Existing institutional mindsets and governance frameworks are struggling to keep up with and adapt to the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century. We need to build more robust, equitable and dynamic systems to respond to and support the transition to sustainability.
In the next 30 years, biodiversity declines are likely to accelerate, geochemical changes will accelerate in unexpected ways, and ecosystems will be increasingly disrupted and less able to provide the services people need. The world will be deeply uncertain and unpredictable. Global economic and ecological systems will degrade and expected and unexpected disruptions will occur.
Resilience is essential to cope with the future.147 A global immune system is needed that builds resilience. This needs different strategies: top-down strategies (within the current architecture), and bottom-up strategies that comprise a new architecture. Top-down strategies involve government (at all scales from local, city, to national and supra-national) and business. Bottom-up strategies demand the renewal of the environmental movement.
Resilience is emerging as a key concept in planning for a sustainable future. Resilience is the capacity to absorb disturbances, the attribute of ecosystems (and some social systems) to undergo change and then reorganization while retaining core functions and identity. Basic concepts underpinning a resilience approach to policy and management include the non-linear behaviour of socio-ecological systems and the importance of thresholds and cross-scale effects.
Change in economic, ecological and social systems is complex. Slow and gradual change overlaps with rapidly unfolding processes and episodic change at many scales from local to global. A new term ‘panarchy’ has been coined to describe this interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and unpredictable.148 The aim of resilience management is to keep a system within a particular configuration of states that will continue to deliver desired ecosystem goods and services, or to move from a less desirable to a more desirable regime.
‘resilience is essential to cope with the future’
Rather than being pre-occupied with increased production, yields and returns, pursued through increased efficiency, a resilience approach embraces the dynamic nature of the world and values the role of biological and cultural diversity in sustaining options for the future.149 This is a challenging concept for conventional ecosystem management, and indeed for many approaches to sustainability which still tend to assume that the goal of management is to enhance efficiency.
The environmental movement keeps changing, and expanding. One analysis suggests we are in a phase of ‘third generation environmentalism’.150 First generation environmentalism focused on the conservation of species and spaces; second generation environmentalism widened that focus to include pollution, sustainable use of natural resources, and the conservation and development agenda. Third generation environmentalism recognises that current organizations, institutions and political processes are part of the sustainability problem, and seeks to mainstream the environment within the existing matrices of power, and influence domestic and international public policy agendas.
This suggests that the environmental movement has itself moved, inside government and business organizations it formerly addressed from the outside. Third generation environmentalists are ‘insiders’, found at all levels within corporations, governments, and a wide range of other organizations far beyond the immediate environmental field (e.g., universities, trades unions, professional associations).
This wider structure of organizations and institutions is vital to the delivery of transition to sustainability. What is the architecture of these new structures that can deliver sustainability in ways that can transform the world system?
There is no doubt of the importance of businesses to any transition to sustainability. Markets drive more decisions than governments. Especially since the establishment of the WBCSD, businesses have started to develop strategies that take explicit account of sustainability.151 Moreover, businesses meet together, both at global events such as the World Economic Forum at Davos, and in sectoral organizations. Such common action by corporate non-state actors could obviously contain threats to the environment and even human rights, but they also represent an enormous opportunity for a transition to sustainability.
The great potential is that in the business universe, everything tends to be viewed as an opportunity. Businesses look forwards, to imagine the world they wish to create, while environmentalists tend to look back, to the world that is being lost. Both perspectives are needed. The challenge is how to maximize the complementarity. Of course, businesses do not look very far ahead – a ten-year vision seems a long way in a corporate boardroom, whereas a transition to sustainability needs to be imagined over three to six decades. Nonetheless, they do look forwards.
And businesses unlock the power of consumption, which is the great driver of environmental change. In the past, capitalism and consumption have driven destruction almost everywhere. Is dematerial capitalism possible? Can businesses thrive offering consumers dematerialized choices?
There are clearly opportunities: in bottom-of-pyramid businesses,152 in markets for renewable energy, in novel products that are competitive because they do more with less, in new forms of social ownership, in effective links between technology and human need.
Social businesses are an interesting and important innovation. As the Grameen businesses demonstrate, social enterprise can be a powerful force for positive change, far outstripping the capacity of government because of its capacity to harness individual human enterprise and self-interest. Such viral, bottom-of-pyramid solutions to sustainability challenges are in their infancy.
