Session Four: Transformations in the Making
Defining and Pursuing a Multidimensional Sustainability Transformation
This paper describes work done within the International Futures (IFs) project towards better understanding the potential for a global transition to sustainability in the 21st century.
It begins by quickly sketching progress in defining the sustainability transition across three dimensions: human life condition, social capacity, and environmental quality. The body of the paper builds an analysis of the potential for transition across the three dimensions.
The paper further argues that five key pillars support human grappling towards a successful transition: human condition knowledge, increasingly clear goals, dynamic system understanding, enhanced levers for action, and sociopolitical engagement. The body of the paper uses the first four of those pillars in its own analysis of the prospects for success with respect to the transition. Specifically, it uses an integrated global model that draws on the large body of knowledge about the human condition, that embodies considerable accumulated understanding about global systems, and that facilitates the experimentation with leverage in pursuit of goals. The aim of the larger IFs project is to enhance the sociopolitical debates through such contributions. It is not enough to call generally for the exertion of collective social will in the pursuit of sustainability goals.
It is critical to help define the path for such efforts.
I have listed key elements for facilitating a sustainability transition, which I have named “The Value Chain.” It has several links. The first is defining the human condition, which involves developing measures, data, and indices. The second is establishing clear goals and developing scenarios to envision the future. The third is understanding the dynamics of the systems we are working with. Finally, there is understanding the social and political environment and engaging broad public support. Integrated modeling has a great deal to contribute to this effort. I will focus on the third and fourth of these links, using an integrated model to investigate the leverage we do presently possess. I will also be using a great deal of information about the human condition, as well as maintaining an awareness of the kinds of scenarios and goals we can use to develop an integrated global model.
Developing scenarios and how they should frame investigations of leverage involves understanding technology and the environment. Although we possess some leverage with respect to environment, we have to assume its robustness or fragility as a given and a context for our own interactions. That is also true for the issue of technological advance. We struggle to accelerate it although use of energy per dollar of GDP is something we cannot control. On the other hand, we have substantial control of human agency, which structures scenarios involving different sets of dimensions. Scenarios of the environment and technology and discussions about sustainability begin with perspectives on the limits to growth like that of Malthus.
Another way of organizing this conceptual space is to pay attention to human agency. We can distinguish between market-driven worlds and those led by institutional state actors or international actors. We can also distinguish between competitive, conflictual patterns of interaction and more cooperative patterns of interaction. For example, Fortress World scenarios are generally characterized by agencies acting on their own behalf in a competitive world in an attempt to protect private interests.
Starting with computer simulations of these representations, I developed a slightly different structure, the International Futures simulation, which is available for download on the Web. It is a kind of scenario tree, which allows us to put together blocks of assumptions and interventions in more flexible ways and to develop an almost infinite range of scenarios. We can bring up assumptions and change them, parameters that we can set, and interventions we can alter. It allows us to ask what leverage we have available with respect to sets of assumptions about our model. We think about what kinds of levers we might use to arrive at a more sustainable world by paying attention to structure, agency, and how they mutually inform each other.
For example, the TERRA project attempted to define sustainability in terms of three dimensions: the human condition, growth and equity, and environmental quality. Sustainability means advancing the human condition, while achieving growth with equity and improving the quality of the environment. We identified a number of leverage points and applied them both individually and collectively in patterns to see their effect in an integrated system. Our analysis suggested that we possess considerable leverage to achieve a bit more economic growth and enhance equity. We were able to simulate satisfactory results by developing human capital. We were also able to achieve modest progress in democratization, reforestation, and controlling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, although we could not stop its accretion until the end of the century.
Overall, we need to understand the human condition, the dynamics of the systems, as well as particular kinds of interventions. Doing so would contribute to public debate, analysis, and mobilization of the general will.
Connecting Bangladeshi Villages
Government programs designed to alleviate poverty often do not work because they look at things from the top down and see the poor as a target, not as a resource. The economies of developing countries are more likely to develop in a bottom-up process. The key to raising economies is engaging people in commercial activities. In other words, the problem is not feeding the poor but putting them to work. The growth in the number of cellular phones in Africa or Asia is an example of a single technological advance empowering millions of people.
How can we adopt a worm’s-eye view of the situation? For one thing, connectivity between people increases productivity. This is especially true in poor countries, where even a small investment in empowering people can have an extremely large return. Specialization leads to productivity, but you can specialize only if you depend on other people. The more you can connect people, especially at increasing distances, the more you expand your economic sphere. In other words, connectivity leads to dependability, which leads to specialization and an increase in productivity.
The importance of connectivity is not limited to developing countries. Even in countries where connectivity is extremely high, investment in communication keeps increasing although the cost of each connection has gone down. Rich countries continue to invest in communication because by trying to optimize and specialize, they are trying to discover more opportunities to produce.
My experience in Bangladesh is instructive. In 1993 there were two phones per thousand people, and these few phones served urban pockets. It was also expensive, as compared to developed countries. It occurred to me that if a service really does increase productivity, then part of that productivity can be channeled back to pay for that service. In other words, this could constitute a business. Still, I wondered why there were so few phones. Part of the problem was that the poor did not have buying power. But if having a phone increased production, then the increase in production could be used to pay for the phone. We could think more about what increases production than who presently can afford technological advances.
If initial buying power is low, we should consider shared access, where a whole community uses a service. Once basic needs are taken care of people themselves can decide how they will allocate resources. We must not decide for them but allow them to raise the level of their income. Since the lack of other infrastructures often inhibits the emergence of a particular technology, we can model growth in technology on simple, indigenous businesses. I was able to convince investors that introducing a cellular phone in a small village could have the same effect in stimulating economic activity as financing the purchase of a cow. We now have a network that covers Bangladesh. Of the more than one million phones, 37,000 are in villages, which alone represents a coverage of more than 50 million since each phone serves more than a thousand people. This also allows local businesses to widen the geographical scope of their activity.
We were able to accomplish these goals by seeing the poor not as recipients of aid, but as utilizers of resources, whose involvement in production reduces the cost. Their involvement also provides them with an education. When people see that they can earn from something new, they are very keen to learn.
^ 1. The discussion in this paper was heavily influenced by discussions of the TERRA project. Thanks to TERRA colleagues. In particular, Robert Pestel generated ideas at a pace that was impossible to match in implementation. Yet those ideas fundamentally shaped the work described here.
This is a chapter from Making the Great Transformation (Conference).
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