Save the planet? No – we need to save ourselves!

08 Mar

You have most likely heard the joke about the two planets that meet each other, and one of them looks really awful. “Hey, what’s the matter with you?”, says the good looking planet. “Oh my dear, I’m really sick, I got homo sapiens!” responds the other. The good looking planet starts to smile and says: “Don’t worry, that bug will go away soon!”

When I first heard this joke, I found it really funny and I was reminded of it quite often in discussions with friends or at conferences, panel debates etc., especially when the issue was how we could ‘save the planet’. The problem that I have with these discussions is just simply that it makes ‘the planet’ an object, causing an immediate feeling of us being somehow detached, and that it would just be a matter of the right management of sorting out that our spaceship earth would continue to serve us as it always did. I think this way of approaching the problem is a mistake!

So back to basics: Planet Earth doesn’t need to be saved, it will continue for a couple of more billions years if it’s not hit by a comet or something goes awkwardly wrong with eruptions on our sun and its magnetic fields. Our doing will not catapult it out of the milky way, even if we use all of our nuclear weapons power in whatever devastating situation. Our planet will follow the cold logic of biological and chemical rules and in the end doesn’t care what we human beings are doing. Planet Earth doesn’t sit around the negotiating table, willing to make compromises, following a consensus path (that in the way we do it so often has led to least common denominator agreements). Planet Earth doesn’t care of ice time or dry areas, floods or storms.

In an attempt to give Planet Earth a voice advocating bodies like Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth and many other NGOs have emerged to ensure that our planet indeed sits around the table, giving all of us the nice idea there would actually be something to negotiate. To the many it signaled ‘great, so these guys take care, and I just need to do either nothing or just follow the rules that will come out their actions or negotiations; and by the way: as a single person, what can I do? I need to take care of my own life, my job, my family, etc. etc.’ So, in consequence we are still as detached as we always were, the majority has delegated the problem to those who declare to be representatives, spend some change every year either through direct donations or our spending in lotteries (that donate part of our money back to the good-doers). What sounds like a west/north view is even less prominent in developing and emerging markets where billions of people focus on what to do and eat in the next couple of days and hopefully have an opportunity to send their kids to school (which is more or less the minimum they can do for the environment and the society).

For me personally two people have given me additional inspiration to not stop where the majority normally stops. One was Anita Roddick who said ‘If you think you are too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito!’, and the other was Mahatma Ghandi who said ‘ Be the change you want to see in the world!’. So let’s anyway stop to think that one person can’t change the world; the opposite is true, it was always one person that started a change, invented something great, found out something incredible. Or as Hannah More once said ‘One kernel is felt in a hogshead, one drop of water helps to swell the ocean, a spark of fire helps to give light to the world. None are too small, too feeble, too poor to be of service. Think of this and ACT!’. So, what’s the consequence then? Stop Greenpeace and WWF from what they are doing? Stop the lotteries from abusing our greed to win the big pot? Well, of course not, they have been and remain constant reminders of the steps to be taken and deserve to be supported still, but more is needed from a systemic perspective!

If we ever want to get out of this trap, we need to tackle it through 1) education, 2) technology and 3) the right stimuli. Regarding technology developments I think we are basically already on the right track, structured and useful education and the right stimuli are the big laggards. In technology developments we actually have invented all the survival technologies we need (renewables, biotech, nanotech, gentech, and in combination with ongoing IT developments even bigger steps seem possible), we are just awkwardly wrong in managing the transition towards them. We have started the 6th Kondratief cycle with the survival technologies we need, the question now is how long it takes us to be fully into it. And again, planet earth does not negotiate, so the clock ticks. And that is where education and stimuli need to play the trick.

I am arguing that education for behaving sustainably needs to start as soon as possible! Only if we capture the full breadth of the opportunity at home, kindergarden, primary and secondary school and integrate sustainability in university education, the feeling of not being responsible and allowing to be detached (others will take care) will disappear. My plea is that education in all natural and human sciences as well as basic economic education need to be holistically included in the curriculums of primary and secondary school already. The kids need to understand the purpose of why they are learning this, which is to ensure our survival on this planet, and also that economy is only a subsystem that needs to adapt to the ecological and social systems. Furthermore I would argue for a mandatory sustainability semester in whatever sort of university education. No matter what sort of specialization someone chooses afterwards, all disciplines need to be set up in the understanding to be of service to society and the planet. What would be better than to place the forthcoming specialist education into the broader context first? This is in my understanding what the ‘shared values’ concept is all about. Let’s make sure that the curriculums following after the sustainability semester consequently also need to go through an impact assessment, hopefully also sparkling changes in the ‘box thinking’ that the whole move towards BAs and MBAs has already caused and in which professor’s haven’t served this planet well by strongly focusing on securing their terrain only. Any reason why so little holistic and overarching thinking is coming out of the academic world? Well, covering and securing own space is one reason, and again – look above – there are others that care. I think that ‘the lack of education is the real poverty’ we need to tackle!

