I interviewed CEOs from the three very different worlds of finance, DIY and beverages last week, who are all seeking answers to a conundrum at the very heart of the sustainability movement.
The puzzle that Ian Cheshire at Kingfisher, Saker Nusseibeh at Hermes Fund Managers and John Steel at Cafédirect are trying to solve, each in their own way, is how to encourage people to take action to confront key challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and ecosystem collapse.
We can talk about the power of technology to create change till we are blue in the face, but what all three recognise is that we truly need a powerful human response.
None of the attempts to incite action have had much impact so far. Highlighting the enormous damage we are doing to society and the planet is not generating much of a response, and neither is talking up the opportunities.
At the core of the problem is the fact that the vast majority of people do not feel connected to the issues.
Cheshire, CEO of the world’s third-largest DIY business, will next month be unveiling the results of the independent Ecosystem Markets Taskforce that is looking at how UK companies can respond to environmental degradation.
After immersing himself in issues ranging from forestry to the Common Agricultural Policy, Cheshire absolutely recognises the dangers ahead. But he admits that most businesses feel entirely separated from the natural world and fail to recognise that their future success is dependent on local ecosystems in particular and the health of the planet in general.
He gives the example of Jaguar Land Rover, which saw little connection between the production of cars and its relationship to the environment until it looked and discovered it uses around 140,000 litres of water to create each vehicle. Suddenly, threats of water scarcity became relevant.
Nusseibeh at Hermes sees the lack of connection not only within the financial markets but also among individual savers.
He points to the vast majority of City executives, who live in an elitist bubble that divorces them from the impacts of their actions on ordinary people around the world.
He believes the financial markets will change only if there is grassroots pressure, but recognises that individuals feel divorced from the impacts of their investments and find the City too complex and opaque to think they can make a difference.
Regarding fairtrade, while many supermarket own-label products do the bare minimum to get certification, Café Direct does far more to promote the wellbeing of the communities who supply it and has growers on its board.
But CEO John Steel says the company has still not solved the riddle of how to meaningfully connect shoppers to the impacts of their purchases on communities thousands of miles away.
A myriad of reasons has led to this overwhelming sense of numbness: globalisation has diminished our sense of togetherness and personal responsibility, consumerism and technology have created an addiction to more stuff, a confusion of choices and a tsunami of information. Meanwhile, our compassion has been over-burdened by a constant diet of distressing and painful news from around the world.
So what can be done to help people to reconnect? One of the brightest hopes is that with the economic bubble bursting, millions of people are waking up to the possibilities of localism and to the importance of community. This is taking many forms, from the growth of social entrepreneurship and credit unions to the re-invention of thriftiness as something to be proud of, rather than sneered at.
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says that “the power of this revolution lies in the fact that it comes from people of all ages and backgrounds as they engage in actions on behalf of life itself.”
But while grassroots initiatives are important, we also need to develop an economic, social, environmental and spiritual narrative that wakes us up to the madness of the current system.
“It’s a process of humanity evolving its awareness and it’s consciousness to meet the challenge that is on their lap now.”
Doug Tompkins, who created North Face and Esprit before becoming a radical environmentalist, told me when I met him at the weekend that we should not rush into trying to solve problems before we have truly understood the deep dynamics of the system we are seeking to transform.
Tompkins, who has used his wealth to put an extraordinary two million acres of wilderness into permanent conservation in Latin America, says that while initiatives on the ground are important, what we need is “idea work, which helps build the intellectual infrastructure necessary to make deep structural changes in the economic technologies that we use to operate our societies. For ultimately, there can be no hope of ending the eco-social crisis until people abandon the arrogance of humanism and adopt an eco-centric worldview.”
Tompkins agrees with the late Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess who said the “front is long”, meaning that moving human society towards harmony with the rest of life will take decades, if not centuries.
But therein lies the problem. If it takes that long to embed new thinking, what will be left of society and biodiversity to protect?
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