What Will You Do After Marching for Science?

I explained why I’m not marching for science even though I’m “all-in” and support science with my heart, mind, and labor. Marching won’t change minds. Worse, because of Identity Protective Reasoning, marching will strengthen our critics’ resolve and weaken science’s influence. Every time we mention science or truth or climate or genes or funding or facts all we end up doing is triggering the critic’s internal dialog that blames loss of jobs, opportunity, and identity on liberal, global, elites (i.e., on scientists). That is, marching for science is worse than preaching to the choir.

Marching on Earth Day will further reinforce the perception that science is captured by an elitist environmentalist agenda that promotes capitalism crushing government regulation. Just imagine how Fox News will portray a scientist marching with a sign: CLIMATE SCINECE MATTERS or EPA NEEDS SOUND SCIENCE. The commentators will surely point out that the scientists are promoting an anti-business agenda and marching in support of stifling regulations and wasteful spending on more (unnecessary) research. Further, if we expose our weaknesses (and there are many critiques of science that the March targets, including lack of diversity among scientists, politics of funding, and heavily defended silos), we just give our critics ammunition for their concerns about science as an institution.

I’m even more concerned that the March has no end game, so scientists will go back to their labs, books, and classrooms thinking they’ve done all they can or need to do. WRONG! We need to organize and expand our political power. Education and agitation are important first steps, but they are wasted unless we organize for actions that win elections. Science must nurture and support a much bigger coalition. We need to advance a narrative that supports liberalism and enlightenment. We need to argue that poverty reduction and rising global middle class flows from global trade, that wellbeing and productivity comes from medicine and access to health care, that security depends upon ample food and clean water, that hope and opportunity comes from technology-driven economic development, and that all these things are supported by sound science.

Supporting a political agenda means scientists need to separate their careers from their citizenship. We need to occasionally but explicitly leave our day jobs behind and engage in politics. We need to speak from the heart about the values that define us, the reasons that motivate us, and the future we want to create. That means advocacy. Own it.

Scientists are thought leaders. Our jobs give us the luxury of being paid to sit back and think about the world. Share those thoughts. Organize them and others in the support of political coalitions that win votes and steer the world towards the promise of the enlightenment instead of Trump’s anti-fact, anti-expertise, anti-science dark-ages that risk causing widespread pain and suffering.

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Why I Won’t March for Science

Science matters.  But winning hearts and minds matters more and marching for science won’t make that happen.

Scientists using their science are ill equipped to win hearts and minds. Sadly, as I argued previously, the tendency of scientists to rely on facts and rationality often work against the ends they desire. Winning over hearts and minds mostly comes down to telling a compelling story, which scientists resist, because it means leading with their values and vision for the future.  For all kinds of reasons, some outdated and some legit, scientists often feel they lack the social license to be advocates and lead with their values.

I’ve been working for the last few years at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability helping scientists (and sustainability professionals writ large) influence hearts and minds.  The tools to do so are straightforward, but not easy.  Leadership programs have been teaching this stuff for years.  There exist tons of techniques for coalition building, boundary spanning, collaboration, interest based negotiation, collective impact, and social innovation that can be taught and mastered by scientists. But, implementation those tools is time consuming and doesn’t produce grants, papers, promotion, or tenure.

I marched in DC at the Women’s March, but I’m not marching for science.  I don’t see the end game.  Yes, we need more science, more respect for science, and better science, but more so, we need to win the political battles, and that means fighting for hearts and minds.

I do agree that we need to do something. Things need to change. Scientists need to act. If we don’t win the battles for hears and minds, we’ll lose the political war against scientific openness and deep expertise. And if that happens, society seems at real risk of sliding back into a pre-enlightenment era that characterized the “dark” Ages, when gut feelings and faith trumped facts and logic.  Those were not hopeful times (life expectancy was 20 and children had little hope of a life different than their peasant farmers living in crowded, windowless, smoke-filled hovels shared by livestock). The enlightenment (and science and individual rights and humanism and capitalism and all that came with it) gave people the courage to admit its OK to say, “I don’t know,” and realize how dangerous it is to trust myths and legends and populist leaders who promise easy answers. The challenges of today are bigger and more complicated and more interconnected and more accelerated than ever before, so we need more science, more inquisitiveness and more tolerance for enlightened experimentation, not less.  Unfortunately, Trump is fanning the flames of anti-intellectualism, anti-truth, anti-inquisitiveness, anti-critical thinking, and anti-science. Those flames risk plunging us into the dark.

