Inspiring tomorrow’s heroes — to move on the sustainability path from the forked road

June 21, 2020 | PAULE ANSOLEAGA ABASCAL

Humanity is at a fork in the road, with supporters of the status quo and sustainability advocates pushing in different directions. In the middle, well-intentioned observers — wishing for a brighter future — feel unable or powerless to shape the future they want.

The question that’s been obsessing me for the last few years, and more so since Covid19 erupted, is how to turn those observers into actors. In my opinion, closing — what I call — the SDG awareness and involvement gaps, would allow more citizens to embark on the much-needed collective journey to sustainable development.

While the role of our governments and business partners is paramount to take the transformative steps required to shift onto a resilient and sustainable path, an engaged and socially conscious society can trigger their action, so that we can move on the sustainability path from the forked road altogether, much faster.

John Maynard Keynes explained the difficulty of embracing new ideas, especially when the old ones — i.e. the existing socio-economic paradigm — have been operative for centuries:

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds[1]”.

Sustainability challenges — poverty, malnutrition, climate change, inequality, ecological degradation… — are by their very nature large, complex, interdependent and intertwined[2]. In order to overcome them, we need much more than government and central bank balance sheets. We need a profound system transformation, a deep personal and societal renewal, new economic thinking and sustainable policy-making, all directed towards the Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”), at local, national and global levels.

This difficult and ambitious — but essential — system transformation requires participation from all stakeholders, including citizens, the private sector, governments and finance. This is where our contribution comes in:

As citizens, we are often told that our actions matter too little, that we are a drop in the ocean. But what is an ocean but a sum of drops? And what is society, industry or government but different configurations made out of the same drops?

Our individual drops can become strong moving currents when we act collectively, sharing ideas, skills and resources, thinking and acting with a spirit of joint social responsibility, with a greater sense of belonging to an ecosystem we shall nurture and protect.

If today, despite atrocious ecological disasters, disruptive economic crises and worldwide political instability, despite the various scientists’ warnings[3], we are not yet operating under a new social and economic model which is regenerative, circular, inclusive and green, it seems we have not reached this ecosystem consciousness tipping point yet.

We need more people involved to move on the sustainability path from the forked road and to achieve the world we want by 2030. The future belongs to those who dream it, believe in it and work hard for it. If, as citizens, we manage to reach the ecosystem consciousness tipping point and act upon it, business, governments and finance will follow suit. This would lead, finally and permanently, to the much-needed system transformation we are aiming for.

A journey of global awakening and movement building

Global awareness and concern about the damage we are inflicting on our planet started in the 1960s. It was reinforced by The Club of Rome and its best-selling 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, which alerted the world to the consequences of the interactions between human systems and the health of our planet. Global awakening and movement building have been growing steadily ever since as we experienced the pitfalls of the extractive, infinite-growth-based paradigm, which was bringing environmental damage, economic inequality and political instability.

The various economic crises and environmental disasters made the case for sustainable development — in all its dimensions: economic, social, environmental and institutional — stronger: it was the only way forward if we were to preserve this beautiful planet and the inhabitants who populate it.

The greatest tailwind arrived in 2015 with the twin adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. The former provided a much-needed vision for a brighter future, a world with peace, prosperity and equal opportunities for all. The latter set out a legally binding global framework to avoid dangerous climate change. These two frameworks, together, ignited enthusiasm and reignited discussions. The impetus for action has been building since then.

The Covid19 pandemic has pushed global awareness, climate consciousness and acceptance of responsibility to the next level. It has taught us the importance of prompt action to avert a crisis. Most importantly, it has made us experience what we knew, in theory only: that our fate and our planet’s fate are two sides of the same coin[4].

Meaningful optimistic signs

This global, decades-long journey to sustainable development has inspired millions to get involved, and most importantly, it has triggered positive change at individual, corporate, state and supranational levels. The reasons for optimism are numerous:

We are rethinking the role of business and finance in society, as the common good is no longer the sole responsibility of the public sector and politics. Businesses are shifting from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism. Finance aims to be no longer an end but a means to production, inclusive growth and innovation. Many of us are starting to consume, invest and even live more responsibly. Some governments and supranational entities are starting to steer the whole system in a strategic way (e.g. EU Green Deal).

We are challenging old — but well-established — dogmas such as shareholder supremacy[5], the trickle-down effect or the invisible hand of markets[6], with no need for an invisible heart.

