12. Inspire Sustainability Transitions


The environmental movement is not short of ideas. What we are short of is effective ways to communicate them. Curiously, we are often not well served by our own expertise. We have to learn to communicate with ordinary people without degrees in ecology, chemistry or environmental philosophy.

‘reflect intrinsic values clearly’

This is starting to happen – the Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, for example, is just one global star who has spoken out on the environment, and given public support to Narmada Bachao Andolan's opposition to dams on the Narmada river in 2006.161 Issues of sustainability appear, intermittently, on the pages of business, food and even fashion magazines. We need better ways to communicate, especially with young people: working out how to explain the issues in the dystopian world of Grand Theft Auto162, to the networked ‘friends’ of Myspace or Facebook, or the perfected avatars that stalk the virtual world of Second Life.163

Recent work by WWF-UK claims that the established approaches used by environmentalists to persuade people to change their behaviour, which appeal to individualistic and materialistic values, don't work.164 In contrast, it is intrinsic values that stimulate lasting pro-environment behaviour. Research suggests that people have an inclusive sense of self-identity – one that includes closer identity with other people and nature – and even people who can't be neatly pigeon-holed as environmentalists are radically changing their behaviour. Environmental campaigns therefore need to be reframed to reflect intrinsic values clearly.165

There are a host of problems ahead – the environmental movement recognises this, and so, increasingly, does the wider public in many countries (Table 12.1). We recognise that we need more action and on a larger scale. So how do we inspire action at that pace and at that scale? How can we persuade ourselves to take nasty medicine? How do we move the machine of world economy – surely not by standing in front of it?

Table 12.1 The sustainability transition in seven words

Urgency The need for a transition is an absolute priority if there is to be a humane human future beyond the twenty-first century.
Uncertainty The future is likely to present serious problems, not all of which we can foresee.
Discomfort We know we need to change, but we neither know how to do it, nor do we have the courage to make changes that hurt more than a tiny bit.
Resilience This is the key to a transition to sustainability. We need to be able to roll with the shocks, take advantage of new opportunities, and help the rest of the natural world to endure the consequences of our actions.
Diversity There is no magic bullet. Seeking diverse solutions is our best hope. We need to draw in a more diverse range of partners to help find them.
Coherence The flip side of a diverse movement and strategy is that they lose coherence and fail to move forwards. The clever thing is to avoid fragmentation and get all the pieces to move together.
Imagination We need to imagine new futures, better than today, richer, more diverse, more equal.

Fear can be a great motivator, and it is one that environmentalists have long cherished. Since the 1970s (indeed for centuries before that) environmentalists have preached doom and gloom. We fear that, unless we talk the language of crisis, we will not be able to bring about the changes needed. Whether it is pesticides in songbirds or polar bears marooned on melting ice flows, we are used to selling fear of disaster to the media, public and politicians. Yet, if Martin Luther King had started ‘I have a nightmare...’ would his speech be remembered and have inspired a civil rights movement?166 We must accept responsibility for moving beyond protest, but without losing our passion for the living world and the future.

‘we need to offer hope’

The recent past is a poor guide to what is to come. Despite two world wars, and much unfinished business, the twentieth century saw the progressive advance of technological, bureaucratic and democratic capacity to cushion humanity from shocks. Famine began to be eradicated, many killer diseases were controlled, and the problem of poverty began to be addressed for the first time. The conditions that gave rise to these achievements cannot be assumed for the twenty-first century.

Our technocratic planning systems are quite good at dealing with risk from problems of known identity and probability. However, the problems of the next 100 years are only partly visible at the present time, and their dimensions, timing and future evolution are impossible to predict accurately. We know problems such as climate change exist, and that biodiversity is being lost at a rapid rate.

But we do not know the implications of such changes, or how or what complex future interactions will occur. We are much less good at dealing with this kind of uncertainty and indeterminacy. The possible non-linear interactions in areas like climate change are recognised, but we cannot predict their outcomes.

We also know very little about the way people will respond to the prospect of rapid (and perhaps disastrous) future change, or uncertainty about such outcomes. This is itself a major source of complex and non-linear behaviour. Rational self-protective behaviour at one level can have disastrous implications at another.

People are complex and clever: science-based predictions of the future need to take the implications of these characteristics seriously. Films like The Day After Tomorrow lead us to assume that solutions will be found.167 The history of evolution suggests few Hollywood endings for planet-dominating species.

We need to offer hope for what promises to be a highly dysfunctional future. David Orr draws an important distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism recognises that odds are in our favour. Optimism ‘leans back, puts its feet up, and wears a confident look knowing that the deck is stacked’.168 But there are perhaps few reasons to feel very optimistic about the human future. At best in our pursuit of sustainability to date, we are walking north on a southbound train.169

Hope is different from optimism: hope is about defying the odds. It is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Orr writes: ‘Hope, authentic hope, can be found only in our capacity to discern the truth about ourselves and our situation and summon the fortitude to act accordingly’.170 That is the ultimate challenge for the environmental movement in the twenty-first century.

Annex 1. The Future of Sustainability Initiative

In 2006, the President and Council members of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) launched an initiative entitled the Future of Sustainability. Its objective was “to review the conceptualization of conservation and sustainable development as it stands today, and to help set the direction of the evolution of the field and serve as a clarion call for the Union, the environmental movement and society at large”.171

This builds on the strengths and traditions of the Union, which has over 1000 member organizations in 140 countries, including governmental and non-governmental organizations.172 IUCN involves over 10,000 voluntary scientists in six Commissions. It has played a leading role in shaping new eras of sustainable development policy and practice for almost 60 years, not least in co-publishing with one of its members (WWF) and the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Conservation Strategy in 1980173 and Caring for the Earth in 1991.174

As a first step in its review process, the Union convened an international meeting of distinguished thinkers and practitioners in 2006 which reviewed society's progress towards sustainability and the main challenges facing humanity at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This generated a base document entitled “The Future of Sustainability: Rethinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century” which was discussed by Council in May 2006. This document is available on-line in French, Spanish and Arabic.175

The Union subsequently hosted a global e-discussion on the main themes of this report, for all its Members, Commissions, staff as well as the general public in 2006. These discussions, with 460 participants from over 70 countries, generated over 200 pages of comments. There was a great deal of support for the Union in providing a platform for this worldwide debate, which critically reflected upon the success of the international environmental movement, and explored innovations in sustainable development thinking and practice. A summary of this debate is available on-line.176

The ideas generated through these debates were shared and reviewed with IUCN members through a series of 10 regional Members' and Commission meetings in 2007 which helped raise awareness of new perspectives as well as integrate local and regional perspectives within a new era of sustainability thinking and practice.177 A summary of the first phases of this initiative is available on-line.178

A second global meeting with sustainability and conservation leaders, was held early in 2008, which helped to consolidate these discussions in the light of new scientific information on and public awareness about climate change, and to identify innovations and the next step-change for the conservation community. It emphasised the challenges of decarbonizing the world economy, of committing to justice and equity, and of collaborating for change whilst protecting life and the biosphere. The summary of this meeting is on-line.179

The outputs generated by this review process will help inform the long-term direction of IUCN; its medium-term strategy: “A 2020 Vision for IUCN”; and the new IUCN Intersessional Programme 2009–2012 entitled “Shaping a Sustainable Future”. Ideas from the first phase of the Initiative will be discussed at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona in October 2008, and will help inform the Congress commitments.

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