Some Goals are more sustainable than others…

Seventeen goals, 231 indicators. And yet: all are interconnected, every action should as a minimum be neutral across the board. Confusing? Yes. If we have to choose, what are the high-leverage points? I begin to believe that there are just three dimensions that will determine how thriveable our futures will be.

  1. The cross-cutting topic is food. The way that we produce, distribute, consume and dispose of food – the global ‘food regime’ – affects every single one of the SDGs. And changing our food regime is absolutely at the top of the ‘drawdown’ list of things we can do to reverse climate change. Read more here.

Does that mean that in order to be part of the solution, you need to make radical changes to your eating habits? No.Does it mean that if you’re an ardent vegan, you’re already doing all you can? No. The key is not what you eat, but how your food is produced: does it damage or regenerate the soil?

2. The cross-cutting process is education. Our education systems haven’t caught up with the needs of a sustainable society. We’re still largely educating people to slot into industrial society with a minimum of fuss. That has to change, at every level. And it is changing; but we still tolerate educational programs teaching both children and adults things about humans, history, science and our planet that are simply wrong. Insist that radically critical thinking is introduced into all schools and at all levels!

3. The overarching stumbling block is the global economic system. Because most of us are educated and brain-washed into believing that the current economic system is scientific, thus in some sense inevitable, we allow ourselves to be distracted. We aim for transformative change, yet find ourselves dragged back into the old-old, same-same wheel ruts. 

Many of the myths current in our societies revolve around money. The system won’t crumble just because we become aware of the myths; but that awareness can help us find ways to circumvent the worst pitfalls and contribute to emerging solutions. 

“You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller

Too soon, too hard…

It appears that all this man-made global warming could be counteracting the onset of the next major ice age.

Is that good news? Not necessarily for us humans. The planet is soon due to cool down again, mainly because its orbit takes us further from the sun. But ‘soon’ in planetary terms means in maybe something like 1,500 years.

It seems we slammed the brakes on the cooling process too early and too hard. Because in the meantime we face global temperature rises of 4 degrees C or more. Soon – in more human terms, like within a century or so. It’s an open question whether humanity will survive the gap between our self-inflicted heating and natural planetary cooling.

So is it time to give up on human civilization?

Not in my view. If we all choose to act as if it’s too late, then our actions become self-fulfilling prophecies. But if we all choose to act as though there is still a chance, then maybe there is… maybe we create one.

On a cheerful note, one climate analyst suggests that “if we save the remaining fossil fuels, we could head off the next few ice ages by burning on the appropriate orbital schedule.” Now that’s true long-term thinking. Leave them in the ground, folks!


Indulgence and green-washing

Tetzel-indulgenceWhen I was at school we learned about the mediaeval Christian practice of selling ’indulgences’. A sinner could partake of divine grace by paying a priest. This became a major source of income for some, and the practice degenerated into commerce.

Today some companies and individuals pay money for ’climate compensation’, to make up for their ’green sins’. Or they ’invest’ in social responsibility by enabling employees to do good work in their local community – possibly instead of eliminating social malpractice from their production or supply chain.

Is this a great idea to generate money for the climate-compensating organizations, so that they can plant more trees or invest more in energy saving? To have paid employees do good work in their communities? Or is it an invitation to ’sin’ more, as long as you can afford to pay?

Not a black-and-white case, in my opinion. The closest I come to a working principle is that these kinds of indulgences should be a complement to responsible daily practice, not a substitute: the most important thing is to do everything possible to establish more sustainable and responsible practices in your company or your lifestyle.

And by the way: that expression ’climate compensation’… also has a false connotation. It implies that if I only compensate for all my current ’sins’, that’s enough. It is not enough, because we have already collectively accumulated a huge debt. What we need, to secure a habitable future planet, is not compensation but active regeneration. Regeneration of our natural resource base, our social and human capital, and our antiquated and inappropriate economic systems.

Difficult? Well, I recall a quotation from an English lord, asked on his birthday how it felt to reach the age of 93. “Quite good really,” he said. “At least if you consider the alternative.” Let’s forget indulgence and focus on regeneration!


