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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Exxon Advocates Climate Adaptation

Exxon and Shell conclude that society get serious about climate adaptation.  Mitigation just is not working.  These two corporations—two of the largest economic entities in the world with access to the best science and analysts that money can by—now admit that Earth will warm at least 2 degrees.

The admission comes in response to inquiries from investors worried that preventing climate change requires reducing green house gas emission and thus leaving huge amounts of carbon in the ground.  These “stranded assets” could reduce fossil fuel industry profits and hurt shareholders.

The logic behind this conclusion is simple and transparent:

  1. Population is increasing, wealth is increasing, and consumption is increasing—so demand for energy is increasing.
  2. Even remarkable rates of growth in non-fossil fuel energy sources will be insufficient to meet this increased demand.
  3. Governments are evidencing little political will to regulate green house gas emissions.

Shareholders in fossil fuel companies should continue to enjoy stock dividends into the foreseeable future.  But we should all worry about the economic catastrophe that might result from a 4 degree warmer world.

(For more details see “The elephant in the atmosphere,”  The Economist, July 19 2014)

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Leadership as Simple as DAC

Sustainable development requires collaboration among diverse stakeholders—none with authority over others. Collaboration is as simple as DAC: Direction, Alignment, and Commitment.   These three outcomes are as simple in theory as they are difficult in practice.

Direction: Leadership requires constructing agreement about the problem to be solved, the sustainable development goal to be achieved, and the better life to be created that does not destroy the commons. Yogi Berra said it well: If you don‘t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else. Heifetz calls this critical task “adaptive work:” the process of learning and articulating the gap between aspirations and reality.[1]  It is not easy. It may involve orchestrating conflict and exposing internal contradictions that mobilize people to clarify what matters most and what can be traded off.  Most of us don’t go into these situations knowing what we want.  Expectations are shaped and values refined by rubbing our hopes and dreams against the hopes and dreams of others, and measuring them against the practical and possible.  Only through the hard work of openness and honesty can we construct a shared vision of the future.

Alignment:  Leadership for sustainability also requires that stakeholders coordinate resources.  Even if we agree to the direction, we won’t get there if we work at cross-purposes. Some of the most pressing sustainable development challenges of the 21st century exceed the capacity of any single entity, even a wealthy country like the USA.  Collaboration is required among multiple organizations from business, government, and civil society sectors, each organization bringing difference resources to bear, creating synergies and building capacities that otherwise don’t exist.

Commitment: We can know where we are going and have the resources to get there, but still not get off the couch: people need the courage and willpower to act.  Apathy, risk aversion, pessimism, and “what can I do” shrugs of the shoulders are frustratingly all too common. The sky has been falling for some time now and those who have previously mobilized for action often find ourselves two steps back for every step forward, or worse, hoodwinked or thwarted at the very last moment by unforeseen powerful forces.  A great deal of trust needs to be built and in some cases restored.  Hopefully the clarity and urgency of sustainable development challenges are increasing and methods exist to build trust through high levels of transparency and accountability.  The real danger is pessimism, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy if it keeps us from trying.

[1] (Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers)

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Response to Climate Skeptics

Organizations around the world are adapting to climate change, lending credibility to climate science. These organizations buy, study, and use the best available science to inform their multi-billion dollar decisions and strategies. They not only have access to all the science in the public domain, but have commissioned and kept confidential additional science that gives them competitive advantages. These organizations find climate science convincing enough to change business as usual. Behavior and investment are the ultimate indicators of being convinced.  From their behaviors, we can infer that these organizations calculated that climate is changing.

Conversations with skeptics can be challenging.  But an honest skeptic should admit that they have less capacity to understand climate science than do these organizations.  An honest skeptic should admit that brutally logical analysis of best available information motivates these organizations.  An honest skeptic should admit that these organizations are adapting to climate change.  An honest skeptic should therefore admit that predictions of climate change are reliable and valid enough to warrant additional meaningful responses.

Examples of how well-run, well-resourced, successful organizations are adapting to climate change include:

–       Veolia, the world’s largest water company, has put in place investments and operational changes responding to increased water scarcity and variability attributed to climate change

–       Multi-national insurance companies are canceling flood insurance, re-calibrating hurricane premiums, creating private fire protection services to for high value properties at risk from increased forest fires, and suing cities for not adequately adapting to a changing climate. [new references: insurance companies ;General Mills Policy on Climate]

–       Monsanto and other global agriculture corporations are finding ways to profit from climate change by providing information about changing growing conditions, developing new crops that thrive in changed climate, and diversifying risk caused by less predictable weather. Wineries are relocating or changing grape varieties because warming temperatures make delicate grapes harder to grow and change their taste.

