2012: the year of the unreasonable

The Guardian -- The Sustainable Business Blog, Huffington Post (Canada)

December 30, 2011

The sustainable business circle's golden rule is to keep one's chin up, point out the good news, and duck the hard questions by appealing to an unknowable future. Being a party pooper is considered impolite, except perhaps through the majesty of John Elkington's very English metaphors. My personal prospects might be well served by joining Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in speaking of shared values. Better to be like Emma Howard Boyd, stretching optimism to breaking point by being positive about a financial sector whose bankers have pocketed US$2 trillion in the last five years, and whose actions have cost the OECD 26 percent of its collective GDP.

Penning positive sustainability predications for 2012 on the same day that Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned of a 1930's style meltdown in the global economy, is challenging. The implications of China's imploding property boom does not improve my state of mind. That the City instructed David Cameron to either secure their interests in Europe or turn out the lights provides an expected, but ugly, backdrop. And all that in the context of the fall in the share of US working citizens in their own GDP, down to an historic 58 percent, which bodes badly for our cherished north Atlantic ways.

Unfounded optimism, offered up to calm our rattled nerves with soothing lullabies, is a luxury we cannot afford. Time will tell whether 2012 will be a disaster on the scale that Lagarde predicts, and let's hope not. But, as predictions go, one cannot go far wrong in saying that 2012 is going to be ghastly for, quite literally, hundreds of millions of people. Allowing oneself the discomfort of being troubled by current affairs might not be a bad thing. As Ed Mayo, my one time boss at the New Economics Foundation often gently reminded me, it is helpful to be at least a little angry when one gets up in the morning.

Noah's biblical story spells out the fate of unreasonable folks, as I wrote in a recent China Entrepreneurs Club article: "Noah attempted repeatedly to warn his neighbors of the coming deluge, but was ignored or mocked". Ray Anderson championed environmental sustainability, despite being ridiculed for many years by his peers, employees and partners. Similarly for Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, John Browne of BP and many others who have stuck their necks out to say and do the right thing.

Being ridiculed for doing the right thing is an art I have been working on over the last year in contributing to unreasonable initiatives. The South African Renewables Initiative was launched in Durban as an international financing partnership to accelerate the roll out of renewables in South Africa. The China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development has recommended to the State Council that China greens its expected trillion dollar flow of outward investment over the next five years. The Korean based Global Green Growth Institute is working with governments around the world in advancing national and regional green growth plans and the Canadian based Centre for International Governance Innovation has provided an incubation hub for debating policy innovations that, if implemented, would better align financial market reform to sustainability outcomes. And we all hope that the UN High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, due to report early in the new year, will raise our spirits and ambitions in the run up to Rio+20.

These initiatives are reasonably unreasonable, but we can and must do better. The Occupy movement has set the disruptive pace in calling for change, and it is our task to help deliver it. For 2012, I hereby open the unreasonable list with three unreasonable ambitions. Firstly, Rio+20 could be a moment for some of the world's largest businesses, working with others, to initiate their own sustainability marshal plan by establishing collective stretch targets, their own post Millennium Development Goals to deliver the benefits many nations are failing to achieve. Secondly, although we do seem to be able to land a decent, international carbon price, we could commit at Davos and then at the G20 in Mexico to ridding the world of the US$1 trillion worth of tax financed, fossil fuel subsidies that in effect place a negative price on carbon today. And, thirdly, it is time to confront the financial sector. During 2012 we can agree to establish, at least in Europe, a financial transactions tax as the vanguard of a root and branch realignment of the financial markets to delivering sustainability outcomes.

Predictions for next year, left to their own devices, look pretty bleak. So my wish is that we declare 2012 the year of the unreasonable, establish an unreasonable list and set ourselves some ridiculously ambitious goals.

Simon Zadek works on sustainability issues worldwide. He is an independent advisor and author and blogs regularly at zadek.net.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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