Saving the Future

Saving the future simply acknowledges the reality: if we wish to secure the future we want for our children and grandchildren, then it cannot be left to accident. We have to make the future through our personal initiative, commitment , energy, creativity and investment.

As an after dinner speaker what do you say to a bunch of modern undergraduates frocked up in academic gowns and made to sit through a 45 minute interval before drinks are served and the normal fun college life is resumed?  This post was my attempt several years ago (it lived until recently on a now defunct blog site) to engage students in my personal story, explaining why I believe that well-informed civic-minded young people are the great hope of the future. Saving the future simply acknowledges the reality: if we wish to secure the future we want for our children and grandchildren, then it cannot be left to accident. We have to make the future through our personal initiative, commitment , energy, creativity and investment. Anyway, this is what I said…

Steele Rudd & Macgregor Colleges
Professorial Lecture
Tuesday 20 April 2010 at 7:30 pm
Allison Dickson Lecture Theatre
University of Southern Queensland

Members of the University Council, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen. I am very pleased to be here this evening to deliver the Steele Rudd and Macgregor Lecture.

Growing up as the great grandson of German selectors who in the 1870s carved farms out of the scrub where Highfields today stands, I am very familiar with the world portrayed in the works of Arthur Hoey Davis, also known as Steele Rudd. His world is the place in which is sprung my heritage. While the stories of “On our Selection” are remembered more for the naïve plots and comic farces that translated life on the Rudd farm into the Dad and Dave radio plays and movies, my memories of that world are more of the hard working life of the farmers and the relatively meagre returns they earned for so much effort.

I remember, too, their undaunted optimism in the face of unpredictable seasons and markets, ever rising costs, and the almost routine overdraft extensions. Mostly, I recall the commitment of these country people to the land, their land, their families, and to the pride they felt about working for themselves and their families.

The price to be paid for the passionate individualism of the farm selectors and their descendants was most evident in the limited life opportunities they had. When manual labour was still such a significant component of the family economy, there was little value placed on education, nor indeed was there much opportunity for education had there been interest. I was already a boy attending a one room primary school in the South Burnett when finally a Queensland Government introduced universal secondary schooling. It was 1964 and everyone had to attend school until age 15 – and like a lot of things that happened in the 1960s our world was never the same again.

Thankfully, there were local visionaries like Dr Alex McGregor, who refused to accept that education was the preserve of the metropolitan elites.

At a time when many people were just beginning to get their heads around secondary education, this one-time mayor of Toowoomba worked tirelessly to see tertiary education established here in this city and region. He did, so young people from the country could move on from school, secure a tertiary education, and enrich their community in the process. For communities, for families, for individuals, McGregor understood the transformative function of education – which to paraphrase the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu – enables us to ‘let go of who we are so that we might become what we might be’. And here we are today – all of us in one way or the other on that magical journey.

Ladies and Gentlemen

If I were to offer up a picture of what I am going to talk about tonight, I would show you a photograph snapped back in December 1972. I was still a farm boy then finishing my secondary schooling not far from here, just up the New England Highway at Yarraman.   The photograph was taken 14,000 miles away by a man using a hand held camera. It is unusual because it captures all of Earth in one shot. It was taken by the commander of Apollo 17, as his space module sped on its way to the last manned mission to the moon.

The man was Harrison Schmitt and at this point in time, he is the last man who walked on the moon. He is also one of the more interesting people with whom I have had lunch.  It is Harrison Schmitt’s photo image of our world which has provided a compelling, humbling, and inspiring perspective of our fragile beautiful home in the dark expanse of space. All the possibilities and pathways to the future of humanity are to be found there too.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The thing I value most about the privilege of being here at USQ is the opportunity it presents for me to help others in realising their personal journeys to what they might be.

Equally importantly, as the Director of the Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development, I have the immediate opportunity to work with USQ researchers and our partners in building those pathways to the future and in the process, hopefully, of contributing to the saving of the future for people not yet born. Our mission is active. It is to accelerate the adoption of sustainable development by proving the business case for sustainability. In a world where economics determines what is valued and wasted, our challenge is to bring the ingenuity and competitive interests of business to play in making sustainability the dominant value of our culture.

So what is sustainability?

