How many times are you offered the chance to really swing for the fences? To be a part of something that could shape the future?
Most days are the usual sort: e-mails to be answered, classes to be prepared, reporters to be spoken with, articles to be drafted, corporate consultations to be walked through, interns to be folded into our ongoing projects….
It’s good work.
If we’re lucky, it adds up to genuine change: a company commits to adopt more sustainable practices, students choose lives of being change agents, someone reads something I’ve written and says, “That’s how I want to spend my life.”
Then I read a piece like Joe Romm’s Climate Progress post: “The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change is Reversible” and I wonder if what I’m doing is anywhere near enough.
So when an opportunity to try for a really big difference flies at me, I swing.
People can be excused for thinking I live a glamorous life: 2013 began by setting sail (literally) with the Unreasonable Institute – on the Semester at Sea ship. Blue water over the bow, 25 kick-ass entrepreneurs to be mentored, 600 undergraduates to talk with over meals, and guest lecture to, and Bishop Desmond Tutu for company.
I loved it, but left the ship in Hawaii – it’s somewhere off Africa now – to scramble back to the Central Coast of California to give a speech for Pacific Gas and Electric. And was delighted to see that THEIR first slide was titled: The Business Case for Sustainability.
The next two months went to pin-balling about the US, giving speeches, consulting with companies, and teaching: two weeks as a Regent’s Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Then south to Costa Rica, helping the UN frame the post-2015 development agenda.
At 0-gawd:dark-thirty, tho, when the day’s slog often begins, this life of going down the road gets half drab. Mostly I’m in hotels that could be in New Jersey.
So why do it?
The possibility to make a difference.
Last spring I wrote about the three days of work I did at the UN on behalf of the little Kingdom of Bhutan, which has set out to redefine the global economic paradigm. Bold ambition. I questioned at the time whether anything would come of it.
It did. At least the next pitch.
In the form of an invitation from the King of Bhutan to serve on an International Expert Working Group to frame a new global development paradigm. The stellar group is convened my friend, Dr. Robert Costanza, one of the father’s of ecological economics, (see his recent article in Nature). The team includes David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist and film-maker, Vandana Shiva, the Indian campaigner against biopiracy, Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet and advocate for economic democracy, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the British equity experts, Ashok Khosla, the entrepreneur who is lifting people from poverty through enterprise, and about 100 other similarly notable people.
The King, and my friend the Prime Minister, invited as many of us as could come, to join a working meeting in Bhutan to put some reality to their commitment to create a new development paradigm.
How could I say no?!
It’s not a trivial trek: 36 hours of flying from where I was teaching at Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Seattle. Kevin Wilhelm, the delightfully bright principal of Sustainable Business Consultants, and I were delivering the first of 8 deep dives into the sustainability aspects of each element of the BGI Metro Program’s business curriculum. One day I was walking students through sustainable accounting, presenting our concept of the Integrated Bottom Line, the 13 (at least) different business reasons why behaving more sustainably enhances every aspect of shareholder value, which likely explains why now 45 studies show that the more sustainable companies financially outperform their less sustainable competitors (see our annotated list of 40 of these studies). We described the work of the International Integrated Reporting Council and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, its American counterpart.
Next I was flying west, bound for Tokyo, to overnight in Bangkok, and next morning, after a smoggy stop at Dhaka, Bangladesh, on to Paro, Bhutan. The Druk Air flight threaded its way into Bhutan’s one international airport: check out the You Tube video to see why I was glad to be on the ground.
The mountainous kingdom has committed to transform of its agriculture to organic, and the drive up the narrow mountain valleys to the capital of Thimphu, traveling now with my friend David Suzuki, passed tiny terrace rice paddies dotted with piles of manure, awaiting the rainy season. Construction rose everywhere, buildings sheathed in bamboo scaffolding. Bhutan’s economy, clearly in a growth phase, depends on selling hydropower to India and tourism. But this was not the tourist season. The Himalayan winter inversion layered diesel fumes, smoke from cook fires and dust from dirt roads into a nasty mix that had my respiratory system remembering Kabul.
Despite the bad air, I went out walking, savoring unfamiliar smells, and vistas. And the delightfully familiar sight of Ernst von Weizsäcker, my co-author on the book Factor Four. We ducked into a teahouse, and deep in conversation on Ernst’s latest book, Factor Five, and his idea on how to ratchet up resource productivity in much the same way that wages and labor productivity drove each other in the first industrial revolution: basically adding a tax on resource use each year of the same percentage as last years efficiency gains. This would hold costs essentially neutral for those who embrace efficiency, penalize laggards and make the whole economy dramatically more productive.
Impossible in the US, where American’s hate any form of taxes. Ernst thinks, tho, that the EU and the Chinese might agree to implement it – making their industries far more competitive than ours, at which point American companies might pressure Congress to adopt it.
