Sustainability folks are, by nature, a nice bunch. They are usually found on the morally right side of an argument, protecting the environment and society against the dark forces of unacceptable self-interest. They sleep well at night, people cheer them when they walk down the street, or at least that’s been my experience.
But as we face a future of increasing resource constraints, there are a growing number of areas where the interests of society and traditional environmentalists appear to be decoupling. Areas where the guardians of the environment may be opposing technologies that have the potential to protect the most vulnerable people in society from poverty and hunger.
Genetic Modification is getting the headlines today, but with time it will spread to technologies such as broader industrial biotech, nanotechnology, nuclear fusion and artificial meat. At the extreme end of the spectrum lies geoengineering. And as the challenges increase, we are seeing a new breed of pragmatic environmentalists which some are calling “neo environmentalists”.
Traditional and neo environmentalists share the same diagnosis of the problem. Both are concerned about a future of climate change, declining crop yields and rising populations. But where the environmentalist seeks to reduce our impacts on the environment, the neo environmentalist is turning to technology to find a new balance between humans and the environment.
The difference boils down to the apportioning of risk. For the neo environmentalist, the social risk of not using every tool in the armoury to contain rising resource prices is high. The stakes have risen to a point where the risk of social conflict outweighs the risk of unknown environmental consequences.
To the environmentalist, the risk of contaminating the food chain, of a nuclear explosion or of tinkering with the earth’s system still outweighs the social benefits.
This debate is most advanced in GM, but with the same thinking heading towards other technologies this has broad relevance to all sustainability experts. They need to get used to the energy and emotion of the debate, and the potential for opinions to change. The heat of the subject is reflected by 140,000 people downloading Mark Lynus’s recent GM conversion speech in four days.
Even Jonathan Porritt, an undisputed heavyweight on environmental issues and who has remained implacably opposed to nuclear, argued this January that Industrial Biotech, including GM, has a role to play. Sustainability folk can’t duck having a position on these issues.
For a 6-minute characterisation of the growing debate have a look, it’s hard to beat the TED2012 Q&A between Paul Gilding and Peter Diamandis. It’s brilliant, and you’ll see how it splits the audience between those who back technology and human ingenuity as a solution (Diamandis) over those who would seek to protect the environment (Gilding). Diamandis wins 55 to 45.
The big challenge neo environmentalists face is public opinion is largely against their solutions. GM has become “Frankenstein food” in publications such as the Daily Mail, and Mark Lynas has spoken publicly of the hatred he has faced as a result of becoming pro GM.
And you’ll want to choose your guests carefully when you’re serving “stem cell burger” – even though it uses less than 1% of the water of conventionally meat and doesn’t involve the death of young animals.
These are real problems for businesses whose primary stakeholders are consumers, particularly retailers, FMCG, textiles, utilities etc. They are torn between minimising price inflation and socially unpalatable solutions. The recent announcement by a number of supermarkets that they’re relaxing GM-free guarantees on poultry and other products hints at a different direction of travel. And the Daily Mail’s angry response signals the difficulty of their journey ahead.
The most important thing to us at Green Mondays is that we learn to debate these issues intelligently and unemotionally, and to try and find common ground in what can quickly become polarised debates.
We’ve put a lot of thought into our GM debate on the 13th May. Our panel reflects absolute opinions as well as shades of grey, and we’re using the latest polling technology to identify differences between corporate and personal positions, and to look at GM in the context of other solutions to the same problem.
It will be fascinating to see what comes out. If it turns out that there is a significant gap between the personal views of the corporate community, and their corporate positions, are they willing to promote what might be highly contentious issues?
What’s clear is that we are moving into a much more exciting era where social and environmental issues are at the heart of business decision-making. The trade off is that it’s going to be a lot harder for the sustainability community to be on the ‘right’ side of the debate – building a sustainable future may mean embracing socially unpopular solutions. And that might mean no more Mr Nice guy?