I was reading Dan Brown’s Origins on a plane to Vietnam this past summer.
It’s a fun read, especially if you like art and all that art has revealed or inspired over the course of human history. In the book, Brown proposes the two questions most asked by humankind are:
- Where are we are from?
- Where are we going?
Both big questions.
But I would propose, at least for the time being, to put the first on hold, and that the only meaningful question these days is where are we going?
Not the black tragi-comedy Trump is writing with all its horrid short to medium term effects.
No, I am referring to the confluence of the crisis of climate change and the emerging threat of authoritarianism. Two trajectories threatening humanity like nothing ever before in our history, a conflux which transcends more than one presidency, even one so grievously aggravating these conditions to profoundly dangerous affect.
Heading for a Dystopian Future?
The question I refer to is:
“Are we headed for the dystopian future” so many writers are talking about these days?
Are we, in effect, witnessing the collapse of the liberal economic democratic order?
Many have believed and continue believe…. including myself…. that this order, this system, could effectively and efficiently advance a broad sustainability agenda.
While we never believed for a moment that the arch of history would be a perfect curve, we did believe it would eventually bend towards a world where institutions and economics would save ourselves from our own worst instincts and habits.
Should we cast aside the hope of evolutionary market efficiencies and voting?
Will we be shaking hands in a dozen years with the dystopian future predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
Man on the Moon in 7 Years, Carbonless Economy in 12?
If the biggest question is indeed where we are going, the second most important question must be: what am I doing about it?
I remain an optimist, a critical optimist. And there is nothing like a 10-year challenge to focus our concentration.
If America could put a guy on the moon in less than seven years using slide rulers, pencils, and erasers, surely, we can address and existential threat by reducing carbon emission 70% to 80% in less than twelve.
Funny thing is, we don’t need to invent much to fix most of the problem.
We can get most of the way by simply facing the facts that we:
- put too much meat on the table
- we hate being too hot or too cold
- we buy too much at too low a price
- we throw out too much stuff
- and we don’t like public transit
Change anyone one of these problems and we save a whole lot of coral reefs, ice sheets, beaches etc. Change all of them and we are most of the way to cooling the planet to more natural levels.
Seeing the problem is easy in plain language. Changing our habits is the hard part.
On related note, I read an interesting article from B Targeted Marketing Co. @btargeted which argued the sacred wall between non-profit organizations which exist to do good and businesses to make profits continues to erode.
Companies talk too much about their sustainability brand
Companies, went the argument, can realize bottom-line benefits of developing sustainable brands through cause marketing, donations, or reducing energy use, or increasing waste efficiencies etc.
Non-profits can bolster their reputations and coffers through strategic sales and marketing.
Critical optimism tells this is a little bit true, but mostly still wishful thinking.
Turn your twitter from #sustainable for a moment, however, and you will find the overwhelming majority of companies spend far more time and energy seeking profit and avoiding social and environmental responsibility than creating real sustainability value.
Too many companies still talk too much about their sustainability brand and do too little. To be kind – and with apologies to 3 BL whose tag line is Brands taking a Stand – I must say most brands are definitively not taking a stand on sustainability.
Walk around NYC for a few days as I did last summer on vacation with my daughter and see if you can find evidence of all these brands taking a stand on something readily identifiable as sustainable. If it were close to true, surly we would see it in the mecca of all markets. I didn’t and I looked very hard. If companies were taking a stand, we shouldn’t have to search for it: brands are, apparently, the public face of companies.
Most brands do nothing, some do the bare minimum, and a very few – nowhere near enough — do anything truly meaningful in light IPCC findings.
Let’s be accurate then: most companies take a stance, something done sitting down. Taking a stand requires one actively stand up and hold one’s ground against the enemy. Are companies doing this?
Cesar Chavez took a stand. Rosa Parks took a stand. Native Americans at Standing Rock Sioux reservation are taking a stand.
And while I have momentarily deluded myself at times during my 30 years of hoping and working for more and better corporate sustainability, it is not possible to ‘unsee’ the IPCC facts staring us in the face.
Profits still the Point with 99% of Companies
Whatever you think companies or investors are doing, it’s not near enough, it’s just not.
Just ask any big 5 consulting firm what percentage of fees they generate from, say, tax avoidance, regulatory side stepping, or shipping jobs to countries with innumerable human and labor rights violations, compared to integrating sustainability into their client’s core business.
So, where are we going?
Last week I suggested that we are witnessing the emerging confluence of authoritarianism, hyper-consumerism, and carbon.
Which translates in the vernacular as: Putin, petrol, and profits.
I fear the emerging trajectories of climate change and the authoritarian right is seriously, if not irreparably damaging hopes for a democratic, market-based sustainable world order.
So, while critical optimism compels me to celebrate the small wins. Common sense tells me the long hoped for liberal economic democratic evolution to ‘sustainable’ may never have been possible in the first place.
Whats next? Maybe the US elections will tell us there is more hope than we imagine now.