This week: when the last tree is cut (the Brundtland Report), HSBC divests from coal (sort of), conscious entrepreneurship, social finance.
While awareness of conscious capitalism is rising in the mainstream, let’s take an honest look at how far we have come since the issue of sustainability was first recognized on the global platform.
30 Years ago, in 1987, the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development published “Our Common Future” under the chairmanship of Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first female prime minister of Norway.
The Brundtland Report presented the results of a broad global consultation aimed at proposing a comprehensive program of change for sustainable development.
Thirty years later, what progress can we observe on our way to sustainability?
The Brundtland Report clearly identified the most serious environmental problems of the 1980s:
- Uncontrolled population growth.
- Excessive deforestation and grazing.
- Destruction of tropical forests.
- Extinction of living species.
- Increased greenhouse effect causing climate change.
- Acid rain.
- Erosion of the stratospheric ozone layer
The Brundtland Report emphasized the perverse effects of unbridled economic growth and overconsumption of resources by the better-off.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “
The Brundtland Report then identified a series of strategic objectives:
- Change the quality of economic growth.
- Control demographics.
- Meet basic human needs.
- Preserve and enhance the resource base.
- Consider the environment in developing new technologies.
- Integrate ecological and economic concerns into decision-making.
And it proposed solutions that apply on a global scale such as:
- Reducing energy consumption in industrialized countries.
- Promoting the development of renewable energies.
- Encouraging massive reforestation in countries affected by desertification.
- Implementing tax and land reforms to reduce pressures on ecosystems.
- Adopting an international convention for the protection of species.
- Combating poverty and injustice.
In order to realize and finance this ecological shift, the Brundtland Report proposed:
- A reform of international institutions, notably the World Bank and the IMF, which should better take into account social and environmental objectives and alleviate the debt of the poorest countries.
- A reorientation of military spending for the fight against poverty and inequality.
- An engagement of large companies in more responsible production and consumption.
The Brundtland Report demonstrated that the global economy and ecology are deeply intertwined on a global level and therefore the solutions must be as well.
The Brundtland report opened a global dialogue, catalyzing the UN’s sustainable development approach. This resulted in the succeeding summits which continue the engagement of governments, businesses and civil society around the world:
1992 Rio Earth Summit, the UN Conference on Sustainability and Development:
- Established Agenda 21 which became the basis for many succeeding sustainable development initiatives.
- Adopted a declaration on sustainable forest management, biodiversity, climate change and desertification.
2000 The Millennium Summit, held the UN headquarters in NY adopted eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) which were set to expire in 2015:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
- Achieve universal primary education.
- Promote gender equality and empower women.
- Reduce child mortality.
- Improve maternal health.
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
- Ensure environmental sustainability.
- Develop a global partnership for development.
Which brings us to date:
2015 Transforming Our World: The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly setting 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030:
- End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
- End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
- Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
- Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
- Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
- Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
- Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
- Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
- Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
- Reduce inequality within and among countries.
- Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
- Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
- Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
- Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
- Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
- Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
- Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
The Brundtland Report and the succeeding UN summits have guided the action of governments, civil society and business.
And we can see proof of this in:
- the development of organic farming.
- environmental certification.
- corporate social responsibility.
- renewable energy production.
- responsible investment.
- green economy.
- life cycle analysis.
- the greening of production processes and green marketing (all too often misguided in greenwashing offering unscrupulous businesses the opportunity to unduly polish their image as a good corporate citizen.)
But we can also see that the list of objectives in each UN summit gets longer and longer.
So, how far have we really come in 30 years since the 1987 Brundtland report?
Despite a strong commitment by governments to sustainable development, significant action on this path is slow to take hold. Political leaders seem to be more inclined to respond to the demands of oligarchic lobbies than to the legitimate expectations of their constituents. For example, in spite of their commitment to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, G20 governments spend nearly 4 times more on fossil fuels than developing renewable energy.
In 2017, the public and private indebtedness of the 44 richest countries reached 235% of GDP compared with 190% in 2007. Military budgets are constantly increasing. (The US alone rose 43.6% since 2000 to reach $611 billion in 2016.)
This is in addition to:
- The continual plundering of natural resources and degradation of the environment.
- Threatening climate change.
- A widening gap between rich and poor.
- Increasing food insecurity and indebtedness.
- A 10 fold increase in obese children and adolescents.
- A 58% decrease in wild vertebrate populations.
- An increase in indebtedness of nations and individuals.
- An increase in the economic control of banks.
- An overconsumption and waste of natural resources.
- Growth in corruption of elected representatives and proxy holders.
- The control of mainstream media by large industrial groups and banks.
What’s it gonna take?
Despite the awareness of conscious capitalism and the good faith efforts of a growing number of individuals, the situation continues to deteriorate to the point of undermining our optimism.
How can we be convinced to consume less?
How can we convince the rich to change their lifestyles?
In order raise awareness, encourage democratic public debate, propose alternative lifestyles, we must continue to:
- educate young and old about the principles of sustainable development and conscious capitalism.
- regulate and reduce the power of banks and demand transparency on their investments.