I agree that scientists need to do something. Scientists and other professionals need to educate, agitate, organize, and advocate. Marching might do more harm than good if it makes scientist feel they have done enough and are excused to go back to their labs and books.

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A Path Through Trump’s Minefield

So, you want to win an argument with Trump supporters? Don’t try.

Facts and logic are not just ineffectual (because of confirmation bias), they are counterproductive (because of identity protecting reasoning–IPR). Take climate denial as an example. Attempting to persuade a climate denier with facts is a waste of time because deniers can easily find facts and theories on the web confirming their denials. Worse, by defending climate science, we trigger an IPR feedback loop that reinforces a constellation of related core beliefs and values such as: experts are out-of-touch elitists, God has dominion, government is the problem, free markets are good, globalism threatens freedom, and your climate hogwash is threatening not only who I am but my children’s future. That is, as soon as we raise the issue of climate change, we trigger a denier to defend core beliefs and values tied up with their identity; hence, we help them rehearse their arguments and we fuel their concern that their identity is under threat. Our rational, wonkish, scientific explanations are completely counterproductive.

George Lakoff has a distinguished track record of public service and scholarship excellence. He has written extensively on the topic of framing, values, and language that support progressive causes. The following tips are excerpted from a blog he wrote after Trump’s nomination. Here are few key take-homes how we respond to the dilemma raised above:

  • Know their key frames: guns, gays, god and increasingly climate, expertise, abortion, immigration, media, black lives matter, bathrooms, universities, …
  • Don’t activate one of those frames. It doesn’t matter if your are supporting or critiquing the topic (be it climate, immigration, expertise, media, or Trump more generally). Once you activate it, you end up reinforcing it (see: IPR reasoning, above).   Admittedly, following this advice greatly limits the opportunity for reasoned public discourse, which is the grave danger of Trump because he is pushing more and more issues into this frame-activating, identity-protecting-reasoning space.
  • Don’t mention or critique false claims or fake news. Doing so just activates a frame. See: don’t activate the frame.
  • Go positive. Give a positive truthful framing based on values. Equity. Opportunity. Safety. Justice. Freedom. Dignity. Integrity. Children. Family. Love. Respect. Health. Faith. Even environment. Progressives have powerful values (I identify with them!), but we don’t admit them or mention them.
  • Values come first, facts and policies follow in the service of values. Facts matter, but they always support values. (See: go positive.)
  • For example, reframe your discussion of climate change. Start with owning that you are concerned about the security of your community, the safety and health of your family and neighbors, and the declining opportunities for your children to lead productive, dignified lives. Then tell a story about what you want us to do. Hint: all of these values are impacted by climate. (See: go positive.)
  • Use repetition. The more it is heard or seen, the more it is believed, regardless of what it is.
  • Stop defending “the government.” Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, take back freedom, etc. Public resources provide for freedom in private enterprise and private life. The contribution of public resources to our freedoms cannot be overstated. Government Regulations protect freedom. Start saying it.
  • Avoid nasty exchanges and attacks. Take the high ground. Be hard on principles and problems; be soft on people. Practice civility, good humor, and empathy. Don’t protest against free speech by others, even if you disagree with them. Don’t threaten to punch them in the face, that is fascism.
  • Give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues, LBGTQ issues, Muslim issues, Autism issues,… Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom, justice, safety, equity and other values and principles. Identity politics divides. We are weaker and more easily conquered when divided. Twigs are stronger when in a bundle.

Alternatively, we could stop being conciliatory and stop dancing around Trumpists. Instead of worrying about offending and triggering their frames, we could mobilize and build a political movement around our frames and values. We have the numbers. Do we have the strategy and guts for real politics? (see Norris, Centerism is Dead)


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The End of Expertise: And Why That Is A Giant Problem for the Anthropocene

Two game-changing coattails that Trump road to the presidency are fake news and distrusted expertise. They also usher into mainstream governance an end to rationality, modernity, enlightened self-interest, and related strategies and hopes that we can think our way out of the challenges we face. These are deeply troubling trends for those of us concerned with the highly technical, enormously complex, wickedly interdependent sustainability challenges of meeting the needs of 2-5 billion new middle class consumers while sustaining a climate and habitat that nurtures human civilization.

Fake news gets traction because we are hard-wired to have a confirmation bias. Because of it, people search for and remember facts that confirm their initial beliefs and ignore or forget unsupportive evidence. The explosion of information made accessible by the web makes it easy for people to find the support they crave. The slow, difficult, testable, and transparent scientific method is an institution humans invented to help us overcome the confirmation bias.

