18 years after

October 2, 2012 in Our View, Training

Doru Mitrana

Doru Mitrana Associate Consultant, The CSR Agency

On October 1st 1994, I was attending, as a freshman of the Academy of Economic Studies (ASE) in Bucharest, the opening ceremony of the Faculty of Commerce. Special guest speaker, Viorel Cataramă was considered at the time not only a prodigious alumnus, promotion 1980, but also a pioneer of the fresh, original, post-1989 Romanian market economy. The speech was mostly about the benefits of capitalist as opposed to socialist economy, about accumulating knowledge, showing courage, taking opportunities and – bottom line – making money, loads of money. We were motivated to endure the next four years of college by the promise of future business success and wealth.

Dennis L. MeadowsToday, eighteen years after, the Academy of Economic Studies opened with a different kind of speaker, with a different kind of motivational discourse: Dennis L. Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome and published in 1972, lectured on What Does Sustainable Development Mean in the 21st Century? *

The conference can be considered a 40-year update of the original report. Back in 1972 The Limits to Growth predicted two possible scenarios for the future of mankind: overshoot and collapse through depletion of resources, food shortages and industrial decline, under the “business as usual” scenario, or transition to a sustainable world. Forty years later we are still on the overshoot and collapse scenario as the radical shift towards sustainable development is still to come. This is mainly caused by the logic-defiant, current understanding of sustainable development: “The phrase […] is normally used to describe a situation in which the rich keep what they have, and the poor rise up to their level while damage to the environment and use of crucial raw materials is reduced“.

As the author concludes and reality proves, this is unlikely to happen as “the global society is profoundly above the long-term carrying capacity of the planet. So most of the rich will not keep what they have, and most of the poor will not rise. Consequently we have to change the meaning of the phrase […]”. The “classic” definition, accepted by the United Nations General Assembly, postulates as being “sustainable” the “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Easier said than done, one should say, especially when über-competitive business and politics chase the immediate gain. So what can we do? One very interesting suggestion from Dennis Meadows was to look at universal problems instead of global problems. While climate change, resources depletion or pandemics proliferation can be regarded as global problems and can easily generate reactions like “there is nothing much I can do to change this”, addressing universal issues could bring the desired and needed change. The example for Romania was to “recognize the enormous wealth of [our] natural resources and take acts to make them a source of wealth for the next centuries.” By doing this, Romania will not solve any of the global problems directly, but if every nation will adopt this as a universal principle, the scenario shift is likely to occur.

Other solutions recommended by Professor Meadows to any community in the pursuit of sustainable development relate to preserving and valuing the cultural and historical heritage (sounds familiar?) and increasing shock resilience (ability to recover after a shock) by looking further into the future (Example: Do not invest now in road infrastructure, as oil resources are becoming less and less available and more and more expensive; railways or infrastructure for un-polluting vehicles not using fossil fuels might prove more useful in the future), planning well in advance (adjust now the industrial infrastructure to overcome the 50% decrease in oil production that is likely to happen by 2030) or increasing redundancy (preparing contingency solutions, possibly redundant in a first instance but vital after a shock).

Besides charismatically delivering the very interesting technical content, Dennis Meadows also proved really good in demonstrating the power of our habits – cross your arms on your chest like you normally do and then try to cross them the other way. It is quite difficult, isn’t it? He ended the conference in style by telling and showing the audience how the words don’t mean a thing unless they are backed up by facts.

Eighteen years ago, fresh students entering the business school of A.S.E. were invited to discover capitalism as a direct way to wealth, the supreme indicator of wellbeing. Today, they are invited to discover (and later on apply or teach) the principles of sustainable development.  I just hope that the current generation will be better at building the sustainable business world of the future, than my generation was at making loads of money.

* The conference was organised in Bucharest on October 1st 2012 by A.S.E. (The Academy of Economic Studies) and The Romanian Association for the Club of Rome. Many thanks for the invitation to CNDD (National Centre for Sustainable Development).

NOTE: Dennis L. Meadows is an American scientist and Emeritus Professor of Systems Management, and former director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire. (Source: Wikipedia)