"Sustainability has become a largely meaningless idea," Ecotrust Canada President Ian Gill tells a UBC Sauder School of Business conference, "and chasing it has become a fool's errand." Given recent catastrophic events, we should reframe the debate around resilience.
The following is the text of a lecture that Ian Gill gave to the UBC Sauder School of Business’ "Chasing Sustainability Conference" on March 12, 2009, in Vancouver.
According to Wikipedia, “sustainability has become a complex term that can be applied to almost every facet of life on Earth” – which is a problem. It has mostly lost its meaning.
Twenty years ago, in 1989, the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) articulated what has now become a widely accepted definition of sustainability: "[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
I think a more useful framework to use is a definition of resilience.
Like sustainability, there are lots of those, but the one I like most is one that Thomas Homer-Dixon used at a conference in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. He said:
Resilience is the capability to withstand shock without catastrophic failure.
That's something that seems rather more pertinent to our times than “sustainability.”
With all due respect to our conference sponsors, I would suggest that the world has been “chasing sustainability” for 20 years at least, since the Brundtland Commission, and in some cases long before that – and we have mostly been chasing our tails. Sustainability has become a largely meaningless idea, and chasing it has become a fool's errand.
Instead, I would argue that like it or not, we are now challenged with discovering resilience. Where are we going to find, or rediscover, the capability to withstand shock without catastrophic failure? Rediscover, because I would submit that First Nations communities that have weathered the shocks of the past 150 years can teach us a great deal about resilience.
So, where are we going to find the capacity for resilience? Other than in First Nations, I'm not actually sure where to look but I know where not to look: on Wall Street, Bay Street, or Howe Street. In Washington, in Ottawa, in Victoria. The fact is that the world is undergoing a spectacular system failure right now, because we became so enthralled by a system, an economy, that was ever more distant from the natural economy – that we overshot.
On almost every measure we can muster, we have overshot. Consumption. Debt. Resource extraction. Debt. Population. Debt. Pollution. Debt. Sprawl. Debt. Emissions. Debt. Bailouts. Debt. Debt. Debt.
I believe we are now in a sort of global debtor's prison. Nature didn't put us there. We did. Governments did. Corporations did. Hundreds of thousands of people in North America alone have lost their jobs in the first quarter of 2009. Why? Is the world, is the Earth, is Nature really physically that much different than in was in the first quarter of 2008? Is there that much less soil to be tilled or oil to be spilled? Of course not.
The natural system hasn't changed much in the past year – but the social systems have. We've stopped believing in one of our own creations – the economy.
So, if we have lost faith in the casino economy, let's use our human ingenuity to build a conservation economy. This is the underlying idea of Ecotrust. We believe in information democracy, the democratization of credit, creating jobs and protecting the environment, new triple-bottom line financial institutions like Chicago's Shorebank and our own Ecotrust Canada Capital, which has lent $12 million and leveraged another $38 million for BC businesses. We are looking at new ways of valuing ecosystems beyond cutting trees. How do we monetize the natural economy in a way that recognizes complexity, and doesn't reduce it to simplistic commodities?
Let me return to the theme of debt for a moment. Debt is not all bad.
A confession. I'm a kind of wannabe-banker. I get to hang out with them sometimes. We have partnered with Shorebank whose mission is social advancement in marginalized inner city neighbourhoods. I'm also a director on the board of Vancity. We specialize in debt. But not debt at any cost.
Vancity is a credit union. A cooperative. Here's what consumer advocate Ralph Nader recently had to say about credit unions in the United States:
While the reckless giant banks are shattering like an over-heated glacier day by day, the nation’s credit unions are a relative island of calm largely apart from the vortex of casino capitalism.
Eighty five million Americans belong to credit unions which are not-for-profit cooperatives owned by their members who are depositors and borrowers. Your neighborhood or workplace credit union did not invest in these notorious speculative derivatives nor did they offer people "teaser rates" to sign on for a home mortgage they could not afford. Credit Unions have no shareholders nor stock nor stock options; they are responsible to their owner-members who are their customers. According to Mike Schenk, an economist with the Credit Union National Association, credit unions are ‘portfolio lenders. That means they hold in their portfolios most of the loans they originate instead of selling them to investors, so they care about the financial performance of those loans.'
The cooperative model, whether in finance, food, housing or any other sector of the economy, does best when the owner-cooperators are active in the general operations and directions of their co-op.
There are very contemporary lessons to be learned from the successes of the credit union model such as being responsive to consumer loan needs and down to earth with their portfolios. Yet in all the massive media coverage of the Wall Street barons and their lethal financial escapades, crimes and frauds, little is being written about how the regulation, philosophy and behavior of the credit unions largely escaped this catastrophe.
So we can learn from alternative economic models like credit unions and cooperatives. But we also need to learn from the past. From Aboriginal communities, in terms of resilience. And, from our mistakes.
Ronald Wright is the author of A Short History of Progress. He points out that while we are descendants of apes, in the past three million years we have been shaped less and less by nature, and more and more by culture. And that's not such a good thing:
We have become experimental creatures of our own making. This experiment has never been tried before. And we, its unwitting authors, have never controlled it. The experiment is now moving very quickly and on a colossal scale. Since the early 1900s, the world's population has multiplied by four and its economy – a rough measure of the human load on nature – by more than forty. We have reached a stage where we must bring the experiment under rational control … it is entirely up to us. If we fail – if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us – nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting the apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.
Consider the words of George Monbiot in The Guardian:
“Without radical action, we will be the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?”
Or finally, the words of that other guy, Ian Gill:
“Without radical action, will we – will you – be the generation that chased sustainability, and yet threw away the key to the debtor's prison that you inherited, because with all your education and ingenuity, it's a prison you never figured out how to escape from?”