Op-ed: Transformation to a Sustainable and Desirable Future in the 3rd Millennium

This op-ed dealing with the need for transformative leadership and sustainable development was written by Dr. Robert Costanza of Portland State University and the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Dr Constanza participated in the 28 September 2012 panel organized by Green Cross Poland at the European Forum on New Ideas (EFNI) in Sopot, Poland. Other panel members were Green Cross International Founding President Mikhail Gorbachev, Green Cross Poland Chairman Lech Walesa and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former OSCE Chairman and German foreign minister and vice chancellor.

I had the honor and privilege recently to be on a panel with Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher.  The panel was part of the European Forum on New Ideas (EFNI) held in Sopot, Poland on Sept. 28th, 2012, sponsored, in part, by Green Cross Poland, a part of an international NGO founded by Gorbachev and on whose Board Walesa has served.  Although the topic was Europe’s response to climate change, the broader issue was the future of the society.

Gorbachev, Walesa, and Genscher had all helped to improve the world in significant ways – respectively ending the cold war, democratizing Poland, and reunifying Germany.  The challenges they faced were enormous and their stories inspiring – the legacies of recovery from World War II and the massive rebuilding of the physical, political, and social infrastructure of Europe it required.  They all personified the enormous importance of political leadership in making the kinds of transformations that Europe experienced in the last half century.  It is also important to recognize that in order to overcome the challenges they faced, these leaders first had to recognize the failures of the dominant paradigms that guided their peers.  They had to adopt new world views based on a new understanding of the world.

The next half-century will require transformations at least as significant as the last if Europe and the world are to create a sustainable and desirable future.  But the challenges will be radically different in nature.  In the last half of the 20th century fossil fuels were abundant and cheap and we were only beginning to recognize the accumulating damage to our natural capital assets that unbridled economic growth could cause. The limiting factors to improved human well-being were built infrastructure, goods and services, and expanded political and economic participation.  Growth in GDP was the unquestioned goal, and for good reason.

But, now we are facing peak oil and the growing recognition that nature is finite, most notably through climate disruption, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity. Our current development path focused on growth of GDP is clearly ecologically unsustainable, but survey research shows that it is also no longer improving human well-being and happiness in developed economies. To make the needed transformation in the coming half-century, we need to employ some of the same principles that worked in the last half century, but applied to a radically new context. We have to reframe the issues and envision positive outcomes.

There is growing recognition that GDP, which was never designed to measure economic welfare, conflates social costs and benefits, leaves out many non-marketed costs and benefits, and ignores the distribution of income.  While GDP growth can correlate with improving well-being when economies are underdeveloped, its continued use as a policy goal in “overdeveloped” economies is now counterproductive and dangerous.

We need to recognize that natural and social capital, which are left out of GDP, are now the limiting factors to improving sustainable human well-being, and we need better measures of genuine progress.  For example, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which adjusts for income distribution and environmental losses, shows that in the U.S. and several other overdeveloped economies, GPI has not increased since the late 1970’s. We need to develop institutions to help us stay within planetary boundaries while providing a high quality of life and genuine progress for a much larger fraction of the world’s population.  What we need to increase now is sustainable, equitable, and prosperous well-being, not merely GDP, and that may involve a reduction in GDP in some countries.

Can this kind of radical transformation in world-view and political goals really happen?  There are certainly historical precedents for these kinds and rates of transformation.  Who, in 1985, would have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transformation of Poland, or the reunification of Germany?  Who can now predict the specific path that the emergence of a sustainable world might take?  We need leaders like those that led the transformations in the second half of the 20th century, but we also need new civil society movements like the ones that stood behind them.

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