Additional stimuli are also needed that go up to the level of the individual. While we also urgently need a complete overhaul of the existing tax and subsidies regimes (that are partially cause to the problems we are in, think e.g. of the fact that we are taxing the highest good we have – the work force of our people -, while we more or less do not tax the most critical doing – resource depletion and air pollution), tax cuts for sustainable behavior or investments in sustainable technologies are urgently needed to simply make individual people understand the effects of wrongdoing! Being constantly reminded through the purse works! This rather bold approach is of course criticized by those that remind us of local or regional competitive disadvantages, and there is truth in that if we only argue from a static perspective of today, but loses its rationale if we think mid-or long-term. Only those economies that will take bold steps will be the successful ones the day after tomorrow, others will take the thorny path understanding that the economy is in fact only a subsystem of the society and the ecology. This insight is again a consequence of the better education. The educational loop and the stimuli loop are urgently needed to support the technological loop if we want to remain in that little window of opportunity that remains. If these three loops close in sync, we have a chance to enjoy the beauty and services of planet earth for another couple of centuries. If we fail in just one of those three I fear we’ll get in deep trouble.


Posted by on March 8, 2011 in Back to basics


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7 responses to “Save the planet? No – we need to save ourselves!

  1. baghdadi

    March 10, 2011 at 10:05

    Thanks a lot for this very interesting post.

    I partially agree with your vision regarding the 3 main items.
    However, I would suggest maybe to start by :
    – Spirituality which means more ethics, values in order to become more responsible and active vs lethargic people;
    – A fair education system (knowledge) which is a good way to decrease poverty but also education to entrepreurship, leadership as soon as possible in order to empover people (still responsibility)
    – A sustainable technology vs geek technology( Iphone n°XXXWXZ). 30% of worldwide population have access to internet so what about the others ? It will be certainly more pertinent to allocate ressources to the right targets (medical improvement, energy savings, etc.) rather than short-lived product.

    Hope it can be helpfull for the debate.



    • aheadahead

      March 10, 2011 at 12:12

      Dear Navid,

      thanks a lot for our comments. I think I agree to your points and have implicetely subsumed them in my three priorities, but great that you specifically address them in more detail! Like I said all three areas need to sync with each other. Sprirituality, moral and ethical behavior are actually part of my educational agenda, as well as part of teaching entrepreneurial education (that’s why I’d like to see economic and both sciences taught together in a sustainability semester as a mandatory course in the first semester, with a clear notion of WHY they need to focus on these issues). If that works and the shared value concept will lead to serious discussions regarding the dilemma between product innovation and what’s really needed (addressing your point on geeky technology), companies need to decide how to get out of this dilemma, meaning more focus on those products that have an environmental and/or social surplus or at least do not do harm in the value cycles. If society becomes more conscious about the wrong-doers a hygiene effect through shifts in competitiveness and phasing out of unsustainable practices should become a logic effect. I insist to remain hopeful that this IS possible.

