Will 2013 Bring a New, Sustainable World?

A local farmer near Indonesia's Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park

A local farmer near Indonesia’s Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park depends on clean water from the mountains to grow her rice paddies. Smallholder farmers are predicted to be among the most hard-hit by climate change and other looming environmental factors. (© Jessica Scranton)

A version of this post was originally published on The Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog.

They were right — the world has ended. The world as we knew it came to an end more or less when the Mayan calendar ran out, on winter solstice, 2012.

The old world that died in 2012 had a stable climate, cheap commodities, governments managing change, high growth in output and consumption, and corporations driving economies and serving societies all deeply infused with a blind belief in free markets.

The new world that begins now, in 2013, will be defined by frightening climate instability, commodity and food prices ratcheting skywards, impotent governments reduced to spectators in their own countries, continuing recession, and corporations either being hounded as common criminals or laurelled as champions of virtuous change. An internet-enabled anarchy of the wronged will pull entire countries along unplanned roller-coaster rides through a Disneyland world of commotion and crises.

Briefly, here is why I think so.

Breaching the limits of the world’s ecosystems

Our world is rapidly approaching planetary boundaries — across climate, biodiversity, nitrogen, phosphorous, ocean acidification and freshwater scarcity, among other things. Economies worldwide are still headed in the wrong direction — towards resource exhaustion, social disparities and persistent poverty.

What we need is change at the speed of light, driven by bold leaders. What we have is change at the speed of change, hesitantly nudged by cautious governments. Too little, too late, such prevarication will spill into natural disasters. We saw some as 2012 ended. We shall see more as the Earth’s ecosystems do what all systems in equilibrium try their best to do: stay in equilibrium, until they simply cannot. Until what we call “resilience” is replaced by “thresholds” being breached and planetary boundaries being crossed.

Breached thresholds will lead ecosystems into new states of equilibrium, which may not be any good for human life, society or economy.

The vulnerable will suffer most

Increasing climate disruptions will cause higher price volatility in agricommodities, due to crop failures and crop losses. The world is over-invested in intensive agriculture, and due to a corresponding lack of investment to improve yields and resilience for smallholder farming, the poor will actually suffer the most from these supply disruptions and price shocks.

Bold leadership

In the absence of political leadership, others will provide bold leadership, such as corporations, who are the lion’s share of today’s economy, GDP and jobs. Some have already shown real leadership in 2012, such as by measuring and disclosing their externalities (Puma), or lengthening their investor and analyst horizons by stopping quarterly reports (Unilever). Many more will follow these trendsetters in 2013.

An end to crony capitalism

At the same time, adherents of the old model of corporation — profit-fixated, externality-churning, disconnected from social purpose — will find the going tougher. Public patience with being exploited by the freedoms of freemarket capitalism is running thin. Public outrage at investment banking excesses has not died even four years after the global financial crisis. “Corporate externalities” is no longer an obscure term hidden at the end of economics textbooks, but a common phrase in news media.

Corporations that habitually free-lunched off global and national governance weaknesses and cheap natural resources will realise that their free lunch is nearly over, mainly because the “crony” governments of their crony-capitalist alliances are either emaciated, or bankrupt, or cannot toe the line of corporate profitability any longer in the face of scientific evidence and citizen activism.

Indeed, from the first Arab Spring uprising to a campaign of moral outrage in Britain over corporate tax avoidance, which immediately yielded millions from Starbucks, the internet-enabled anarchy of the wronged has become the vehicle of successful change.

Many years ago, Arundhati Roy, author of “The God of Small Things,” said: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Winter solstice, 2012, was a quiet day. The Earth’s magnetic field did not flip. Planes did not fall out of the sky. A nuclear holocaust was not launched. A giant meteorite did not slam into our planet.

But if you had listened for a quieter strain, you would have heard her. A new world had begun.

Pavan Sukhdev

Pavan Sukhdev

Pavan Sukhdev is an environmental economist and board member for CI. He is also the UN Environment Programme’s goodwill ambassador. A former banker, he led the UNEP’s green economy initiative and is author of a new book,Corporation 2020.”

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