If confirmation bias wasn’t enough of a threat to experts, expertise, and rationality, then its close cousin, identity protecting reasoning (IPR), is down right frightening.   IPR has the power to burn up democracy: and Trump is pouring fuel on the fire. With IPR, subsets of facts, ideas, and memes become associated with one’s identity. As a result, contrary facts, ideas, and memes are not just rejected (as the confirmation bias would have us do) but perceived as threats to be fought against, triggering a feedback loop that reinforces ones original beliefs and further polarizes opinions (Kahan et al 2012). Climate change and gun control provide examples. Deniers immediately see any invocation of climate science as a threat to their identity, politics, culture, and heritage. Facts, science, and logic are irrelevant to the resulting discussion. The denier’s internal dialog and framing switches to defending one’s self and one’s people. Statistics, computer models, core samples, and historic trends fall on deaf ears that instead hear blasphemy, disrespect, and arrogance. Gun control arguments would be similar. Facts about accidental deaths or evidence of decreased school safety don’t matter when one only hears Bill of Rights, freedom, and rugged individualism. To invoke climate or guns in a conversation immediately reframes the discussion and triggers the defense of identity and politics. Most people rather doubt science and experts than question their identity or politics.

The growing distrust of expertise has another troubling cause. As complexity and uncertainty of the world increase, most people struggle understanding their connection to it. How, for example, are one’s declining wages and health and identity and children’s prospects connected to distant and opaque global systems? Moreover, what can one do about it? Simple answers are seductive, especially if they reinforce stereotypes and blame someone else. Reality is more complicated and difficult to comprehend. It requires years of experience, networking, study, travel, and learning by doing.

Information of all types has never been easier to find. But the high quality, peer-reviewed, carefully produced arguments and facts tend to be less accessible, often disguised by jargon and hidden behind professional or disciplinary gates. And even if the information generated by experts is found, it is but one click away from half-baked, last minute, advocacy-driven drivel. People inexperienced with a topic have no way to know the difference between science and drivel. It is understandably that they instead accept the most frequently found, oft repeated arguments that just so happen to confirm their initial beliefs and assumptions.

The impacts of confirmation bias, identity protecting reasoning, and information access are combining to undermine rationality, expertise, and ultimately threaten democracy. “Unless some sort of trust [of expertise] can be restored, public discourse will be polluted [by confirmation bias, IPR, and nefarious actors]…and in such an environment, anything and everything becomes possible, including the end of democracy…” (Nichols, p73) It certainly will make sustaining development more challenging.


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Population is Not the Problem

The “population bomb” narrative is problematic for sustainable development professionals and advocates. We should not put ourselves in the unpopular, misanthropic, and unwinnable business of shaming parents. Instead, we have a much more optimistic, hopeful, and inspiring mission: we are in the business of development, which, it turns out, is the most effective way to slow population growth (see below). Humanity’s biggest challenge is not exploding population growth as the bomb narrative implies; it is, instead, dealing with the prosperity that comes with ending poverty, which is a good problem to have. Humanity must navigate the real and present dangers of climate, energy, water, linear economy, food, and related challenges as we welcome billions into the global middle class.

Why shouldn’t we prioritize the population bomb? Mostly because it’s been defused. The technical details of this argument can be found in scholarly papers about the “demographic transition.” Bottom line: globally, we passed peak child. Over the last few decades, fertility has declined in virtually all areas of the world. As a result, the rate of population growth, which peaked in 1970 at 2.06 percent per year, was 1.18 percent in 2015. The declining birthrates are caused by improving health care that reduces infant mortality, raising material standards of living so income and retirement don’t depend on children as laborers, and, most importantly, educating and empowering women to have more control over their lives and opportunities beyond being mothers and beasts of burden. That is, as “development” occurs, parents make fewer babies. China’s coercive one-child policy illustrates misdirected population bomb thinking: it did not slow population growth more than did the “development” occurring in neighboring Taiwan and Thailand but it did create lots of other problems.

A more ominous critique of the West’s 1960’s population bomb paranoia carries disturbing echoes of eugenics, racism, and cold war nationalism: the “wrong” people were making babies, diluting the gene pool, and increasing the “others” who threaten national security. Hence, the foreign policy of many western nations targeted slowing down the population growth in other countries, which just so happened to dovetail with the environmentalist alarmism of a population bomb. Another reason to discard the bomb rhetoric is that its dire predictions of collapse proved wrong. Rather than running out of food, exploding poverty, and skyrocketing misery, as the population bomb prognosticators predicted, we have instead reduced poverty, improved health, and spread education as we have added billions of people to the planet. As Julian Simon famously said, the ultimate resources is not soil or oil but human creativity to extend and replace earth’s finite bounty or as Nobel Laurent Angus Deaton says: with every new mouth comes a pair of hands to feed it.

