The daunting scale of societal transition we face in the next decade or two, to avert major disruption or even collapse of our complex civilization, makes most of us feel helpless and discouraged, leading to denial (Trump & Co), action paralysis (many European governments) or over-simplistic “solutions” with marginal impact (please recycle your PET).
How can we positively engage citizens and corporations to act with the required speed and determination?
The recently concluded BSL course “Implementing Sustainability Strategy”, as a mini-trial, offers hope. With nine participants, at least as many nationalities between us, a guest speaker, and myself as a learning facilitator, our management experience ranging from basic materials and finance to software and humanitarian operations – we co-created a 3-day piece of this journey together.
To prepare, a few hours of reading and thinking before class helped participants catch up to the latest knowledge and insights. Additionally, answering a few questions helped crystalize one’s thoughts. Finally, in the classroom: rearranging furniture so we are all seated around one big table; then sharing interests and expectations.
We quickly moved beyond alarming images showing the climate or biodiversity urgency, air or plastic pollution, and scientific papers explaining the foundations. It was important to put current developments in a proper context – which is the basis of any serious understanding.
We went on a “discovery journey” from the Big Bang (looking into energy, entropy, and life), the evolution of homo sapiens (power of storytelling, oldest remaining human civilizations, agricultural revolution, enlightenment, industrial revolution), economics (concept of GDP, neoclassical, environmental, ecological and other flavors, need for growth, the myth of decoupling, rebound effect), technology (coal, oil, Haber-Bosch, green revolution, absolute and practical limits, technology as master or servant?), finally reaching societal changes (poverty, consumer society, industrial food). Interestingly, most fundamental questions like “What’s the purpose of society” are rarely asked and almost never collectively answered.
A useful tool on this journey is Manfred Max-Neef’s “Barefoot economics”, which the author himself condenses in 5 brief yet deeply insightful statements:
- The economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
- Development is about people and not about objects.
- Growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
- No economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
- The economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.
Process of Personal Transition, John Fisher, 2012
Application to business
Back to the classroom, back to the companies we work for: it was time to apply this broader understanding. After the usual impact, materiality and lifecycle analysis, we tried a novel approach, asking the questions “Why does this product exist at all?” and “Which human needs does it satisfy”, based on Max-Neef’s Fundamental Human Needs model. A lower-impact solution is then sought that satisfies the same needs. This iterative process works best if part of a broader employee and management engagement process, which we also practiced.
Additionally, our guest speaker Mark Posey shared his extensive experience of how this all came together in real life at Schindler. The discussion lasted three hours including lunch, time very well spent.
Throughout this intense course, to keep everyone engaged, we tried to maintain a good rhythm, alternating videos, reports, class discussion, scientific articles, teamwork and presentations, short explanations, and individual reflection.
Ecosystem services experienced first hand
Ecosystem services are benefits humans derive from biodiversity, such as provisioning (food, medicine), regulating (flood protection, climate), cultural (meaning, heritage, relaxation) and supporting (soil formation, nutrient cycling). Every class day, just before sunset, feeling totally exhausted, we went for a 40-min restorative nature walk. As a result, the long evening group assignment went until 21:45, yet we were fully motivated. What better way to experience the value of cultural ecosystem services?
If we could somehow combine a deep understanding of the current situation and how we got there, a humanist vision of society based on human thriving over generations, a determination to experiment in different local contexts, a shared success metric based of high human development and minimal environmental impact, and finally inspiration of past cases of mobilization to face big challenges (example: a short BBC video) – we might actually feel empowered to start the transformation.
This is precisely what we did on a tiny scale at BSL.
Author: Sascha Nick, BSL Professor