Positive Impact Blog

Thought provoking insights for change makers

How to get to the 2’000 Watt global community

In order to offer a concrete experience of our 50+20 vision (see www.50plus20.org) our team has organized a series of collaboratory events during the RIO+20 conference. Imagine the collaboratory as a circular space where stakeholders meet on an equal basis to address burning issues that concern society either locally, globally or both. The discussion is facilitated with open space and consciousness-building technologies and offers a concrete new possibility for education and research.

As we prepare for these sessions, we are considering what big issues we should address to contribute to RIO+20. To me, the real challenge for the conference is a lot more profound than the emerging buzzwords like yesterday’s speech from Ban ki-Moon stating that “we need to combine growth with social inclusion” and of course pay attention to do so “within the limits of the planet”. Well, these are either empty words or may well be a contradiction in terms (an oxymoron). What we need is a world where 9 billion people live well and within the limits of the planet (WBCSD vision 2050).

Now, what I would like to know is how we are planning to achieve this. What does this mean for us in Europe, what does this mean for people in Brazil, China, Australia. Not in 2050 but for the coming decade. How do we have to change to make this seemingly impossible goal work if already today we as a global community use resources every year that are equivalent to what takes our planet Earth 1.35 years to regenerate. And we are just at 7 billion people today. With 2 billion people in emerging countries expecting to join the global middle class. Or, as our Brazilian friends have pointed out: “you are not going to tell the people here that they can’t get their refrigerator they’ve been waiting for so desperately.” Well, of course not as well as we cannot imagine prescribing our U.S. friends to at least return to a European level of Ecological Footprint (EFP), i.e. achieving a 50% reduction.

Indeed, the real challenge and the unspoken problem of RIO+20 – and our global community – is that nobody can actually envision discussing what needs to be addressed: what efforts are required by which regions to make it together? It would be pure and simple political suicide for every government to return with such a task and challenge. Yet, what happens if we don’t discuss it? I cannot even imagine what it takes to get there even if everybody would and could collaborate… If however we cannot even openly address the real issue at the one and only place we MUST discuss and resolve such issues, then I start to really wonder what kind of miracle we are counting on!

Let me try to understand the size of the challenge. I guess we will be 8 billion by around 2025 with most of the poorest 4 billion expecting to make significant shifts out of poverty and half of them joining the global middle class. We must integrate this additional billion within our global community while reducing non- or slow-renewable the resources by 35% as compared to our global footprint in 2011. Is this fear for not getting this growth that represents the biggest emotional stumbling block for nations in the so-called South  in RIO+20 intergovernmental negotiations, prompting Ban ki-Moon’s above welcome speech. Yet, the challenge does not lie exclusively in the South. It is really the 2 billion on top of the pyramid, living in the “North-West” (i.e. in Western developed countries) that have created the problem of our planetary overshoot of 35% in the first place. So the half a billion North Americans, the half a billion European and the other billion of people living too well in various other developed countries, regions or cities around the world need to significantly reduce their footprint.

The 2000 Watt society is an old Swiss concept developed in the early nineties between the ETH Zurich and the economy. The idea was that we must create options for a life worth living that does not consume more than 2000 Watt of energy per person (Wapp). Currently, in Switzerland, we are at 4000 Wapp, yet we know how we could make it at 2000 and we are working on making it happen. Zero energy and positive energy housing is a big part of this. But cleaning up the mobility footprint is another big issue. I am sitting in a plane fro Sao Paulo to Rio and you know what I mean…. CO2 emissions! So, if we in Europe need to half our footprint, whether measured in Wapp, EFP or CO2 or Water footprint, North America is challenged to reduce its footprint by 75%. Wow, you may say. I want to know what I can do (other than jumping out of the air plane) and how I can get my life on track. I am willing and able and hopefully so are my other billion or two lucky wealthy fellow citizens. I am actually looking forward to envision measures that will slow down my crazy pace, that shift my focus from material to immaterial and inner wealth and that rebalance the lost equilibrium between time and money.

The challenge for emerging and developing countries is clearly a different one. They need to figure out how they can reach a comfortable life that satisfies human development in terms of learning, engagement and fulfilment while assuring basic needs such as food, shelter, safety, medical and social care. For this, they will generate what we have come to known as “growth”, i.e. activities that are measured through GDP and the likes. Yet, they cannot repeat the errors of the Northwest. Air-conditioning in the hotel in Sao Paulo forced me to walk around in all my sweaters I brought – totally crazy as we are in the cold and damp winter season here anyway. Yes, they do need their fridge but they need a fridge that uses as less energy as possible. And again, I wonder, what can a Brazilian expect as her development both in material and immaterial nature in the coming decades. Which dreams will she have to give up, which new ones may she learn to discover and embrace? And how can she and I, sisters in a small world, support another and respect the diversity and limits of the planet we inhabit? This is the answer I would like to have by the end of this conference.

