Why is our system so slow to make changes that most of us would say are obvious?
The environmental movement was born over 60 years ago with the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1952. It then took 20 years for the UN Environment Programme to be established in 1972. Twenty more years passed until the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio where 12-year-old Severn Suzuki made an impassioned plea to world leaders to protect our environment.
Severn Suzuki is now 34 years old – 22 years have passed. Her father, David Suzuki, has recently stated, “Environmentalism has fundamentally failed. We’ve failed to shift the way people see the world.”
For over 60 years we have known of the threats that we humans pose to our environment. We have known, we have talked, we have pledged and we have wavered and to this day, real change has eluded us.
Consider the story of Rafael Lemkin. Born in 1900, he devoted his life to the goal of preventing genocide and prosecuting those responsible for this heinous crime. In 1944 he coined the word “genocide” and fought for its recognition at the UN. For the next 54 years terrible genocides occurred in places such as Cambodia (1975-1979), the former Yugoslavia (1991-1995) and Rwanda (1994), and yet, despite discussions, speeches, debates and resolutions, no one was prosecuted.
Finally, in 1998 the world saw its first-ever conviction for genocide when Jean-Paul Akayesu was judged guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for acts he engaged in and oversaw as mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba.
Why did it take 54 years for the first genocide conviction to occur? It was not that during those years the crime did not occur or that people didn’t know that it was occurring. It was not that people didn’t talk about the issue, or pledge their commitment to addressing the problem. And yet, despite so much knowledge and discussion, true action wasn’t taken until finally enough people stood together and said to the perpetrators, “No more!” and then, most importantly, backed those words up with action.
For me, the parallels are obvious between humanity’s reluctance to take difficult action on genocide and our current crisis of ecocide.
How many more years must we wait for the system to make the necessary changes to protect our planet? How many more years of inaction do we have to endure before the impacts of runaway climate change lock us into a very uncertain future?
Naomi Klein, in her new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, writes:
As MIT economist John Reilly puts it: “The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing.” Indeed the only thing rising faster than our emissions is the output of words pledging to lower them. Meanwhile, the annual UN climate summit which remains the best hope for a political breakthrough on climate action, has started to seem less like a forum for serious negotiation than a very costly and high-carbon group therapy session…
Has Our Ideology Led Us Astray?
In the last 30 years the world has evolved (mostly uncontested) within an ideological framework that empowers free market capitalism and all of the policies that encourage its success, such as: de-regulation, tax reduction, cheap labour, global trading, consumer culture, expectations of never ending growth and a wait-and-see approach to climate change. On the surface it looks like an overwhelming success; enormous wealth has been created and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of abject poverty – but as we dig deeper, it get complicated.
The system that we’ve relied on to create our prosperity in the past century is beginning to fail us. Sustainability is about meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations. But the prevailing economic logic is starting to show signs that it’s not the perfect path to prosperity that many of us thought. In fact, it’s actively contributing to an unstable climate, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and a widening gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else – millions of people are being left behind.
And for those of us who have worked within the “Corporate Sustainability” movement to make things better, I think we have to take an honest look at what we’ve done and ask ourselves, “Is it enough?”
A New Narrative for Prosperity
Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. What if our cultural narrative about what it means to be prosperous is causing us collective harm?
And if it is, what do we need to do to effect real change? Do the answers lie with business in a free market solution? Is government regulation the answer? Do citizens need to be more vocal? Perhaps business, government and private citizens (including consumers) need to unite to change our course and establish a New Narrative for what it means to be successful. Has the time come to Rethink Prosperity?
TSSS hosts “Rethinking Prosperity” on Nov. 12, 2014. This panel discussion event will delve into these questions and explore how we can move from discussion to action. Click here for details.