Of course, the story is more complicated and nuanced than the above. Massive “population momentum” will add 3 billion by 2100 as those already born mature into baby making age. But baring something horrible, 10-12 billion will pretty much be the peak, and the peak might occur earlier and lower if we work hard at promoting the development that ends poverty and lowers birthrates. Moreover, even if every mouth comes with hands to feed it and thus expand earth’s carrying capacity far beyond what population bomb advocates thought possible, the cumulative impact of all those hands is disrupting the civilization-nurturing environmental conditions of the Holocene. So, yes, there still is important and necessary population stabilization work to do.

In summary: Population growth is not THE issue, rather THE issue is dealing with prosperity. Sustainable development advocates alienate others and lose influence when their message shames parents and does not promise a better future for children, which is the unfortunate take-home from population bomb environmental preservation rhetoric. We need a more hopeful message. We need a bigger tent. We need more advocates for sustainable development.



  • The most accessible account of this topic is by Hans Rosling: https://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-the-facts-about-population/
  • A more thorough but still accessible treatment would be by Nobel laureate Deaton, from whom I borrow much of my thinking: Deaton, A. 2013. The great escape: health, wealth, and the origins of inequality. Princeton University Press.
  • Lam, D. 2011. How the world survived the population bomb: lessons from 50 years of extraordinary demographic history. Demography 48:1232-1262.
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Can This Old Lefty Find Common Ground with Trump?

I stand left of center on most every issue. I’m not the yoga practicing, opera attending, bird watching lefty Garrison Keillor describes, but I do commute by bicycle, use my passport, and stock my shelves with books. If we lefties can find some common ground with Trump, then, perhaps, we can construct a place to stand and work for things that need doing (rather than dig in our heals, protest, and just say no; although I see merit in that approach, as well).

  • I agree with Mr. Trump: Inequality is a problem; too many people are being left behind. We need to help all people realize the American Dream of being able to improve their lives and community. We need an economic system and a governance system that can fix structural problems that limit people’s access to success.
  • I agree with Mr. Trump: We need to fix health care. The system is still broken. Too many people don’t have access, too much is being spent, and too many people are arguing about how to pay for it.
  • I agree with Mrs. Trump, who stated that her priority as First Lady would be to reduce bullying.
  • I agree with Mr. Trump: We need to invest in and improve our infrastructure. We need resilient, efficient, functioning infrastructure that supports markets and communities.
  • I agree with Mr. Trump: We need to dramatically reduce the influence on politics of special interests and dark money.

I might disagree on the means of how we accomplish these ends, but perhaps if he and I agree on a few goals, then I can help apply the tools of logic and science and collaboration and negotiation to decide how to achieve them? Yes? No?

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We Marched. I Cried.

I was in tears; many times.

  • Tears of depression flowed because the nation had come to this: so mucked up.
  • Tears of inspiration flowed because so many people, so willing, so motivated, so bright—such energy knows no limits.
  • Tears of regret flowed because we lacked a positive, unifying vision of where to direct our energy.

We need a way forward. We need to collaborate on something, perhaps with Trump. We need to move forward toward the thriving, inclusive, fact-checked world we desire.

  • Too many speakers emphasized their special identities, which I respect, but their individual needs don’t unite people and move us forward, together.
  • Too many slogans wanted to dump Trump, question the election, and critique his complexion and hair.
  • Too many chants of anger, frustration, disbelief, and grief.

As a tall male standing among mostly women, I could see above thousands of heads. The passion and pink seemed endless, up and down Independence Avenue. A woman beside me stands in a divot of the sea of people, as short as I am tall, persevering five hours stuck below the shadows of the crowd. Occasionally, she thrusts her sign above her head to where it briefly catches the light of day: “RESPECT!”

Is resistance the only project that binds us together? Is saying “no” our only rally cry? Sadly, maybe so (another tear).   But without doubt, the March was a grand gesture: a loud guttural, emotional moan by a hurting nation and hopefully a call to action (more tears).

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India as Anthropocene

The choke points to global sustainable development are palpable here. The cities are already massive and choking, but 70% of the building stock needed to accommodate the hundreds of millions of rural poor immigrating to urban opportunity has yet to be built. Wells and rivers are running dry and farms are being abandoned for lack of water, yet more than 200 million people still lack water access. India contributes only 4% of global greenhouse gases, but emissions are projected to increase 60 percent by 2030 because 40% of residents lack adequate energy access. To end malnutrition and provide middle class diets will require doubling or tripling of food production, but arable land is polluted, degraded, and shrinking from industry, urbanization, and drought. Climate change is not debated; the impacts are visible in disrupted agriculture, changed monsoons, and heat stroke.

