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Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

13 Nov 2015

Values and sustainability – third in a series

Posted by Michael Keating

How can values drive the greatest challenge humans face: moving to sustainability? How can we change development to fit within Earth’s natural limits, and still live a good life? This series of articles takes us through the evolution of some major environmental issues in recent history, looks at visions and principles that can guide us in the future, examines some of the barriers to change and gives examples of leadership for sustainability.



Why are we not more sustainable?

In the first article I traced the evolution of environment as a major public issue. In the second I showed major sets of goals and principles to achieve sustainability. In this third article I look at some barriers to achieving sustainability.

Sustainable development was an exciting new concept in the 1980s. How are we doing at making it happen? Our societies are more environmentally literate and aware than ever before, so why are we still sliding deeper into ecological debt? Since the 1987 Brundtland Report, there has been a huge growth in world economic output, with roughly a doubling in Gross World Product. The world is a better place for many people. They live longer, healthier lives, have higher incomes and greater mobility. Many people have been and are being lifted out of poverty by the increased economic development. More people have enough food, safe drinking water and better health care. We have cleaner cars, chemicals that do not destroy the ozone layer, more reforestation, organic food, recycling and alternative energy. Many forms of pollution have been reduced. We have reversed some environmental degradation, and reduced some other impacts.

While these are important steps, they are not nearly enough to achieve a sustainable world. A growing global population and higher average per capita consumption are increasing many environmental pressures. The world is still consuming and polluting faster than nature can produce and safely assimilate. The environment is going through the greatest changes in human history. Greenhouse gases are building to ever more dangerous levels in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels still produce about 82 per cent of the world’s commercial energy. Many forms of agriculture are putting large amounts of chemicals into the environment. Globally, we are losing more forests than are being replanted. Close to 90 per cent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or overfished. Many underground water resources are being drained faster than they are replaced by nature. Thousands of chemicals are released into the environment with little or no understanding of their health impacts. Why are we not doing better? Let’s look at some of the barriers to greater change.

Growing pressures

When Brundtland report was published in 1987, there were 5 billion of us. Now, we are more than 7.2 billion, and the population is forecast to rise to about 9.6 billion around 2050, and possibly 12 billion by 2100. Population growth is a fundamental driver of increasing needs and demands. Another important driver is increasing wealth and the resulting growth in consumption. There were about 750 million motor vehicles on the planet in 2000. Now there are 1.2 billion, an increase of 60 per cent in just 15 years. Another result of increasing population and wealth is that people eat more, including more meat, which consumes more resources than a vegetarian diet. The world will need to produce 70 per cent more food and animal feed by 2050. The Brundtland Report said development should satisfy our reasonable needs and wants. It did not try to say how much is reasonable.

At the same time, we face great social stresses. After a period of widespread income gains during the 20th century, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Low and middle incomes have stagnated or declined, and the bulk of wealth is in the hands a very few. According to Oxfam, by 2016, one per cent of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99 per cent. The economic system that generates this wealth is quite unstable as shown by repeated oil price shocks and the near collapse of the global financial system in 2008-2009.


Old-fashioned development patterns

Nations and companies are in various stages of moving from dirty to cleaner technologies. Alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and renewable fuels, are gradually replacing fossil fuels, but the transition will take many years. Brundtland said that lower-income nations needed economic development, and called for a major clean technology transfer from developed to developing nations so they could leapfrog the historically dirty development patterns of the richer nations. This has not really happened. It is a sad reality that too many people see dirty development as the best option for economic growth in poor nations, even though the long-term costs are high. We see this in the terrible, life-shortening air pollution in many developing countries that rely on dirty fuels, and in the growing greenhouse gas emissions. If we are going to move to clean technologies in market economies, in developed and developing nations, there must be financial disincentives to pollution. The price of pollution will have to be set much higher, as is clear in the discussions about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of the problem with historic development patterns is that some nations got to use up all the ecological space for pollution because they were the first in line. This is one of the biggest sticking points in negotiations over greenhouse gas reductions and attempts to stop deforestation. There is a finite amount of resources and a limited ability of the environment to safely handle our wastes. Who has to make the cuts? Do the industrialized countries need to reduce their demands on the environment to make ecological space for countries that are still industrializing? Can we all agree on a new lifestyle that will provide for our basic needs and allow us a satisfying lifestyle, though one that may consume less energy and materials per person?