Someone once said you will know it when you see it – suggesting that the word is so subjective it could mean anything.  I will start by saying sustainability is not a product, nor is it a brand. As a word, sustainability means ‘to continue indefinitely’. In science the term has evolutionary and biological connotations. Sustainability is not necessarily a natural state, but it is a condition of optimisation and permanence to which all natural systems aspire. Sustainability is the end and the means to the end is something called ‘sustainable development’. In its modern parlance, sustainability has less to do with the millions of other species on the planet and everything to do with us humans. If you think about it, sustainability in its essence is an ethic. It is about making sure the things we really value and that are essential to achieving decent human lives are protected and nourished forever.

H G Wells once said that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”. Understanding and practicing sustainability is alternative to catastrophe.

Highly educated, informed and well skilled peoples are the keystones of an open, tolerant, capable and adaptive society.

Between you, we have people who will serve the global community creating jobs and starting and running small enterprises, building and managing corporations and economies. We have others here, too, who will care for and administer to the health and well being of people and create a better quality of life for people. Yet others will work on the land and grow food and fibre and through innovation build the basics of the low carbon economy. To our students here tonight, let me say to every one of you – you are needed in the work of saving and building the future and you are able to make a difference for the better.

You will be surprised in 20 years time just where life has taken you. When I graduated from the University of Queensland in 1978 with an honours degree in history I had no idea then where life would lead. And if I did have an idea, standing here tonight is a far cry from where I thought I would be –  teaching population history in an American or English university.

Over the past quarter century, paradoxically, my education as an historian has been used more to make sense of the future than of the past.

Working with engineers, scientists, business innovators, and government, I have advocated for and assisted emerging industries, and advised in fields as diverse as technology commercialization and community development. For the past decade, I have served in government leading change and promoting innovation and understanding of new technologies, approaches to economics, markets, education and social well being.

All this I have done with one overriding goal in mind – to do what I can to help people live smarter, so that we will sustain the living systems of the planet – the land, the air, the water, and the seas and rivers – and all the biodiversity that makes life as we know it possible.

I have also taken this path so that my children and their children will have at least the same opportunities and quality of life enjoyed by my generation. It is that  sustainable development process I mentioned earlier. It is what motivates me to come to work. To those personal drivers, I would add also my optimism about the future and fundamental belief in the capacity of people – once they understand the challenge – to rise to the occasion and get the job done.

My presence here this evening says much about how the world is changing. It indicates something, too, of the type of skills we will need to manage tomorrow’s organisations and build the world of the future – skills that are, necessarily, generalist – drawn of the humanities and the sciences, integrating different disciplines, emphasizing a holistic rather than reductionist approach to problem solving.

The fact that USQ has invested in a research centre for sustainable business and development says something also about the state of the physical world and the changing context and role of our core institutions whether they be businesses, companies, or for that matter governments, universities and professions. For those of you from the Faculty of Business, in your business studies I hope you will have encountered and considered emerging concepts like the triple bottom line, corporate social responsibility, sustainable development, and corporate sustainability. There cannot be sustainable development without business that is good for people and the planet as well as for profits. It is why the vision of the Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development is: “Profitable business that is good for the planet”.

The planet – the global environment – is, as renowned economist Herman Daly once said, the envelope in which society and the economy happen. Indeed, the biggest question of our time and most likely of this century is how do we live sustainably and get humanity back in balance with other part of the living system that is our planet?

As a member of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, I am numbered among those many millions who were born shortly after World War 2, and whose singular achievement as a generation might well be to leave our world worse off than when we inherited it from our forebears. Our era, the second half of the 20th century, was built on the industrial economies of scale, quantum jumps in scientific and technological capacity, market globalisation and a rapacious consumption of natural resources.

If we overlook the one in six people on Earth who go to sleep each night chronically hungry, we can say all this has transformed billions of lives positively. But it has also been an unmitigated catastrophe for much of the planet’s natural systems. Indeed, with 60% of the Earth’s ecosystems already seriously degraded, we can be confident the century ahead will be lived in a very different way and sooner or later we will have to deal fundamentally with the discipline of living within the limits of the planet’s capacity to sustain life.

Even in addressing the issues of poverty and sustainability, it seems the natural environment is the one that always pays the piper. Just last week the Worldwatch Institute in Washington published a report showing that each day across the world the equivalent of almost 270,000 trees is either flushed or dumped in landfills. Roughly 10 percent of that total is attributable to toilet paper. As sanitation improves in the Third World so increases the demand for toilet paper.

