisms, programs, and so forth. While all these single-issue groups of change-makers engage in well-intentioned work by mobilizing action for their respective crisis symptoms, there seem to be, by and large, two missing pieces: one, a discourse across these silos about how all of these issues are interconnected, and two, a discourse about the systemic root causes that continuously reproduce the whole cluster of crises mentioned above. (2)
We must rapidly evolve from a world where millions of single-issue groups and organizations compete for resources and attention to a world that begins to unite them in the common pursuit of a better future for all. One cannot expect each group to let go of its individual concerns, but it is essential that we help groups shift their perspective and begin to view the world though a different lens, a lens that allows us all to see that our only chance of lasting success is through a greater focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us.
We are squandering our passion and willingness to help. In my own world there are dozens of groups representing progressive business, yet they never speak with one voice, agree on priorities or pool their resources. To change this paradigm will require a major shift in consciousness.
Such a shift is not impossible to imagine. In some places, groups have already come together in common cause. The Green Group, for example, has united the environmental community on global climate change policy. Multi-stakeholder coalitions have made impressive progress on building a sustainable supply chain for palm oil and coco.
The shift must be guided by four broad concepts:
1. Getting Money out of Politics. One could argue that our political process remains primarily an extension of money and the power it confers into governmental affairs. Until we can separate money and politics, we will never have a political process that acts in the best interest of all stakeholders. Publicly financed elections are a first and essential step.
2. Full Cost Accounting. Our current system of pricing products and services ensures that society perpetually makes poor choices. Until we remove the ability to transfer the cost of externalities from business to society, we will never willingly make choices that are aligned with the best interest of future generations.
By mispricing both risks and consequences, we encourage corporate decisions that are at odds with the long-term interests of society.
The same holds true for the metrics that calculate our progress as a country. By adding the “goods” and the “bads” together on the same side of the ledger (our Gross National Product) and not charging ourselves for the depletion, destruction or diminished value of natural resources, we confuse economic activity with progress.
3. Ownership and the purpose of the Corporation. Business is consistently cited as the most powerful influence on the planet. In the future it will become even more so. We must repurpose the corporation to benefit society and all stakeholders.
Today corporate owners are incentivized to single-mindedly pursue the short-term maximization of financial gains. Whether it is how we tax capital gains or pay CEO’s, we have institutionalized incentives that value the exact wrong type of behavior. There is a total disconnection of purpose between money managers (Wall Street) and capital providers, (pension funds and individual investors.) Professional money managers manage money to maximize their economic interests at the expense of the interests of those that provide them with capital.
Employees create value in which they maintain no ownership, thus concentrating wealth in the hands of stockholders.
4. Shifting Values. This is an unprecedented moment in history. The disruption, uncertainty and reordering of our economic life will lead to new worldviews, marked by an unfolding revolution in social values & behavior. Though greater consciousness of the potential perils and opportunity at our doorstep, we must insure that values shift toward creating real and lasting value for all, rather than a world filled with an abundance of artifacts for the few, ensuring a dismal fate for us all. This shift in “consciousness” leading must ensure the understanding of the essential nature of five values:
Quality vs. quantity
First and most importantly we must simply buy less stuff, but what we buy must be made to last, leaving the smallest possible footprint behind.
Long term vs. short term
Driven by concern for our future generations as well as the quality of our own, we must ask, “What are the long-term implications of my every decision?” What are the unintended consequences that only a systems perspective will reveal?
Community vs. individualism
What’s in it for us, not just what’s in it for me? What is best for the whole? Where are “my” interests aligned with “our” interests?
Meaning vs. matter
Unable to take anything in life for granted we must decide what really matters and is worth holding on to? Only in meaning will we find lasting value.
Because greed and selfishness jeopardize our future, we must accept nothing less than institutions that represent real responsibility. Transparency is required as only “you” can judge whether “I” have fulfilled my responsibility.