People Don’t Run in the Dark: We Need a Compelling Vision of Where Sustainability Will Lead Us

“It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble now because we don’t have a good story” – Thomas Berrybridge to horizon

The greatest risk to the sustainability movement is that it is struggling and so far failing to articulate a vision of a future that is both prosperous while remaining within planetary boundaries.

Until it is able to showcase a plausible paradigm shift, then no-one is going to feel safe letting go of the current system that is driving us towards the edge of an environmental and social abyss.

This goes to the very heart of the explanation why large businesses are doing no more than incremental tinkering with their operations and also explains the growing evidence that corporate sustainability is hitting a plateau; companies just don’t know where else to go before they have to start challenging their core business model and that is scaring the shit out of them.

Even leaders such as Unilever are unable, within the current framework, to articulate a future that does not include continued growth; in its case, a doubling of its size by 2020. Even if it also meets its ambitious objective of halving its environmental impacts, that’s still no overall emissions reduction.

The lack of a credible alternative also explains the sense of disconnection that many feel to the scale of the sustainability challenges we face. I was at the annual CEOs meeting a few weeks ago of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development listening to a talk by Johan Rockstrom, head of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

His portrayal of the environmental and social disaster we are hurtling towards should have had all the senior executives weeping into their handkerchiefs. But there were no tears and precious little mention of his warning as the conference progressed.

How could that possibly be? Because our minds don’t allow us to look to the far horizon when we can’t see more than a few steps ahead so instead we tend to look down at our feet. This explains why even environmental catastrophes only hold our attention for so long.

It is true that there are a number of interesting sustainability initiatives such as the circular economy and a growing number of cross-sector collaborations. But none of these offers a truly systemic solution.

At its worst, this means that sustainability professionals are essentially operating in the dark, frantically seeking to change the world without really understanding whether ultimately their initiatives or projects are causing more harm than good.

So what can we do about this? What I am hearing from numerous experts is that we need to find a new narrative that creates a sense of confidence to take more radical steps.

This was also the conclusion of a day-long experiential roundtable of 24 diverse global experts I chaired recently in Copenhagen. We discussed more than a dozen key sustainability solutions, ranging from natural capital valuation to education initiatives, but what was felt to be most important was being able to tell the story of the future we all want and which we believe is feasible.

Let’s be honest; we are not there yet. Who among you is really able to convincingly describe a world which is both economically prosperous and has conquered the numerous challenges of runaway consumption, population growth, climate change, extreme poverty, resource scarcity, ecosystem collapse an the loss of biodiversity?

We talk about moving beyond GDP as a measure of success but which politicians in their right mind are going to welcome the idea of a steady-state economy?

Just look at what has happened after a few years of economic downturn; unemployment social upheaval and a revival of fascism. How are we going to avoid even greater dislocation and conflict by moving to an entirely new form of capitalism.

Doug Tomkins, the radical environmentalist, told me: “We need to do a proper systemic analysis of the system we are in. We introduced a mega economic technology called capitalism which brings with it a structure and imposes a certain behaviour on society.

“Capitalism is based on a notion and a logic of growth. It goes nuts when it starts to contract. There’s a small body of thinkers who are looking into this, and of course, there has been systemic analysis made of capitalism going way back to Marx and Engels. From that new analysis I believe that we will be much better informed to make specific and detailed strategies on how to get out of this predicament. But it takes a long time. Big paradigm shifts have taken centuries.

“People say about Bhutan’s focus on wellbeing: ‘they’re irrelevant as they’re just a little kingdom out there in the foothills of the Himalayas. How are we going to deal with the overdeveloped nations and highly industrialised nations?’ Of course, it’s a different scale but what it does is it simply opens up the imagination that this kind of thinking is possible and that’s a little step in the right direction.”

So who are some of the thinkers focusing their minds on creating a new narrative? There’s Tim Jackson, the author of Prosperity without Growth, and think tanks such as the New Economics Foundation.

Another is John Fullerton’s Capital Institute, which is developing the idea of regenerative capitalism, which will make the sustainability of today look even more outdated than the CSR of a decade ago.

Fullerton says: “Dana Meadows suggested that the most important leverage point for enabling system change is to change the paradigm, or belief structure, within which a system operates. We must evolve beyond the outdated mechanistic worldview and impossible exponential growth paradigm which defines contemporary economics and finance, to a regenerative paradigm grounded in the holistic ecological or living systems worldview of contemporary science.”

Fullerton identifies eight elements of regenerative capitalism, ranging from the recognition of the sacredness of life and the need for entrepreneurialism to shared prosperity and resiliency.

Whilst some of these are already being incorporated into many small-scale initiatives, Fullerton argues that this new thinking can only be embedded in large companies if there is a fundamental transformation in the finance sector.

This would involve, amongst other measures, finance being grounded in a culture of service, whilst also valuing relationships over transactions and transparency over complexity.

From where we currently stand this all may look hopelessly optimistic and we have seen examples in the past of the slow pace of change, such as Copernicus and Galileo spending uncomfortable lives trying to replace the outdated notion that the sun revolved around the earth with a heliocentric model of the universe.

But as Fullerton says: “That isn’t to say that paradigm shifts can’t happen quickly. The end of apartheid in South Africa, and the fall of the Berlin Wall are but two contemporary examples illustrating how the impossible can become the inevitable seemingly overnight when belief systems change.”

So let’s get on with building and mainstreaming this new narrative for as Rob Cameron, executive director of SustainAbility said to me the other day: “Above all else, we need to move from an era of change to a change of era.”

This article was originally published on the Guardian website
Jo Confino is an executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. He also advises Guardian News & Media and Guardian Media Group on their sustainability strategies.

2 Responses

  1. Jeremy

    It’s funny I was just thinking about this problem of our seeming inability of motivating people by simple logic. Many climate scientists puzzle over the inability of logic alone to motivate people. I think it comes down to totally two different modes of thinking, boiling down to simple psychology. The more scientific type of thinking is motivated by factual discovery, and the wonder of finding a logical solution to complicated problems. Note, however, that the art of motivation, currently dominated by the corporate sector, as exemplified by the advertizing industry, is totally non-logical, but makes a science of tapping into emotive parts of the brain. Unfortunately,to the scientific community thus far, that thinking is like a foreign language. Also, the scientific community as of yet, is controlled by the elite. The funding, even when coming from the public sector, is almost wholly made on behalf of industry, rather than the public interest. Thus, the power of the scientific community is castrated if it questions the status quo. This is what needs to change. We need to give the scientific community more power & independence.

  2. Hopefield

    Most macro solutions are too abstract and aren’t working anyhow. By contrast, there are stories in every community of sustainable business models leading to stable, meaningful jobs. (People care about local livelihoods and the spaces they move through daily.) The solution to engagement is also the solution to inequality, the climate crisis and democratic demise: local, worker-owned businesses. We can’t focus on making big companies sustainable; we have to enable a proliferation of businesses that use models inherently supportive of sustainability. Today, Brian Chesky of AirBnB launched the Sharing City initiative and painted a picture of how we want our communities to be (full of micro-entrepreneurs and vibrant public spaces). I would suggest more of our stories need to be about actual events in our immediate communities instead of national or international visions.