‘We are one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase.’
David Suzuki Foundation
‘I have seen the future, and it won’t work’
Paul Krugman , New York Times
The chilling accuracy of Paul Krugman’s observation was recently confirmed in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) review of more than 10 different future scenarios, including those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Royal Dutch Shell.
Of those, the MIT study concluded that Shell’s ‘Blueprints’ scenario resulted in the lowest realistically achievable CO2 emissions levels, because it was based on the rapid implementation of advanced technologies and energy efficiency initiatives, and involved a highly effective collaboration between government, industry, international institutions, NGOs and academia.
Even then CO2 levels would stabilize at around 650ppm… yet 450ppm is currently accepted as the viable maximum.
We now understand that at this level various serious trigger points and feedback loops start operating. Not least of these is the acidification of the oceans, causing them to become a net emitter of CO2 rather than a sink. These increasing CO2 levels then feed back into higher temperatures, accelerating both ice melt at the poles and the melting of tundra ice with its consequent release of methane.
So the evidence indicates that we cannot rely on technology alone to ensure our survival. ‘Business as usual’ is not an option – much more needs to be done to raise awareness and change our behaviour. The Blueprints scenario gives us a five-year window. We must act now!
Arguably the biggest obstacle to this critical change is the absence of public engagement with the urgency of our predicament, resulting in a lack of any real commitment to carbon reduction.
In line with Einstein’s observation that ‘No problem can be resolved at the same level of thinking that created it’. I believe that only a world-class lifestyle behaviour change programme, stemming from a shift in awareness regarding our predicament, could take us through this next challenging period with a realistic prospect of minimizing its impacts on human survival and well-being.
Such a lifestyle change delivery programme will, in essence, be a community-based ‘bottom up’ process in which:
Galvanizing communities around the world to work for their future in this way, by taking responsibility for themselves and the whole, has the capacity to create a profound and dynamic shift, and with it real hope of significant change from our present trajectory.
Without such a change, the research demonstrates that technology alone will not save us.
However the west and developed nations show no signs that their communities are responding in any way at all. So who and which country might take the lead at this momentous and historical moment. I suspect we are witnessing the failure of the democracy experiment. The cynical western developed world, which is run essentially by the major corporations and banks has no answer whatsoever to the problem. The impotence of the so called most powerful nation on the planet, the USA, has been a public scandal, its failure at Copenhagen was dismal. Its Government and people struggling to cope with the effect on the economy following the implosion, and tax payer bail out of its “over exuberant” banking system. So can India help? Probably not. This is a buoyant economy driven by dynastic entrepreneurs who have morfed into very capable global players. But her administration is both corrupted and chaotic. So no chance here. Whose left? The second largest economy in the world and I would suggest the only with both the capacity, will, and possibility of leading the world, in exemplar fashion, out of our current self destructive trajectory. Her cultural roots firmly embedded in the Tao and Confucianism explain that Humanity follows earth, earth follows heaven, heaven follows the Tao and the Tao follows what is natural. What an amazingly simple piece of wisdom that she can teach the world!
Charles Darwin warned: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.’
So if we are to survive, evolution demands we each recognise that:
This step is to respond to the present crisis by releasing from within ourselves a deeper understanding of our profound relationship with each other and the planet that gives us life.
As a society we are in the process of moving from the adolescent stage of ‘in reaction to’ to the more adult stage of ‘in relationship with’. The economic models of the adolescent stage no longer serve us. In the same way that the skill in a space shot is to know when to blow the explosive bolts, releasing the booster rockets of the first stage and allowing them to fall away, so we must blow the symbolic bolts connecting us to outmoded thinking. The boosters have a specific function, to enable the craft to escape the earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull. Our current systems have enabled us to enrich and empower two billion of our species, but they can take us no further.
In economic development terms it is clear we must change our definition of prosperity or we will need at least five planets to accommodate our current belief that prosperity is about overt consumption and profligate waste. As Kenneth Boulding a prominent Economist says, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist!”The economics of the future will recognise that without environmental sustainability, social justice and spiritual fulfilment ( or the feeling of deep inner connectedness with each other, the planet and ourselves) we will never have true prosperity. Whereas we worship the great god of financial capital we forget most of the other kinds that include environmental, human, social, intellectual, cultural, heritage, etc. A step in the right direction of development economics is to value externals. This is the damage done to the commons by releasing toxicity into the environment the “clean up” cost of which is not included in the price. Only by knowing the true costs of the environmental destruction caused by any product or process can we make intelligent decisions with regard to price and choice.
We must now change course from a fiercely competitive win/lose system to a collaborative win/win scenario, where humanity shares all its knowledge of what is and what is not working for the benefit of the whole, at both local and global levels.
Each human being, simply by virtue of their human birth, has the right to clean water, nutritious food, proper shelter, access to education, to healthcare, to justice and financial resources. These priorities are only sustainable in a healthy, natural environment, supported by a viable economic system and an environmental Bill of Rights.
While these universal values are not prioritised by our present economic system, they appear unattainable. However, once we prioritise them, we can build a new resilience within the current economic model, supporting it by authorising and encouraging the widespread use of Government, community and other complementary currencies, that support these values. Then our economics would be ready to be redefined by the Earth Charter and similar documents that celebrate and affirm life.
We will need to evolve a critical mass of people from all sectors of society, our private and public institutions, communities and individuals, coalescing around this recognition of the need for a dramatic change in our values. It should, however, be possible when we realise that it is only people that make up our institutions, and people have the capacity to change
Humanity is the result of five billion years of earth’s evolution. We will discover, within the next five years, whether we are still a viable species. If we cannot engage behaviour change at this scale, we will have failed the ‘intelligence test’ that evolution requires us to answer. The rewards for success are beyond our wildest dreams – but the penalties for failure surpass our worst nightmares.
In short we require nothing less than a shift to a higher consciousness requiring our worldview to embrace a deep knowing of our interdependence with each other and the whole of nature. This shift moves us from the evolution of consciousness to conscious evolution. We become aware not only of our rights , but also our responsibilities. The unconscious trajectory that has taken us this far shifts to enable us to connect cause with effect and begin to seriously take charge of “cause” in our lives. We are trustees for all, not blind competitors and we must commit to this aspiration.
UNEP, Green Economy Initiative, Green Cities, Buildings and Transport Council,
Former Chairman, Global Agenda Council on Urban Management, World Economic Forum, Davos and current alumnae of all Global Agenda Councils.
Vice Chairman, Climate Prosperity Alliance
*Written in collaboration with Pippa Vine, freelance writer and editor, Cambridge, UK.
 Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, was awarded the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.