–       Deutsche Bank, Schroeder, and other multinational investment firms are creating climate change investment funds that profit from a changed climate, such as purchasing farms in Canada and Russia that will become more productive and water resources that become more scarce as temperatures rise.

–       Water utilities are looking for new ways to provide adequate water when the 100-year drought happens much more frequently.

–       The US Department of Defense identifies social unrest and resource uncertainty resulting from a changing climate to be one of the key threats to national security.

All these actions can be categorized as climate adaptation, not mitigation.  Mitigation is much harder because it involves collaboration and coordination across many actors.  Adaptation is a calculated response to opportunities and risks forecast by climate science.  If the science is convincing enough to motivate adaptation, skeptics should stand out of the way of mitigation efforts, which have been calculated to be much less costly than adaptation to business profits and human progress.

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Conversations with Climate Skeptics

Climate is right up there with religion and politics as topics to be avoided at polite gatherings, but I still find myself talking with climate skeptics while passing time beside beer coolers at various events.  Regardless of the setting or the beer, I typically hear variations of the same 6 reasons for skepticism:

  1. The biosphere is too complex and science too uncertain, so we should wait to act until we know for sure.
  2. Human ingenuity will solve any problems if impacts of climate change become consequential, so we should wait to act until then.
  3. Mitigation is impossible because it requires global collaboration among self-interested actors such as corporations and nation states, so we can’t solve the problem even if we wanted to.
  4. Mitigation solutions require actions by governments, which are inefficient and corrupt, so we should not try.
  5. China, India, and other nations are building many new coal-fired power plants, so mitigation by others won’t matter.
  6. Climate scientists have made mistakes in the past, so climate science can’t be trusted.

I can offer rational counter arguments for each, but, like god and politics, beliefs about climate are tightly bound up with a person’s identity.  Facts, logic, and rational argument don’t make a dent.  If I have enough time, beer and trust to penetrate the skeptic’s core values behind their arguments, I typically find one of four issues:

  1. Skeptics are risk tolerant and willing to risk the chance of future catastrophe for faster progress today.
  2. Skeptics are willing to accept that wealthy countries will fare better than the world’s poor should climate change occur.
  3. Skeptics have faith that it is all part of God’s plan, who will intervene if it is part of that plan.
  4. Skeptics are so anti-government that anything associated with government is tainted. Climate science and climate mitigation involve government, are thusly tainted, and must be avoided.

What really gets me frustrated is when skeptics critique climate science–as if the skeptics had insights that climate scientists don’t.  Many skeptics devote considerable time Googling climate science mistakes and are quick to confront me with some tidbit I can’t explain (I have stopped trying, see next blog). They cite specific mistakes of climate scientists as proof that the climate science is wrong.  In so doing, skeptics conflate scientists with the process of science, forgetting that science is built on the premise of making mistakes and learning from them.

For the most part, the people I’m speaking with are bright, articulate, and successful professionals.   These very same people scoff at non-expert opinions about their own professional content.   They expect others to defer to them regarding the topics in which they work every day to gain and enhance expertise.  Yet, they presume to know climate science better than climate scientists (for the record, I am not a climate scientist).

Pogo was right: we have seen the enemy and it is us.  Humanity’s biggest challenge is our arrogance and ignorance.

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Leadership in an Age of Black Swans and Emergent Systems

Leadership for sustainability requires courage to admit we do not know what we do not know: that unknown unknowns exist. Socrates, the celebrated father of Western philosophy could admit it, “I know that I know nothing,” so perhaps the rest of us can too.

Modern society’s basic institutions—science, government, market, military—cannot anticipate, control, or manage the risks caused by the unknown unknowns of wicked, adaptive, dynamic systems.  So leaders (i.e., all of us) must find courage to try, fail, and adapt.

Among the countless causes of unknown unknowns, two are particularly relevant to leadership for sustainability: black swans and emergent systems.

Black swans are so rare that their appearance cannot be expected, let alone predicted.  9/11/2001 presents a classic and horrific example: The US spent billions of dollars to protect against missile attacks only to be unprepared for commercial airlines piloted by suicide attackers.  CFC provides another sobering example.  When invented, these stable, safe coolants were declared a miracle because they revolutionized the food industry and cities like Huston Texas with refrigerators and air conditioners.  No one could have predicted CFCs would destroy atmospheric ozone, increase ultraviolet radiation, and result in dramatic and unpredictable cancer, blindness, and genetic mutation.  New technologies can transform humanity’s development trajectory—for better or worse—as can volcanoes, earthquakes, evolution, and asteroids.  The black swans are out there.