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Katrin goes to Rio

Today is the day. I am packing for Rio. Analogous to “Frankie goes to Hollywood”,  this is not just another business trip, this is not business as usual. Looking at my wardrobe, I skip the usual formal work clothes and I create a mixture of casual and funky that I hope I can get away with in the many very formal sessions and presentations. I grab the “A Rebel with a Cause” t-shirt, my partner brought me from Amsterdam with the instruction that this is THE right t-shirt for me in Rio!

I remember the feeling 20 years ago, when the original Rio conference took place. I was   22 and studying business (yes, at BSL) at the time. The world stopped and watched – Rio was the news and suddenly everybody was talking about the environment, the role of business, of rain-forests dying, the ozone layer disappearing over Australia and the extinction of wildlife. Schmidheiny’s book “Changing Course” changed my life. I remember sensing a new possibility – something shifting within me. The so-far unimagined possibility of maybe, just maybe, being able to combine two parts in me that I thought could not be united in the adult world I was entering.

On one hand, I have always felt this deep sense of connection and care with nature and the world. I spent my youngest childhood roaming the forest in the area I grew up. Ah, that smell, that light! I am tempted to say that anybody growing up in Switzerland automatically becomes an environmentally conscious person. It is so much part of the Swiss DNA, this ridiculously serious sense of responsibility for the “Gemeinwohl” (the common good, although that is a sad translation lacking the caring cosiness the German word radiates and makes you want to be a part of this common thingie) that is instilled in all of us through our upbringing both at home and in school. I am personally scandalized if I see spray-paint. When I pick up my mobility car, a 80’000 members car-sharing organization, the car is spotlessly clean and I make sure I leave no garbage in the car when I return it. To us, public property feels like private property and we treat it very similarly.

On the other hand, my three year commercial apprenticeship and my jobs in Australia and then at a F50 US multinational had kind of implicitly taught be that bringing my whole self to the job was not what was required or even desired. At age 16, my initiation to business at my apprenticeship included all kinds of hurdles. The three years tamed me into a somewhat more docile corporate citizen and I laughed exclusively in private. I had understood that my passions and interests had nothing to add to being a good employee. When interviewed for a promotion at Alcoa, the manager mentioned that she knew that I played nearly every Saturday night in a jazz band and that if I wanted the job I would certainly have to forget about such extravagance. I was 21 at the time and this was the craziest thing I had ever heard.

The two versions of me, the fun-loving tree-hugger and the serious professional, had little to do with each other. Until the Rio Earth Summit hit me. Suddenly, I felt that a bridge could be built between these two sides which generated a boost in creativity unlike anything I had experienced before. I started dreaming about helping companies become sustainable. I thought that maybe I could start a consulting company, I still have a hand-drawn logo of “stratecology” which included a blue planet. But things worked out differently, I kept on getting promoted and ended up in the U.S. In mergers & acquisitions, then in Russia in charge of a manufacturing start-up and life took off. Rio and sustainability gathered dust in my soul.

It was only about 2 years ago, during a side conversation at the “breaking the silo” pre-conference of the Academy of Management annual meeting in Montreal, when we established that business schools had done nothing as a community to participate in the public debate around the increasingly complex social, environmental and economic challenges we faced. The business community had at least created the World Business Council for Sustainable Business (WBCSD), yet what had we to show for? Wasn’t it even more our task to ensure that the world had responsible leaders? Wasn’t it up to our professors to come up with interesting alternatives to our defunct economic system and our “make-break” growth-driven consumption pattern? After all, who if not us would be there to figure out a solution?

The WBCSD had been founded by Schmidheiny (a fellow Swiss who obviously also had gotten his proper dose of Gemeinwohl-DNA) right around the 1992 Rio conference. As an act of self-depreciation we decided in Montreal to founded the World Business School Council for Sustainable Business (WBSCSB) – the world’s most unpronounceable acronym. Our aim, to take part in the public debate on sustainability and to do our job in providing the right kinds of leaders and the right kind of research that would actually serve the world. Since then, we worked on our contribution for the 2012 Rio conference: a radically new vision for management education that would contribute in all possible ways to a world worth living in. This is what we are now about to go and do.

Join me on my personal journey and follow our initiative which we call 50+20 on www.50plus20.org  (#50plus20).