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Written by Jonathon Porritt      Jun 17, 2015

Zach Dischner


These truly are the worst and best of times.


I’ll spare you any painful and repetitive rendering of what ‘the worst’ looks like. It’s not pretty, with the impact of accelerating climate change already felt very destructively in communities the world over, with the natural world under unremitting assault, and the gap between rich and poor widening all the time. And all our mainstream politicians have to offer us, in response to this, is more of the same – as in business-as-usual economic growth, regardless of its negative consequences, indefinitely into the future.


For someone born in 2000, with a very reasonable expectation these days of living through to 2100, given year-on-year increases in life expectancy, what ‘business-as-usual’ means in economic terms is simply explained: the global economy in 2011 would be 16 times as large as it is today, with a world population of around 11 billion. But not a single world leader has seen fit to call time on the perpetuation of this near-insane model of progress for the 21st century.


Just think soil. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently warned the world that we probably only have 60 more harvests on a business-as-usual food production system. 60 harvests! And even to get near to meeting the food that we need, the FAO also tells us that we’re going to need another 6 million hectares to increase production. And at the same time, as soil experts have been warning us for literally decades, we’re losing twice that much – 12 million hectares – every year to erosion and soil degradation.


So here’s what reality looks like: that just isn’t going to happen! Physically, such growth projections so comprehensively exceed any understanding of what scientists mean by ‘limits to growth’ that our natural systems will start collapsing decades before any such state could be reached.


That’s either very bad news, if we fail to react to that ineluctable physical reality in good time, or pretty good news, if we start to make the necessary transformations in the same good time.


And that’s what makes it the ‘best of times’: those transformations are already under way. Not tentatively, but substantively. Not as a marginal niche, but as an emerging mainstream revolution.


This is the moment in history that I wanted to capture in The World We Made, published back in 2013.


And the astonishing thing is, two years on from completing my final draft, many of those projections are already manifesting in our midst! All over the world. In every field of human development. So let me focus on just two.


First, the solar revolution. Here’s what I wrote, two years ago, in The World We Made:

“The key moment for solar power was when we reached ‘grid parity’ – the point at which a unit of electricity from solar energy cost no more than a unit of electricity from any other source. This had a major psychological effect: solar was no longer seen as an irrelevant add-on, but as the main thing. Different countries reached grid parity at different dates, anywhere between 2012 and 2018.”



Well, we’re well on track for that moment of truth. In many countries, the cost of subsidy-free solar (please note: subsidy-free!) means that it already makes it the supply option of choice, both in developing countries (where hundreds of millions of people are not yet connected to the grid) and in some developed countries in southern Europe, part of the USA, Australia and so on. That’s what’s happening today.


Even the International Energy Agency now acknowledges that in a few years’ time this competitive positioning (with the costs of solar continuing to fall by between 5% to 7% every year over the next few years) will literally transform energy systems in all countries. No surprise then that experts in big financial institutions (including UBS, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and so on) are consistently indicating that by 2020 subsidy-free solar will be the most competitive source of electricity generation in the world.


And the fossil fuel dinosaurs will just have to suck it up. Their fate is already written in the gathering power of the divestment movement, with more and more mainstream investors already choosing to reduce their exposure to coal companies. The way our capital markets operate is not rational: this is a world dominated by received wisdom and herd mentalities – and even quite conservative commentators believe that we’re on the cusp of a wholesale exit from thermal coal as a precursor to an eventual (but equally inevitable) exit from fossil fuels as a whole.


In short, this is a simple story: just as the stone age did not come to an end because of a lack of stones, so the age of fossil fuels will not come to an end because of a shortage of oil, coal and gas. It will come to an end because human ingenuity will enable better, cleaner, more cost-effective ways of meeting human needs.


Which brings me to my second ‘emerging transformation’. It will be young people (today’s so-called ‘Millennials’) that really take this solar revolution from the margins to the mainstream. And they’ll do it not because of any sense of guilt about the horrors of climate change (that’s my generation’s guilt, not theirs), not because some portentous greenies are telling them that we have no choice if we want to avoid climate meltdown, but simply because that will be the smart thing to do. In terms of value for money, aspiration, status, and peer group reinforcement – in other words, with people responding to all the core psychological drivers that determine human behaviour as they have in every preceding era.


We set up Forum for the Future 20 years ago precisely to liberate those instincts, to ramp up the appeal of a solutions-based agenda, to enable big companies to mobilise their vast resources (of money, people and technology) to reinforce citizens’ readiness to do the right thing if those ‘right things’ are both affordable and desirable.


Hence Forum for the Future’s involvement in Collectively, an increasingly influential global platform showcasing stories about brilliant people and organisations doing brilliant things to nurture the emerging shoots of a sustainable world in the making.


Not that we use the sustainability word very often, as that seems to be weighed down with too much worthy baggage. Collectively is all about young people’s aspirations to help fashion a better world, about creating new cutting-edge business opportunities, about more collaborative patterns of consumption, about ‘passion points’ rather than guilt trips.


And behind Collectively are 35 of the world’s most powerful global brands, who’ve all come to the conclusion (albeit for very different reasons) that today’s business-as-usual economic models are not just redundant but increasingly lethal in the damage they’re already inflicting on both communities and the natural world.


I wouldn’t blame anybody at this stage raising a sceptical eyebrow if you’re scanning through the roll-call of brands involved in Collectively. McDonalds? Really! Coca-Cola? Facebook? Really! Coming from my background of 40 years’ campaigning through the Green Party, Friends of the Earth and a host of other NGOs, I’m obviously sympathetic to such scepticism! But does anybody really suppose that we can make this sustainability revolution come to fruition with global corporations solidly lined up against us at every turn?


Anyway, if that approach doesn’t work, young people have got a lot more tricks up their sleeves. In The World We Made, I suggested that it might take something rather more revolutionary!


“On 14th July 2018, the Enough! movement exploded into life in France, the USA, India and Russia, and then went global. Huge numbers of people were mobilised to fashion a collective rallying-cry, with young people occupying government buildings, parliaments, stock exchanges, newspapers and tv companies, banks, oil and mining companies, town halls and civic centres – an irresistible tide of shared fury and compassion.”


My own personal belief is that we will need that kind of Millennial insurgency, one way or the other. The forces of political opposition, of privilege, of vested interests, of today’s super-rich, reinforced as they invariably are by our compliant and corrupted media, are just too entrenched for them magnanimously to give way to the new world order emerging in their midst.


So please don’t think that enlisting in today’s increasingly aspirational solutions agenda is therefore a soft touch. It absolutely doesn’t exempt us from hard-nosed political engagement, let alone steadfast commitment to a fairer, more equitable world. Structural injustice in the world today is as much an enemy of the brilliant sustainable world already available to us as the continuing influence of fossil fuel companies.


So prepare for a fight! As we divest from yesterday’s world of fossil fuels and irresponsible, short-term growth at all costs, so we have to invest in human rights, social justice, compassion and empathy. Technology alone won’t do it; we must simultaneously transform those dominant, destructive mind-sets that brought us to such a perilous moment in the short history of human civilisation.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future, the UK’s leading sustainable development charity. To know more about him, click here.


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