Counting the Consequences

I don’t believe I am alone in feeling that campaigners for a sustainable world have in recent years lost the impact they once enjoyed. There are a number of reasons for this. Economic crisis is one. So is the tendency for the media and the public to become fatigued with issues, especially ones that appear to have no quick fix. Plus much of the ongoing debate has been horribly confused by various ‘sceptics’. Politics has changed as well, with many of those now in power lacking any serious commitment to sustainable development.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere nudge up towards 400 parts per million, the oceans are turning more acid, ecosystems continue to be degraded and natural resources depleted, and the mass extinction of animals and plants gathers ever more pace. Volatile food prices, floods, storms and droughts underline how we have entered a period of consequences. With our population growing towards at least 9 billion by mid-century, and with so many countries worldwide now hell-bent on achieving more economic growth of the old kind, we are not in a good place.

It has always struck me that optimism is an essential part of effective campaigning. Even in the circumstances prevailing now it is vital to present a more positive view of what is possible. At the same time, though, it is important to be honest, both about the situation and about what might be needed to address it. In that spirit, let me offer an uncharacteristically bleak verdict on the place we as a ‘movement’ of sustainability advocates have reached. 

The unfortunate truth is that we are losing. Many of the achievements of recent decades are being reversed in policy. The momentum in the global economic system is accelerating us towards a cliff. A handful of pioneers are living differently, and a few leading businesses are changing their ways of doing things, but the vast majority are not. Time is very short – especially in relation to climate change – and it could be that ‘tipping points’ will soon be passed.

In making this grim assessment I wouldn’t say that much of what is being done now by different advocates for sustainability is wrong. It is, however, clearly not having enough of an impact, not by a long way. An obvious step is the creation of a more strategic platform from which the different elements of what might be described as the sustainability ‘movement’ could operate.

I have the quotes around that word ‘movement’ because I don’t believe we actually have a movement yet. We have different pieces that could potentially comprise a sustainability movement: effective writers, economists, communications experts, politicians who ‘get it’, some leading companies and a wide range of very good non-governmental and campaigning groups. But what all these groups don’t have yet are clear common aims – including genuinely strategic ones.

There are some shared policy goals, and from time to time different groups come together in achieving them. I have seen how this can work through being involved in the coalition work that led to among other things the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, the Make Poverty History campaign, and the Climate Change Act of 2008. This was good and it shows at one level what is possible, but what is now necessary must go many steps beyond this level of cooperation and coordination.

There are several jobs that demand such a ramping-up of cooperation. They include the need to bring about a step change in consciousness of the dire ecological situation we are entering, while at the same time conveying a sense of hope and optimism concerning what might be done about it. That in turn will need to be delivered through far more effective communications. 

There is a need to drive sustainability into the heart of politics, including through a new economic discourse. And when it comes to politics there must be a widening of the sustainability narrative such that even those on the right wing of political debate can see a more natural home. 

There is a need to deliver inspiration through practical projects showing how things could be better. All this needs to be bound together through simple messages and ideas as compelling as those that embarked the world on its current competition-driven ‘free’ markets spree. We need to ignite a revolution that big, but based on sustainability.

Coming up with a broad overall plan and some sense of who will do which parts would be a major leap forward. Who is best placed to work out the economics, and who to do the awareness raising? Which elements are best placed to work with better businesses or put pressure on laggardly ones? Who is best able to engage voters? If this could be broadly worked out, then the collective impact would likely be bigger than the individual parts can presently achieve. It seems to me that one broad strategy, with a horizon of, say, 10 years, could get more value from the same resources.

All this is entirely possible to do because it’s been done before. The world as we find it didn’t appear by accident: it was shaped by people with an agenda. They were a diverse bunch: media owners, free-market economists, business leaders, academics, think tanks, writers and politicians. If those working for sustainability are to have the kind of impact achieved by the free-market globalisers, there needs to be some real movement-building based on shared strategic goals. If some of the major players were to attempt this, we might see a significant increase in effectiveness.

I know very well how hard this would be. Some of the most important organisations working for sustainability have brands to protect. Diluting their hard-won identities through coalition work is a problem. So is the potential loss of revenue, as fundraising effectiveness is sometimes blunted through working closely with others. And then there are the genuine differences that divide some parts of the movement – for example in relation to nuclear energy or onshore wind power.

While all this is real, it is actually quite small beer compared to the impending destruction of life on Earth and the hundreds of millions of people who will be seriously impacted if we don’t act quickly. We are in an emergency situation and it seems to me that we need to start behaving accordingly.

That will require real leadership from the people who are influential in the different parts of our potential movement. It will require the heads of big organisations to start asking tough questions: for example whether it is better to lose some revenue while increasing impact, or better to grow bigger in a more parochial (but ultimately doomed) niche. It will require leaders to make the case for compromise on big issues of principle: for example on whether it will be possible to work more closely with progressive businesses and financial institutions. There will be issues around whether specialist organisations (for example working for particular species) should articulate an economic vision to the wider public.

It’s no longer five to midnight. It’s past that time. We are into a period of consequences. The days when non-governmental groups, companies and politicians working for sustainability could be sufficiently effective in isolation from each another are gone. Now is the moment to make a step change in strategy. It won’t be easy but I don’t think there is any other choice but to do it.

First published by The Ecologist, January 14th 2013