- hold companies and the financial community responsible for their impact on the Planet and its People by voting with our dollars.
- encourage accountability of elected officials and leaders.
- promote independent information.
- learn to recognize the influence of interest groups.
We simply must continue to work towards the path of development centered on collaboration, sustainability, well-being, prosperity and peace.
All of us. Even you.
“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” – Geronimo
HSBC has promised that it will stop the financing of mines that produce coal for power generation.
However, HSBC hasn’t gone as far as some other banks who have adopted a worldwide ban on coal. As of June 2017, 11 major international banks have committed to end their direct financing for new coal mines and new coal plants worldwide.
HSBC, whose operations are increasingly concentrated in Asia, will continue to finance new coal-fired power stations in developing countries, which is where all the demand is.
Because developed countries aren’t building coal-fired plants any more, HSBC’s new promise not to finance such projects smells a bit like greenwashing in an attempt to appear as if they have embraced conscious capitalism. According to the NGO EndCoal, neither the U.S. nor the EU have brought any new coal-fired capacity online since 2015. In fact, the EU, North America and Australasia only account for 2% of all the coal-fired plants currently being planned.
HSBC’s announcement this month also stated that it will make up to $100 billion available for financing low-carbon projects, and that it has promised to get all of its power from renewable sources by 2030.
If you want to check up on where your bank stands on coal and extreme fossil fuel financing, you can do so here. (You will notice that HSBC is the world’s 8th biggest offender.)
Looking for a bank divested from fossil fuels? They exist!
From Financial Literacy to Conscious Entrepreneurship: The Education of Future Americans – Bloomberg
Much can be said about America’s public school systems. With 17 states now suing the Secretary of Education who is being roundly criticized for a lack of basic knowledge in education policy, it doesn’t look like things will improve soon.
The average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year. As 157 million Americans reach an average of over $15,000 in credit card debt, it’s clear that out of all that can be said about our school systems, they are certainly failing to teach the basics in financial management, let alone financial survival.
Studies show students have little grasp of credit scores, budgeting, loan payments or even taxes. 40 percent of teens in one survey think they get all their paid taxes back when they file a federal income tax return, or that they do not have to pay federal income taxes at all. In light of the fact that most Americans don’t understand how their country’s tax system works, this isn’t too surprising.
The Council for Economic Education found that only 19 states require high schools to offer a course in personal finance, while only 17 require that students actually take such a course.
In light of this, some school districts are taking it upon themselves to improve financial literacy in order to prepare young Americans for the complex financial decisions, such as taking on student loans, that they will be forced to make in today’s economy.
The “Get A Life” program offered by the West Virginia state Treasurer’s Office helps students understand how far their money will go. Students receive card that lists their marital status, number of children and salary for the month, and then are told they had to purchase a home, vehicle, insurance, groceries and furniture to fit their family’s needs.
Man Elementary in Logan County, WV, has created a simulated community called “Pioneerville,” in which students participate as business owners, managers, elected officials and consumers.
WeWork, a $20 billion New York-based startup which rents desk space to freelancers and businesses, is taking it even further by launching a private elementary school for “conscious entrepreneurship” and conscious capitalism.
The first pilot crop of students aged from five to eight years old spend one day at a 60-acre farm and the rest of the week in a classroom near the company’s Manhattan headquarters, where they get lessons in business from both employees and entrepreneurs-customers of WeWork. At the farm, the kids don’t just “study math,” they use numbers to run a farm stand and while reading about the natural life cycles of plants.
WeWork joins a growing list of entrepreneurial billionaires trying to reshape American education with their influence and investments. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, along with other tech entrepreneurs, for example, are investing in public, charter and private schools that use technology to foster personalized education.
For parents who are concerned about their financial child’s financial literacy and don’t have access progressive schools, there are are free resources out there that can help.
For example, The California Department of Education has a resource page with links to financial literacy programs that can be used at home or in schools. More resources can be found by University of Arizona, the Federal Reserve, and OppU.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but the world is becoming more and more complicated and this includes finances.
If kids are not learning how to navigate financial survival in schools, the onus falls on us.
Conscious capitalism in the form of Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) is ramping up in the financial world, and with it comes new terminology.
A quick guide to some new terms:
Social innovation: Refers to general ideas for coming up with new ways to tackle social or economic challenges, such as job training for hard-to-employ individuals or finding more affordable housing. It can also involve testing ideas by measuring impact to determine if an idea is working.
Social finance: The use of private capital to fund programs that deliver a public good, like job skills training. It can refer to investors financing projects that benefit their community or helping charities and nonprofits tap into new sources of funding.
Social enterprise: Community-based businesses that provide goods or services like a bakery or cleaning company with their main focus being on delivering social programs, or making an environmental impact. These companies try to reinvest their profits to expand their reach.
Social impact bond: This type of bond is a partnership between governments, private investors, service delivery organizations and perhaps an intermediary who acts as a broker. Investors put money into an organization that delivers a social program. The program signs an agreement with the government for that it will meet specific performance benchmarks. Investors get a return based on program results, moving the financial risk away from governments and cutting costs.
image source: Eleni Ross Photography