Forward-thinking economists are enlightening us with viable alternatives that shall work for the many and for the planet. These new proposals have been given different names: stakeholder capitalism, progressive capitalism (J. Stiglitz), doughnut economy (K. Raworth), the welfare economy (T. Jackson), the economics of hope (M. Mazzucato), etc. They all have a common denominator: less neoliberalism, greater ecosystem consciousness, more solidarity and real value-creation, instead of value-extraction. Even the World Economic Forum’s 50th Annual Meeting in Davos was focused on stakeholder capitalism with the theme being “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.”

These shifting narratives can generate enlightening environments for our values and behaviours to change, creating positive feedback loops that lead to paradigm shifts.

Reasons for concern

Still, the old forces are present and powerful, and there are numerous reasons for concern. We have about 12 years to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid irreversible climate change[7]. However, almost no country is meeting its climate commitments, fossil fuel and soil-harming industrial agriculture subsidies are up and running, and many countries are using the Covid19 crisis as an excuse to weaken environmental protections[8]. We have lost 60% of biodiversity in less than 50 years and 2020 is on course to be the hottest year since records began.

Despite climate change dominated headlines, continuous scientists’ warnings and clean technologies becoming cheaper — and more efficient — by the day, 85% of our global energy supply is still provided by oil, gas and coal.

Unfortunately, climate deniers and sustainability opponents still put up formidable resistance. Their deny-and-delay strategy is proving successful. Science may be unanimous[9] but lobbyists and politicians are not.

On the social dimension, the picture is as bleak, if not worse. More than 700 million people live in extreme poverty, a similar number is undernourished and has no access to clean water, and the world’s 26 richest individuals own as much as the poorest 50%. Covid19 is affecting the most vulnerable — among and within countries — in a disproportionate manner[10].

The fork in the road

And here we are at the fork in the road, with conservative and progressive forces pushing in different directions. We need help to take the sustainability path forward, especially from older generations in rich democratic countries and those privileged enough not to worry about the base of Maslow’s pyramid. We can’t leave this task to our children, who will be burdened with economic debt, ecological degradation and resource depletion.

People coming together in joint action has served as a major engine of social and economic transformation throughout human history. Citizen engagement matters and more so now. With less than 4000 days away from 2030, every action counts, every day matters and our behaviour will contribute to the type and speed of change.

Closing the gaps

In order to get more people involved, and build an engaged and socially conscious society, we need to close (what I call) the SDG awareness and involvement gaps, in this order.

To me, the SDG awareness gap is the lack of awareness of the 2030 Agenda and the steps needed to turn it into reality, within society at large. The Agenda seems relevant and very present at “elite-level” but less so at “street-level”, as if it was some kind of abstract framework for the various leaders to deal with. There is a lack of perception that the SDGs must be fulfilled at country, region and local level too, and that each and every one of us will be their ultimate beneficiaries.

The SDG involvement gap is the gap between people’s aspirations for sustainable development and their day to day lives, decisions and actions. Many are now aware of the problems; few act on them or become part of the solution. Some might feel like a simple drop in the ocean, powerless to shape or influence the future they wish to live. Others are too busy in their frenetic day-to-day lives to reflect on the wider ecosystem, and how they could contribute to make it better.

The first step to create an engaged and socially conscious society is to gather knowledge[11] and encourage friends and family to do the same (closing the SDG awareness gap). Awareness is an essential precursor of active engagement. Once we acquire a good understanding of the environmental and social challenges that exist, and most importantly, of the scale of change required to solve them, it is much less likely we will be unwilling to take action somehow.

Otto Scharmer[12] describes the choices we face in any moment beautifully:

“When we wake up, when we stop downloading, we realize we actually have a choice, a choice of how we respond to any situation: we can respond by turning away, or by turning toward. Turning away means closing our mind, heart and will — in other words, acting from ignorance, hate and fear. Turning toward means opening your mind, heart and will — acting from curiosity, compassion and courage”.

Once we close the SDG awareness and involvement gaps, turning toward, we might decide the level of involvement according to our personal circumstances.

All actions big or small are meaningful.

We might think that small actions such as biking to work, rejecting fast fashion, reducing, repairing and reusing before even recycling, cutting down on red meat[13] and unnecessary flights or installing a solar panel on our roof will not save the planet. Unfortunately we are right. We need big players’ commitment to implement major changes such as phasing-out fossil fuels or revamping our subsidy systems. However, we cannot expect big shifts from them if we keep on supporting their same old models.