So are emergent systems.  Climate change, collapsing ocean fisheries, doubling agriculture production, plummeting water tables, and an exploding global middle class are just a few of the drivers creating entirely new bio-cultural systems characteristic of the Anthropocene.  We cannot predict how these systems will behave or respond to our actions, not just because the systems are constantly evolving and thus too dynamic for science to model, but because humanity now dominates so much of Earth’s systems that any changes we make creates an entirely new system.

Denial is a typical response to unknown and uncontrollable risk: we see it in attacks on climate science. Apathy is another typical response to unknown unknowns: we see it in the political blame game that paralyzes our nation and in most of us individually when we shrug our shoulders and mutter “what can I do?”  Transformation is the needed response: a new beginning, built on a new foundation.

So, what can we do? As a society we need to accept failure, and probably encourage it, because now we seem paralyzed.  As a nation we might think about redirecting a few billion from the military budget to address the risks of climate change, which even military analysts recognize as perhaps the greatest threat to US security every faced.



(essay inspired by reading: Beck, U. (2010). World risk society as cosmopolitan society: ecological questions in a framework of manufactured uncertainties. In E. A. Rosa, A. Diekmann, T. Dietz & C. Jaeger (Eds.), Human footprints on the global environment: Threats to sustainability (pp. 47-82). Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press)

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Who Do You Screw?

Watch this short video and then come back.

Aren’t the Aussies clever? Certainly, this video makes its point—we are screwing the future.  But sadly, the video ignores an even bigger issue that makes the challenge of sustainable development particularly vexing:  China needs massive amounts of cheap energy to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and to maintain the social/political stability needed to navigate the delicate and narrow path towards sustainable development.

While the producers of the video were pleading not to screw the tens of millions of Aussie grandchildren by burdening them with climate change, they were ignoring the pleas of hundreds of millions of Chinese that are getting screwed right now.

Damn tough problem.  Damn good opportunity for leaders to step up.

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Not an Either-Or Question: Climate Mitigation AND Adaptation

It is now difficult to imagine a future where climate chaos won’t be flooding cities, raising food prices, killing humans, decimating biodiversity, and generally wreaking havoc. We will soon experience the consequences of carbon dioxide levels in excess of 450 parts per million and the much-discussed 2-degree-C increase in temperature.


1)   80% of the CO2 emissions needed to reach 450 are already locked-in.  Investors cannot afford to re-tool existing power plants, factories, hot water heaters, buildings, and automobiles until these investments have been used long enough to pay for the cost of buying them.  We will have passed 450 by the time we can install green replacements.

2)   Political and economic realities in China, India, and other developing nations necessitate continued, rapid economic growth. Billions of people aspire to middle class lifestyles.  Reducing poverty quickly enough to stave off social instability and maintain government legitimacy will require lots of cheap energy, which is why thousands of proposed coal fire plants will be built.  For those of us who already made it to the middle class, we are on shaky moral ground if we tell billions of our fellow humans they should forego flush toilets, light bulbs, and refrigerators.

3)   The revolution of shale gas and tight oil in the USA will provide abundant and cheap fossil fuels, enough to make the USA a net energy exporter for decades.  In the short term, cheap gas might decrease USA’s CO2 emissions as gas replaces more carbon-dense coal in electricity generation; but in the long term, cheap energy drives down the competiveness of renewables and delays when they will exist in sufficient quantity to impact climate mitigation goals.

The chaos get’s exponentially worse if temperatures increase much above 2 degrees Celsius, so mitigation strategies are still essential.

Bottom line.  We can no longer delay investing in climate resiliency, climate adaptation, and related strategies that blunt the worst impacts of climate chaos.

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Two Reasons I Cried in Shanghai

I admit it: I am a sustainability nerd.  Instead of shopping during my one free afternoon in Shanghai, I instead toured its Urban Planning Exhibition Center. Chinese celebrate urbanization—how refreshing—so most Chinese cities have similar exhibits. This one teemed with elementary school age children, studious college students, aspiring Chinese planners, and few curious westerners—many of us were taking notes!

Humanity’s battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in our cities.  More than 70% of us will be urban by 2050, because that is where wealth, health, and opportunity are found.  We will double our urban infrastructure between now and then, creating a tremendous opportunity for sustainable development.

