Sustainability visionaries see room for hope in our worry-filled world
Who’s afraid of the big, bad future? Al Gore, clearly — and pretty much anyone who has seen An Inconvenient Truth. While Gore’s dissenters may argue that he cries wolf too often, no one who knows and understands the statistics used in the film can doubt that the Big Bad Wolf of climate change is at the door. The question is whether our economies are best built of straw, sticks, or bricks.
These days there can be few Grist-folk who haven’t seen — or at least heard of — the YouTube short Al Gore’s Penguin Army, in which he is depicted lecturing an army of slumbering birds. Those stoking the engines of climate change clearly have a vested interest in crying penguin and pouring ridicule on inconvenient assertions about their roles and responsibilities. And then there was the South Park episode this spring in which Gore cried “ManBearPig” as a ploy to attract attention and overcome the real problem — that he didn’t have any friends. South Park may be a national treasure, but bear in mind how the Nazis and their favorite cartoonists portrayed the Jews and others during the 1930s. Lampoons can mask darker intent.
Meanwhile, for most people, most of the time, the climate wolf is still a long way from the door. But it’s coming. When SustainAbility polled our network of some 10,000 people working or interested in the field of sustainable development a few weeks back, asking about the prospects for globalization over the next decade, we received more than 1,000 responses from 75-plus countries. Climate change came in fourth in the ranking of big issues that will impact globalization and the corporate responsibility agenda. The top slot went to conflict (42 percent), the second to energy availability (39 percent), and the third to terrorism (26 percent). Climate came in at 22 percent — although it could be argued that it will have a fair old impact on the availability, or acceptability, of certain types of energy. Poverty got 18 percent.
Perhaps respondents were calculating that the major shocks from climate change would impact our economies beyond the time frame we presented. With no one wanting to cry frog, maybe there was a sense that the water around us will come to a boil at a slightly more relaxed, comfortable pace. The Jacuzzi theory of climate change?
Still, there were some respondents with frogs on the brain — or in their Jacuzzis. One of the most thoughtful early commentaries on Gore’s presentation came from Kevin Sweeney, who argued that, while his message was outstanding and important, Gore didn’t leave enough space for hope. This theme was picked up in different ways by two Pauls in our survey, Paul Hawken and Paul Ray.
“My sense is that there has been a reversal of the crying-wolf syndrome in the environmental sector,” Hawken warned. “Instead of overstating problems, there is tendency to understate. The IPCC process is necessarily slow and deliberate, a pace of understanding and buy-in that may be overtaken by [damage to] oceans, forests, and Arctic permafrost.”
So are there any grounds for hope in all of this? Hawken thinks so. “Hope is not extracted from demonization of business or a recitation of past errors,” he noted. “Hope is humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.” And there was more. He noted that there is a huge amount of positive activity designed to address climate and other environmental issues, “but it flies under the radar. For several years now, our Natural Capital Institute has been researching the extent of NGOs, village-based organizations, foundations, institutes, citizen-based organizations, etc., that directly address the issue of social justice and the environment. Our estimate is that it comprises over 1 million organizations populated by over 100 million people, and that collectively it constitutes the single biggest movement on earth.”
A cheering factoid, but clearly more needs to be done to give this movement of movements a clear, collective identity. Someone else who has been picking up on elements of this is Paul Ray, probably best known for his book The Cultural Creatives. He kicked off with some fairly gloomy projections, though. “The planet is lurching toward integration,” he told us, using the term planetization. Once we factor in the gathering tempo of natural and other disasters, he said, and “our much more uniform and newly collective planetary reactions to them, the paradoxical-seeming effect is that it will take some falling apart of many vulnerable institutions for us to go farther with planetary integration, with the result being a new system.”
While Ray believes civil society may well become more informed and more virtuous, even here there was bad news for some. “International NGOs as we have known them will look primitive, because the next generation will be quasi-corporate and make their own money, rather than being in poverty and in perpetual ‘begging for money’ mode,” he said. “Some of them may fuse with newly designed for-profit corporations. I expect the line between for-profit and not-for-profit to be blurred and eventually erased.”
We agree, to a degree. Indeed, that’s why we’re working increasingly with social entrepreneurs and exploring the extent to which for-profit business models can scale faster than their nonprofit counterparts. It’s clear, however, that the spread of these new hybrids won’t be easy or comfortable. As Ray continued, they “will not only violate our conceptual categories, but will take the lead in redefining what we mean by ‘corporate responsibility.'”
And so what should business be doing? Helping us wake up to the wolves at our doors? Replacing straw with sticks and sticks with bricks? “Business can make more and better money in redesigning and in financing planetary integration than it can in trying to hang on to the old inherited neo-imperial exploitation model,” Ray concluded. “It is utter folly to be either pessimistic or optimistic, because both are immature emotional responses that fall well short of useful creative action.”
Drawing together the epistles from our two Pauls, it’s clear that we shouldn’t deny ourselves the pleasure of crying wolf when the wolf is out there. But there are at least some grounds for hope — and, to a degree, clues to how we might achieve something like global salvation. A huge social movement is building worldwide that’s likely to spin out novel business mind-sets and models that can tackle vulpine challenges. But this will only happen if CEOs and other business leaders take up Ray’s parting advice: “Pull up yer socks an git on wiv it!”