By Tamzin Ractliffe
Seldom, if ever, do we meet people who say “I have enough”.
Highlighted at the 13th South African Senior Executive Seminar of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership earlier this week, the idea of enough as an indicator is missing in almost all areas of our lives. There is no concept of enough in economics or in business, where our specific focus on generating more – more growth, more profits, more products and more markets – drives daily decisions. In our day-to-day lives, our acquisitive society equally focuses on having more – more money, more returns, more (as well as supposedly newer and better) products. We are so pre-occupied with “advancement” that it is rare to meet anyone who does not desire more, no matter how much or how little they might have to start with.
What is equally disconcerting is the lack of role models of sustainability in practice. While there are efforts underway today to create more sustainable ways of doing things, the world as a whole has never evidenced the successful achievement of sustainability in the system at any time in its history. Every civilization in the past has typically collapsed and disappeared just when they reached a high point of sophistication. Perhaps this is due to the principle of wanting more, and establishing a complex system to achieve more, which was not survivable.
Given the lack of “enough” as a principle, it is perhaps not surprising that we have no examples of sustainability in action or sustainability in any (man-made) system. We talk about sustainable livelihoods, sustainable ecosystems or sustainable growth but we have not achieved these in our world. We continue to live off the capital of the planet and consume more than is available at a faster rate than it can be replenished. When all is said and done, we have made consumption the main driver in and of our lives.
So how do we change this? It behoves us all to wake up to and truly accept the fact that endless growth is not a concept that can exist within the laws of nature or the laws of compound interest. Everything in the natural world demonstrates that there are limits to growth and, indeed, even endings to growth. The natural world adopts a balance sheet approach that, without interference, could ensure a sustainable world. Economics and business, on the other hand, prioritise a profit and loss approach that does not fully appreciate or give credit to the real limits of the balance sheet, simply taking on more and more debt and pushing the boundaries of a system to the point of collapse. We have seen this in our financial system already over the past five years. We have also seen the harsh realities of the limits we have pushed our planet to – realities that are only to emerge stronger and more vigorous if we do not radically change the way we live. Within this context, one can perhaps appreciate the warning at this week’s seminar that “as a species on a finite planet, we have clearly parted company with reality”.
One of the most brilliant sessions at the CPSL seminar was backcasting to design our own leadership “Moonshot” strategies. Demonstrating the power of focused attention and intention, as evidenced in John F Kennedy’s compelling leadership of America in its efforts to put a man on the moon, the personal interrogation of each individual’s leadership vision and commitment was encouraged. What could we each do – as leaders, individuals, business people or simply planetary inhabitants committed to seeing a future for our children – to ensure that we put the world on a different route to the future?
JFK’s “Moonshot” speech is in many ways as powerful and as relevant today as it was then then. Applied to the present-day challenge for a whole new reality to be perceived and committed to, it evidences the kind leadership that is lacking in today’s world. Talking about “the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take”, it illustrates the need for commitment, for all of us to examine “where we are strong and where we are not; where we may succeed and where we may not”, and emphasises that “it is time to take longer strides”.
Most eloquently, he points out what the stumbling blocks may be to achieving the Moonshot mission when he says, “I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long range goals on an urgent time schedule or managed our resources in our time so as to ensure their fulfillment”.
It is time for us to challenge our mental boundary constraints and reconsider how we can each contribute to sustainability – or lack thereof – on our planet. It is time for us to reconsider what we really mean when we talk about “growth”. Whether it is growth that we need or whether we are actually seeking a way to adjust the distribution of resources to establish greater equality between those who have more than enough and those who have nothing. It is more than time for us to show leadership at all levels of our lives, to marshal the resources we have and commit to the goals we must achieve on an urgent time schedule.
Thank you to the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership for its inclusion of Nexii in this event. As a leadership development forum it should be attended by anyone who has a desire to understand the real challenges we face and a commitment to developing the leadership skills necessary to drive a new kind of restorative, sustainable enterprise. On earth.