If you want to see the challenges of the Anthropocene and learn how to solve them, come study in India. India houses 17% of the global population on 2.4% of the global land area. Most arable land is cultivated or degraded. Most ecosystem services are captured or lost. Extremes of air and water pollution, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss are everywhere evident. Yet, there remains clear and urgent need for economic development. Poverty is persistent and widespread: people are malnourished and dying. The tension embedded in Brundtland’s definition is near the breaking point: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

The ultimate resource thrives here. Hardly a day goes by that choke points of the Anthropocene are not discussed in major media: water, energy, climate, population, poverty, urbanization, green economy, globalization, health and human rights. India’s universities produce highly educated and motivated workers with enormous respect and expectations for the modern institutions of business and career advancement. And the world’s largest most complex democracy is also the world’s largest reservoir of diversity, compassion, hope, beauty, and grace. The culture’s great tolerance for ambiguity and change will work towards its advantage in the dynamic and unpredictable Anthropocene.

In terms of sustainable development, as India goes, so goes the world. Solutions found here will show the way for both developing and developed nations in the Anthropocene.

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Leadership for the Anthropocene

We are living through something so rare that its frequency is measured in millennia, the emergence of a new geological epoch. Times of great change present great opportunities and challenges. Those who practice leadership can make a difference.

See my 10 minute talk

The Holocene is the just-ending 10,000-year geological epoch characterized by stable conditions that nurtured agriculture, urbanization, science, democracy, organized religion, and global capitalism. The Anthropocene—the time of human impact—is replacing it. Humans now manage more than half of Earth’s land, harvest most the ocean fisheries, use over 55% of the fresh water, and otherwise impact or dominate most planetary processes. These trends are likely to accelerate over the coming decades as we end poverty, add several billion people to the global middle class, and rapidly urbanize.

 The Anthropocene requires a new way of thinking—a new worldview—that has make-or-break implications for businesses, governments, professions, disciplines, and careers. The Anthropocene creates opportunities and challenges that will decide the winners and losers of the 21st Century. The Anthropocene compels humanity to take responsibility for Earth. The arrogance of control and prediction must be replaced by humility and respect for increasing uncertainty. Excuses of helplessness—what can I do, I’m just one person?—must be met with practical plans and political actions. Apathy must be overcome by engagement. Responsibility must be fostered by concern. Ignorance about our dependency on environmental systems is no longer excusable. The few, loud, denialist voices discounting human impact must be exposed for what they are: misguided zealots who fear collectivist approaches to environmental management more than they fear ecological collapse or worse, scammers deflecting attention for personal profiteering.

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Leadership 101 for Global Sustainability

Forces reweaving the fabric of society will create a whole new cloth by 2050.  Crystal ball gazing is risky business, but the consequences of long-established trends are hard to ignore. Compared to someone living today, a typical person living in 2050 will be more likely urban, wealthy, and paying higher taxes and utility rates, and less likely xenophobic, eating meat, living in large dwellings, or commuting great distances for work and shopping. You may embrace or detest that future.  What can you do to hasten, delay, or change it?  Begin by understanding the four mega-transitions creating it, and then equip yourself and your organization to be relevant.

Demographic Transition:  Urbanization is a defining feature of humanity’s development trajectory.  In 1800 less than 10% of people lived in urban areas, in 2000 it was 50%, by 2050 it will be closer to 75%. Asia has been urbanizing more rapidly than anywhere else for several decades, making the region home to almost half of all the world’s city dwellers. As world population increases to nearly 10 billion people by 2050—essentially adding another China and several USAs between now and then—most of the new people will live in an Asian city. In response to these pressures and opportunities, cities will double in size by 2050, adding 400,000 square kilometers of infrastructure: an almost unimaginable amount of utilities, roads, roofs, and markets. It took humanity until the year 2000 to build up 400,000 square kilometers of urban area. We will add that much again in the next 40 years. Almost as much existing urban area will be redeveloped; for example, over 40 percent of “urban” areas in the United States will be redeveloped by 2030. Fortunately, cities are major drivers behind both economic development and environmental conservation, so the opportunities for win-win gains are immense.