Shanghai “gets it.”  They understand the latest and greatest urban planning theory, green-building techniques, smart-growth, transit-oriented-development, green-infrastructure, and low-impact-development.  They have clearly stated, top-down authority to pursue these practices as evidenced in the following statement at an exhibit on the third floor titled “Ecological City”

“Shanghai …will put into practice the Scientific Outlook on Development, focus on innovation driven transformation and development, and firmly embrace the concept of development led by ecological civilization and optimized by environmental protection. Through implementing the pollution reduction missions of the 3-year environmental action plans, with the highlights of total pollution load reduction, quality improvement, risk prevention, and development optimization, Shanghai will continuously strengthen environmental protection and ecological conservation, accelerate the creation of resource conservative and environmentally friendly city, and promote the green growth and low-carbon development for the harmony between human and nature. … By 2020, a clean, safe, and healthy ecological environment will be basically realized in the city. A low carbon development path suitable for a mega-city will be created. The environment foundation favorable for building the well-off society in an all-around way will be established.”

Even more impressive (to me) was an exhibit on the fourth floor that humanized and personalized the goals and motivations of ecological urbanization for sustainable development. It contained silhouettes of a family, each figure with text describing the family member’s dreams of living in an ecologically-oriented urban future. I took a picture of the girl, below.

shanghai urban planning museum girl

The text reads:

“I want to have a ‘dream home.’  I will sleep under the sky with stars, wake up with bird twitter and fragrance of flowers. I will tell stories to small dogs in the garden and play with many children under the sunshine”

This strategic appeal to family values paints an attractive image for people currently living in a smog-filled, light-polluted, crowd-filled, city of 25 million people with scarce habitat for birds or dogs.

What made me cry?

China clearly gets it. They understand that urbanization is the secret sauce of sustainable development and are relocating an eye-popping 30 million people a year from farms to cities.  They have the political power and technocratic chops to do it right. They are not hamstrung by the political polarization and petty bickering that block smart growth in most US communities. They have the money, the knowhow, and the motivation.  And they have cool museums celebrating this possible future.

But can they do it?  If they can’t, it probably can’t be done—anywhere, which means we’re in trouble (at best it means our future will be considerably less wealthy, healthy, and happy).

Posted in Convergence 2050 | Leave a comment

Pain, Bitterness and Sustainability In China

“Sustainability is the reaction to pain,” says Richard Brubaker, sustainability guru in China, who is optimistic about sustainable development because he now sees governments and businesses responding to the pain inflicted by economic growth, pain that includes crises in public health and risks to business profits.

“Eating bitterness” is a Chinese phrase that captures the challenge of delaying gratification—sacrificing today for a better tomorrow. It may also describe a serious challenge in China to the Environmental Kuznets Curve and thus bring into question a fundamental assumption of sustainable development efforts worldwide.  The Environmental Kuznets Curve postulates that as an economy grows, so does the social will and capacity to restore and improve environmental quality.  China has placed most all its bets on promoting economic growth first and has delayed addressing the pain and bitterness growth creates.  It reasons that growth is more critical to promoting the economic capacity a viable nation needs, hoping that a stable and able nation will then be able to fix its environment.

However, the rapid economic growth in China is causing pain and bitterness that are forcing people to question whether the pollute-first-cleanup-later policy is still viable.  History suggests the policy worked for the US and Europe—we hammered our environments and implemented environmental programs later—but the acute and intensifying pain from China’s meteoric growth are raising serious doubts.  The development pathways followed by nations industrializing in the 19th and 20th century when tens of millions pulled their ways out of poverty may not be viable for 21st century developing nations with hundreds of millions of people moving into middle class lifestyles.

Examples of China’s pain and bitterness include: 1 million premature deaths per year from respiratory ailments, an average of 5.5 years shorter lives due to air pollution. Foreign companies now pay a “smog bonus” as hardship pay to entice employees to work in China.  Water is scarce and polluted. 28,000 rivers disappeared in the last 20 years because of depleted aquifers. 95% of rivers have water unfit to drink and some are bursting into flames. Cultural bitterness includes lost languages and cultural traditions, long commutes, and severed communities; as people relocate for employment, traditional communities and families erode.

The western narrative of sustainability seems quaint when viewed from China: carbon footprints, polar bears, and local food.  The Chinese narrative of sustainability is urgent: smog, flaming rivers, and collapsed businesses. Sustainability concerns are much more tangible in China.

China’s future seems at risk. Public sensitivity to sustainability issues is increasing—dramatically.  Younger people who grew up after the Cultural Revolution are more tolerant of the risks of political protest. They are also wired and tech savvy.  They’ve become discerning consumers who buy global brands that are assumed safe because global supply chains impose higher quality controls.  These evolving preferences create huge opportunity and risk for global companies: an expanding market for high value products comes with high quality expectations that can produce brand-killing mistakes.

Sustainable development requires innovation and collaboration across business, government, and public sectors and perhaps a reconceptualization of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Pain and bitterness are motivating new models of sustainable development in China. We should all be learning from (and hoping for) successes in China.

Posted in Convergence 2050, Markets | Leave a comment