Moreover, small actions are important because good practises inspire imitation[14], give us a sense of purpose and can start positive feedback loops that become bigger and bigger. They matter because they teach others what is at stake and the changes required. They matter because they send strong signals to business and government — remember we are voters, consumers, pension holders -, encouraging them to adapt to new societal needs and aspirations. They matter because we have to start somewhere…In José Saramago’s words “No cambiaremos la vida si no cambiamos de vida” — “We will not change life if we don’t change the way we live”.

Bigger actions, meaning actions leading to a greater impact, can be taken by acting collectively, as part of social or political movements.

Regardless of how we decide to turn toward, the timing is in our favour. Centuries ago, and even decades ago, the power belonged to the few. It was difficult to achieve and jealousy regarded. In this day and age, in a hyper-connected world, ideas spread fast and the power can be held by the many, in an open, participatory and peer-driven manner. We must seize this opportunity.

Citizen participation drives business and government action. As citizens, together, we can enable the tipping point that leads to the system transformation we are aiming for, to build a brighter world by 2030.

Let’s keep Eleanor Roosevelt’s words in mind: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Our future is no longer dependent on whether we act, but on how long we take to do so. To those dreamers, thinkers and doers already engaging to build a more sustainable and equitable future, thank you so much. You are today’s heroes. To those of you still standing by the side-lines, wishing for a brighter future, please pick whatever makes your heart beat — ending poverty, battling inequality, empowering women and girls, fighting racism, xenophobia and all forms of hate, intolerance and discrimination, curbing climate change, etc. — and make that your thing. Gather knowledge about it, fitting it into the wider, systemic picture. Befriend others already involved and join them, and all of us, in the building of a more sustainable, just and peaceful future for everyone. Let’s build on this marvellous momentum and take the sustainability path forward.

Thank you

A special thank you to the female heroes of my life:

To my mum, Belén, for encouraging me to hug trees when I was little (it took me a few years to understand why).

To my daughters, Nike and Chloe, for shedding light and strength into my life.

To my mentees, Marti and Madonna, for your internal beauty and courage.

To Nike’s teacher, Eleonora, for leading with integrity and moral purpose.

To my girlfriends, Bego, Oji, Rosa, Iracosi, Miren, Simo, Odile, Bazz, Nima, Nat, Ali, Leire and each and every one, for accepting and loving me the way I am.

Opinions expressed in this article are solely my own.

[1] The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money book by John Maynard Keynes.

[2] Unfortunately, many have been aggravated by the Covid19 pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world of work upside down”, said Secretary-General António Guterres. “Every worker, every business and every corner of the globe has been affected. Hundreds of millions of jobs have been lost”. See https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/06/1066642

[3] Please see World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229

[4] For example, we have understood the correlation between biodiversity loss and the rise of zoonotic pathogens, with devastating impacts on human health.

[5] The shift to shareholder primacy has been widely attributed to the development of the “shareholder pre-eminence theory” by the Chicago school of economists, beginning in the 1970s, with economist Milton Friedman famously arguing that the only “social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2019/08/22/so-long-to-shareholder-primacy/

[6] The invisible hand describes the unintended social benefits of an individual’s self-interested actions, a concept that was first introduced by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759, invoking it in reference to income distribution. Interpretations of the term have been generalized beyond the usage by A. Smith.

[7] See IPCC report https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

[8] See https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061772

[9] Please see Alliance of World Scientists’ site https://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/

[10] Please see latest UNDP report Brief #2: Putting the UN Framework for Socio-Economic Repsonse to COVID-19 into Action: Insights at https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/covid-19-pandemic-response/socio-economic-impact-of-covid-19.html

[11] One can start with the knowledge platform www.sustainabledevelopment.un.org. Free online courses can be found at www.sdghelpdesk.unescap.org. Other wonderful sites are: www.worldwildlife.org, www.europarl.europa.eu, www.ipcc.ch, www.earth.com, www.ourplanet.com, www.undp.org

[12] Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer MIT, Co-founder, Presencing Institute www.ottoscharmer.com

[13] Meat production produces 5 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions per year (and if it were a country it would be the third most polluting country, after China and the US

[14] Social scientists have found that when one person makes a sustainability-oriented decision, other people do too

Multicultural Industrial Engineer with MBA. Spanish-born. European by heart. Proud feminist. Champion of sustainable & impact investing. Mom of 2 😇😇.