Environmental Transition: Through continued industrialization, modernization, and globalization, the biosphere will be undeniably humanized by 2050. Humanity must accept the moral responsibility of being the biosphere’s steward. Capacity must emerge to manage impaired ecosystem services.  Climate change, for example, will be fully upon us, so adaptive mechanisms will need intense development.  Water and other resources will be scarcer, requiring massive infrastructure investments. Agriculture productivity may more than double to feed more and more wealthy mouths.  Biodiversity, fisheries, and most every planetary limit will be stressed.  Sustainable development will require adaption and management rather than conservation and preservation.  While there may not be hard limits, we no doubt will learn harsh lessons by catastrophic failures of natural systems that may motivate water wars and climate migration.  We will have to learn from these past mistakes to re-engineer and restore ecosystem functions that support and sustain life.

Market Transition: By 2050, the global economy will likely be 4-times larger than today, dramatically reducing poverty and malnutrition, and ushering billions into a connected, empowered, global middle class. The opportunities and challenges for businesses are immense. Enticingly, the addition of billions of wealthy consumers creates countless new business opportunities. On the other hand, the additional demands placed on natural resources and systems will strain already stressed ecosystems services, especially water and climate. The consequent scarcities and fragilities create risks for business operations, risks that businesses are developing management capacities to address. [1]  Climate change, for example, increases the frequency of damaging frosts, 100-year floods, and similar events disruptive to business operations.[2]  The emergence of a new capitalism–sustainable capitalism—is underway.[3]

A raft of other powerful motivations exists for businesses to practice sustainable consumption and production.[4] Social media interconnectivity and a 24-hour news cycle can create brand damaging public relations fiascos if a company finds itself on the wrong side of an environmental disaster, threat to public health, or labor practices deemed unfair.  Also, investors and insurers are increasingly cautious of risky and unsustainable practices.[5]  Better employee recruitment and retention provides another motive for businesses to align themselves with the sustainable consumption strategy. Employees consider a company’s sustainability efforts during the job search, so businesses with meaningful CSR programs attract higher quality employees. As importantly, meaningful CSR programs affect long-term retention of great employees. Companies simply cannot afford to ignore or lose parts of the workforce.[6] Finally, there is polling evidence suggesting that a small but significant percentage of consumers will buy “green” products if the item is of comparable price and quality to alternatives.  Hence, sustainable consumption may provide a marketing advantage for some businesses.

Governance Transitions: The challenges of 2050 are larger and different than 20th Century institutions can solve.  Government fiscal resources are curtailed, as is its moral authority.  Laws and policies, still effectively solving end-of-pipe environmental problems such as emission of toxic chemicals, are less effective at non-point, globally distributed challenges such as climate. New strategies, innovations, and institutional arrangements are needed. Cross-sector collaboration—partnerships among business, government, and civil society institutions—is required to solve 21st Century challenges.  Institutions from each sector bring unique resources and moral authority to problems none of them can solve alone.


The four mega-transitions—demographic, environmental, market, and governance—are the reasons a typical person living in 2050 will be wealthier, more urban, less xenophobic, eat less meat, pay higher taxes and utility rates, live in smaller dwellings, and commute less for work and shopping.[7]

Simple demographic trends will make us more urban. The US became an urban nation when at least 50% of the population had moved into cities, sometime around 1900. Now we are 80% urban.  Europe urbanized even earlier and the rest of the world is following suite: almost a million people a week will be arriving in cities between now and 2050.  This is good news. Urbanization can improve economic and environmental conditions.  Transit oriented development, energy efficient buildings, and green infrastructure built between now and 2050 will reduce our need to commute, pollute, and waste time and energy.  Well-designed urban density is good for the environment; sprawl is not. The 50% of humanity living in urban areas in 2000 lived on just 5% of Earth’s land area.  Although their ecological footprints are much larger than the 5% of land they occupy, urban dwellers use less energy commuting, consume fewer utilities, and live in smaller houses than their rural and suburban counterparts.[8]  Some specific examples: NY city residents own fewer vehicles and used far less energy commuting than the average American.[9] The average US rural household consumes 27% more electricity than an urban household, in part because the typical rural single family detached home uses 88% more electricity than the typical urban apartment.[10] And, of course, households in dense urban areas don’t have lawns, with all the social environmental costs of turf management.[11]

We will be wealthier because of the comparative benefits of global trade.  By 2050, internal consumption within BRICS economies should sustain those economies: they won’t be dependent upon US or EU consumption.[12] The world will be more global, more interconnected, and have more distributed geopolitical power.  Sometime around 2030, the aggregate economies of BRICS nations will become larger in absolute terms than the G-6 economies.  USA will be bigger and richer than today, but no longer the only big fish in the global economy.  The implications are enormous: we will live in a multi-polar world, with vast wealth and middle class globally distributed.  The US will need to temper its advocacy of American exceptionalism and adopt a leadership role of first among equals.[13] Many countries and peoples will be exercising the responsibly of leadership.