Two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the American Republic, wrote that each generation had a moral duty to pass on the world “free and unencumbered, and so on, successively, from one generation to another forever”. For our first 10,000 generations, we did not have the population and technology to make sustainability an issue and so Jefferson’s injunction seemed no big deal, being more likely to attend to government debt that the physical state of the planet itself. Some, like Jared Diamond, author of “Guns Germs and Steel”, have said that our experience over 10000 years as farmers provided some early indicators of problems to come.

But it is really in the achievements of the past 100 years, since we became serious industrialists, that we have put ourselves at the cross roads and at cross purposes in our relationship with the planet, all other living species and indeed with the future itself. With little more than a lifetime to adjust to what has happened, we are now asking ourselves to take a very different path, think differently, value and dream differently, produce and consumer differently. And this is the rub because we humans have shown ourselves not to be truly capable of assimilating, thinking and practising at the rate of change needed to manage the pace of innovation unleashed through the technological revolution of the past century.

As organisational systems guru Stafford Beer said 30 years ago, we find ourselves unwittingly at a point where “Acceptable ideas are competent no more and competent ideas are not yet acceptable. And while that is the conundrum that characterises our time, let us be under no illusion that the risks have not been known for just as long.

Way back in 1987 when many of you were not yet born, the UN published its landmark report entitled “Our Common Future”. Chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtlandt, the UN Commission on Environment and Development found that if future generations were going to have at least the same opportunities and quality of life enjoyed by my generation, there would have to be changes on a global scale in the way we conducted our economies.

Only the serious students of sustainability, a small coterie of progressive governments in Europe, and some strategically well advised Fortune 500 multinational companies got the real message of the UN report and the later summit at Rio in 1992. The real message was that sustainable development was not about some establishing green nirvana but rather was a massive change leadership reorientation process within the capitalist system.

Sustainable development requires of governments, businesses and communities that in the way we exploit our resources, direct and structure our investments, build infrastructure and launch new technology, and play our politics – that these take account of children not yet born as much as meeting the needs of people right now. All of this in the normal course of events might take generations to happen. The only trouble was and remains, we do not have generations to make the changes needed to ensure the sustainability of all the things that really matter to life as we know it – at best we have 30 to 50 years and for some issues even less time.  American sustainability advocate, Alan AtKisson, wrote a decade ago: “Achieving sustainability does not mean slowing down our economy. It means speeding it up and directing its energy toward the redesign and redevelopment of the systems that are the cause of our dilemma”.

So far, we have been speeding in the wrong direction! We are consuming more energy in a generation than was used in the previous 200 years and in the next 20 years more greenhouse gas emissions will be pumped into earth’s atmosphere than the we have put there since 1750.

Three critical factors are shaping our destiny.  Rapid population growth etching closer to the seven billion mark – with one in six persons ending each day malnourished and one in three without adequate sanitation and clean water;  a massive expansion in our technological capacity to exploit commodities;  and the affluent consumption of the industrialized world are combining to strip the earth of its natural resources faster than they can be replaced.

We in the first world have built a wasteful standard of living where just to support our lifestyles, a tonne of waste is generated each day for each one of us. If everyone who is projected to live on this planet between now and 2050 was to live like us we would need seven Earths.

And while we in the advanced economies are beginning to think about who is going to pick up the bill after the feast, the recent Copenhagen summit on climate change made it very clear that the fast emerging economies of China, India and South America who have just joined the table around coffee time, understandably are saying, they do not intend to pay half the bill. They want their share of the economic bounty, causing further impacts almost beyond imagination. Jungles are being devastated, fisheries exhausted, rivers dammed, waterways poisoned, and farmlands degraded.

Humanity is drawing down on the natural capital of the earth at such a rate as to threaten the quality of life of its children and all future generations. In the process, we are polluting our air with carbon emissions that are warming the planet at a rate faster than most species will be able to adapt. And extinction is already between 1,000 and 10,000 times greater than what we might expect without the human impacts of the past century.

The scientists are telling us that if we do not do something very serious about greenhouse gas emissions very soon, it may get to a point later in the century where it will cost a whole lot more to fix or lead to an actual “climate crisis”.

Indeed, beyond 2 degrees increase in average global temperature, we can already plot enormous geophysical, economic and social impacts –  the likely loss of the Great Barrier Reef, diminished agricultural productivity in the Murray Darling basin, and the incursion of tropical diseases south of Rockhampton. Beyond 5 degrees it’s anyone’s guess as to whether anything could be done to bring Earth’s climate back into the broad balance that has supported human life.

