Good reads on sustainabilityPosted by on May 25, 2012
In my post "A beginner’s guide to sustainability”, I promised that part two would be “A reader’s guide to sustainability”. That’s because I’m often asked what books I would recommend to someone who wants a good overview of the key issues on sustainability. It’s a reasonable question, but one that constantly begs a good answer because the field is huge.
Sustainability touches so many fields – and at heart, a good work on sustainability should address the issue from an integrated perspective that draws reason from environmental, social and economic sciences. Unfortunately, the law of specialisation has produced compelling works in each of these areas, but very few works that integrally cover all three areas with the appropriate balance. That’s why it would be a lot easier to answer the “best books” question in the specific rather than the general.
Moreover, sustainability may have sprung from science and environmental law, but has grown to have a much greater social, economic, legal and commercial significance. But, it is not easy to distinguish the technical and scientific work from that which is intended for the general reader; indeed some of the former are all but inaccessible to the layman. On the other hand, there are many books (or rather, passionate calls to arms) for the generalist that could benefit from a more rigorous approach.
I don’t have a top ten list or even top five. What follows are just three suggestions: each work weaves the key elements together in a clear analytical framework that outlines the problems and challenges, while presenting a compelling case for actions thereon. Each also addresses concerns across multiple disciplines and effectively shows that everyone – business, policymakers, intellectuals, student -- has roles, and a responsibility, to act.
The first work is by Lord Nicholas Stern, author of one of the first economically-grounded arguments for action on climate change, in 2006. His more recent work, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity brings the scientific findings within reach of the generalist reader and uses various lenses to explain just what the problem is and how we might find and implement solutions.
Thus, the work addresses climate change as a market failure, but also a key social and environmental challenge. It shows the importance of policy coordination globally, but also locally, within nations.
Stern also ties in the importance of technological innovation and the role of business in implementing solutions that could raise our ability to address some of the most challenging dimensions of climate change. Stern’s work will appeal to those who understand that our global response to climate change is actually a work in progress, in which individual actions (by businesses, organisations, cities, and so on) inform our collective knowledge pool and continually raise the bar for better impacts.
For a work that covers so much ground, it may be a relief to hear that it is only 250 very readable, large print pages. In this case, less really is more. And for those of you who will not have the chance to read this work, Lord Stern shall be speaking at the Asia-Global Dialogue taking place shortly in Hong Kong. Lord Stern was formerly the Chief Economist at the World Bank and has also served within the UK government. There are many who argue that such “mainstream economics” are actually at the core of our inability to address to address climate change and sustainable development with solutions that will actually work. As long as our aim is continual expansion in the name of economic growth, we will tax the limits of what the planet can actually withstand.
Tim Jackson’s solution would be to recast economic growth models to aim not for expansion, but for true prosperity for human beings. His work Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet has become a seminal work that explains why our current global growth models are bound to produce poor environmental and social outcomes, and why we need to re-cast our models to enable us to flourish as humans within the ecological limits of our planet.
He rejects the idea that economic growth and increasing material consumption are the necessary conditions of prosperity: this is a concept that makes sense intuitively – after all more stuff doesn’t necessarily make us happier – but which is unthinkable given the roles of consumption, media and advertising, and mainstreaming of “wealth culture” in many societies today. He calls consumerism an “iron cage” that withstands all attempts at incremental change.
In diagnosing the problem in terms of growth models and of consumerism as an end in itself, Jackson will find many contemporaries. But he adds enormous value by presenting his solution not as a spiritual “return to the forest” but rather in arguing for reform of economic models, social systems, and national accounts. His message is not “anti-growth” and certainly not one in which we must substitute earthly spirituality for technology. Rather, his message reflects a strong grounding in economics and addresses key fiscal, commercial and legal pillars of advanced societies today.
The system Jackson argues for has many detractors, and many of the changes he proposes seem “impossible” to implement under current governance frameworks. But by presenting an alternative vision, Jackson usefully shows how very tightly the culture of consumption and expansion is woven into nearly every aspect of modern life in the OECD. He forces us to question whether it all has to be this directed.
Now, Jackson is writing from the perspective of the OECD countries but his message is also valuable for Asian nations seeking to design their systems of economic and social governance. In short, if it is too late for the OECD world to change, these lessons are just in time and very relevant for Asian societies seeking to chart a course for the next phase of growth.
Tim Jackson’s work is a little denser than Lord Stern’s, and will take longer to wade through, but you will be well-rewarded.
If the first two works take a systems view of the climate change problem, the third - and final - work discusses sustainability from the point of view of individual attitudes, values and mindsets, even when talking about markets and economies. Michael Spence is a Nobel Prize-winning economist who writes things even ordinary people can understand.
His article “The Sustainability Mindset” should be required reading (it is less than 1,000 words) for anyone who doubts the significance of individual action. It also shows why our global approach to sustainability will test our abilities to achieve balance and progress for the public good and also why this is a challenge worth taking up. (Michael Spence is Chairman of the Academic Board at the Fung Global Institute and will also be speaking soon at the Asia-Global Dialogue.)
In closing, I will just stress that the above works are merely starting points. First: like the internet in the 1990s, sustainability is the new “it” field. Every major international organisation, think-tank, business organisation, and university is doing work on sustainability – much of it quite good, substantive, and timely.
The point is that every day we uncover a new angle, a new model, or a new process. Indeed, we are all still in discovery mode. It’s impossible to cover it all, so don’t even try. Instead, focus. Choose your issue and start digging.