As the dusts settles on Rio+20 what are we to make of it? What key elements of the Sustainable Development debate might have been missing and what signs of hope are there outside the official treaty-making world?
A failure of epic proportions?
Commentators are fairly unanimous that the Rio+20 talks have been a failure. Expectations had of course been low. And because of this most developed country leaders stayed away. In opening the summit Ban Ki-Moon admitted the draft outcome was ‘disappointing’ due to the conflicting interests of member states. China’s Sha Zukang, the UN’s lead on the conference agreed calling the statement “an outcome that makes nobody happy”.
NGOs were unanimous in their disgust with the conference outcome statement, The Future We Want and Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo spoke of “the longest suicide note in history…the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model…a failure of epic proportions.”
So what was missing from the talks what hope might there be coming from outside official negotiating rooms?
The end of an era of global diplomacy?
There seemed to be some consensus that the era of global treaties might be over, at least for the time-being. George Monbiot concluded his roll call of Rio failures by calling for us to give up on global agreements. Barbara Stocking, head of Oxfam called on civil society to “pick up and move on… take action”. Lasse Gustavasson, WWF’s Executive Director of Conservation agreed there had been a fundamental failure of “sophisticated UN diplomacy.”
UN Environment Programme Director Achim Steiner said the conference was evidence of “a world at a loss what to do” and that “we can’t legislate sustainable development in the current state of international relations.” Of course it is not just on Sustainable Development that global agreement is failing – the same is true of solutions to the financial system and issues such as Syria.
US Delegation Lead Todd Stern seemed to agree that global multi-state solutions no longer hold out much hope. Todd joined others in suggesting that the failures of Copenhagen and now Rio+20 signal the end of the post-Cold War global treaty era.
Both Stern and WWF’s Gustavasson noted that far more commitment and leadership had been shown at Rio+20 by grassroots, citizen-led civil society groups, city mayors and the private sector. Indeed, Stern spoke of the early stages of a new era of new forms of global co-operation linking nations with business and civil society that is now flourishing in the shadow of the hollowing-out of formal processes. Some commentated that there was far more of a meeting of minds between some business and civil society folk in the 3000 odd fringe events at Rio+20 than in the negotiating rooms.
It is perhaps hard to see how such one-off, informal co-operation between the private sector and civil society will replace binding global treaties, but perhaps there is some small reason to be hopeful still? We’ve blogged often about reasons to be hopeful that citizen-led action might save us from the failures of our ‘leaders’ but if, for the time being at least, we have to give up hope for action from Governments, then what signs are there that the private sector might take up some of the slack?
Reason to be hopeful?
John Vidal has written a slightly more upbeat and optimistic post-conference view than Monbiot. One reason for Vidal’s optimism comes from conversations with legendary campaigner Richard Sandbrook who told Vidal after the first Rio summit that he was not as downbeat as NGOs and commentators at the time. Sandbrook’s view was that it is not at summits that change happens. For Sandbrook change always happens in the aftermath of seemingly disappointing events with new debates and global understandings emerging from the ashes.
I’m an optimist (and recent new father) and perhaps that clouds my judgement, but in the world I often inhabit, of progressive corporate debate, I am noticing a marked change of gear and new conversations seem to be possible.
My friend Craig Bennett of FoE spoke on Radio 4 post-Rio about a similar optimism around thinking at the vanguard of the progressive corporate world. Around five years ago, campaigners like Craig and I noticed a shift in the NGO meetings we held. No longer was it us in one huddle and the CBI and business in the other. Suddenly there seemed to be more common ground between NGO thinking and that of some of the progressives in business. Over the last few years the most progressive thinkers in the corporate world have become more and more disillusioned with current markets and have realised that most of the low hanging fruit has been picked. For real change to occur they recognise that governments need to fairly radically reframe the markets and that society needs to be engaged in a very new debate about the meaning of ‘progress’.
Today, some in the business world are willing to think what might have been unthinkable things just a few years ago. I’d be the last to suggest that even the most progressive business leaders are willing to sanction debate about things like alternatives to capitalism (yet…). But it’s no longer heresy in some boardrooms to discuss the seemingly fundamental challenges of decoupling growth from ecological collapse or the need to shift from a focus on ‘wants’ to a focus on ‘real needs’. A number of business leaders like Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher, Paul Polman and Amada Sourry of Unilever and Ian Marchant of SSE have all questioned our current economic model and called for significant change.
