The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once observed: “…once we know and are aware, we are responsible for our action and our inaction. We can do something about it or ignore it. Either way, we are still responsible.”
So, as 2019 closes and 2020 begins, what do we know about sustainable development and where might that knowledge and responsibility take us in the future?
Firstly, we know that we humans are dramatically altering the planet and its natural systems. This is a fact. There is abundant scientific evidence of the chemical, physical and biological changes we are making to the Earth’s atmosphere, land, rivers and seas and the life they support.
Most of this change is bad news. CO2 emissions, which increased to historically high levels in 2018, are now at the highest levels for three to five million years and still rising. The last time the planet had atmospheric CO2 levels this high, sea levels were 10-20m higher.
The evidence is also there at a human level. From the recent “biblical” floods in southern Europe and “apocalyptic” bush fires from the Amazon to Australia, the straws in the wind of environmental crisis can be seen everywhere.
Worse, we know that an increasing number of scientists see the risk of a now unstoppable unravelling of the planetary systems that have been more or less stable for the last ten thousand years. Rapid and continuous loss of ice sheets and species are occurring. Critical system tipping points are either very close or already passed.
In spite of all this knowledge, we know that the vast majority of people are doing little or nothing to change their behaviour. Whether as consumers, voters or investors, the level of societal and political change globally is, ironically, moving slower than the changes in the Earth’s systems.
While there is encouraging evidence of rising activism – to be seen most recently in the Extinction Rebellion movement and the school Climate Emergency strikes – the current rate of change is inadequate.
The momentum of changes in green technology and uptake, evidenced by historic increases in the use of solar and wind energy, is still outweighed by massive inertia at the political and economic levels.
We know, moreover, that the main reason for this inertia is largely a leadership and vision gap. With some notable exceptions, such as the European Green Deal promised by the new European Commission for 2020, sustainability is either not on the political agenda at elections, or not included in a way that inspires widespread support.
When it comes to sustainability, we know that the human system is paralysed by a vicious circular blame game.
Pick your issue. Scientists and NGOs point to an existential threat and call for urgent action; business says it costs too much and says governments have to set the right regulatory and incentives environment. In response, governments say that they need more pressure from NGOs and voters. Then they arrest the NGOs for protesting or dismiss them for being too radical. Or they outright deny or ignore the seriousness of the threat.
As history will probably judge, the activists are right: we are not being radical enough. We can no longer flippantly dismiss the message as doom and gloom mongering, for that is what we face.
At the heart of this, we know that the current economic system is effectively broken. Capitalism, built on assurances of being creative, flexible and efficient, is undermining its own survival.
Its continued investment in unsustainable production processes and industry’s systematic lobbying against stricter environmental and social responsibilities underlies the suicidal inertia we see. The poor get poorer, the rich richer and the planet more polluted. We know also, however, that the model is under increasing scrutiny, from academics to mainstream business newspapers to street protests around the world. Its time is up.
Fact vs fiction
At the political level, we know that we have a choice to make – not necessarily between traditional left and right, but between a post-enlightenment world, where science and facts are the basis of decisions, or a post-truth world, where facts are an inconvenient truth to maintenance of the status quo and its privileges.
In this latter world, nativist, pseudo-patriotic memes are among the tools cynically used to distract attention from the real world. They offer an illusory future built on a social and environmental nostalgia that the future cannot deliver. No political system is currently fit for purpose in preventing ecocide.
In an ideal world, we would reform our economic and political systems before crises force our hand, but we know humans tend only to respond seriously to crisis experienced. The arc of history is full of examples. Most, sadly, accompanied by violence and disruption.
But we also know that the human species is a resilient and adaptive one. We will respond. As witnessed by the decade around the second world war, we know that great crises trigger enormous and rapid political, economic, technology and social change, and huge sacrifice.
We don’t know what the precise triggers will be this time, and we can only guess at the rates of change, but we know that we are facing The Great Adaptation. If there are any lessons from world war crisis management, it is that history will be on the side of those who have – and use – the best information, build the strongest strategic alliances, lead public opinion and make markets deliver the tools needed.
Business needs to get ahead of this curve and support a fundamental re-purposing of the corporation. Planet, people and profit, but as a mandated corporate mission, not just greenwash. The Spitfires of the 21st century will include solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. The only question is whether we will have enough of them soon enough to at least slow down and soften the coming change. Only business can build these.
For this, we need a new, more honest, decisive and joined-up politics. If democracy doesn’t deliver this soon, its relatively short history might well be over.
Whatever we decide, as Sartre reflected, we will all be responsible. And, he might have added, we will all be affected.
A former diplomat and associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House, Paul Hohnen has advised governments, international organisations and business on high level sustainability policy issues over a 40 year career.