Stockholm+40 and the King of Spain: No hiding from the truth

This is the first in a series of posts that I will make from the Stockholm+40 conference, 23-24 April 2012. For more on this conference, please see the official website:

It is dizzying to think that the world has been wrestling with the problem set we call “sustainability” for forty years now. There is no escaping the fact of time’s passage, any more than I can escape my graying hair. The additional fact that I am attending the Stockholm+40 conference – an event that commemorates the 40th anniversary of the 1972 UN meeting in Stockholm, which launched the global process that resulted in the modern sustainable development movement – underscores this fact just as inevitably.

“Stockholm+40,” “Rio+20,” and other recent decadal anniversaries (The Limits to Growth was published exactly 40 years ago, Silent Spring exactly 50 years ago) do not exactly feel celebratory. I am a cheerleader for sustainability’s progress, and an optimist whose books, speeches, training workshops and behind-the-scenes consulting advice are all focused on supporting ever-more-rapid change. I point out constantly that yes, we face enormous and growing challenges. But we are riding – and building – an accelerating wave of innovation and engagement.

This is true, and having been professionally engaged with this wave of change we call the “Sustainability movement” since 1988, I now have the benefit of hindsight to boost my sense of hope. I see the level of activity today, in policy, energy, water, lifestyles, and many other topics, and compare that to decades ago. Sustainability was marginal then; it is mainstream now.

But it is also true that the core problems – and by this I mean the deeply core problems – are still with us. Among these is the deep-seated conflict between the human drive for growth and expansion of all kinds, and the increasingly apparent fact that we live on a planet of limited resources and decaying ecosystems. A quick glance at the actual numbers, the health indicators of our planet as a living system, should convince anyone that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this dilemma. Nature, as we know her, is dying.

But … so are people. And poor people surely need economic growth. Do rich people? Another quick glance at the news – at least in Europe – would leave no one in doubt that even the countries considered rich, from a global perspective, need more economic growth. When upwards of 25% of a country’s population, and far more of its youth, cannot find meaningful work (which in our societies means a purpose for being here, as well as money to buy housing and food) … there is no need to finish my sentence. Arguing in favor of “de-growth” when people are visibly suffering from involuntary “de-growth” makes no ethical sense, and certainly no political sense.

And yet … and yet …

Consider the King of Spain. He was recently “caught” sneaking off to Botswana to shoot elephants. It was meant to be a secret trip, but he fell and broke his hip. The emergency trip home for surgery created the leak that has led to a national scandal. Very likely, say the papers, a Syrian businessman paid the bill, something like $10,000 per day. This trip came on the heels of his sober statements to the Spanish nation, in support of the austerity packages that are dismantling health, social, and environmental programs.

Austerity – cutting back on these “non-essential” pieces of our society – is necessary, say the economists. Necessary for what? Economic growth, of course.

Ultimately, nearly everything is still up for sacrifice to the idea that economies must grow. As it happens, there are plenty of elephants in Botswana; so some of them are sacrificed to the high-priced tourism that Botswana needs to maintain its economic growth, especially after the diamond mines run out. The idea of a King, funded by a Syrian businessman, shooting one of the last large land mammals (there used to be many more species of large land mammal on this planet, but pre-historic human hunters wiped them out) is deeply symbolic; and the fact that the King had just promoted austerity to his citizens makes it deeply ironic, of course.

But this story, as shocking and cynicism-inspiring as it may be, is still only a symbol. It is a symbol of something much bigger, much deeper. This story is not just a symbol of rich versus poor, and the way “belt-tightening” always seems to apply to people whose belts are already uncomfortably tight. It is not just a symbol of our undeclared war against nature, as though we humans were taking revenge for millions of years of evolutionary suffering by eradicating other species.

No, the King of Spain’s hunting trip is, most essentially, a symbol of our capacity to hold the truth in our mind, to know what path is ethically right, and then, very deliberately, to choose the other path. Why? Because we want what we want.

I’m sure the King feels, in some abstract way, real concern for his people. I am sure he would acknowledge the need to care for Nature, in an abstract sense. I am sure even he would acknowledge the cynicism of being supported by money that, however abstractly, appears linked to the violence now tearing Syria apart.

But apparently, he really wanted to shoot an elephant. And that desire trumped everything.

Is that the kind of “growth” – growth driven by our unquenchable desires – the kind we really need? Or is it, more accurately, the kind of growth that we just can’t bring ourselves to give up?

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