What does it take to change the world?

editied Dutch version published by IUCN Ecologie & Ontwikkeling nr 77, 2008

earthrise - from NASA 1968
Human Evolution

Earthrise: the first photograph of Earth from space (in colour), taken by the Apollo 8 crew

A growing number of people believe that time has come to change our economic habits. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”, as Paul Romer and many other people put it, and right they are. Financial crisis, food shortage, climate change, energy crisis, excelling loss of biodiversity, terrorism, an increasing gap between the haves and have not’s – we are free to pick our crisis of choice. Why not act now?

Looking into history, people have a record of uniting when faced with crisis. In times of danger, our instincts kick in and try to secure the survival of the race. Sometimes, societies have not succeeded in changing sufficiently to avert disaster, as Jared Diamond supplies us plenty of examples of. However, today’s amount of information and communication might prove vital in helping us to turn the course.

We will witness fundamental changes to our current systems if we are to change our ways. The systems we then have to look at lie at the heart of recent maldevelopment: free market economy, capitalism, consumption and production patterns, corporate democracy, and above all the handling of our basis of living – ecosystems.

Most importantly, we will have to take action judged by the effects those actions will have. Are we treating the underlying cause of problems or only the surfaced symptoms? In order to identify the right choice of action, we must focus on the potential impact on our basis of living, not on the action as such. Observing the current nature of proposed changes to our systems – including financial state guarantees and ecosystem valuation – I believe that we still hold onto some fundamental misconceptions that we should rather get rid of:

We do not need money – we need air, water, food, shelter and companions

Abraham Maslow has depicted our human needs quite well when he first described the pyramid of human needs. It is evident that we have to satisfy our physiological needs like air and water first before we can bother with security, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. Surprisingly, the one thing we don’t need is money. Money is not a need in itself, it is a means we have discovered to be convenient to fulfill our real needs. But the real providers for our actual needs are social- and ecosystems, not economics. Warren Buffet is quite right when he says that he only invests in things people eat or drink. We must not focus on money, but on the actual provision for our needs: healthy social societies and ecosystems.


Price does not equal value – value is priceless

How much money is it worth to smile? How much money is it worth not to cut down a tree? And how much would it be worth not to cut down the last tree? Value has two natures. One is transferable, often has a price attached and therewith becomes substitutable. The second kind of value however cannot be substituted because it represents emotional or ecosystem value, which should be priceless in the first place. Emotional values are unique for individuals and ecosystem value is a common good. Regardless, we are currently putting substantial effort into making emotional and ecosystem values transferable or even worse try to put a price tag on them. Even the concept of gross national happiness tries to measure such intangible values and therewith falls short of being a viable solution. We must abandon our approach to measure the intangible values of emotions and ecosystems. We need to be courageous enough to accept emotional and ecosystem values for what they are: immeasurable and impossible to substitute.

An organization is not liable – people are

When in the 19th century, the corporation first was assigned the rights of a legal person, the inventors of that concept basically tried to enable people to hold a company liable in court. But corporate personhood has been taken too far in the meantime. Corporations have mastered to avoid responsibility for their actions through contracts and insurances. Corporations have succeeded in disguising responsibility of individuals to the effect that very few people are actually held accountable for their mistakes. As a result it is almost impossible to impose effective moral on an organization from the outside. And we should not try. Effectively, it is people that take decisions, not organizations. Hence, people are to be held accountable for decisions and liable for their effects. Only then will people be acting more responsibly. We have to reinstate personal liability for organizations.

We will not be able to change our ways by country or even by economic union. We will only be able to achieve effective change as a global community, starting with the individual. If not each person starts to feel responsible for his or her actions and impacts – either as an individual or as part of an organization – we will not get very far. Government regulation will serve well to cover irresponsible behavior of some but not of all. As people, we will need to be open, integer and involved to change effectively. But for leaders, we will need spirited, authentic, creative and transparent fellows.

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