Choice editing will make us want to eat less meat.  Marketers will use their considerable advertising prowess to make us demand things businesses can supply.  Meat, as currently produced, requires too much water and land to feed the entire world a meaty US diet.  Of course there might be factory meat, grown efficiently from a formula rather than inefficiently on a hoof, in which case meat may maintain its center place on the plate, but only if chefs make petri-dish filets a high-status food.   Meat is just an illustration, of course, of the choice editing and marketing behind business risk management efforts to focus consumer demand on products businesses can reliably and profitably provide.  Many foods, for example, will be genetically engineered to take advantage of specific climate and soil conditions and the food system writ large will have multiple redundancies in order to maintain supply in face of disruptions by flood, frost, draught, storm, and other increasingly powerful impacts of climate chaos.  Increasingly, the inputs into the production process will be grown or recycled rather than mined because the grown and recycled supplies will be cheaper and/or more reliable.

Climate chaos also will play a role in making us pay higher taxes and utility rates.  We will do so willingly, because we will stand for only so much disruption to our power, water, toilet paper, bread and basic food supplies.  Climate disrupted provision of basic services, utilities, and supply chains will motivate investment in redundancies and hardening of infrastructure.  The redundancies will be expensive, but we will pay for them, build them, and change our lives to accommodate them.[14]

What can you do?

To be relevant to the future being created, you and your organization must recognize that many of these 21st century challenges and opportunities can’t be addressed with your current institutional processes, skill sets, or toolboxes.  Solutions to climate change, for example, lie in the solution-space between existing sectors and institutions.  To find and implement these solutions requires cross-sector innovation and leadership.  Business, governments, civil society (social benefits/NGOS), education, science, and religious organizations must collaborate in new and perhaps unfamiliar ways.  Some of the most effective, game changing innovations will involve collaborations among city governments, multinational organizations, and transnational NGOs. Cities are increasingly the centers of money and power.  City governments, responsive to the needs and votes of residents, provide services and compete with other cities for reputations that attract business, talent, and taxes.  Multinational corporations, responsive to client needs and growth opportunities, provision city residents with goods and services and assist in sustaining opportunities for market growth and risk mitigation (even helping with infrastructure).  NGOs protect the commons, including environments, histories, and civil rights.   The transnational NGOs such as TNC and WRI have massive knowledge networks and communities of practice that they eagerly develop and share for purposes of building problem solving capacity and empowering stakeholders in all sectors.

Each sector brings different strengths, limitations, and perspectives to be leveraged and combined for innovative solutions.  Businesses have money, if the solution generates or leads to profit.  They also bring perhaps the most powerful management capacity on earth.  They also control or at least influence major means of production that consume and degrade natural capital.   However, businesses are limited by a short-term temporal horizon, as short as quarterly profit statements and annual reports, with most all business decisions scrutinized using rates of return and interest rates.  Businesses also can be limited geographically by currencies, market preferences, taxes, and import/export regulations.   Governments contribute the regulatory power to develop, enforce, and constrain markets in ways that fix externalities and prevent a race to the bottom.  They can establish and enforce private property rights, define and protect the commons, and address the public goods and market failures that justify governance. They also can assemble powerful but bureaucratic management capacity to define and manage problems over large scales of time and space. But governments also have temporal and spatial limitations.   Election cycles create pressures to focus on short-term goals and avoid long-term problems.  Likewise, laws, regulations, and other manifestations of political power end at political boundaries, while ecological processes, people, and markets cross these boundaries.  Ignoring climate change and racing to the bottom are two potentially unpleasant consequences of the limited reach of governance.   NGOs (civil society and social benefit organizations) can focus on challenges and opportunities that transcend the temporal and spatial limits of business and government.  They also can assemble expertise and focus attention on problems and solutions that are not immediately financially or politically relevant/valuable.  They also bring moral authority that provides legitimacy and trust that a cross-sector partnership needs as part of its social contract.  NGOs are limited, of course, by funding and the strings/agendas attached to funding. They also can be idealistic and opportunistic, championing charismatic causes.  Institutions in all sectors—business, government, and civil society—can cling to outdated understandings, priorities, and values.