These, as yet isolated, progressive voices in business point to some reason for hope. The other strong beacon of possibility is the rise and rise of grass-roots, citizen-led responses to our dilemmas such as Transition Towns. It’s no wonder that business is now keen to engage with such community and citizen-led movements as Transition Towns’ Transition Streets and Sustran’s DIY Streets initiatives. Such initiatives show far more hope of radical change than do global summits and treaties.
The best our political ‘leaders’ seemed able to come up with at Rio+20 was ‘green growth’ and its love-child ‘sustained growth’. How many more moronic oxymorons can they think up one wonders…?
Sustainable Development or Sustained Growth?
This call for ‘sustained’ growth is indeed more than just oxymoronic – in the face of all the evidence we now have its barmy. We live on an ever more fragile finite planet, where we are at or beyond safe limits already and where only in the wildest dreams of techno-fantasists can we imagine decoupling of the scale and urgency required.
So in this year of Rio+20 it is timely to recall Brundtland’s 1987 definition of Sustainable Development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: –the concept of needs; and–the idea of limitations imposed on the environment.”
There are two parts to this definition; firstly issues of efficiency of production and planetary limits and secondly issues around ‘human needs’. Sadly most debates about sustainability have focused only on the first of these. Too few are making efforts to better understand this second part of the definition – the true meaning of flourishing, prosperity and meeting human-needs for wellbeing. Without this second lens we are operating as if half-blind. Even the half of the story that Rio+20 did debate, natural limits, was debated half-heartedly and focused through a lens of obsession with sustaining growth. If things didn’t fit the ‘sustaining growth’ model they were off limits.
Questions of where we are trying to get to – what the objective in life might be – have been the subject of thinking for time immemorial. Aristotle spoke of the concept of ‘lives well lived’ in 350 BC. And yet little or no thought is given to such ideas in our current, hyper-consumerist, lifestyles which take ‘stuff’ as a proxy for progress. Professor Tim Jackson summarises our shift from wellbeing-giving intrinsic values to consumerist extrinsic ones in his recent TED talk; “the ‘insatiability doctrine – we spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.”
It is perhaps therefore no surprise that Rio+20 has been found failing in its task. Since 1987 we’ve lost our way. We asked Brundtland to come up with a definition for development that could be sustainable and then ignored half the definition. We chose to focus on the ‘other’ half – the bit about the planet and material limits and ignored the somewhat more uncomfortable questions about ourselves and our real needs (as opposed to created wants).
To use the analogy of a journey, it is as if we are fixated on how much fuel is left in our tank, and how efficiently we are driving without, for a moment, thinking about where we are trying to get to and what route to take.
What do we really need?
Many will be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Others like Manfred Max-Neef have updated Maslow’s approach and there is now a rich understanding in Theories of Human Needs around what it means to flourish and what brings wellbeing to individuals, communities and societies.
For a long time there have been counter-intuitive signs questioning our current economic model and leading Nobel prize winners like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stigliz and Dan Kahneman, to question the meaning of prosperity. But little of this thinking managed to find its way into the Rio+20 debates.
In 1968 Since Robert Kennedy questioned GNP as a measure, saying, “it does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Now evidence such as the Nef* Happy Planet Index and Genuine Progress Indicator have been helping challenge assumptions about the link between wealth, growth and wellbeing or prosperity.
These indicators show for instance, that despite continuing exponential economic growth since the 1970s, in the rich world, life-satisfaction has flat-lined. Indeed in the rich world, the opposite of wellbeing – ill-being – is growing, with levels of depression, isolation, mistrust and substance abuse soaring. Work by academics and think tanks shows that, above a level of income most in the rich world long since achieved, only 7% of our wellbeing comes from income.
The key things which increase wellbeing, defined as ‘feeling good and functioning well’, are connection to friends, family and community; giving back and volunteering; being physically active; having life goals and continuing to learn; and taking notice and being engaged. These are what Nef call the ‘five ways to wellbeing’.
Limits to growth – there is no Planet-B
Combined with this questioning of a ‘bigger is better’ paradigm is the increasing realization that we are living off both the capital and the interest of our spaceship-earth and are at or near the limits of safety in terms of the pressure of the macro-economy on the planet.
