Molly Harriss Olson

27 June 2013 – As the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development takes place in Canberra today  (Thursday), convenor Molly Harriss Olson, a former head of sustainability in the Clinton White House, writes this salutary article on the dangerous and hopeful global trends that have everything to do with securing a sustainable future for the planet. Or not.

Future environmental trends are a hot topic of debate and one which there are many views and statistics around.

The real and more pressing issue for me, is ‘how will our future generations live’?  I find this a very vexed question as I’ve spent most of my waking hours, for the past 30 years, working toward and believing that we can create the future. I’ve always believed we have choices, yet daily we are confronted by the state of the world and ongoing scenarios of:

  • Climate disaster
  • Environmental scarcity
  • Poverty
  • Crime
  • Over-population
  • Tribalism and disease

These issues are rapidly tearing at the social, environmental and economic fabric of our planet.

In Atlantic Monthly in February 1994, Robert Kaplan wrote an article which shook me, and many of my colleagues at President Clinton’s White House, to our foundations. It was called ‘The Coming Anarchy’. He used specific examples of worldwide demographic, environmental and societal stress in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real “strategic” danger. He highlighted areas such as:

  • Fictitious sovereignty and border disputes
  • Withering away of central governments
  • Rise of tribal and regional domains
  • Refugees
  • Unchecked spread of disease
  • Growing pervasiveness of war
  • Environmental destruction

“It is time,” Kaplan says, “to understand The Environment for what it is: The National Security Issue of the early 21st Century.” He went on to say that countries with the highest probability of suffering resource scarcity, such as Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria, would be most at risk of wars and civil violence.

Kaplan concluded that “We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well-fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Although both parts will be threatened by environmental stress, the Last Man will be able to master it, the First Man will not and an increasingly large number of people will be stuck in history, living in shantytowns where attempts to rise above poverty, cultural dysfunction, and ethnic strife will be doomed by a lack of water to drink, soil to till and space to survive in.

This is not a pretty picture of how future generations might live. After working passionately to learn about and raise awareness of the importance of the environment, however, one realises that it is not something we can easily isolate because it is, in fact, connected to everything else.

Environment trends are also economic trends, political trends,

technology trends and social trends.

This is especially true when we are talking about the future of humanity, of business or of our grand children and the world we are leaving to them. Environment trends are also economic trends, political trends, technology trends and social trends. There is some good news in these trends which were highlighted in the 2013 Human Development Report.

  • The net loss worldwide of forests decreased over the last 20 years, from 8.3 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 5.2 million hectares per year in the last decade.
  • The number of people who do not have adequate sanitation has decreased by 271 million since 1990 (there remain 1.1 billion people, or 15 percent of the global people with no sanitation facilities at all).
  • The share of urban slum residents in the developing world declined from 39 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2012 (slum prevalence remains high in sub-Saharan Africa and increases in countries affected by conflict).

A time for sustainable security

I believe a major shift is coming, a shift to a new paradigm of the future, namely “sustainable security”. This reflects a deeper understanding that, to prevent the potential wars of the 21st century, it is just as important to address human, economic, food, water and environmental security.  As the United Nations Development Program 1994 Human Development Report noted:

“Human security is a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode in violence, a dissident who was not silenced. Human security is not a concern with weapons – it is a concern with human life and dignity.” (UNDP 1994)

When we look at environmental trends we must also look at economic and political trends.

Currently, hundreds of millions of people globally are unemployed or underemployed. They do not have economic security. Insurgents in war torn countries use the level of unemployment to recruit by promising good money to those who are willing assist in insurgency activities.

Unemployment rates, which are currently at 35-40 per cent in Afghanistan, 40-60 per cent in Iraq, 30-35 per cent in Yemen and 25-30 per cent in Libya, are acknowledged as a major contributor to insecurity. In parts of Asia youth unemployment is high, leaving them vulnerable. In Indonesia, for instance, youth are 4.6 times more likely to be unemployed than their adult counterparts.

Environmental trends are of course also critical.

The most important and exciting environmental trends to highlight are the fact that we have finally been able to de-couple water consumption from agricultural production and de-couple energy intensity with economic productivity.

