|Yesterday I had the honour of making my first ever speech on an environmental subject, at the invitation of McGill University, to their Business Conference on Sustainability. The students who organized the conference, led by Caroline Morissette and Allan Eisen, have done an extraordinary job, attracting over 100 students from universities across Canada, and the event gave me the chance to meet and work with Peter Brown, whose wonderful book The Commonwealth of Life I reviewed last year.
I had the chance to speak with a number of the students before my presentation, and it was encouraging to discover so many young people knowledgeable about the grim state of our environment, and eager to learn what they can do, as they enter the workforce, to make the businesses they work for, or create for themselves, sustainable. But I had been fretting about what to say in this regard in the short time I had available to speak to them as a group, and I should have trusted my instincts. I ended up trying to modify my original presentation when I should have changed it completely, and as a result it was not one of my better speeches, coming across as unpolished, overly ambitious, and not entirely coherent (though the students were kind enough to say otherwise).
For me it was an important learning experience. I built this presentation around my What You Can Do and How to Disrupt the Distorted Market Economy articles. The latter article honed in on three bottom-up mechanisms for making the economy more sustainable: informed consumer activism, natural enterprises, and intentional communities. And while I still believe these are essential elements in the process of creating a new economy, it is now clear to me that they are not enough, and that, if Canada is to take the lead, and be a model of sustainability for the rest of the world, we need to do much more on a lot of fronts, and create a ‘roadmap’ so that we do these things in the right order. If we are, as Bucky Fuller said, to “build a new model that renders the old model obsolete”, that new model must be solid. Eighty percent of Canadians believe that protection of the environment and conservation of natural resources should take priority over economic growth. With our audience already 80% convinced, and countries like Sweden and the Netherlands striving in the same direction, how can we lose?
Here, hopefully more coherently, is a roadmap for such a model:
Part 1: Getting Canadians and Governments Informed and Committed
We need to build a nation-wide, collaborative information exchange that will explain the roadmap to sustainability, how every Canadian can participate in its realization, and the steps that our governments need to take to enable this realization. It would ideally be presented by someone seen as a credible leader for the process. My choice for this leader would be David Suzuki. Suzuki’s foundation has produced a document called Sustainability Within a Generation, which I believe lays out the framework for this new economic model. This document, written by environmental lawyer David Boyd, begins with a definition of sustainability:
The drive towards sustainability would be coupled with an objective of creating greater well-being for all Canadians — so that sustainability is seen as a shift in the way we live and make a living, not as a sort of sacrifice. Well being would be measured not by the narrow and misleading measure of GDP, but by a Genuine Wealth Index (GWI) that includes a spectrum of measures of: vibrant communities, meaningful work, good housing, high quality education and health care, functional infrastructure, outstanding recreational opportunities, clean air and water, healthy relationships with others, and dynamic economic prospects. Importantly, GWI would enable us to track, month by month, our ‘progress’ in the drive to sustainability in a generation, by setting GWI improvement benchmarks to attain at each step in the roadmap.
Governments in Canada at all levels would be invited to ‘sign on’ to the realization of this vision. Canadian parties and governments that refused to make the commitment necessary would face the consequences at the voting booth.
But this site would be much more than just a means to educate Canadians on the need for, and path to, sustainability. It would enable all Canadians to identify and buy responsibly from local, environmentally responsible suppliers, voice dissatisfaction with and boycott companies that have not signed on to the principles of sustainability, create new markets by identifying and fulfilling unmet needs, and research products and companies before buying to ensure the goods they purchase are durable, responsibly produced, and reusable or recyclable. It would allow consumers to finally use the power of knowledge to shape and influence the way companies behave, and would allow small, new, responsible enterprises to gain access to markets virally.
In the process it would start to remove some of the distortions that make our markets so ‘un-free’: It would create new markets to do end-runs around oligopolies that refuse to produce products that don’t offer high profit margins and that use oligopoly power to set prices far above what a truly free market would allow. It would remove the current motivation for suppliers to increase profits by selling shoddy products, sue and intimidate customers who trade and share products at no cost, lobby governments for intellectual property laws that impede innovation and competition, secure government subsidies that make it impossible for small, independent companies to compete, and lie in their advertising to customers.
Part 2: Develop the Plan, Benchmarks and Policies
Once Canadians were informed and committed to the sustainability goals and processes, we would need an overall sustainability Plan, which would, if we follow the Suzuki model, have the following ten component Sub-plans:
Peter Brown’s book provides a wealth of ideas on how a ‘stewardship’ approach to economics can lead to better public programs and policies in each of these ten areas.
The Suzuki report goes on to list goals, benchmarks and policies for each area. Those policies are a mix of regulations, investments, research initiatives, public education, trade initiatives (including the cancellation or drastic renegotiation of NAFTA) and new government measures and programs.
But they really don’t tell the average Canadian what s/he can and should be doing to help realize the sustainability goals. In fact, the report seems to suggest that there’s nothing much we need to do as individuals, as informal communities, and as businesspeople, except to be informed and comply with the changing regulations.
That’s where I think some of my ideas comes in. I’d propose this add-on to the roadmap that the Suzuki Foundation has laid out:
Part 3: Engaging Canadians in Achieving Sustainability
These are things that all Canadians can do, and learn about. But merely creating these exchanges, programs, networks and model communities isn’t enough: We need to actively recruit Canadians in all walks of life and all political persuasions to participate in these activities, to make it part of the way they think, live, and make their living.
I would like to believe that, with so many Canadians believing in this ideal in the first place, and such a compelling argument for this means of achieving it, without sacrifice, the Canadian Sustainability Movement could almost take off spontaneously, and spread virally, with local community-based Sustainability Circles popping up everywhere, eager to be part of the solution to the problem that has proved so intractable. But I think that’s naive: Most Canadians, like the people of every other country, are preoccupied with personal priorities and the day-to-day struggles of life. But what could spark this would be launching the awareness activities and the ‘part 3’ personal activities through existing social organizations whose values are wholly consistent with the goals of sustainability: schools and universities, religious leaders, the progressive political parties, unions, fraternal organizations and cooperatives, and progressive businesses.
If governments, and large corporations, did their part (willingly or reluctantly) to move to a dramatically more sustainable way of operating, and measuring ‘success’, I think the vast majority of Canadians would be more than willing to play a role, and to take personal and collective pride in the ‘progress’ we make together towards the GWI benchmarks, if the programs that would help them do so were given sufficient momentum and publicity in a broad-based launch. Many Canadians have already accepted the “one tonne challenge” to reduce waste, and the challenge to improve their personal fitness, so we’ve demonstrated that we’re up for a challenge if the benefits are compelling enough.
And what could be more compelling than being the first country in the world to achieve absolute sustainability, and show the world, and the generations to come, that it’s possible and desirable?
Thanks to all the gang at McGill and the MBCS for provoking my thinking on this. If they are representative of tomorrow’s leaders, we can do this. This article is what I should have said in my speech to you last night.
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