Rethinking the Conventional Sustainability Wisdom

José Lopez, who died recently, had a fantastic capacity for turning conventional wisdom on its head. He had the knack for inverting phrases in a way that shone a blinding light on the reality, provided a simplicity of vision, and pointed us all in the right direction. Once asked what was the factory of the future, as quick as a flash his response was “the factory that has a future”. 

At first glance a flippant answer, yet on reflection its actually deeply insightful, if a little philosophical. Apply that to many current questions, such as: “what’s the future of capitalism?”, and you immediately have the answer. And the way ahead.

There are a few phrases that I believe need to be put under the spotlight. Here are a few that have shaped conventional wisdom, but are holding back progress on sustainability.

Think Local, Act Global

A phrase that needs a reboot is ‘think global act local’. The sustainability movement has dug itself into a hole following this globalization mantra.

Coming up with a global solution and then implementing it locally in one or two places has led to some nice sustainability stories for annual reports and conference speeches. Yet the continued calls for “solutions at scale” suggests that something is wrong with our thinking. 

We need to think local, design programmes that are appropriate for communities, and that make an impact on the ground. Then we need to replicate this repeatedly to roll it out globally. We need to think local, act global.

That’s the conclusion of recent research from a recent Foresight4Food paper on smallholder farmers.

And also the conclusion reached by the FSG team who stated that “Local solutions are the essential to tackling global problems” in a paper about how global leaders should think about solving our biggest problems.

Build Back Better

Thats right. I’m not sure we want to go back to anything, or backwards for that matter. The existing societal and economic foundations are exceedingly suspect, and our management theories are outdated. Quite frankly a U-turn is more appropriate in many areas.

Michael Liebreich ran a poll recently where only 3% voted for ‘build back’. 71% voted for ‘build forward’. Interestingly 26% preferred ‘embrace degrowth’. Degrowth is certainly what we need in some parts of society, though there is also no doubt that we need to deliver equality and equity in many other parts. We need growth; but differentially.

So can we please retire ‘build back better’ immediately, and replace it with something more appropriate and visionary? My own preference would be to include ‘transition’, ‘forward’ and ‘faster’ in the formulation.

A Fork in the Lake?

Somehow in the sustainability world we always seem to be at ‘tipping points’, have ‘windows of opportunity’ or be at ‘forks in the road’. This stretches the credulity of the accompanying messages, because we rarely are.

The latter is meant to be for those deciding moments in life. Yet it has become a metaphor for taking any kind of decision. Which of course devalues it’s meaning and weakens it’s impact. 

Yogi Berra skewered the phrase best, saying “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”.

So I have. I decided last year to take early independence, and my last day of salaried life is at the end of this month. This blog will continue. As will my contribution to sustainability and society – just in a different way, and on a different road, and a different lake.

I will be swapping Lac Léman for the Lake District where I will be thinking and acting locally, to help individuals and local communities. I will also focus on a few things globally that I believe can help society to transition to a better place. This will not involve building back better.