      Best regards,

  2. Olaf

    March 11, 2011 at 22:07

    What an excellent and inspiring post, Ralph. Indeed, education is the heart of the matter, and no true change can occur without educated leaders and first movers. Please allow me to add some thoughts:
    * curriculum and formal learning:
    – have a look at the UN Principles of Responsible Education, that make quite a statement regarding the promotion of sustainability and the functioning of ecosystems. Not only educational and scientific institutions could endorse them, but also governments, NGOs, and companies.
    – Could we recruit leaders and managers on the basis of proven sustainability education?
    – Entitities that disregard knowledge from common sense or from the latest (empirical) research findings could be excluded from grants and subsidies or corrected by oversight authorities for sabotage of sustainable development. Knowing that ecoservices are falling apart, being able to do something about it and not doing it is a form of silent and intransparent resistance. Disregarding knowledge can be as bad as a continued oil spill.
    * informal learning: the article focuses on formal learning activities. However, as you said, the planet doesn’t have to like the human species or not, it will react in the way we are preparing it to react. This means that in the end we will learn, either by formal preparation, or by experiencing the consequences of having ignored options for action and learning. Science and academic research should be reinforced and protected against corrupting influence from paying sponsors. Strangely enough, science is about the only social subsystem that has managed to stay away from ethics, codes of conduct and compliance. Whilst more and more research is losing independence because researchers have to compromise conclusions because they are contrary to the sponsors’interests. Who managed to sell 35 millions of doses of swine flue vaccins to the Dutch government? That appeared to be useless because the impact of the vaccin is unclear and whether the underlying research was among others based on irrelevant empirical findings? Independent science is a prerequisite for valid knowledge. Recently,the zu Guttenberg case showed that it is possible to obtain a doctorate title with a plagiated thesis. Die Entzauberung der Wissenschaft.
    * leadership: Plato’s Politeia, perhaps the first non-spiritual text on sustainable development, reflects a lot on the proper psychological disposition for ‘good’ leaders. They require the ability to arrive at sound and ethical judgement, they should be able to control greed and desire, they should make use of the latest scientific knowledge, and they should only arrive at executive power positions after years of training and external scrutiny and evaluation. Translating this to sustainable development, this means that we have the option to define requirements for greed control, moderateness, knowledge/science appetite (certainly a form of risk appetite), and a proven track record on these dimensions. The executive powers should have more of the philosopher-king, and much less of the soldier archetype. This could be implemented in talent programmes, management development, appointment decisions, and selection mechanisms. So it is not only a matter of educating the uneducated, but also of rewarding the learners who have showed to have learned and have been able to translate their learning and development for the common good. This should not only go for top managers, but also for politicians, scientists and NGO leaders. And translated into transparency and external reporting: reporting and disclosing corporate training and selection criteria and programmes could tell more about culture and built-in risk management than disclosing the percentage of male and female stakeholder in the corporate stakeholder dialogue programme. Sadly, the latter is a real example of reporting ‘innovations’ that are being discussed at the moment.
    * I challenge you to elaborate your concept of education, since its reach and impact is so much broader than formal learning activities.

    • aheadahead

      March 12, 2011 at 07:39

      Dear Olaf, thanks so much for your essayistic response to which I fully agree to in the sense that formal education as you call it can only be a part of the spectrum. The only point that I would make here is that I think that if we want to be successful it needs to start with formal education in the broadest of all senses, and in my idea will then develop its power to affect the broader masses, exactly where we missed the boat so far and where I also think the academic world has a moral obligation to coordinate their work towards a holistic and sustainable education and start to really deliver on quickly. The other aspects of learning that you describe would be a consequence of better formal learning. But given the small timeframe we have I agree with you that we should not wait and take all possible routes.

      Some of your examples do already also fit in the area of stimuli. I focused much on taxes and subsidies, but other incentives, including being recognized by society as a company or person adding shared value and not burdening your value chains to your own benefit is part of this area too!

      Once again thanks for your very valuable input, these ideas need more depth and discussions!

      Best regards, Ralph

  3. Bruno Slewinski

    March 11, 2011 at 23:27

    I agree with everything said, but I would leave a simple question: in terms of education, but not only, wouldn’t be the right time to get over the green and ecological concepts and embrace the sustainability concepts and issues?
    I think that we are still to much attached to concepts that had their time, but with the emergence of sustainability we can incorporate everything in a wider concept and more effective strategies.

    best regards

    • aheadahead

      March 12, 2011 at 07:57

      Dear Bruno, thanks for your comment. Maybe it doesn’t come through clearly enough, but I indeed included social science in the spectrum of the academic directions that need to work on one holistic perspective, together with natural science, and with a special need for the economic education to recalibrate their positioning towards the planet and society. If they fail here and now I can only agree to Stewart Udall, Secretary of State under John F. Kennedy, who once already said:’Over the long haul of life on this planet, its the ecologists, and not the bookkeepers of business, who are the ultimate accountants!’

  4. Tracey Harris

    September 30, 2012 at 13:20

    I agree with what’s been said, but I would take it a step further and I would have to say that by the time my toddler is 50 years old people will be at war over food and clean drinking water because there are too many people and not enough food already; the situation is going to get a lot worse.


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