Just last week, Professor Stefaan Simons, Professor of Chemical Engineering at University College London and Director of UCL’s Centre for CO₂Technology warned of the risks of looking for silver bullets like burying carbon emissions back in the earth. He said the challenge of reducing greenhouse emissions was even bigger: “If we are to achieve the CO2 emission reductions necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, we need to initiate the next industrial revolution, a transition from a low efficiency, high carbon energy system to one that is high efficiency, low carbon”.

This is all rather confronting, isn’t it, but we do nothing to shape the future by putting our head in the sand. “Nothing is inevitable so long as we are willing to contemplate what is happening”, the Canadian scholar and philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said.

Ladies and gentlemen

We here at USQ can do our part to create and save the future rather than get run over by it. The changes to make sustainability happen are almost too much to ask, I believe, but for saving grace of the sheer genius of human ingenuity and innovation. As individuals, citizens, and consumers – our challenge is to contemplate what is actually happening in our world, acknowledge the personal responsibility we each share for doing something about it, and then each play a small part in fixing it – at work and at home.

An insightful English business leader and writer, Charles Handy, author of The Empty Raincoat and The Hungry Spirit, said that learning after university was a process of re-qualification. For Handy, life itself is the great learning experience. And he is right.

To my way of thinking, there are two very important journeys of discovery we make in life.

One is the journey we make getting to know ourselves – call it growing up – and it comes replete with dreams, aspirations, trials and triumphs, discoveries, pitfalls and redemptions. The other is the journey we make getting to know the world around us – our place, other people, family, friends, communities, cultures – the planet itself and who knows in the future, the world beyond our planet.

Handy also observed that the great issues of our time would not be resolved so long as we failed to look beyond the materialist world to that which also encompassed essential values and other considerations such as the human spirit, the value of nature and so forth. He suggests we take a closer look at ourselves and our world.

Abraham Lincoln said the same thing when at the time of the war to preserve the Union and abolish slavery, he told Americans to “disenthrall” themselves of all the ordinary distractions of life and focus on what really mattered – the enduring principles upon which their country had been founded – notions like democracy, equality and liberty.

It seems we are all too busy to be involved or care. Fifteen years ago Professor Robert Putnam in a book called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” warned of the decline of civic spirit and involvement and the demise of small group living – like going out bowling on Wednesday evening. And that was before the internet.

The internet is a massive technology that promises to transform human capacity to do things indeed even rise to the challenge of living sustainably – because of its unparalleled capacity to deliver connectivity and interaction on a global scale. We are these days, it seems, what our web sites say we are. But the internet can also isolate and diminish the human experience, encouraging cultural tribalism in place of community and anonymous individualism instead of citizenship.

Our capacity to process information grows exponentially, but it is not being matched by the quality of our knowledge and education. The massive American supermarket chain, Wal-Mart, processes a million transactions an hour and has a database 167 times the size of the Library of Congress, but it is arguable whether the modern shopping mall experience has made the world a better place. And while it took a full ten years to decode the 1 billion pairs that form the human genome back in 2003, now that can be done in just one week. But are we any closer to understanding how to live sustainably?

In our scientific quest to find and understand the bases of life, I fear sometimes we miss the wood for the trees. We may find the value of genes, but miss the value of clean air to breath or the risks to health or accumulative chemical toxicity in the environment and in our bodies.

So I ask you to imagine what it would be like to create value without damaging the earth or stealing your children’s right to a world at least as good as ours. Encouragingly, you will not be the first to try to do so.

Global corporations, the mainstays of the international economy are taking greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and corporate social responsibility very seriously. So are the major institutional investors and insurance companies that determine the cost of their capital. Besides millions being spent on being more efficient and consequently saving millions more – using less energy, water and materials, these companies are also taking far greater account of environmental risks that previously were discounted or externalized.

Today we are seeing just the beginning of a new international economy that will reward environmental stewardship and social responsibility. Whether it be tradable credits for carbon emissions, transferable development rights, biodiversity stewardship payments or a host of other market instruments that are just beginning to be brought to bear – the fact is business is already showing that it will be the fastest moving sector in addressing the great challenges of sustainability. They are proving, too, the business bottom-line benefits of corporate sustainability – higher efficiency and productivity, attraction and retention of talented highly motivated people, better risk management and reputation.