‘the environmental movement needs to engage much more effectively with the business sector’
It will not be an easy transition to shift from weapons to bicycles, or caviar to carrots, or aeroplanes to airships, or any one of the billions of transformations in consumption needed. But corporations are interested in strategies to manage transitions. Moreover, only the market can transform the social, economic and environmental relations that it has created, and which have such dysfunctional features.
Of course, if the market is to drive a transition to sustainability, and not a race to the bottom, it will need strong regulation. This is not necessarily anathema to business, whatever the sterile mantra of free trade might argue. Most of all, business needs a fair and predictable playing field. If it gets that, it can start to bring its alchemy to bear. The design of that regulatory framework is critically important – and not easy in a globalized world of footloose capital.
The environmental movement needs to engage much more effectively with the business sector. They will need to bring some positive ideas to the table. Stories of doom and gloom will not work: the only thing that business can do is to look forwards, to plan, to invest. The environmental movement – the renewed environmental movement, with all the extra burden that a serious engagement with the fiercely anti-business grassroots sector brings – has to brave the Dragon's Den with some solid imaginative and practical ideas.153
Political leaders of all sorts have a key role to play in a transition to sustainability. However, like business leaders, they are severely constrained. Governments were once thought of as led by statesmen, but now we only speak of them as politicians. And politicians, like business leaders, do not look very far into the future: in their case classically only as far as the next election – at best five or six years ahead. The key need is to create political space to allow politicians to raise their sights and take a long-term perspective.
Transitions to sustainability are deeply problematic to politicians. In a speech in Japan in March 2008, Tony Blair commented ‘If the average person in the US is, say, to emit per capita one-tenth of what they do today and those in Japan and the UK one-fifth, we're not talking of adjustment, we're talking about a revolution’. Yet transition is not an option: he went on ‘failure to act now would be deeply and unforgivably irresponsible’.154
Political sustainability is a critical factor. Politicians often run scared of voters, and many of the changes needed are likely to be unpopular in the short term: politicians pay lip-service to reducing carbon while building roads and airport runways, and fighting shy of taxing carbon consumption. The story is only too familiar: short-term considerations of electoral unpopularity trump longer-term considerations of sustainability. As discussed in Chapter 10, only with strong social movements will politicians be able to provide the leadership needed.
Politicians ask how things can be done. The environmental movement therefore needs to be able to answer that question. Politicians need clear processes, so environmentalists need to be able to set out clear paths for forward action. The relative success of the UNFCCC lay in its use of the precautionary principle (Articles 3 and 4). New post-Kyoto climate change initiatives involve an active programme of political action around a shift to the Polluter Pays Principle. These approaches are far from perfect, but they have allowed political movement forwards.
Politicians also need help to handle complexity. The specialized language of sustainability and environmental reform, thick with acronyms and jargon, is not necessarily intelligible to politicians, or indeed ordinary people. The transition to sustainability must therefore be made comprehensible. Few politicians are trained in environmental science. Efforts must be made to make complex statistics politically relevant. We need to work out how to use the various metrics of sustainability (e.g., footprints or material flow measures) to have greater political relevance. The problem is not that suitable metrics do not exist, but that they do not have significant impact.
A transition to sustainability will not happen without political leadership. Politicians must lead this transition, not follow. Political leaders must not be allowed to hide behind the conservative fears of voters or the self-interest of businesses. We must demand transformative leadership from our leaders: actions that start at home (in the Ministerial car fleet and the international travel programme), and move out to provide clear leadership for civil society and business corporations. Where leaders make a stand on the environment or poverty (Al Gore, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Arnold Schwarzenegger), they mobilize their peers and their publics. A transition to sustainability will be led by carbon-neutral leaders: if the richest and most powerful people on the planet regard their own portfolio and lifestyles as off-limits, their rhetoric about sustainability will amount to very little.
‘sustainability must be incorporated into economic planning, not tacked on’
Prior to the 1992 Rio Conference, few governments had a designated Environment Minister. Now most do. Yet, Environment Ministers often have a lowly position in government decision making, and they tend to have relatively small budgets. As Nicholas Stern said at Bali, ‘climate change is too important to leave to environment ministers’.
Environmental responsibilities need to be spread across government, to Ministries of Finance. Sustainability must be incorporated into economic planning, not tacked on. Governments need to adopt green accounts, and use them in allocating budgets and raising taxes (as South Africa has done). Governments, like banks and donors, need to become more intelligent about discount rates and rates of return.
Sustainability also needs to be made a fundamental part of the work of all government departments: defence, transport, agriculture, trade and diplomacy. Of course, there is a danger that handing the sustainability agenda over to ministers in these departments will bury it. But the alternative is to see the sustainability agenda sidelined to a ‘green ghetto’, a thin layer of corporate greenwash over fundamentally unsustainable government decisions. One possible solution is being tried in France.