Blurred lines – good or bad?

Beggar-hatNon-governmental organizations* have long been funded by membership fees and donations, by public grants, and to some extent (particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world) by grants from private foundations.

Now things are rapidly shifting.

Lifelong members are becoming a thing of the past. Those membership fees that roll in, year after year, are dwindling. We tend to engage for shorter times, in things closer to ourselves. More time spent in the parents’ association, less money for big, anonymous charities? Public funding is also dwindling. As economic recession sets in, in country after country, funds for the third sector are among the first to be cut.

So many NGOs are looking for new income streams – some through crowdfunding, others through contracts that look more and more like commercial consultancy services.

There is certainly a good side to this. For both crowdfunding and contracts you need to make a very clear case for what you want to do. No vague ‘do-good’ missions are likely to succeed.

On the other hand: you are ‘selling’ to the funders, whose interests may not be aligned with those you propose to serve, the beneficiaries of your programs. Well, this is nothing new. All of us in this NGO world have struggled to balance the demands of funders with the needs of our constituencies.

The basic dilemma is unchanged: in order to get funding to support our constituencies, we need to portray them as somehow ‘lacking’. Or, as someone from an association for the disabled put it: “If we portray our members as fully capable citizens, no-one wants to fund us or them.” So the ‘poor me’ or ‘poor them’ syndrome takes over, and we are flooded with (for example) tear-jerking photos of impoverished Africans, instead of being shown the poor but dynamic current reality of most of that continent.

Will the new hybrid NGO-consultancies be able to manage this balance better than before? Or do we risk losing our footing entirely?

* NGOs, or ‘charitable associations’

Awareness is in the balance

Curious fact no. 1:

It’s always someone else who needs to have their awareness raised.

“We urgently need to raise public awareness of the consequences of western lifestyle.” Said, often, by the very people who underpin the financial systems that make ‘our’ unsustainable lifestyle almost inevitable. Some of us would like to raise their awareness…

Curious fact no. 2:

It’s mostly unpleasant things that ‘we’ need to be made aware of.

If the purpose of awareness-raising is to bring about behaviour change, most awareness-raising campaigns could learn from a study of how change actually happens.

There are many theories of change, but most agree on one point: change is not something that can be brought about by nagging or planning. It’s something that happens when the conditions are right. As expressed by Warren Ziegler:

“Change happens when there is a reasonable balance between dissatisfaction and hope.”

If I’m not yet ‘aware’ of climate change, or child labour, or the dangers of tobacco, it’s hardly for lack of information. Pushing more information at me will not change things. What is lacking is the ‘hope’ side of the equation: the feeling that I could in fact do something, make a difference.

So tell me how I can contribute. Show me how to adapt to climate change, support poor families to send their children to school, or wean myself off tobacco. Help me understand how and why my contribution is meaningful. First comes the hope, then the action; the awareness is a bonus, a product of the balance between dissatisfaction (or fear) and hope.

Does this sound back-to-front? Take a reality check: consult your own experience. How did your awareness most lately increase? When did you have one of those ‘Aha!’ moments?

How natural are you?

“In 50 years, we will have exhausted all sources of xxx, and industry will need to look for a replacement.”

“The planet’s ecosystems supply us with services whose annual value is estimated at xxx trillion USD.”

“Industry should be made to pay for externalities” like clean air and water.

Take some deep breaths and think about it. As you breathe in, picture the air (and all it carries) on its way around your body, literally keeping you alive. As you breathe out, feel that a part of yourself goes with your breath.

Now try to convince yourself that air is an ‘externality’.

Am I the only one to be disturbed by some of the strange ideas that seem to be taken for granted? – myths like

  • Nature exists to serve us
  • Natural resources are there for us to ‘exhaust’ as we please
  • It’s normal to behave in ways that poison the air, water and soil
  • Nature is not us

“Polluter pays” is giving way to the concept of payment for ecosystem services – well, it’s an improvement. But isn’t there a risk that it’s actually just perpetuating the idea that ‘we’ are the centre of the universe, and separate from nature?