Do we need more science?  Integrative, multi-disciplinary science is necessary for charting a sustainable development trajectory to 2050, but it is not sufficient.  Yes, of course we need more climate science, sustainability science, and resiliency science.  We also need more and better resource sciences (water, soil, oil), social sciences (economics, politics, people), and the engineering sciences (agricultural, information, mechanical, and more recently biological).  And don’t forget the arts and humanities, and their powerful insights into the human condition. But all the understanding in the world won’t solve the challenges that lie ahead.  We need leadership capacity.

Leadership for sustainability occurs within complex social-ecological systems, but does not require a complete understanding of those systems. We can’t wait for complete understanding (if it is even impossible).  Leadership actions within a system as complex as climate require courage and opportunism.  Leadership requires being informed about the system, stakeholders and strategies, but never fully mastering them. It requires responding to black-swan events with leadership skills that give direction, alignment and commitment to the partial and evolving expertise of a diverse group of well (and sometimes not well) intentioned stakeholders.  An informed scientific understanding of the system is important, but a distant second to leadership.

Accept and embrace your responsibility for leadership.  Leadership happens by starting from where you are, assisting or resisting the future being created by the system in which you are embedded. Everybody can lead from where they are. Target a system you care about and can come to understand, perhaps one related to climate, water, resource flows, or poverty. Identify the stakeholders invested in that system and examine the strategies they use.  Stakeholders dwell in multiple sectors, at different organizational scales, possessing a range of power and influence. Stakeholders can be individuals, teams, organizations, partnerships, coalitions, and even institutions.   Help stakeholders find direction about a sustainability challenge, align their resources towards its resolution, and build commitment toward implementation.  Get key actors together, learn to hear and trust one another and your differences, then have the courage to innovate, fail, and try again. Most importantly, try again.


If you are student, what should you study?  The demographic transition suggests Mandarin, French, or Hindi might be useful languages to know, as China, Africa, and India will be sources of growth, opportunity, and challenge.   At a minimum, travel and learn how other people, organizations, and places see and solve 21st century challenges.  Given the role urbanization will play shaping the 2050 transitions, you might consider careers that influence change there.  Those of you studying business, take an ecology course, learn something about environmental systems and resource flows so you can integrate that understanding into business risk assessment models.  Those of you studying ecology, agriculture, hydrology, and other technical fields that engineer and manage ecological systems must keep up the good work, but make sure you integrate climate chaos into your thinking.  It is the game changer.  Also, seriously consider getting an MBA and helping businesses deliver on the promise of sustainable consumption and production.

Some of the most talented among us need to work in government. As a professor I’ve advised undergraduates for more than 25 years, mostly they inspire me, but the change in them that make me the saddest is the declining interest students have in working in government.  The anti-government zealots have gotten the upper hand in making government a bad word.  And, unfortunately, poor electoral politics have created dysfunction and gridlock confirming their worst fears.  But we need governance to solve the challenges we create; nothing else can prevent a race to the bottom, fix market failures, enforce agreed upon limits, define what is fair, and prevent the tyranny of small decisions.  Government by itself is not the solution, but government in collaboration with business and civil society is a very powerful force for good, if we allow it to function.

Forces reweaving the fabric of society will have created whole new cloth by 2050.  Will you like the future being created?  Decision by decision, day by day, these forces are redefining the opportunities and challenges that shape and constrain us.  Accept responsibility.  Be a leader from where you are.  The challenges are significant, and if not overcome, they will severely constrain humanity’s potential.  Conversely the opportunities will reshape us.  Just look how far we have come.  The future can be….amazing.




[4] Porter,.2011. Creating Shared Value. Harvard Business Review. http://hbr.org/2011/01/the-big-idea-creating-shared-value


[8] US Energy Information Administration http://www.eia.gov/consumption/residential/data/2009/

[9] What happens here matters, but it pails in comparison to India and China. “If every pro-density effort is wildly successful in the US, emissions from driving and powering  these new homes might fall by 50%.  That would be a great achievement, reducing America’s household carbon emissions by 25% and total emissions by 10%…but carbon emissions world-wide would fall only 2% (217)

[10] Kahn, M.2006. Green Cities. Brookings Institute Press.)

[11] History of Lawn.

[12] Spence, M. 20??. The Great Convergence.

[13] Mahbubani, K. 2013. While America Slept. Foreign Policy. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/27/the_calm_before_the_storm_china_rise

[14] When a society experiences a natural disaster, it is forced to consider a variety of responses that will both ameliorate the immediate crisis and put in place structures to enable it to prevent—or better cope with—future disasters http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/1231http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/storm-surges-cities.html  Building resilience … Interesting twist on green building movement…Some developers are not waiting for tougher construction mandates to protect against storm damage, and are already taking steps like placing critical equipment above ground level. http://nyti.ms/TaVHfF



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