If business is beginning slowly to see its role in accelerating the adoption of sustainable development, then so too are universities. I am delighted that just a few weeks ago USQ joined the AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. AASHE’s mission “is to empower higher education to lead the sustainability transformation by providing resources, professional development, and a network of support to enable institutions of higher education to model and advance sustainability in everything they do, from governance and operations to education and research”.

If universities and the education sector are to play their rightful roles in helping save our future and that of generations to come, we will need more than new laptops in the class room. We will need a real revolution in education which puts sustainability front and centre in all that we do and challenges the comfortable ideas that no longer work while yielding up new ways of thinking that will provide solutions.

Most of us here have specialized in particular disciplines and we have learned largely by deductive reasoning, by pulling things apart rather mechanically to establish understanding of relationships, equilibrium and causality.

Understanding and delivering on sustainability requires expertise in systems thinking which is more instructed by what I will call biological thinking, seeing things organically as the sum of a host of inter-relationships, and as dynamic entities operating always in a systems context – the boundaries of which can be a bit blurred. Systems’ thinking focuses more on the ‘environment’ in which things happen than does more conventional problems solving and it tends to be more creative largely because it is broader and more openly focussed. In many respects it runs opposite to the specialisation tendencies of modern education and research – and that is the challenge: to run a different way when we have become so good at running the way we learned in the 20th century.

A university wanting to be a serious leader in sustainability is going to employ and commission good systems thinkers and encourage multidisciplinary courses, capacities and perspectives. You might conclude that the days of departmentalised knowledge are numbered and I think you would be right.

Ladies and gentlemen

Our common obligation in facing up to the challenges of our time and in framing solutions to their resolution – whether we are in government, business or in universities – is to bring the community with us through education, engagement and empowerment. Yes, we face an array of challenges, but with understanding, dedication and innovation the future can be assured.

Yes we have to face up to climate change, sustainable living and all the other challenges of our inheritance. There is nothing to be gained by putting our heads in the sand. Indeed we are at a point where we actually know what we have to do – but there remain the little matters of change, human resistance to change, and dealing with the vested interests which are threatened by change.

Addressing all that is a big ask, particularly at a time when millions are still living the effects of the global financial crisis – the other best example in living memory of the world and its economy running into a wall that no one seemed to see looming.

At a global level, the sustainable development challenge is immense, requiring a series of major first half century transitions – starting with: stabilising population, transforming per capital eco-footprints particularly through technology, eliminating subsidies and market distortions that hide the real costs of products, building better governance structures and international collaborations to achieve real outcomes, and embarking on a massive education of the public so that they actually understand what is going on.

All of this is supposed to happen while we de-carbonise the economy and essentially eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in a world doubling its consumption of energy.

In this tumultuous context there are some quite fundamental, if not problematic, questions we might ask ourselves. Are we up to the vision of sustainable life on Earth? Can we make the changes, invent the technologies, and solve the politics of sustainable development? Can we do it? Where do we look to find inspiration and reassurance?

I suggest we look no further than ourselves and our parents. My parents’ generation grew up with the scarcity of the great depression, fought and prevailed over fascism, fostered a global economy, and put a man on the moon and safely returned him to Earth. They also saw the people of Eastern Europe tear down the Berlin Wall – something many thought they would never see. They did those things unflinchingly and with simple self belief; they met the stretch targets and they did not always have the tools at hand when the challenge arose. So if we take a leaf from our forebears we must answer yes, the fact is we have it within our capacity to see sustainable development in our life time.

We have to be as energetic as our parents and their parents but be focussed in a different orientation – and the focus must be the saving of our future. By the middle of the century we can bring greenhouse gas emissions within an acceptable range; we can replenish the Earth and ensure the place is in good enough condition to well sustain the people not yet born. These are neither aspirations nor tasks we can leave to others; these are things we must do ourselves.

I remember Sunday 20 July 1969 (Monday our time) when Neil Armstrong and mankind first walked on the moon. Five decades from now what will the USQ students of that time point to as the “moon-step” day of this generation?

While only time will tell the answer, the pathways we take to finding it will define also our university and its value in the lives of people well into the future. Let me conclude this lecture by reiterating to colleagues and to students: your education is both a premise and a proposition. Already you have shown the great promise of your lives, but you must leave here believing in your capacity to matter and to make a difference for the good.

Because for the proposition of education to be realised and indeed for the future itself to be saved, such can happen only when people like us let go of who we are, so that we might become what we might be.

Thank you.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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