When an irresistible force meets an immovable object – the challenge of sustainability

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object – the challenge of sustainability

Blog_imageAnswers to tough questions are found in interesting places. The Foundation has just completed its first tour of the country with the Orientations of the 2015 Candidate Allan Gray Fellows in Gauteng, Western Cape and the Eastern Cape. Fresh from the long university holiday, the some 260 Candidate Fellows were full of ideas and enthusiasm – energy that was much needed to answer the first question of the year.

In partnership with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership  (CISL) the Fellowship was challenged to answer the question: “What will your world look like in 2040?” Initially the answers were very positive and upbeat. Then CISL went through the nature of the challenges inherent in answering that seemingly simple question. It soon became clear that any realistic answer has to resolve the tension implicit in the question: “What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” And this is not merely a comic science fiction extract from the interchange between Batman and the Joker in the Dark Night, but the reality of the challenge facing our planet.  Specifically, what happens when the irresistible force of growth meets the immoveable object of finite resources?

Growth has been unprecedented at all levels:

  • Population growth – population around 2.5bn in 1950, currently 7.3bn and growing by nearly 2 million people per week!
  • Urbanisation – 2/3 of world population will live in cities by 2050, amounting to 6.3bn people

This level of growth has been captured in CISL’s powerful phrase “The Great Acceleration.” Almost anything one thinks of has shown hockey-stick growth since the second half of the 20th Century: GDP, motor vehicles, water use, temperature, fisheries exploited and species extinction.

This level of growth has been made possible through a number of factors, including increased primary energy use, declining resource prices and worryingly increased debt (world debt has grown 2.5 times in 10 years).

In addition, for a number of reasons, growth is exceptionally important:

  • It alleviates poverty – the 1.75bn people currently living in multi-dimensional poverty
  • It addresses energy poverty – 587 million without access to electricity in Sub Saharan Africa.

“In a flat world, the gap between those who have electricity and those who don’t grows exponentially, not arithmetically because it cuts them off from the basic tools that other people use to compete, connect and collaborate.” Thomas Friedman 

  • It solves unemployment – global unemployment is now sitting at 19%
  • It deals with an ageing population – Proportion of the population over 65 will grow from 7% in 2000 to 15% in 2050.

So there has been incredible growth and this growth has been important for the reasons above, yet there is now the increasing reality that growth faces the immoveable object of finite resources.

This is evident in a number of different ways:

  • Hitting limits of resources – end of easy oil, resource reserves now more expensive, food prices increasing.
  • Overexploiting natural capital – 80% of our world fish stocks are either fully exploited, over exploited or depleted; Water stress: In South Africa, by 2005 we had allocated 98% of available water resources. It is likely that we will hit serious water shortages in the next five years.

Perhaps the easiest ways of understanding the finite nature of our resources is in terms of our global ecological footprint.  Our current footprint uses 1.5 planets. And on current trends the CISL expects we will exceed two planets around 2040.

Armed with these insights, the Candidate Fellows then looked to explore the inefficiencies reflected in this global reality and to identify the questions that would lead to possible solutions. A strong theme that came through in the responses was the importance of leadership. Without courageous leadership these matters cannot be addressed. Secondly there was the acknowledgement that there needed to be shifts in two key aspects: time horizon and mindset. There simply had to be longer term thinking to solve these problems and, at a societal level, mindset had to shift in order to answer the question why knowledge of destruction was not currently sufficient to change behaviour. Finally there was the suggestion of interesting tactical approaches such as the increased adoption of biomimicry  (an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.) and the redefinition of technology efficiencies to incorporate environmental efficiency.

Despite the magnitude of the challenge, and realising that these were first steps of a much longer journey, one was left with a hopefulness that this next generation will find a way to balance the paradox of an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object.

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1 Comment

  • Blaise Dobson 08/03/2015 at 7:46 am

    Great blog Anthony, especially on the cusp of a critical point in history for the global community to be considering a collective response to these issues. 2015 is a pinnacle year for diplomacy on the future structure of our economies: high-level negotiations will be concluded in New York with regards to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and at the Paris meeting of the United National Framework Convention for Climate Change. However, once the policy makers have folded away their conference papers and left their podiums, there will be the desperate need for implementation. The latest (fifth) Assessment Report by the International Panel on Climate Change (supported by UNEP’s latest Emissions Gap Report) establishes the principle that the global emission guardrails that would give a likely chance of staying within the “safe limit” of 2°Cs of global warming, include a peaking of emissions by 2025, a halving of all greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century; carbon neutrality in the second-half of the century followed by net zero emissions by 2100. Herein lie some of the most entrepreneurial opportunities of our time; the opportunity to re-imagine and re-design nearly every system that humans have come to rely on for survival. I see entrepreneurs in the vanguard of this call to action and a distinct role for Allan Gray Fellows.

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