Sustainability movement has made great strides over 20 years but needs to up its game if it is to progress.
Greenpeace and WWF have more in common than meets the eye. Although Greenpeace is a high-profile, aggressive campaigning organisation with a penchant for spectacle and WWF describes itself as a "critical friend" of business and government, both are trapped in the Valley of Death.
Start-up companies use this to define the most dangerous moment in their development – the moment between proof of concept and the beginning of mass production and significant sales. It is the place where most dreams perish in the face of conservative capital markets doubting entrepreneurs' abilities to beat the competition in turbulent markets.
Where we have got to on the sustainability front exemplifies this frustrating moment. After two decades of intense activities, we have excellent data on the nature and scale of the problem, an abundance of cases of successful experiments, and the growing attention of political and business leaders. Yet we cannot leverage our insights, resources and passion to contain our production of carbon, manage the scarcity of water, or dampen the speculative fluctuations in the price and availability of basic foodstuffs.
We understand a lot about achieving rapid scale – in selling mobile phones, going to war, watching the World Cup, catalysing fundamentalism in many forms, and in spreading disease. But we are getting lost in the Valley of Death when it comes to the matter of sustainability.
Our call to arms is for transformation, yet we celebrate incremental changes in the spirit of optimism. Worse still, we patronisingly marginalise those who demand lasting solutions as being "unrealistic" or even part of the problem. Our failure to respond adequately to the global financial meltdown exemplifies this curse, in that the sustainability community has not engaged seriously in addressing the short-term trading mentality that underpins a lack of long-term investment in a sustainable economy, while applauding laudable but incremental moves to measure carbon, report impacts and adhere to low-hanging codes of conduct.
Greenpeace and WWF are remarkably similar in rightly wanting to evacuate their teams from the bone-strewn valley. As Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International's energetic boss, recovers from his time in jail for challenging Cairn Energy over its operations in the Arctic, he leads by reflecting with his team on how to make such escapades count for more.
Jim Leape, meanwhile, head of WWF International, rightly if less spectacularly ponders over the most effective points of leverage on the US$63 trillion annual global economy. As Civicus closes its annual world assembly in Montreal, it is hoped that the world's largest club of civil society organisations will have joined Kumi and Jim's worried search for pathways out of the Valley of Death.
Civil society has had a great run over the last couple of decades. Baptised into the global community at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, it has grown in influence, competence and resources. Many commentators and practitioners have told this tale, often warning of troubled waters to come. One such soothsayer, Michael Edwards, until recently top civil society guy at the Ford Foundation, recently published an edited volume on civil society, the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society. Embedded in this hefty 552-page treasure trove is an article penned by myself that reviews civil society's progress in advancing sustainable business and economy.
In it, I conclude:
Civil society engagement has delivered real and positive results, but it has not yet achieved the scale or depth required to lever a systemic impact. Moreover, 'more of the same' is unlikely to deliver better results, largely because conditions in the global economic context are changing so much. Therefore, civil society tactics and strategies must also evolve, rooted in a considered view of how civil society groups will function in a world with new and/or more extreme sustainability challenges, a clear need for business to be part of the solution and not merely 'not part of the problem', and a dramatic change in the cast of powerful political and economic interests that are seeking to shape tomorrow's agenda and how it might be advanced.
Civil society needs to up its game. Greenpeace-style campaigning and WWF's more intimate engagements do move the needle, but only fractionally compared to what needs to be done. Thoughtful civil society leaders know that more of the same will not work in getting us out of the Valley of Death.
The Year of the UN Rio+20 provides a fashionable moment for some game-changing moves but could, without ambition and direction, be just more of the same. While there will rightly be a deafening call for adequate natural resource pricing, these prices might be a long time coming, and if and when they do arrive might in unintended ways prove as unwelcome as their absence.
So beyond pricing as a dubious means of re-engineering the global economy, four other parts might be considered by civil society actors wanting to change the show:
• The unquestionable need to redesign financial markets to meet their public purpose – not merely to be stable or not extract undue rent from the real economy, but to invest in a sustainable economy for our children and grandchildren.
• The need to shape the tsunami of Chinese outward investment that will transform the global economy over the next two decades, especially across Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. Such a redesign would also go a long way in challenging the pernicious "winner takes all" economy that has emerged in recent times.
• Address corruption which, if left intact, will undermine any attempt to right the wrongs of our global economy and national politics.
• Most contentious, address head-on the impoverished state of electoral democracies which, as they fall into disrepair and disrepute, are increasingly unable to provide inspiration, let alone the political means of embracing sustainability or even its narrower cousin, the green economy.
Thankfully, none of these are new ideas. Worryingly, none is taken seriously by most sustainability leaders as unavoidable pathways for scaled and rapid moves towards sustainability.
Simon Zadek is senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Global Green Growth Institute. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Civil Corporation. He can be contacted at [email protected] and blogs regularly through Zadek.net