2 April 2012

Discussing sustainability at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe

Somehow it has been three years since I last went to a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe.

Some of that is David's fault for being so busy with real (i.e. paid for) work that he has had to cut the number of free events down and it's also my fault for going to the theatre and opera on dates that Cafes have been arranged.

The three years made little difference as I was soon talking with some familiar faces, and some interesting new ones in the two-minute speed-networking session that David always kicks the evening off with.

The speaker setting the theme for the evening was Will Day, sustainability advisor to PwC, who (on video) made the case for companies facing up to the changes that have to come.

David then put the question for us to discuss. He used different words but essentially we were asked if our current efforts to address sustainability were too little and is there a silver bullet that we could use.

We sat in tables of five or six to address the question for fifteen minutes before shuffling around to form new groups and to continue the discussions in new directions.

And then we moved around again for a third and final table discussion.

The formal part of the evening ended with us all in a large circle sharing our main learnings from the evening.

As usual I took a random notes that I will now try and make some sense of.

We should abolish money as a store of value, while keeping its use as a means of trade. Money, of itself, has no value yet we consume vast resources acquiring and managing it.

We also need other measures of success to reduce the peer pressure (and advertising) that drive so much consumption.

Success means different things to different people. Systems like Myers-Briggs are used by companies to identified people's differences and to make the best use of them but corporate HR then uses the blunt instrument of money to rewards people.

Evolution has taught us that variation is key to long-term survival yet we have (mostly) one economic model throughout the world. We need to try different systems and let the best elements of the best ones combine to make the next set of models; and so on.

There is probably not a single one-size-fits-all solution to sustainability. Mongolian nomads already have a sustainable lifestyle but most people would reject that option. Suburban America is the least sustainable and will require the most effort to fix.

Faith in either a technical or spiritual miracle is preventing us from addressing the problem seriously. A more likely solution is something like a pandemic that kills most of the population and takes out most of our production.

One reason that sustainability is not taken seriously is that we have been divorced from the planet that sustains us. Most people have no idea how water gets to our taps, how food gets to our table or how the lights are kept on. We consume easily with no vision of the consequences.

While not as big an issue as sustainability, public mood on drink-driving and smoking has changed in recent years helped to some extent by legislation. The Government could take some easy steps to nudge us in the right direction, such as an immediate ban on plastic shopping bags and on bottled water.

If Governments will not step up to the mark do we need different forms of leadership, such as a benevolent dictator?

If nudge could help, what about other methods for understanding and changing attitudes, like Behavioural Economics and Gamification?

A worrying thought that I raised at the end was if America continues to consume that planet that we all need to share, will China let them get away with it?

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