Despite the extraordinary achievements of the human race and the beauty of the planet we inhabit, it is clear that we are on a trajectory towards an increasingly uncertain future where much of what we have taken for granted may be about to change, whether we like it or not. Given our relative lack of action to date, it may need some major crisis to force us to act globally.
But perhaps it won't. If we can envision a future for ourselves worth investing our time and effort in which not only mitigates the problems we face but also gives us a happier more secure future, then maybe we won't need to wait for an environmental disaster or global terrorism attack to start changing.
We live on an extraordinary planet with much that is good. Business, government, science and technology have provided some of the world's 6.5 billion people with wonderful things. The challenge is do this sustainably so that we can all live well on this planet. As individuals, we can make lifestyle changes to reduce our foot-print (reduce, re-use, recycle) but the positive impact will be dwarfed by growth in China and India. We can't just act alone; we need to act together. We need solutions that are global. This is the great leadership challenge facing us.
It is tempting to hope that our political leaders will do what is necessary to lead us to sustainability. But they are constrained by the symbiotic relationship they have with us the electorate. As the preface to the UK Government's Securing the Future report says: "There is no magic wand the government or anyone else can wave to make sustainable behaviour and activity the norm overnight. We will only succeed if we go with the grain of what individuals and businesses want, and channel their creativity to confront the environmental challenges we face." (p3) What Government can do is provide leadership by providing a vision and enabling context. The Securing the Future report lays out the goal of sustainable development as being to enable "all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations" (p 16). The report goes on to identify a set of guiding principles that will be used to achieve the country's sustainable development purpose (see diagram below). Government can Encourage, Engage, Exemplify and Enable as is described in the Report.
There are many groups working to create positive change: The Elders, faith groups, popular campaigning groups like Friends of the Earth, and the World Development Movement, direct action groups like Greenpeace, and many, many more. I remember in the mid 80s reading about The Hunger Project. This was established in 1977 with the bold plan to end world hunger within 25 years. Sadly millions still starve to death each year. Inspired by Victor Hugo's idea that "there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come", The Hunger project sought to make the end of hunger an idea whose time has come. It is still working towards that goal.
But of all the groupings able to make change happen, it is the business community that has the greatest potential, reach and resources to make a difference. 51 of the largest economic units in the world are companies, not countries. Businesses have global reach. And businesses have a responsibility to protect shareholder value. What we are beginning to recognise is that the way to do this is to build sustainable businesses. This means building businesses that are sustainable in their use of natural resources, in the social impact they have, and in their profitability - the so-called Triple Bottom Line.