Maybe. Sometimes I despair of Americans doing anything but seeking the laziest option. Then I read that Apple has made its data centers 100% renewable, with 75% of their operations powered by the sun, cutting its carbon emissions 21% per dollar of revenue. And check this out from PostCarbon.org.
And that’s why we’re here, to chart a way forward that shows people and companies that a better future is possible and more desirable. Our current economy that measures everything on gross national product (the flow through the economy of money and stuff) is depleting the planet and its people – all but the few who are getting astronomically wealthy under the current system. Bhutan has challenged the world to change its definition of success: to measure and manage to increase gross national happiness.
With dawn, the meetings commenced. We were treated to a day of presentations on Bhutan’s nine domains of happiness: psychological well-being, a decent standard of living, good governance, health, education, community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, time use and ecological diversity and resilience.
My job, I was told on arrival, was to co-edit the section on building a sustainable economy, with the ecological economist Josh Farley. A team assembled to tackle this including Ernst, Professor Eric Zencey; Gwen Coleman of Canada’s Genuine Progress Index, Jorgen Mortensen of Denmark, Ashok Khosla, Antonia Gawel, a Canadian sustainability expert now living in Bhutan, and Randall Krantz, her husband, previously with the World Economic Forum, now working with the government of Bhutan. Joining the outside experts was a team of very capable Bhutanese: Karma Tshiteem, Secretary of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission, [You can watch Karma describe what Bhutan is doing to implement GNH here, and here, or scroll to bottom.] Sonam Tobgye, the Chief Justice of the High Court of Bhutan, Sonam Chuki, a lecturer at the Royal Institute of Management, Noa Jones, coordinator of the Lohman Society bringing educational alternatives to Bhutan, and others.
We sat in a circle in the sun and sought to lay out the essentials of a sustainable economy, examples of what has worked somewhere in the world to achieve these elements, and barriers that are inhibiting implementing these successes more widely. The formal meetings took place in Bhutan’s national conference hall, a spectacular palace that, while gorgeous, was cold-soaked from months of disuse in the winter. Even fleets of space heaters barely dented the radiant cooling of the huge masonry walls. So while most groups huddled in the hall, we repaired to the sun and shade offered by elegant Bhutanese tents. Later I suggested to several folks from the Ministry that how they might want to hook up some simple breadbox solar hot air heaters on the south side.
For two days we wrestled with what it will take to transform the economy. Bhutan will take the initial results, extracted from the results of all of the teams working in Thimphu – I sent my notes to the Prime Minister as soon as I’d typed them into something legible – and make a submission to the United Nations High Level conference in Bali next week, debating the UN’s development regime after the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015. Our team, or as many as still want to play, but at least Josh and me, will deliver a draft paper to Bhutan by this June that will also feed into that process. Then the whole process will get into full swing by September when the UN General Assembly takes up the post 2015 debate.
And I wrestle with it still. As I write, I’m Costa Rica bound, invited by the United Nations to serve on an official consultation with NGO leaders, to set goals for environmental sustainability in the post 2015 development agenda.
What’s left is the gamble that burning all this carbon is making a difference.
Teaching is an easy one. For the past two weeks I’ve had the honor of working with very bright graduate and undergrad students at the University of California Berkeley, as a Regent’s Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering. Long a center of energy efficiency and renewables, Berkeley is also a center of genuine innovation in engineering. A wonderful professor there, Alice Agogino, who instigated my Regent’s Lectureship, is integrating biomimicry, development policy and entrepreneuring into engineering. It was a true treat to get to spend two weeks teaching, lecturing, meeting with such brilliant minds as Laura Nader and Robert Reich. And of course, everywhere I went, I dragooned people into Bhutan’s assignment.
What WOULD it take to transform the global economy? Bob Reich, of course has thought a lot about this, and gave me very sage advice: get the definition of the problem right. Then define the solutions – highlighting where they have worked in replicable ways. Then think deeply about how movements to drive very large-scale social change have worked in the past. He cited Adam Hochschild’s analysis of the 12 men and one woman who very deliberately set out to end slavery – the dominant economic engine of the British empire. And succeeded. [See Adam’s book, Bury the Chains].
But what do YOU think? We know that there is a business case for behaving more sustainably. We know that the world as it now stands is in peril. We know that the recession threw tens of millions of people out of work – work that may never return, as companies press even harder at automation, and 10,000 more people arrive on earth every hour. We know that our current metric of success values jails and ambulances, air pollution and advertising, as Bobby Kennedy so eloquently said shortly before he was killed,
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile….”
Kennedy was right. And perhaps now is the time now to deliver on his challenge to find a new way to organize our economy.
At a time when people think that it’s hopeless, perhaps it’s time to try something fundamentally different.
I’d welcome your thoughts.
Karma describeS what Bhutan is doing to implement GNH
Landing in Paro, Bhutan
Bobby Kennedy on Gross National Product