As the world grapples with mounting environmental and political pressures in the run up to Rio+20, the population needs new and radical thinking to take on the challenges that they face, and evidence is emerging that this is coming from an unexpected quarter: cities and communities.
This is according to Catherine Cameron, senior associate of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL) and the director of Agulhas: Applied Knowledge.
Cities are better positioned to be able to innovate a way out of the crisis. They often have disproportionate power – big budgets and the autonomy to take clear and explicit decisions to fast track regional change.
Many are already leading the way in this regard. Leeds in the north of England, for example, published an ambitious new sustainability plan earlier this year which aims to save the city £1-billion by 2030 while stimulating local manufacturing and job creation.
The initiative commits the city to investing a mere 1% of its city equivalent GDP annually for the next 10 years to exploit commercially attractive energy efficiency and low carbon opportunities while simultaneously making buildings meet higher sustainability standards, increasing the use of alternative energy supplies and locally produced food and reducing waste. Payback starts after four years.
Global initiatives like the Transition Towns movement – of which there is a local chapter in Cape Town – and the C40 cities are also laying the groundwork for change.
The Transition Towns movement consists of a network of communities around the world that are engaging their municipalities to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate change, and broader economic instability while the C40 cities initiative is a high-level network of 58 world cities (including New York, London and Johannesburg) that swap best practice at mayoral level and are committed to implementing meaningful actions locally that will help address environmental change globally.
Other autonomous organisations like co-operatives also hold tremendous potential to drive change. Co-operatives are associations of people who come together for their mutual social, economic and cultural benefit and range from small non-profit community organisations like burial societies to businesses like the Co-operative Bank in the UK that is owned and managed by the people who use its services.
In 2004, the combined revenues of the world’s 300 largest co-operatives matched the GDP of the Canada – the world’s 10th largest economy. And a recent 11-country African study estimates that 7% of Africans are co-op members.This indicates some serious commercial power as a vehicle for positive change.
The strength of the co-operative model seems to be that they are more resilient possibly because of their democratic governance and management as well as their policies.
Research by the European Confederation of Co-operatives and Worker-owned Enterprises shows that in terms of economic performance, the employment and enterprise survival rate for worker and social co-operatives through the recent global recession was better compared to conventional enterprises.
During the financial crisis of 2009, for example, the Co-operative Bank in the UK fared better than most and as a result there was a significant shift of consumers away from traditional banks and into that bank, which (also) has an explicit policy of sustainable investment.
Such shifts illustrate what consumers, business and governments alike are increasingly recognising: that there is a need for profound change, and that people have many of the ideas, technologies and collaborative vehicles in place already to achieve this.
Research shows that economic growth as people have known it for the past few hundred years is no longer serving them. Put simply, they have had all this growth but they are not getting any happier. This is partly because they are measuring the wrong things.
Being well and wealthy are not the same. If they add up the financial implications of what Mark Anielski calls society’s ills (nuclear waste, the hypoxic dead zone in Gulf of Mexico, congestion, pollution, wells drying up and so on) as well as the wealth, the bads as well as the goods, people will see that growth may be uneconomic after all. They need to measure what counts including long-term human well-being.
As Keynes famously said, people should not in their pursuit of economic growth “sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance”.
Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, says that the fundamental problem is that the three challenges of economic growth, poverty alleviation and climate change are being pitted against each other in a futile three-horse race which is “as confused analytically as it is dangerous economically and environmentally”.
Instead they need to be addressed simultaneously, and this needs to start in the developed world.
“The developed world must demonstrate for all, especially the developing world, that low-carbon growth is not only possible, but that it can be a productive, efficient and attractive route to overcome world poverty. It is indeed the only sustainable route.”
There is no shortage of examples that this is possible. Countries such as Costa Rica, Portugal and Croatia have all achieved low infant mortality rates – an important indicator of human well-being – without a high carbon growth path.
But while the consensus is increasingly that change must happen, it remains sluggish.
The Sustainable Economy Dialogue, initiated by the CPSL in 2003, has canvassed the voices of 400 global CEOs in five countries (Austria, Kenya, South Africa, the US and the USA) on the matter. It asked them: what should a smart and good economy be about, and what is stopping people from achieving this?
The results showed a remarkable consensus. All were broadly in favour of forging an economy that delivers improved well-being, now and in the future, in a way that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and based on effective participation.
So what is keeping people back? The global dialogue identified some of the things that these CEOs believe are currently keeping change at bay. These include lack of education and awareness, governance failings, inappropriate incentives, short-term goals, operational issues in terms of what gets measure and costed and good old fashioned human greed and selfishness.
There was also no shortage of ideas for how business might be a part of the solution. Improved leadership, the use of alternative metrics, lobbying and ‘base of the pyramid’ strategies were all put forward.
Business, like cities and co-operatives and other grassroots movements, is perhaps better placed to innovate. And while much work is being done at nation-state level to overcome some of these stumbling blocks, these smaller entities can and should continue to lead the way in this regard.
And there is no reason why South African cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, that have such unique features and so much to offer the world, should not take their place in this movement.
With Einstein’s dictum “the significant challenges we face cannot be resolved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” in mind, the surest way to get to the new economy is to shift the system from the bottom up. People have to think and operative differently.