Economist Kenneth Boulding quips that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”. As Richard Branson has put it, “There is no planet-B.”
However we are living as if there were no limits. The last fifty years, the ‘era of pseudo-satisfaction’ and hyper-industrial, growth-obsessed consumerism has driven us to seek to deliver materially to what are known as ‘non-material’ needs. Living our lives mediated through extrinsic values, and seeking identity and love through material possessions, is costing us the earth whilst failing to satisfy our underlying wellbeing needs.
The scale of the challenge of ‘decoupling’ this growth from ecological impacts is truly enormous. Scale and intensity are key to decoupling and yet, whilst globally material and energy intensity has been reducing, the scale of the economy has been far outpacing any of these improvements. The very best technological improvements tend to sit at around 2% efficiency improvements p.a. or a factor two improvement over 35 years. And in many areas the low hanging fruit has been picked. For example electric motors are now at 90% efficiency – they can’t go much further. To keep below a liberal 450ppm emissions target, we would need the carbon intensity of every global dollar of economic output to fall from today’s 768gm of CO2 to 6gm of CO2. That’s an 11% p.a. reduction on every global dollar of output. To put that in context, the best reductions managed between 1990 and 2007 were 0.7% p.a. Even if growth stopped in developed countries we would still need 5-6% p.a. reductions. As financial analysts Tullett Prebon have recently said “technology is no seventh cavalry riding to the rescue.”
A consensus is therefore building that, unless we find something akin to a perpetual-motion machine fast, macro-scale growth will need to halt. And if the poor world is to continue to develop, that will mean finding a reverse gear for the rich world.
Aside from in political circles, there is now a growing and influential consensus that we are reaching the limits of growth. We may now, like it or not, be reaching the end of global growth, due to peaking of resources, ecological collapse and the meltdown or debt-onation of our financial systems.
Professor Kevin Anderson of The Tyndale Centre, one of the world’s leading climate scientists has called for a “planned recession” and stated in December 2011 “Tackling climate change is not compatible with economic growth.” Echoing this, in January 2012, Tullett Prebon, one of the world’s leading inter-dealer money brokers, wrote “We see an impending collision between an economic system which by its nature, must grow, and a finite resource set which, ultimately, cannot grow.”
Prosperity without growth
Evidence is now emerging to help question the assumption that ‘more is better’ and Economics Professor Jean Gadrey, of the Sarkozy Stiglitz commission recently stated that “If we abandon quantitative growth, will we be condemned to social regression? The answer is no. There are good quality scenarios that show we can increase prosperity without relying upon traditional economic growth”.
New research from Nef’s Great Transition macro-economic modelling and from Professors Tim Jackson2 and Peter Victor suggests that, if we redesign economics correctly, we do not actually need growth to deliver the kinds of things we expect from a successful economy such as high employment, fiscal balance, high wellbeing and ecological efficiency.
If economies are forced to cease growing and to focus on new measures of progress such as wellbeing then the implications for commerce will of course be significant. As Professor Jackson has said, we urgently need to tease apart what kinds of economic goods actually contribute to the satisfaction of human needs and promote wellbeing, and which simply serve as pseudo-satisfiers or destroyers of the underlying needs.
Whether capitalism can be compatible with a beyond-growth wellbeing economy is as yet unclear. What is called for is a shift away from the commodification of everything and to a market system not based on profit maximisation but the ecological efficiency of the equitable satisfaction of wellbeing-needs. Whether the entities we call ‘companies’ will morph to be compatible with such a paradigm or new enterprises, more like co—operatives, family, employee and community owned enterprise will be the norm in this new paradigm is also not yet clear. But what is clear is that we can’t go on in the same blind fashion we are currently pursuing. As Amanda Sourry, Chair of Unilever UK has said “The old business model of growth at any price is broken. We have to find a new way of doing business.”
The rise of wellbeing economics
In progressive circles a new economics is emerging that questions the meaning of prosperity and posits that instead of focusing on growing wealth we ought instead to focus on growing wellbeing. Such thinking comes at a time when a significant segment of society, described as Cultural Creatives and estimated to be 33% of US citizens, are tuning in to Thoreau’s insights in Walden that “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”
Recently these debates have started to go mainstream. Bodies such as the World Economic Forum, the UN, Harvard Business Review, Oxford, Cambridge and LSE Universities and social movements like Happy City, Action for Happiness and Transition Towns are all integrating a wellbeing perspective into their thinking.
