Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Big Issues: The Greatest Challenges of Our Time

I think that the most deliciously idiosyncratic thing about Belgium is that we are right at the heart of all that is good and bad about Europe. So many interesting and potentially world-changing discussions happen right here.

Living close to Brussels also means that I can gatecrash some of these discussions at the various European institutions based there. I have no affiliation with these institutions beyond the fact that my tax dollars help to support them, but I honestly consider "Europe" to be an amazing achievement - even more so because normal people like me are encouraged to participate occasionally.

On Wednesday, for example, I went to the European Parliament with a couple of friends to watch a presentation based on the book "The Greatest Challenges of Our Time" by László Szombatfalvy.

Important note: You can and should get your free download of this enlightening book (or read online) in EnglishFrenchSwedishSpanish, and more languages coming...

Before we go any further though, I should warn you that this is a pretty straightforward wrap-up post. It contains lots of information about a fascinating presentation, with many interesting links, but I apologise that I don't have time right now to add too much of my typical rambling, opinionated commentary.

Also, since the link between the presentation and this blog should be self-evident, I won't waste too much of our time tying everything back to Sustainable Human Flourishing.

Ok - you're still with me! Thanks :-) Off we go... The event was hosted by Jo Leinen (Chairman of the EP Environment Committee) and was supported by Chris Davies (ALDE), Satu Hassi (Greens), and Csaba Sógor (EPP).

The author was not present unfortunately; László, at 85 is too old to do book tours - He was well proxied though, by Anders Wijkman (former MEP and former UN Assistant Secretary General) and Professor Johan Rockström (executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute.) They made sure to let us know that despite his advanced years and physical frailty, László is in perfectly sound mental health and knows what he is talking about.

Anders and Johan tag-teamed through an engaging presentation which, as expected, was depressingly honest in its description of the problems facing humanity.

From the outset, some tough love was dished out to the many policy makers in the audience, including core messages like these:
The future is over-promised  
Politics is still based on industrial society logic and has a focus that is too short term  
Our current financial system neglects many long-term risks 
Too few decision-makers understand the deeper meaning of climate change, ecosystem decline, and resource constraints
As you can guess from these points, the overarching theme of the evening was holistic risk management in the context of the economy and of our modern society. Content-wise, there was little new to anyone familiar with the work of guys like Lester Brown (Lester's latest book World On the Edge is another must-read free book download.) László seems to bring a more financially entrepreneurial and refreshingly European perspective to the discussion though.

The presenters spent most time on the issue of climate change, although the book actually covers many challenges as summarised in this graphic. 
The book covers many challenges and draws correlations between them
This climate focus was fine by me though - the presentation was time-bound, and climate change is profoundly entwined with the other issues.

To help make their point, Anders and Johan extensively used the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene as a concept is important in risk management terms because when trying to determine "safe" parameters for Sustainable Human Flourishing, it is pretty clear that the Holocene is (or was) it:

They leaned heavily on peer reviewed studies but eschewed detail (which was probably wise, considering that the audience appeared to be mainly senior public servants and Eurocrats.)
Click for more photos of the event
Presenter Röckstrom's own seminal research builds on the overwhelming scientific evidence, and agrees that our clumsy ape hands are resting far too heavily on the earth system controls - He believes that we may have already broken nature's climactic thermostat and is certain that we are pushing other planetary boundaries beyond safe limits. 
The Planetary Boundaries Identified in Rockström's Research
A core message of the presentation and the book is that from a pure risk-management perspective, even the quantified risks in this graphical representation warrant serious and immediate action, yet we rarely even hear these risks mentioned in the popular dialogue...? That is only the quantified risks, of course - Am I the only one concerned about the risk of those unquantified risks?!?

They also used a powerful visualisation of the "Great Acceleration" that Steffen et al documented in their 2004 book "Global Change and the Earth System - A Planet Under Pressure" (the book is hard to get these days, but download the free executive summary here for the key messages)
The "Great Acceleration of human enterprise"
There was also throughout a clear message that existing supranational governance is failing to manage these risks, and so is setting us all up for societal and economic catastrophe. This message was all the more powerful coming from Wijkman with his impressive supranational credentials with the UN, European Parliament, and The Red Cross.

I think that it was the European perspective that I found most exciting though, especially given the location and audience. I was particularly impressed that the presenters dared to reject the continually scuttled attempts at global consensus building (à la Kyoto). The highlight of the evening for me was when Anders and Johan cutely proposed to form a "coalition of the willing" on climate - a coalition that explicitly cut the US out of the picture and forges ahead with EU, China, and others.

This option feels right to me because I strongly believe that we have lost too much already in search of an impossible global consensus on climate - I think it is time to encourage countries, governments, corporations, and individuals to act according to their own conscience and ability. 

It is time for leaders to start leading - We can only hope that the rest will be shamed into following!

The presentation closed with some calls to action, including:

* Rethink the way we organise science & education
* Rethink economics:
   - take nature into account
   - move beyond endless GDP growth focus
   - finance sector reform
   - factor in long-term risks/rethink discounting
   - prioritise resource efficiency (use tax reform to help)
   - identify new business models - R&D must focus on sustainable innovation
* Build resilience and recognise the importance of redundance
* Transition to sustainable low-carbon agriculture
* Massive investments in renewables and energy efficiency
* Curb population growth
* Improve Global Governance (starting with EU + Asia)

All very logical, but still daunting... I wonder what the policy makers in the audience made of the presentation...? One can only hope that they download and read László's book for some ideas on how to lead.

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