2013: The end of sustainability?

One of the most interesting comments I’ve read for while came in this article by Andrew Zolli for the New York Times, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy late last year:

Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: How to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

Having spent a large part of my career working in and around environmentalism and conservation (see an earlier post on lessons learnt in primate conservation), a reality-check of ‘sustainability’ is something I’ve had on my mind for a while. With its arch enemy – population growth – driving ever-upward, I’ve often wondered whether we’re just stalling for time or delaying the inevitable. The problem with this school of thought, of course, is that it’s considered by many to be defeatist, particularly by those in the actual business of conservation and environmental protection.

Technology allows us to stretch the limits of what’s possible – grow significantly more food per acre, or live in climates we were never meant to live in – all activities which make us feel comfortable about the world and the places we live within it. Much of this technology has become invisible. We no longer think about the innovations that allow us to grow more, or healthier, food. Or those that get electricity to our homes, or the satellites that help get cars and planes from A to B. It’s only when we don’t have access to these things that we suddenly realise how exposed and dependent we are on them. Surviving technological meltdown is the subject of a wide number of books, including the aptly-titled “When Technology Fails” by Matthew Stein.

The environmental movement (which is to all intents and purposes linked to sustainability) is around forty years old. Its birth is widely linked to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“, her seminal book which argued against the increasing use of pesticides in farming. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hugely popular within the ranks of the chemical industry, but it did spur the birth of grassroots environmentalism which in turn lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If pesticide use continued, Carson argued, Springs of the future would be void of bird life, amongst others (hence the title).

In another of my favourite books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Jared Diamond graphically illustrates what happens to communities and civilisations which live beyond their means. We can learn a lot from history, but today not enough of us are listening. Our world population of over seven billion is already two to three times higher than what’s sustainable and, according to the World Population Balance website, recent studies have shown that the Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about two billion people at most European’s current standard of living. In short, we’re in trouble.

During a recent talk at Pop!Tech I highlighted two things that I thought needed to change. First, we need to get people to listen and take interest, but not in the way the wider non-profit movement has historically tried to get us to (i.e. guilt-based education). Second, we need to rethink our relationships with local business, local resources, and each other. You can watch that ten minute talk below, and find out more of what we’ll be up to on the soon-to-launch Means of Exchange website.

As I admit at the start of my talk, I have more questions than answers right now. But I do know that, with the current economic climate, conditions are better than they’ve ever been to get people to rethink their relationship with money, resources and each other. These may not directly impact the environmental or sustainability agenda, but the secondary benefit of people making better use of the human, social, financial and environmental capital around them almost certainly will.

Dispelling the myth?

I spent the best part of spring and summer ’99 working on my anthropology dissertation, passionately arguing that anthropologists had been wrongly excluded from much of the earlier global conservation process. The rationale behind my several-thousand word essay was that the view of indigenous peoples as ‘outside of nature’, or ‘a blot on the landscape’, with no place in the growing world view of pristine, natural environments was wrong. There seemed to be, after all, plenty of examples of indigenous peoples living in harmony with their environments, and that humans weren’t always a destructive force.

But maybe they were.

My three years at Sussex University studying a blend of development issues and social anthropology allowed me to carefully develop my thinking and combine two of my three passions in life (the third being technology). So, it is with great irony that a decade later I find myself reading a book which squarely blames indigenous peoples for many of the the mega-fauna extinctions in their environments. And the catalyst for this destruction? Technology.

In “Techno-Cultural Evolution“, author William McDonald Wallace highlights the rise of hunter-gatherer kill-offs with the rise in the use of technologies – hunting technologies such as spears, knives and bow-and-arrows, and later guns. He also argues that “one of the reasons many people resisted the idea of human causes for the disappearance of the mega-fauna was a romantic notion”. Perhaps there was a little of this clouding my judgment all those years ago, but is it wrong to think that it’s possible for people to live in harmony with their environments? Whatever the case, we certainly seem further away from it today than we ever have been.

William McDonald Wallace also argues that today we’re seeing a new environmental awakening underway. With mega-events such as the global Live Earth ‘gathering’, we could very well see this spearheaded by increased climate change awareness. Once again, the catalyst for our troubles has been a boom in technological innovation and all the energy consumption that goes with it. It is quite astonishing how far we have come in just over a hundred years.

But are we now not in a truly ironic situation where new technologies are being rapidly developed to counteract the negative impacts of others? If things go wrong later this year in Copenhagen – where World leaders meet to discuss the follow-up to the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol – then we could see a shift from a policy of applying technology to avoid climate change to one of applying it to help us simply adapt to it.

It’s a poor second choice, and one that just goes to show that, whether you’re a small community in the 21st century about to lose your island home to rising sea levels, or a buffalo in the 19th century roaming the plains of North America, technology can’t always be seen as a good thing.

Sustainability: Who’s the Daddy?

No doubt one of the most commonly used words in the non-profit sector (sometimes innocently lumped together with other words to make beauties such as sustainable development), sustainability is an interesting concept. It’s perhaps also not a million miles off holding some kind of ‘holy grail’ status, too. Built into nearly every project proposal by default, it remains elusive most of the time. So what’s the big deal?

Donors like to think that their money – and sometimes effort – are going to last way beyond the project cycle (to coin another phrase). In other words, when the money runs out they like to think that things aren’t going to come crashing down. This is kind-of sensible, I’d say. The trouble is, it’s really rather tricky.

For a start, projects are often funded for fairly short periods of time – up to five years if you’re lucky but often two or three (many smaller projects, of course, run for much less). This isn’t long if you’re hoping to create a long-lasting, positive change. Through my own experiences getting muddy on projects, or studying the subject from the comfort of a university campus, this leaves only a limited number of options. Two of they key ones must be:

Create a business model: If you need to make money to keep the project going, then you’re open to market forces. People will only buy crap products “because they’re ethical” for a while, and before they realise that they’re perhaps just that – crap products. Zillions of small businesses around the world fail without having the complexity of being part of a conservation and development project, so achieving financial sustainability is a real challenge. Sadly there aren’t that many success stories.

Factor yourself out of the project: Rather controversial for many larger NGOs, although some actively pursue it. Some research would be nice. Anyway, whether or not a project needs to become ‘commercial’ (see above) keeping costs down is vital if it’s to have any chance of survival. This could mean local staff, local salaries, local overheads, little or no ‘head office’ consultation fees, or people flying left-right-and-centre around the world for no apparent reason, etc. Maybe the best projects create the desired change, and when the experts have long packed their bags and left it’s able to continue running on a shoestring.

Gerald Durrell had the right idea when he said that his dream was to shut down his zoo in Jersey. Of course, he’d then have to go and find something else to do, but that didn’t matter. It would have meant he’d succeeded in his mission to save endangered species, and that was all that mattered to him.

Trying to unite profit and social venture – which I think includes conservation and development projects – doesn’t only worry or challenge me. Plenty of other people are already writing and blogging about it. Let’s hope the debate reaches a useful conclusion. A few more positive outcomes would certainly help us along.

Just paying lip service to the ‘s’ word doesn’t really get us anywhere in the long run.