An irreversible transformation towards a more sustainable future is underway. Welcome to “the Age of Clever”!

2055. From the top of the “Global Archive” tower in what is now a melted Arctic amidst a ravaged world, a man, the “Archivist”, looks back at some old footage of the beginning of 21st century, wondering why humanity didn’t save itself when it had a chance before the worst effects of climate change occurred. And so begins the thought-provoking docudrama “The Age of Stupid”.

Why is it that movies and novels providing a vision of the future – like The Age of Stupid, The day after tomorrow, Interstellar, the Mad Max series, etc – are overwhelmingly dystopian? As if it were too much of a stretch to imagine a positive future for a world facing such unprecedented wealth divisions, environmental stress and running off sustainable tracks in so many ways.

Yet it wouldn’t be too hard to repaint a more upbeat vision of our future: see blueprint visions of sustainable cities (eg Paris and its positive energy towers in 2050, by Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut, the Eiffel Tower is still there, pfew!). Or simply look no further than all the inspiring policies, initiatives offering us, today, glimpses of a sustainable future.

Tellingly, some of these inspiring stories come from a region largely dependent on its oil and gas reserves: the Middle East. All the more significant then to see Jordan or the UAE being amongst the first countries in the world where solar energy can produce electricity at the same price or cheaper than natural gas! Moreover, since the beginning of August, UAE motorists will have felt the pinch of significant increases in fuel price at the pump, following the removal of fuel subsidies. Notwithstanding the steady fall in oil prices, it is worth appreciating it in the context of the region: for a country blessed with huge fossil fuel reserves and notoriously high proportions of Hummer and other high consuming SUVs on its roads, to choose long term environmental gains over short term pains and a more sustainable growth model relying on a stronger demand for public transport and fuel efficient vehicles… is quite a big deal.

If you pay attention, there are many such examples signaling an irreversible transformation of our societies towards a sustainable future. Perhaps without the trumpets and bells, we are re-writing the dystopian narrative and entering a new age, “the Age of Clever”.

Am I being too optimistic? A recent Gallup World Poll survey published in Nature showed that despite being the most aware of climate change, people in developed countries were the least concerned about it. Earlier this year, a similar finding in the latest PwC’s annual Global CEO survey caught everyone by surprise: climate change was at the bottom of CEO’s concerns, far behind overregulation or taxation.

Re-igniting aspirations for a brighter future
Such disconnect – high awareness of the problem in corporate world but a low perception of the risk (and presumably an even lower appreciation of the opportunities associated with it) – should prompt us to question just how perceptions of climate risk are formed and which overall narrative is the most likely to drive change and encourage action.

The moral argument to act is very often what polarizes the discussion, based on the overwhelming scientific evidence of dangerous climate change and planetary boundaries being transgressed, with human fingerprints all over them. Yet, however cleverly made, like in ‘The Age of Stupid’, the focus on morality accompanied by images of doom and gloom detracts us from an alternate vision: what will our future look like once we do act? It is also a distraction from the vast economic opportunities offered by climate mitigation and sustainability that can be seized today!

Besides, is there any argument to be won? How relevant is your, his, her, my personal belief of climate change when an ever increasing number of regulators and investors act, regardless, on their own belief that it is real? Or when record high numbers of consumers state, survey after survey, that they will more likely trust, buy, remain loyal to, and recommend products and services from companies which they believe are credibly engaging in social and environmental activities?

Focusing on these realities and re-igniting aspirations for a brighter future, should be the polarizing factor of the discussion, so that all actors of society are no longer afraid of embracing the inherent complexity posed by sustainable development and want to get on board. In that spirit, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) discussion at the UN Summit in New York this month, provides a fabulous platform for not only framing a vision, but guiding us with solutions, multi-stakeholders collaborations and S.M.A.R.T goals towards a more prosperous, fair and environmentally sustainable world.

“Create a poverty museum in 2030”…
At the recent ‘Summit of Conscience’ in Paris in July, a journalist posed a single (typically dystopian) question to various personalities: “What do we need to sacrifice, to preserve the planet?” After a few sententious responses, playing the ‘stick, fear or guilt’ cards, Nobel Peace Prize Prof. Yunus said: “We don’t have to personally sacrifice for the planet. We have to rediscover ourselves as caring human beings. And get away from that robotic idea of being selfish money chasers. We are both selfish and selfless human beings, let’s put some ‘selfless’ back into the economy. We take care of our lives, we take care of our planet, we make the planet safer for all generations to come”.

At an earlier meeting in Dubai, the same Prof. Yunus pledged to “create a poverty museum in 2030 [ie the deadline for SDGs including “eradicate extreme poverty” to be achieved] so we can tell future generations what it was like”. For the sequel of ‘The Age of Stupid’ – ‘The Age of Clever’, recounting from the future the events and moments where humanity finally came together and adopted a sustainable path (which this blog will attempt to capture along the way), I would certainly recommend Prof. Yunus for the role of the “Archivist”.

by Nicolas Delaunay, Founder of Values Added – 31st August 2015