Maybe what we need most is a new economic system based on valuing what is actually of value. If we value life.

Myths about money are killing us

Myths – the old ones – are wonderful sources of inspiration. But some modern myths bind us to a repetitive wheel, so that we consistently fall short of our own ambitions – do you recognize this? It seems to be particularly true of work for sustainability.

So I wonder: what are these myths, and how can we break free of them?

One pervasive myth seems to be: “We’ll get around to saving the environment when we’ve saved enough money.” This is equivalent to saying: “I know I’m sawing off the branch I’m sitting on, but I can’t stop just yet.” Clearly mad, yet it persists… not least because there is a grain of reality in it. It’s not very sustainable to go bankrupt. The conclusion must be that there is something wrong with the money system, if it forces us to choose between

  • going bankrupt now
  • killing human civilization later


Is there an underlying myth? Yes! It’s: “Money obeys economic laws (and there’s nothing we can do about it)”. This is nonsense. Money is a human invention, and it obeys the rules and regulations that we humans have agreed upon. The rules currently in force are driving us farther from sustainability. If we’re serious about sustainable development, we need to reinvent money.

The good news is that many people and communities have already started. In Brazil, for instance, 63 communities have successfully introduced local currencies that flourish alongside the national currency.

More encouragement comes from the “Occupy…” movement. Will the movement bring about the inventive transformation that will enable real sustainable development? Depends on how its organization evolves… but that’s another story.

Confession of a heretic

FlatearthAt the World Resources Forum in Davos this week I made a shocking confession: I no longer believe the earth is flat. This is, I know, heretical. Our entire, flat-earth society is built on the principle that we can pull resources from ‘somewhere’ onto our linear earth; use and abuse them; and then throw them ‘away’.

But have you noticed? – there is no ‘somewhere’ and there is no ‘away’. Everything is here, and (except for the great gift of in-pouring sunlight, and the occasional meteor) always has been. So what do flat-earthers mean when they talk about resources, and even ‘renewable resources’? More importantly, what might a round-earth view look like?

Even in the run-up to the global environmental summit in Rio next year, the talk about ‘green economics’ generally presupposes a flat earth – just using up stuff at a slower rate.

But on a round earth we understand that literally everything – every atom, including those in our bodies – is a resource. Everything is input to a future process. And everything is output from an earlier process. There is no such thing as waste. Everything is renewed – in time. Even coal, oil: if we stop (ab)using them and wait for a hundred million years or so, they too will renew themselves.

Time is the essence. On a round earth we understand that we humans can only safely make use of (other) resources at a rate at which they can and will renew themselves. The mines and wells of the future are in our garbage dumps, or already dispersed in the air and water.

Round-earthers unite! The flat-earthers will destroy our habitat, if we let them. Let’s help them think ‘round’. Please share your most heretical thoughts here!

Illustration by Klaus Elle


Utopia and human nature


Huge amounts of time, talent and money are now being invested in sustainable development, yet the results are still negative: human societies are becoming less and less sustainable, year by year. Progress is made, but overall we are eroding our natural capital, and our economies are in disarray.

Clearly the causes, and the answers, need to be sought in ourselves. Neither nature nor money are creating our situation: we are. The future of humankind hangs upon our ability, individually and collectively, to begin to think and act differently.  This is the dream of many utopians: that human behaviour should make it possible to create a society that works – for everyone.

Why should we believe we can create such a society now, when it seems all attempts so far have foundered?

Well, necessity is a tough teacher. And perhaps the convergence of rising populations with dwindling resources, creating a ‘tipping point’ beyond which human societies simply cannot be maintained, will prove a sufficient incentive.

Maybe this time Utopia has a chance. Not, of course, if we humans are (as some still believe) incorrigibly selfish, greedy, violent – in short, ineducable. We are talking about changing behaviour, not changing human nature. Fortunately there are signs that human nature is reasonably benevolent: that inside most of us is a loving, social being just aching to be released into a Utopian world.

Guess we need to stop aching and get out there. If there ever was a time to ‘be the change’, this is it. Be it, do it – show it!