Out-of-date attitudes

In international development circles, the primary value has been economic growth, commonly leading to environment degradation and often to social inequality. A 2010 background paper prepared by the International Institute for Sustainable Development for a high-level UN panel on sustainable development said governments, businesses, and civil society have accepted sustainable development as a guiding principle. They have made progress on measuring it, and have improved business and NGO participation in the sustainable development process. But it adds, “Unsustainable trends continue and sustainable development has not found the political entry points to make real progress.” It continued, “more limiting for the sustainable development agenda is the reigning orientation of development as purely economic growth. This has been the framework used by developed countries in attaining their unprecedented levels of wealth, and major and rapidly developing countries are following the same course. The problem with such an approach is that natural resources are in imminent peril of being exhausted or their quality being compromised to an extent that threatens current biodiversity and natural environments.” The report said that sustainable development is too often seen as just an environmental issue instead of a concept that integrates economic, social and environmental decisions. Governments have generally failed to integrate the different sectors in decision making.


Limits to governments’ ability to achieve sustainability

We tend to look to governments to try to solve the big issues, such as security, employment, health care and, in recent decades, environmental decline. Going back more than a century, governments started protecting parks and species. Next they started tackling pollution, first dealing with sewage, then with chemicals and industrial wastes. Most of the easy cleanups have been done. Now, governments are struggling with how to make a transition to a greener economy while maintaining good jobs. For example, governments have given incentives for renewable energy projects and greener cars. At the same time, governments still spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year, directly or through reduced taxes and charges in promoting more fossil fuel developments and consumption, even though these will produce more of the greenhouse gas emissions that governments have promised to reduce. To reduce pollution they need to stop supporting dirty industries, but this means major economic change and shifts in employment, which are hard to manage. It takes a lot of political courage and effort to sunset an industry such as fossil fuels in a manner that is fair, especially to the employees.

Many transitions to sustainability will cost a lot of money and cause a lot of inconvenience during the changeover. We saw this decades ago with the Introduction of major air pollution controls on cars. For a few years, performance suffered, but then cars became cleaner, more fuel efficient and still offer high performance. But, politicians are reluctant to campaign on higher prices that reflect the true costs of products, including pollution because consumers want products at the lowest possible cost. Leaded fuel was known to be hazardous for decades, but was only banned in Canada in the 1980s when parents concerned about the heavy metal causing brain damage to children put pressure on the federal government. The problem is to find enough such strong leverage points to trigger a major shift in attitudes and behaviour by people, politicians and business leaders.

Some governments provide better leadership toward sustainability than others, but all are constrained by what their citizens will accept. There are limits to how far democratic governments can push change, but they can be very effective in sowing the seeds of change through regulations, incentives and information. It was interesting to hear how a Canadian environment minister saw limits to his power. Some years ago, I was talking with the environment minister of the day about the leadership role of governments. He said ‘We say we are leading. In reality we wait to see where people are heading, then we rush to the head of the parade, waving the flag and pretend we are leading.’ More than two decades later in 2014 German environment minister Barbara Hendricks commented on the impact of a series of marches to press governments around the world for action on climate change: “Without public support it will be impossible to stop climate change.”

There are encouraging signs of public support. An Ipsos poll on climate change in the United States in early 2015 found two-thirds of the 2,400 polled said world leaders are morally obligated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.


Business and sustainability

There are still ongoing debates as to whether the role of a corporation is just to make money for its shareholders, or if it should also work for a broader social good. From an economic and social perspective, companies are employers, and producers of goods and services we consume. From an environmental perspective, some companies are seen as the black hats, destroying nature and polluting air, water and land. Where do ethics and values come into play in the corporate world? Many companies behave in an ethical manner, while others just try to survive and not do too much harm. However, there are stunning examples of lack of ethics. Tobacco companies hid information about the harmful health effects of smoking. Car companies concealed defects, and one rigged cars to pass emissions tests while spewing out large amounts of pollution in real use. There are drug companies that buy up patents to rare drugs then jack up the prices, sometimes by several thousand percent. It was recently revealed that an oil company was told by its experts that climate change was a big problem decades ago, but publicly denied it was an issue. Financial institutions nearly crashed the stock market in 2008 as they tried to make more money while ignoring the effects on millions of people who faced years of economic hardship, including loss of their jobs and homes.

