Yesterday night was a magical night in the Representation of the Free State of Bavaria (can we just pause a minute and reflect on the fact that this exists? They even served beer and brezels. Represent indeed.)
The WWF European Policy Office was celebrating its 25th anniversary and decided to do that in the spirit of TED, by sharing ideas that matter. The theme was ‘One Planet Living’ and the speakers as diverse as the approaches one could take to that topic.
I remember two speakers that stood out for me – and not because the others were less powerful, less inspirational, or less impressive in their quest to change the world. But these two messages hit home in a special way.
Tony Juniper – campaigner and sustainability adviser in a number of firms – opened his speech by talking about the real monetary value of nature, and the fact that 100% of business is based on a functioning ecosystem. He then advocated for the concept of a bioeconomy – sounding rather close to ecological economics – and for rediscovering the multitude of ways in which the destruction of certain ecological systems – bees, species of predators, mangroves and peatlands – can have extremely costly economic consequences. So far, so good; I agree that this needs to be said, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. But then, the spark.
“Thus, we should implement that shift in perception through the way we measure progress. National accounts should be changed. We should have new accounting rules for corporations. And costs should be consistently internalized.”
For some reason, I’d never made that final thought experiment. Yes, we know that alternative measures of welfare exist – the Gross National Happiness Index is the best example -, but to consistently implement them as a global accounting exercise? And to go even further and ask corporations for a whole new way of accounting? Imagine if the stock index were based on companies’ contribution to global happiness rather than on mere profit. Imagine if the economic “growth” of an economy would be measured in the growth of biodiversity. Tony Juniper rightly reminded us that the ‘economy’ is just a construct of the human mind. And we could create as many others as we’d like.
A musical intermezzo cemented that thought:
So many things we want to buy,
but all the things you’re offering
never even seem to last a while…
The other talk I found really inspiring was George Marshall’s insights on why we do what we do while we know what we know. I started reflecting on that in depth during my Iceland trip this summer – how climate change activists, sustainable living scientists and development advocates jet around the globe, wine and dine in fancy hotels in order to mingle for the good cause and never seem to stop – pause – and reflect on the hypocrisy. George Marshall finally brought this issue onto the agenda – not an easy thing to do in a room full of people who jet between capitals on a daily basis. He explored this issue in more depth for the last two years, though, and gathered his findings in a book called “Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change“.
I will borrow his main hypothesis from his Guardian column because he has a way with words one can only admire.
Why do most people understand that climate change is a major threat yet, when asked to name the greatest dangers to civilisation, still seem unable to bring it to mind?
The primary reason is that our innate sense of social competition has made us acutely alert to any threat posed by external enemies. In experiments, children as young as three can tell the difference between an accident and a deliberate attack. Climate change confounds this core moral formula: it is a perfect and undetectable crime everyone contributes to but for which no one has a motive.
There is no outsider to blame. We are just living our lives: driving the kids to school, heating our homes, putting food on the table. Only once we accept the threat of climate change do these neutral acts become poisoned with intention – so we readily reject that knowledge, or react to it with anger and resentment.
He thus asked us to question our stories – what do you tell yourself to bridge the gap between what you know is right and the daily choices you make? What stories back up that disconnect? And he invited us to
Spread your conviction and share how you got there, share inconsistencies as well because they make us all human.
So much truth in that.
What is your story and do you think you should change it?