Heaven or Hell in Garden Eden? – A|HEAD|ahead’s year in review


Another year went by too quickly, at least this is how it feels. Let’s put the question aside if this is because of getting older or simply because this year was filled with (too?) much work. Maybe this is a good sign, too! Leaning back in my chair at the last ‘official’ working day in 2014 and thinking about how this year has been special, insightful, positive or negative, progress or setback, I can’t define a clear ‘yes or no’, more sort of an ‘and’.

Clearly, 2014 has been a year in which many of the problems on this planet have become even more strikingly clear, due to the many different events that reached the news. Amongst them, and in no particular order, are the brutal violence against women in India, the blazing racial incidents in the U.S., the wrecked havoc in the Middle East due to the never stopping war between Israel and Palestine, the brutality in Syria and its neighbor countries through IS and still existing governments in place, up to the sorrow for millions of climate and political refugees that need to leave home, and many of them not surviving on their trail of tears, e.g. when crossing the Mediterranean Sea. I can’t even imagine the pain that these millions go through and doubt I would personally be able to survive under these circumstances. Humans can be monsters, but humans can also be wonders, and many of the latter now stand up to make the world a better place, so I bow to humans like e.g. Malala, Bill McKibben (350.org), and the many nameless individuals that risk career’s, reputation, legal punishment, and sometimes their life, just for their mission.

The roughness of the pictures add to the notion of urgency to find solutions to these problems, and my impatience is growing with all those that always have a ‘yes, but…’, stay inactive because there is a little risk in a sea full of opportunities, look at others to make the first step, ask ‘what’s in it for me’ as the first reaction to a proposal, or simply put their egos first. Many reactions are simply put under the smokescreen of political negotiations, tactics to ensure personal positioning (in order not to lose one’s reputation) or simply hiding behind the unavailability of budgets, or hierarchy not allowing to move forward. Sticking one’s neck out is often a no-go in an ongoing financial, climate, poverty, equality, … crisis, it often feels like talking to people in straight jackets in an inherent atmosphere of fear. I wonder what positions people are sometimes able to defend or take although they have families or kids at home, kids that will be very critical with their parents in the not-so-far future, and what excuses will these parents have when the kids start to ask these questions? How much guilt do they load upon their shoulders through inactiveness and by putting themselves or other bad reasons first. I also often ask that question to myself, too: what more and how much more could I have personally done? And yes, there are also bullet points on my secret list to do better, no question.

But 2014 was also the year in which I have personally witnessed and been engaged in areas that do give a lot of hope. Without mentioning all of them individually, I’d like to offer some of the insights of the conglomerate of my work in 2014, leading to positions that I take, and given the experience of the work I have done this year. I am thankful that my work has allowed me to derive to those insights, so a big thank you goes out to all my affiliations and business partners, you know where and who you are 😉. Some of these insights may be helpful for you, and I am much open to comments an reactions!

