Dr Mehreen Faruqi

In 2012, the focus of the 40th World Environment Day and the UN Conference on sustainable development, Rio +20, is on greening world economies.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines a green economy as one “that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.

However, despite a focus on sustainability, we are currently in the midst of an economic crisis; our environment is under threat from the significant looming effects of climate change; global forests are shrinking; rates of species extinction are higher than ever before; and although health and wealth may have increased on average, these benefits are unevenly distributed, and the divide between rich and poor nations and individuals is deepening.

So why is it that after decades of environmentalism and sustainable development, we live in a world where environmental degradation is worsening and poverty and hunger increasing?

It would be unfair not to recognise that effort has been put into minimising human impacts on the environment. Governments have instituted environmental legislation and regulation, progressive businesses place increasing emphasis on social responsibility, and individuals are adopting environmentally friendly practices.

However, much of the focus has been on discrete, easier to manage issues such as industrial air and water pollution, and some ‘trophy‘ projects such as green buildings, renewable energy, water, and waste recycling. Progress on resolving harder to manage ‘wicked’ problems such as global climate change, increasing water scarcity, and inequalities of wealth distribution has been slow and patchy.

Traditionally, environmental problems have been framed as narrow, isolated bio-physical phenomena with linear cause and effect chains which have been ‘fixed’ using technical solutions such as pollution control e.g. air filters on factory stacks. This has resulted in short-term, band-aid solutions that treat the symptoms only while underlying causes persist over a much longer-term.

A complex systems view of the world where our economies, societies and the earth’s ecological systems are inextricably linked and form a dynamic interdependent system has challenged these traditional notions of a mechanistic and fragmented world.

More and more, sustainability problems such as climate change, natural resource depletion, and social and economic inequities are seen as multidimensional, having many interconnected causes and effects, uncertain and unpredictable consequences, and no clear-cut solutions.

Addressing such problems requires not just scientific and technological solutions but also significant, and some even argue radical, changes in societal systems, values and lifestyles as well as in government and corporate policies and practices.

If we are serious about greening our economies and achieving sustainability, this chasm between traditional and contemporary views of the world will have to be bridged urgently, so innovative and creative thinking can be unleashed.

But this requires making fundamental changes to the way we approach problems, rethinking business as usual models of growth and development, and shifting away from unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

These changes have to be underpinned by ‘strong sustainability’ recognising the intrinsic value of the environment and the dependence of our society and economy on our natural systems.

Our neoclassical economic systems of accounting such as cost-benefit analysis favour short-term profits and do not accurately reflect the negative social and environmental consequences that occur over the longer-term.

We measure growth and development using GDP, which in fact only measures economic activity. Measuring long-term sustainable growth and wellbeing requires indicators that reflect social, environmental and economic growth. Failing to do this could mean another half a century of rhetoric about green economies without any appreciable change.

Such profound change that contests long-held views of ‘thinking and doing’ essentially requires a ‘new’ and courageous model of leadership in government, organisations and communities. Rather than leading through individual power and authority, new leaders prefer distributed leadership and are collaborative, flexible and adaptive.

Changing dominant mindsets is no easy task, and exercising new leadership is risky and dangerous as it requires stepping out of the security of business-as-usual practices into unknown situations to confront conflict, uncertainty and unpredictability.

The choice of not taking this risk, however, may leave our future generations with no choices at all.

Mehreen Faruqi is academic director of the Master of Business and Technology (MBT) Program and Associate Professor at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) within the Australian School of Business at UNSW.

This article first appeared on the Drum, 5 June 2012.