How do you get companies to make sustainability a core value that drives better performance? Many see increasing pressure from customers, including demand for more environmentally friendly products, which means a market opportunity. The head of a major Canadian chemical company once told me he was more worried about losing his “social licence” from consumers than he was about government regulation. Some companies have taken the initiative. For example, Tesla Motors, a major force in electric cars, says its mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” Others promote organic food. Many have reduced demand for energy, toxic substances and natural resources in their operations.

A few business leaders have a personal vision that can lead to major change. Ray Anderson was founder of Interface Inc., one of the world’s biggest commercial carpet makers. In 1994, when his customers were asking what his company was doing for the environment, he read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. It said that commerce was demanding more than nature could provide, and business people had to dedicate themselves to transforming commerce to a restorative undertaking. For Anderson the message was “a spear in the chest” that led him to set Interface on a new course aiming to have zero negative effects on the planetary ecosystem, a work still in progress.


Individual behaviour

Despite the focus on the roles of governments and business, the real change comes from individual values and behaviour. It is the products we buy and how we use them that has the greatest impact. There are direct impacts, such as when we turn on the motor of a car. There are important indirect impacts caused by shifting consumption patterns that force suppliers to change their behaviour, such as in a move to more public transportation or to organic food.

There are signs of shifting opinions and behaviour. (An upcoming article in this series will look at how the Blue Box recycling program in Ontario changed the thinking and conduct of millions of people.) The 2015 Ipsos poll on climate change found 72 per cent felt personally morally obligated to do what they could to reduce CO2 emissions. Fifty-six per cent said it is a moral issue because it will disproportionately harm the poor. The poll suggests that arguments based on ethics could be more persuasive than just scientific arguments.



Change is driven or held back by what we see as right and what we are willing to accept. Brundtland tried to address the values question with the title of the report: Our Common Future. It was about living well in the present, but leaving an environment fit for future generations. It was a message that resonated with people around the world. So, why has progress to sustainability has been very slow? Let me quote three sustainability thinkers from three continents on how they see widely held values holding back a movement to sustainability.

In 1992, Rajesh Tandon of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia wrote an editorial in the New Delhi based Development Alternatives. “Sustainable development is essentially a matter of achieving a sustainable lifestyle, based on meeting the basic needs of all people…and deriving satisfaction from existing socio‑spiritual processes in society. Viewed in this sense, the contemporary lifestyle of the bulk of the population in the countries of the North, as well as the blind aping by the upwardly mobile classes in the countries of the South, is blatantly unsustainable.” He might have been echoing one of his country’s most famous figures. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The earth offers enough for everyone’s need, not for everyone’s greed.’

In 1993, former Czech environment minister Josef Vavrousek wrote in The Independent Sector’s Network that, “Selfishness, hedonism, consumerism, greediness and growth orientation are the major driving forces of Western European and North American economies, and this poisons relations between people, as well as between human society and nature. Substantial changes in human values are the only way we can hope for any attempts to prepare and follow sustainable ways of life. Respect for life and nature, modesty and frugality, solidarity and altruism, equity and diversity, and tolerance and democracy are fundamental values. They, along with a sense of mutual interdependency and personal responsibility of everyone for the development of human society and the state of nature could and should form a set of human values leading us in the direction of a sustainable future.”

Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, and former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme said in 2006: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that 30 years of science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.”

There are clashes of values.

A government may value job creation and taxes from a new polluting industry more than a cleaner environment.

A corporation may value profits more than environmental preservation.

An individual may value the thrill of a fast car over a slower less-polluting model.

Some oppose environmental regulations as unwarranted state intrusion in their lives.

Proponents of sustainability have other sets of values. They worry about future generations. They worry about their own health. They do not want to lose a quality environment. They feel other species have the right to continue to live. They feel less-powerful peoples have the right to protect their environments, and continue to live in ways they have for centuries.

The world has set out a vision for a more sustainable future, most recently in The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations earlier this year. But, we are slow to translate this into action. The question is how we can get a shift in values that will lead to more environmentally progressive decisions. The conversation is changing. In the next article, I’ll look at some examples of leadership for sustainability.

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One Response to “Values and sustainability – third in a series”

  1. […] issue. In the second I showed major sets of goals and principles to achieve sustainability. In the third article I looked at barriers to achieving sustainability. In this article, I’ll look at examples […]


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