  1. Those dealing with sustainability have often forgotten the true meaning of sustainability, especially using ‘intergenerational equity’ as one of the most important guidelines of how to come to a net positive strategy. Overall, the majority of those corporations that have a certain focus on sustainability (in the still unbelievable absence of the majority of corporations to deal with sustainability at all) are happy with a ‘show less bad’ attitude, simply because they think becoming net positive is impossible to reach. There is only a handful of leaders that understood that net positive is not just one strategy to stay alive, but in the end the only strategy to keep a license to grow. It is impossible until it gets done, Mandela said.
  2. Many sustainability strategies fail to address a challenging ambition level because they are built on symptoms, not on root causes. This partially due to the standards and management systems that are built on the idea to reduce negative impact, not to increase positive impact. If climate change is an aspect to deal with, the symptoms-based strategy is to reduce emissions. A root-caused strategy will look at the causes of climate change (e.g. environmental degradation, demographic effects, urbanization, technical developments, world trade shifts, etc.) and look at ways how an organization’s business model can make positive contributions. Such a strategy will not just scratch the surface, it will go to the real questions about the purpose of the organization, the long-term vision of how the company can make a contribution, and how to excite employees, customers and investors anew.
  3. The question about the business case of sustainability is unfair to ask as long as the economic system boundaries always force people to the wrong direction due to existing pricing information. The discussion about the internalization of external effects into cost accounting, the translation into product and service prices and the counterbalancing of potentially raise in prices through lowering tax on work (and increase of taxes on resource use) needs to be seen in combination. Solutions of course need a level playing field, but again there is little fantasy to get these negotiations started. Too many ‘yes, buts …’. The effect is that a pure discussion around internalization of external effects leads to little (although we know much) as there is too much fear about unfair market conditions and increase of prices.
  4. The green and inclusive economy is undervalued and there is little going on in the corporate world to get it defined better or operationalized. I have come across people in corporations that even laugh about it since they see this as a revival of the various UN Green and Clean Tech programs, more of the old in new sheets. This is sad and possibly disastrous. Some of my work in 2014 focused on how to give shape to the idea of the green & inclusive economy and how a company’s reporting would react to that. What would be the methodologies, the tools, and what is already available. Find more through http://www.reporting3.org and read the posted report of the second Reporting 3.0 Annual conference. There are also great books that give more insights, I recommend John Elkington’s ‘Breakthrough Challenge’, Said Dawlabani’s ‘Memenomics’, Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘Zero Marginal Cost Society’, Frank Biermann’s ‘Earth System Governance’, Nick Gogerty’s ‘The Nature of Value’, Giles Hutchin’s ‘The Illusion of Separation’, Robin Wood’s ‘The Trouble with Paradise’, Tomas Sedlacek’s ‘Economics of Good and Evil’, and for those with more time, Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capitalism in the 21st Century’ makes sense if you acknowledge that there are more capitals than just financial capital. Take the essence of these books and tell me what else is missing to start making a green & inclusive economy a reality! Since we recently learned from the OECD that the idea of a ‘trickle-down economy’ is a complete failure, not one good reason is left not to work on the new economic model together.
  5. We forgot to take humans on board in order to shift from sustainability to ‘ThriveAbility’, the way to inhale new excitement to the idea of organizing the green & inclusive economy. I am deeply appreciative of the steps the ThriveAbility Foundation has taken in 2014 and is planning to take in the years from 2015-2018 and I deeply hope that the methodologies, factors, index algorithms will sink in quickly with many of the potential collaborators, and I am excited to be a co-founder of the ThriveAbility Foundation. The meetings this year have created so much positive energy, and hearing some of the partners we now have in our ecosystem, some of them experts in sustainability for decades, saying that this initiative has the potential of a ‘grand design’ truly makes me happy. I am sure the team now at the starting line will do its utmost to create the necessary breakthrough for the idea of ThriveAbility. Feel free to go to http://www.thriveability.zone or drop me a response or email (ralph.thurm@kpnmail.nl) if you are curious or excited or simply want to learn more about it.
  6. UN Secretary general Ban Ki Moon has just published a report and some blogs about the great potential the year 2015 has with regard to climate change negotiations and the agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In my view these are great and necessary steps to be taken to come closer to the idea of a green & inclusive economy, but they can only be intermediate steps. Take what I said in #2 about less bad strategies and #3 about the necessary pricing information to create new boundaries for an economic system and you understand why. I also realize that any successes in 2015 will need to be translated in national legislation and then operationalized in organizations, including controlling, mitigation and sanctions. This will take at least until 2017/2018 to become effective, and results not to be expected before 2019/2020. In the meanwhile I fear tactics like ‘creating shared value’ are not enough, in one of my blogs this year I even described them as ‘a spicy sauce to make a rotten meal taste good’, and I admit there is a cynic touch in that expression. I therefore put even more hope in the work the TriveAbility Foundation can potentially achieve in the meanwhile, so please take that journey with us.
  7. Let me finish with one more advice, and that one is a result of many years in this terrain: we need to avoid the idea that whatever we design for the green & inclusive economy would have to be 100% exact from the start. Whatever methodology we use, whatever algorithms we try out, and whatever reporting format we apply, they don’t have to be 100% correct from the beginning. Although academics don’t like that, although a lot of what to try out is based on normative assumptions and not always fully covered by science, there is no other way than to try it out, so me plea is for ‘progressive approximation’ and the result will lead to conventions that are good enough to make necessary decisions. Take the LCA movement and how that has come to conventions, take the examples of environmental profit&loss accounts and how they have helped corporate decision making. The design of the green & inclusive economy needs several iterations, and we can simulate trial & error until we are all good to go. We just need to do it, nothing holds us back! The immense progress IT has made in the last years is a great help, and I am happy to be involved in some of these, too.

I continue to like Omar Bradley’s quote ‘It’s time to be steered by the stars, not by the light of each passing ship’. We have seen many ships passing by that didn’t get us anywhere, so it’s long time to go back to the stars. For Martin Luther King it was enough to have a dream, the plans came later. So what is holding us back?

I hope to hear or see many of you somewhere in 2015. Thank you to all old & new subscribers to this blog and the thousands of readers of any of my blogs on Sustainable Brands, CSR Wire, Guardian Sustainable Business, to have taken out precious time to do so. Wishing all of you and your families all the best in 2015!

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