One could argue that the environmental and sustainability world has essentially failed. If we are to look at the truth of how the last 50 or so years (1962 is still widely viewed as the launching of the modern environmental movement with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), I would venture that the best that has happened is that the environmental degradation of the world has been slowed down, not prevented.
Many battles have been won but the war is being lost. There are more people working in environmental and sustainability roles today than at any point in history. Many of them are doing wonderful jobs but the point remains. Simply put we are collectively failing. The question is what can be learned from this?
There are more people working in environmental and sustainability roles today than at any point in history.
It has been estimated that around 15-18% of people in Western countries have environment and sustainability as one of their primary decision-making factors. These people are the ones who are likely to choose behaviours or purchasing decisions that limit or improve their environmental impact. As good as this is, how do we increase this and reach the next 50-60% of people that only considers sustainability in their decision-making occasionally?
Behavioural change, as we all know, can take quite a long time and often involves great sacrifice. The African-American civil rights movement is probably one of the most successful modern examples where over a period of time things that were once viewed as normal were transformed to become immoral and often illegal.
…over a period of time things that were once viewed as normal were transformed to become immoral and often illegal.
Such a radical change involved winning the hearts and minds of not only those in positions of power but also with the greater civilisation as well. Many people with vested interests in keeping slavery, racism, sexism, and inequality had to be challenged and convinced that their behaviours and views needed to change. Eventually those changes happened as the civil rights movement re-shaped the views of the common man, woman and child.
The sustainability world needs to learn from this and to adopt the techniques that were employed so that the great changes needed occur regardless of what our current thinking and behaviour tells us is “normal”.
We need to be persuaded to transition to a system where long-term benefit outweighs the destructive short-termism that dominates current thinking models. When rights were given to those that didn’t have them, many people in positions of power were greatly inconvenienced as power was then able to shift away from the top sliver of society to a greater section who had different desires and goals.
It seems to be taking a long time to learn and change. In the past the powerful had control over the major industries, governments and finances and built systems that focused on themselves.
If sustainability were a civil right then those values and desires that so many of us want would be manifest in a legal structure that could protect the world around us from the worst aspects of our behaviour.
For the first time we have pushed up against the vast limits of the natural systems and now the powerful are risking the very system that created their wealth regardless of the cost to us all. This time it is different because the vast systems that feed, clothe, water and house us are showing signs of radical stress and change. We are still in our infancy as a species when it comes to our understanding of the great interdependencies of the world. It is that ignorance combined with our lack of wisdom that has led to the great crisis upon us.
Time and resource are being spent tinkering with broken systems as we hold on to them regardless of the cost. Wouldn’t it be better for us to use our vast wealth of creativity and knowledge to change things so we can avert this? If we don’t then we will repeat the same cycles that have broken and destroyed all of those great empires of the past. But this time our whole global empire is under threat.
It is rare to meet people who desire a dangerous, ugly, dirty and destructive world. Wherever one is on the political spectrum the majority of people want a safe, secure, beautiful and prosperous world. The reality is that our systems are focused on delivering precisely the opposite. If sustainability were a civil right then those values and desires that so many of us want would be manifest in a legal structure that could protect the world around us from the worst aspects of our behaviour, for the benefit of all.
These steps can serve an organisation by showing tangible benefits for sustainable business practice. Sustainable business is just about business common sense. As JK Rowling wrote: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”