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Building Social Business

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...Now I know that cultural assumptions, even well-established ones, can be overturned, which is why I am excited about State of the World 2010. It calls for one of the greatest cultural shifts imaginable: from cultures of consumerism to cultures of sustainability. The book goes well beyond standard prescriptions for clean technologies and enlightened policies. It advocates rethinking the foundations of modern consumerism—the practices and values regarded as “natural,” which paradoxically undermine nature and jeopardize human prosperity.
Worldwatch has taken on an ambitious agenda in this volume. No generation in history has achieved a cultural transformation as sweeping as the one called for here. The book’s many articles demonstrate that such a shift is possible by reexamining core assumptions of modern life, from how businesses are run and what is taught in classrooms to how weddings are celebrated and the way cities are organized. Readers may not agree with every idea presented here. But it is hard not to be impressed with the book’s boldness: its initial assumption is that wholesale cultural transformation is possible. I believe this is possible after having lived through the cultural transformation of women in Bangladesh. Culture, after all, is for making it easy for people to unleash their potential, not for standing there as a wall to stop them from moving forward. Culture that does not let people grow is a dead culture. Dead culture should be in the museum, not in human society.
From the preface by Christopher Flavin, President of the Worldwatch Institute:
...The past five years have witnessed an unprecedented mobilization of efforts to combat the world’s accelerating ecological crisis. Since 2005, thousands of new government policies have been enacted, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in green businesses and infrastructure, scientists and engineers have greatly accelerated development of a new generation of “green” technologies, and the mass media have turned environmental problems into a mainstream concern.
Amid this flurry of activity, one dimension of our environmental dilemma remains largely neglected: its cultural roots. As consumerism has taken root in culture upon culture over the past half-century, it has become a powerful driver of the inexorable increase in demand for resources and production of waste that marks our age. Of course, environmental impacts on this scale would not be possible without an unprecedented population explosion, rising affluence, and breakthroughs in science and technology. But consumer cultures support—and exaggerate—the other forces that have allowed human societies to outgrow their environmental support systems.
Human cultures are numerous and diverse—and in many cases have deep and ancient roots. They allow people to make sense of their lives and to manage their relationships with other people and the natural world.
Strikingly, anthropologists report that many traditional cultures have at their core respect for and protection of the natural systems that support human societies. Unfortunately, many of these cultures have already been lost, along with the languages and skills they nurtured, pushed aside by a global consumer culture that first took hold in Europe and North America and is now pressing to the far corners of the world. This new cultural orientation is not only seductive but powerful. Economists believe that it has played a big role in spurring economic growth and reducing poverty in recent decades.
...While the destructive power of modern cultures is a reality that many government and business decisionmakers continue to willfully ignore, it is keenly felt by a new generation of environmentalists who are growing up in an era of global limits. Young people are always a potent cultural force—and often a leading indicator of where the culture is headed. From modern Chinese who draw on the ancient philosophy of Taoism to Indians who cite the work of Mahatma Gandhi, from Americans who follow the teachings of the new Green Bible to Europeans who draw on the scientific principles of ecology, State of the World 2010 documents that the renaissance of cultures of sustainability is already well under way.
To ensure that this renaissance succeeds, we will need to make living sustainably as natural tomorrow as consumerism is today. This volume shows that this is beginning to happen. In Italy, school menus are being reformulated, using healthy, local, and environmentally sound foods, transforming children’s dietary norms in the process. In suburbs like Vauban, Germany, bike paths, wind turbines, and farmers’ markets are not only making it easy to live sustainably, they are making it hard not to. At the Interface Corporation in the United States, CEO Ray Anderson radicalized a business culture by setting the goal of taking nothing from Earth that cannot be replaced by Earth. And in Ecuador, rights for the planet have even entered into the Constitution—providing a strong impetus to safeguard the country’s ecological systems and ensure the long-term flourishing of its people...
From the flagship article, The Rise and Fall of Consumer Culture, by Erik Assadourian:
...Preventing the collapse of human civilization requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns. This transformation would reject consumerism—the cultural orientation that leads people to find meaning, contentment, and acceptance through what they consume—as taboo and establish in its place a new cultural framework centered on sustainability. In the process, a revamped understanding of “natural” would emerge: it would mean individual and societal choices that cause minimal ecological damage or, better yet, that restore Earth’s ecological systems to health. Such a shift—something more fundamental than the adoption of new technologies or government policies, which are often regarded as the key drivers of a shift to sustainable societies—would radically reshape the way people understand and act in the world.
Transforming cultures is of course no small task. It will require decades of effort in which cultural pioneers—those who can step out of their cultural realities enough to critically examine them—work tirelessly to redirect key culture-shaping institutions: education, business, government, and the media, as well as social movements and long-standing human traditions. Harnessing these drivers of cultural change will be critical if humanity is to survive and thrive for centuries and millennia to come and prove that we are, indeed, “worth saving.”
The Unsustainability of Current Consumption Patterns
In 2006, people around the world spent $30.5 trillion on goods and services (in 2008 dollars). These expenditures included basic necessities like food and shelter, but as discretionary incomes rose, people spent more on consumer goods—from richer foods and larger homes to televisions, cars, computers, and air travel. In 2008 alone, people around the world purchased 68 million vehicles, 85 million refrigerators, 297 million computers, and 1.2 billion mobile (cell) phones.2
Consumption has grown dramatically over the past five decades, up 28 percent from the $23.9 trillion spent in 1996 and up sixfold from the $4.9 trillion spent in 1960 (in 2008 dollars). Some of this increase comes from the growth in population, but human numbers only grew by a factor of 2.2 between 1960 and 2006. Thus consumption expenditures per person still almost tripled.3
As consumption has risen, more fossil fuels, minerals, and metals have been mined from the earth, more trees have been cut down, and more land has been plowed to grow food (often to feed livestock as people at higher income levels started to eat more meat). Between 1950 and 2005, for example, metals production grew sixfold, oil consumption eightfold, and natural gas consumption 14-fold. In total, 60 billion tons of resources are now extracted annually—about 50 percent more than just 30 years ago. Today, the average European uses 43 kilograms of resources daily, and the average American uses 88 kilograms. All in all, the world extracts the equivalent of 112 Empire State Buildings from the earth every single day.4
The exploitation of these resources to maintain ever higher levels of consumption has put increasing pressure on Earth’s systems and in the process has dramatically disrupted the ecological systems on which humanity and countless other species depend.
The Ecological Footprint Indicator, which compares humanity’s ecological impact with the amount of productive land and sea area available to supply key ecosystem services, shows that humanity now uses the resources and services of 1.3 Earths. (See Figure 1.) In other words, people are using about a third more of Earth’s capacity than is available, undermining the resilience of the very ecosystems on which humanity depends.5
In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a comprehensive review of scientific research that involved 1,360 experts from 95 countries, reinforced these findings. It found that some 60 percent of ecosystem services—climate regulation, the provision of fresh water, waste treatment, food from fisheries, and many other services—were being degraded or used unsustainably. The findings were so unsettling that the MA Board warned that “human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”6...

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