A ‘super’ ministry covering ecology, energy, sustainable development and spatial planning was launched in 2007, along with a visionary participatory initiative ‘Le Grenelle de l'Environnement’ that drew together all major French stakeholders in the field of economy, society and environment to design a vision for environment and development in France for the coming decades.155 Other models, such as Thailand's ‘Sufficiency Economy’, as described in its 9th National Economic and Social Development Plan (2002–2006), offer alternative development pathways which integrate ideas of sustainable livelihoods, moderation, and ecological resilience for a sustainable future.156
Many environmental issues need to be debated above the level of national governments. The oceans and the atmosphere are effectively open-access resources, beyond national government jurisdiction. Since the Second World War, a dense and expensive network of international organizations has grown up around the United Nations, and resulted in a succession of environmental conventions (particularly the UNFCCC and the CBD).
This roaring institutional jungle is success of a sort, and although the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol are glaring, the UNFCCC has been far more successful than many expected in 1992. The United Nations is increasingly recognising the political importance of climate change – in October 2007 the issue took over the whole UN headquarters in New York, while the Secretary General's leadership at the 2007 Climate Change Conference was critical in what was (finally) achieved in Bali.
Yet the IPCC took the issue of climate change out of the hands of individual governments, and the issue has become a genuinely global grassroots concern. The call to action has been so broadly expressed that both politicians and international environmental bureaucrats have had to bend before it.
International environmental governance is fragmented and arguably approaching a state of paralysis. Despite all the high-powered meetings, and international agreements, environmental trends are getting worse not better, and financial resources for addressing the challenges are not materializing.157 While many are urging greater coherence between the United Nations treaty bodies, there are underlying concerns about inequity, lack of transparency and accountability, and lack of a civil society voice within existing multilateral arrangements.
‘much of the progress in sustainability is being achieved by local and city governments’
An attempt to establish a more effective institutional architecture for sustainability must include the multilateral organizations, particularly UNEP. There is an urgent need to re-connect international governance with grassroots environmental concerns, and the needs and interests of citizens across the globe. As Paul Hawken points out, a new era of sustainability is actually being organized from the bottom up.158
Much of the progress in sustainability is being achieved by local and city governments. It is California that is progressive on sustainability, not the US Federal Government. It is London that is trying to avoid gridlock by politically bold strategies of charging for road use, not the UK Government. Cities are central to any sustainability transition. They are concentrations of political, military and economic power. Their citizens are numerous and potentially well coordinated.
William Cobbett famously called nineteenth century London the ‘great wen’: a disfiguring cyst on the face of England.159 London has improved, somewhat, but cities all over t he world are where the transition to sustainability must work if it is to be effective. Neither the slum nor the suburb offers a model for a sustainable city. In the developing world, many urban people live in poor environmental conditions and profound poverty, although with remarkably low material and energy consumption.
In the developed world, and in rapidly industrializing countries like Brazil, India and China, cities are the nerve centres of global capital accumulation, epicentres of enormous wealth and sophisticated manufactured spaces and services. The futuristic architecture of high-rise city centres and the gated extravagance of plush suburbs offer lifestyles insulated from concerns about sustainability, global environmental change and the realities of poverty. Moreover, the citizens of even the most salubrious and ancient cities in developed countries take it as a human right to escape on holiday, burning precious carbon flying to the imagined naturalness of the countryside, tramping some fragment of wilderness, or gawping at the poor in some picturesque developing world tourist destination.
Local and city government has a vital role to play in the transition to sustainability. Quite simply, cities need to be re-imagined as islands of sanity and sustainability, centres of civility and humanity. Cities can provide high-quality living and working conditions with low levels of resource use and waste. If well planned and managed, cities can reduce per capita consumption and impacts on natural systems and the transfer of environmental costs to other places and the future. There are many examples of innovation and good environmental policies in cities in the developing world, for example in Latin America.160 Urban innovation ranges from the design of high-density low-rise housing, public open spaces, public transport, to arts and culture (music, theatre, dance, sculpture).
Local initiatives, perhaps around cities and their hinterlands, may be part of robust solutions. Much depends on city governments that are accountable to their citizens, competent and prepared to take on environmental challenges. They need to address agendas that go beyond the immediate concerns about the supply of the city's material needs to address environmental health, quality of life and questions of sustainability across a much wider world.
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