As leading US environmentalist Lester Brown has pointed out, the 20 worst failed states also have the worst levels of environmental degradation. He says that, “not surprisingly, there is also often a link between the degree of state failure and the destruction of environmental support systems. In a number of countries, including Sudan, Somalia and Haiti, deforestation, grassland deterioration and soil erosion are widespread. The countries with fast-growing populations are also facing a steady shrinkage of both cropland and water per person. After a point, rapid population growth, deteriorating environmental support systems and poverty reinforce each other.”

Recent Trends show that security, rights and opportunity for woman are key.

One of the best ways of breaking the cycle of environmental degradation and over population is the empowerment of women. Micro-credit to women and women’s groups, has proven to be the most effective way of investing in the education, economic opportunity and access to family planning for women.

Trends show appropriate sustainable technologies can play a key role in empowering women to create sustainable livelihoods and create employment. At the Barefoot Engineering College, in India, illiterate woman have been trained to make circuits for solar lighting and to install and maintain hand pumps, water tanks, solar cooking heaters and pipelines. Just one of the Barefoot Engineering products, solar lanterns, has transformed community life.

Environmental trends also show food security is essential.

Over 50 per cent  of the food produced globally is wasted for a variety of reasons. Most people globally are completely ignorant of this fact. In Australia alone, billions of dollars of food is wasted. There is much that can easily be done to reduce this level of waste.

Of course there is no getting around that fact that we need to lead on climate change.

All our best efforts to reduce poverty, ensure food security, create employment and build lasting peace risk are being undone by unmitigated climate change. Climate change will undermine efforts to help nations escape the poverty trap. As World Bank 2010 Development Report showed, “low income” countries face 75-80 perc ent of the potential costs from climate change, even though their citizens’ carbon footprints are much smaller than countries such as ours. This is because these countries rely heavily on:

  • Agriculture – which is very vulnerable to climate change
  • Fisheries – which rely on coral reefs which will be devastated by the end of this century, if climate change is not mitigated rapidly
  • Hydropower – which doesn’t work so well if rainfall patterns change

When extreme weather events hit, poor nations lack the resources and means to recover and rebuild rapidly. It is essential therefore that Australian business, governments and civil society lead on climate change and do more. We are all inter-connected. With global population set to reach 9 billion this century, if we do not invest in climate change globally, and move to more sustainable practices, we will have created the seeds for future conflict in our region and around the world.

Working together to improve sustainable water management in the Asia Pacific is just one example of the many ways Australia could play a significant leadership role to proactively reduce risks of potential 21st century conflict. This will also build greater food security, reduce poverty and establish greater good will and relationships in our region.

In the broader context, there are some new and interesting ways we are approaching these challenges. Australia has recently released a National Sustainable Australia Report 2013, which looks at mega trends and drivers and includes key goals and indicators of how to measure our national sustainability. Areas include skills and education, health, employment, productivity, innovation, housing, transportation, land ecosystems, biodiversity, water and natural resources.

The final trend I would like to share, which is occurring in Australia, the USA and even in Europe, is called Downshifting.

In a recent report by the Australia Institute a national news poll survey showed that 83 per cent of Australians believe that Australian society was too materialistic, placing too much emphasis on money and not enough on things that really matter. In a US survey, 19 per cent of adult Americans had voluntarily decided to reduce their incomes and consumption levels. Downshifting is when people make a voluntary long-term lifestyle change that involves significantly less income and consuming less.

The real surprise is that 23 per cent of Australian adults aged 30-59 have already downshifted in the last 10 years. These downshifters are overwhelmingly happy with their decisions. This research uncovers a large, and until now invisible, class of global citizens who consciously reject consumerism and preoccupations of the aspirational materialist. While diverse in many respects, they agree that an excessive pursuit of money and materialism comes at a substantial cost to their own lives, to their families and the global community they feel increasingly connected to and depend on.

In conclusion, despite our many challenges, when we consider the environmental trends of the last few decades, I am ultimately optimistic about our ability to not only solve our immediate problems but also to create a genuinely sustainable and secure future. We just need to work together to achieve it.

Molly Harriss Olson is convenor of the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development, The 13th NBLF, taking place in Canberra on Thursday. She is also director of Eco Futures, an Australian-based international policy firm, working on building sustainable strategies with business, government and civic leaders. Molly is a former Clinton White House sustainability head.