Even some politicians are tuning in to these new cultural norms and framing their new politics in terms of wellbeing and community rather than wealth and individualism. President Sarkozy asked Joseph Stiglitz to lead a high-level policy review on these issues and, after his own review***, Prime Minister David Cameron has set his Office of National Statistics the task of measuring and developing policy around wellbeing. As well as numerous speeches on the subject of wellbeing, Cameron recently called on business “to work on improving quality of life and wellbeing.”
Echoing this, Sir Gus O’Donnell, whilst head of the civil service and Cabinet Secretary, said that he thought within ten years wellbeing will be the economy’s headline indicator and that GDP will be a subsidiary indicator. Alongside these UK moves, the EU, OECD, France, many US States, China, the World Bank and UN are all committed to rethinking how we measure progress through the addition of a wellbeing perspective.
The corporate world starts to tune in to wellbeing and needs
As Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows, trust in CEO is at an all time low. One CEO who is taking a visionary and pioneering approach to responsible business is Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher B&Q, and Guardian Sustainable Business leader of the year. Cheshire has recently spoken about the need for a new capitalism which prioritizes wellbeing over growth and has said ‘I am convinced that this approach, bringing a wellbeing lens to strategic and sustainability challenges, is one of the most exciting areas for breakthrough innovation. It can bring a valuable new strategic compass to the journey we are on as a company.”
Cheshire is just one of a number of global CEOs who are working hard behind the scenes to understand how they can evolve their business models so that their products, services and brands deliver maximum possible wellbeing for society per unit planetary input. Such a reorientation may start to show that alternative forms of value-adding and economy are feasible and palatable.
Ian Marchant, CEO of Scottish and Southern Energy has blogged about his support for my local community energy enterprise and his vision for the future of SSE and that “An important part of this relates to wellbeing and to work we are doing to integrate wellbeing as a lens for strategic innovation. As a company we are looking at how to bring the idea of wellbeing into our strategic planning. Companies can and must make a positive contribution to wellbeing.”
There are broadly three main areas where progressive companies can help push the boundaries of thinking and action on these issues. Firstly they can push government to radically reframe the market to favor those companies willing to be part of a rapid transition to a new wellbeing economics. Secondly they can help take society on a journey from a paradigm of ‘wealth, growth and material as prosperity’ to one of ‘wellbeing as prosperity’. And thirdly they can shift their strategic direction to focus not on producing ever more stuff but on the ecological efficiency of delivering to human needs.
The holy-grail for these companies has become the ‘wellbeing dividend’ where sustainability efforts can be shown to increase rather than damage customer and societal quality of life and wellbeing. In its Sustainable Living Plan, for example, Unilever committed to “improve the wellbeing of one million people.” Having made that promise, the company must now work out what it must do to deliver on it. The progressive corporate world seems poised for the next step: turning theories of human needs into practice through experimentation and innovation.
What next? Can the SDGs deliver on wellbeing?
For want of any credible response to the challenges of our time from governments it seems that progress rests on the shoulders of civil society and progressives in the commercial world. Perhaps if civil society and the progressive corporate world can continue to examine questions of human needs and help update definitions to progress and prosperity we can hope for future global action which is truer to Brundtland’s definition than Rio+20 managed to be.
As Saamah Abdallah has blogged the SDG process could be the place such progress might be made and you can be sure that Nef will be pushing for just such progress. Although, as Alex Evans has blogged here, its as yet unclear just how the SDGs will be developed, Dave Cameron can play a key role in continuing to push the wellbeing agenda as co-chair of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda.
Cameron has bravely pushed wellbeing over his time in power. But he has said less and less on the subject over time. He ought to recognise that questions of ‘needs’ and wellbeing are now coming centre stage in progressive debates about Sustainable Development and that he would be risking little in injecting such thinking into the SDG process.
*The New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org), of which Jules Peck is a Trustee, are the world’s leading think-tank on heterodox
**Economics commissioner of the UK Sustainable Development Commission and author of the ground-breaking book Prosperity Without Growth
***The Quality of Life Review Directed by Jules Peck