I traveled to Trondheim in Norway for the International Sustainable Development Research Summit (ISRDS 2014). The ISDRS is a global network of sustainable development professionals that promotes and communicates sustainable development in a global society. It links researchers in academia and implementation practice from all continents to each other, and given that this was Project 90’s first foray into social rather than technical research we were pretty chuffed to be invited.
The key theme of this years’ conference was the topic of resilience, and why some systems (some of them good, and some of them bad) are more resilient than others. Given that it was the height of summer and the temperature was still topping out at 10 degrees C, I thought “who better to host a conference on resilience than these mad people who choose to live in the freezing cold?”.
The conference brought together 150 or so professionals to discuss topics ranging from Corporate Social Investment (CSI), technology, climate change, land use and urban planning, innovation, justice and governance structures.
Project 90 had been invited to present on our Participatory Community Engagement (PCE) methodology which we had developed to document our work in the Community Partnership Programme (CPP). While there is quite a wealth or research on strategies for Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) out there, the thing that makes out research unique is that there is virtually no research focusing on how to integrate renewable energy effectively into rural and peri-urban communities. As such I was initially quite surprised that the ISDRS should take an interest in what we considered to be a fairly niche topic, but after the opening key note speech from Garry Peterson from the Stockholm Resilience Centre it became clear that self-reliant communities drawing on decentralised resources will play a big part in creating a resilient, equitable future.
Speakers like Ezio Manzini, who has worked on projects like the UN’s Creative Communities for Sustainable Lifestyles, reinforced the importance of localised, strongly self-reliant communities in building a resilient and sustainable future. Indeed there were some strong presentations on how this side of sustainable development is being promoted, but one of the last speakers I was to listen to was Jorgen Randers, author of the ground-breaking 1972 book “limits to growth” (and it’s sequels) that brought home the flip side to this scenario.
His presentation on the last day was a deeply sobering reflection on his 40 plus years of engagement on this subject and how despite his, and various others best efforts, the paths that we as a species have followed on issues such as pollution, inequality, carbon emissions, bio-diversity loss, primary resource extraction and energy production have followed market trends and political imperatives for growth at any cost. His presentation painted a hopeless picture where we as a species are set to follow our present path until round about the middle of the century, and then shortly thereafter succumb to climate and environmental collapse.
As you can imagine this provoked a great deal of discussion in a conference full of people dedicating their lives to avoiding exactly that, and indeed some people were visibly depressed. A greater number however, heard the message but remained less deeply affected. This was in part due to a surprising feature that I learned about some of the participants over the course of the conference, which was that many of them secretly shared his pessimistic view of an inevitable collapse. A greater number however, myself included, were surprised by the fact that his analyses could only see a future where all people must confirm to the norms of the past, forgetting the potential for society to change despite the meta-level components that would otherwise constrain it. How can anyone not see the green shoots of change?
As little as 10 years ago “going green” was about putting in a solar panel, recycling and changing your light bulbs. Nowadays mass culture movements exist that promote small-scale artisanal local production and consumption, the use of fair trade products, organic food from community gardens, alternative currencies like Bitcoin, the rebirth of community and a deepening awareness of our collective and individual reliance on the life support system that sustains us. I hear fashionistas talking about using low-VOC paints in their homes, business men concerned about the embodied energy content in their products, shack-dwellers concerned about the impact of high carbon electricity production on the price of electricity, and everything in between. More importantly the means of accessing and sharing this information is like nothing the human species has ever seen. 15 years ago if you wanted to know how to make a biogas digester you needed to contract an engineer. 5 years ago I built one from instructions on the web.
The Jorgen Randers’ of this world are right to worry about the unholy alliance between corporates and politics that protects the wealth of the few at the expense of the sustainability and well-being of the many, but I believe that even the most powerful cannot yoke the human spirit. More than ever, this conference reinforced my belief that while campaigning for policy reform and just political and corporate practice are important, the real change that will swing the tide lies within the individuals that form the fabric of society.
Gray Maguire – Community Engagement Facilitator