The World Economic Forum proclaimed recently we are in the “decade of action”––that we can no longer wait to act on facing the challenges of climate change and other related ‘wicked problems’ of modernity. The consensus by 11,000 global scientists is that we are facing a climate catastrophe if our world society does not act collectively and quickly. The United Nations framework has provided seventeen sustainable development goals (SDG) and the 2030 Agenda as a blueprint for embracing these challenges. The message is loud and clear, the long-term future of not the planet, but of humanity and other life is at risk.
For too long economics has been the dominate force, preempting all other interests and sacrificing humankind’s long-term future. As David Orr suggests, “There is a tendency to sidestep the possibility that we are a flawed, cantankerous, willful, perhaps fallen, but certainly not entirely planet-broken, race.” Perhaps it is the human condition to only focus on short-term egocentric interests––this might be our fatal flaw. However, we are sentient beings that have the capacity for empathy and caring for others. Also, we have shown great imagination in taking on past challenges, perhaps we have it in us to shift our behavior and create the world anew. In this quest, the question we need to ask is how do we keep economic scale within the ecological carrying capacity or what science is referring to the planetary boundaries that will enable life to continue to thrive on Earth? Engaging citizens in this inquiry and conversation might provide action for a sustainable future.
No More Waiting at the Window
In today’s world we tend to wait by the window with hope for our leaders to save us. We hold onto the great leader syndrome, where our culture has built up the myth that leaders are that loud and charismatic (usually male and white) person riding the white horse to the rescue with all the answers and solutions––to save us from all our problems and bring us out of crisis. This belief will only lead to continued deepening despair and inaction. Sustainability and the 2030 Agenda cannot be a ‘top-down’ approach if we are going to overcome deep and wicked challenges for humankind. The leadership for large scale change is in each one of us. We all need to lead at times, and collaborate at times in an interexchange of dialogue––where leadership is more a process and space between us, where together we create meaningful conversations that matter. Through this process we can develop active ecologically competent citizenry engaged in an effort to create large scale change. This requires a rejuvenation of a civic virtue and a rise of a social-ecological responsiveness from competent citizens who understand the global issues at hand and are committed to living for desired future that imbue a life of well-being that reconnects to the sacredness of land and sea-scapes. This needs to be catalyzed through education for sustainable development and threaded into every faculty curriculum at the University.
We Need to Question the Economic Worldview
Students today might need to change their expectations for the future. Emerging leaders have been taught and have espoused instrumental and deterministic mindsets of wanting more––to consume more, to travel more, to earn more. It is recognized that young generations today might have a lower quality of life than their parents and grandparents. Wendall Berry writes, “We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less, we must do more for ourselves and each other.” Sustainable development needs to be focused on a qualitative character, on a model of improvement in society. Unfettered capitalism that we embrace today, with its focus on economic growth, has lost its moral element that Adam Smith once advocated for. Capitalism has always held democracy as its marquee, but the insistence on profit maximization for the elite shareholder and chasing the all mighty dollar is undermining and dissolving the very democracy it proclaims. There are some that suggest we need a new kind of capitalism or a totally different model or system that features equality and collective citizenry. Regardless, we need to question today’s economic worldview––as the stakes are too high not to. Critically we need to ask questions that challenges our present way of living and steady march towards a culture of materialism and over-consumption. We cannot be afraid to step out of patterned norms of society to seek a new kind of prosperity that considers ending growing inequality and hopelessness?
Citizen Virtue Changes the World
There are leaders that downplay individual regional and national action. One Canadian politician recently commented, “We’re not the problem, we can throw all our car keys in Halifax harbour, turn down the heat, turn off the lights, walk around naked in the dark eating organic beets and it won’t make a difference.” In other words, old leadership paradigms are saying people’s actions at the local, regional, and national do not make a difference to large scale change, like climate change. This claim supports a self-fulfilling prophecy of non-action by citizens. It’s a time of awakening. It is recognized that global challenges that face us today are an aggregation of local and national problems and crises––and that they are almost always remedied at the same levels where they occur. Therefore, constituents for change needs to occur with citizens and communities at the local and national levels. The social scientist, Margaret Mead recognized this many years ago when she stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” For proof of this we only have to look to Greta Thunberg, who only months ago sat alone in front of the Swedish parliament, to now co-inspiring citizens for change on a global scale. In our institutions and organizations, we need to co-inspire, co-create, and enable a citizen virtue that embraces a belief and need for action at all levels.
Leading the Way, Conversations that Matter
At Dalhousie we are sensing these conversations and seeds of emergence happening in the various faculties throughout campus. Moreover, we are seeing Universities committing and make a formal declaration to the sustainable development goals and the 2030 Agenda to spur on these dialogues (UBC and all Quebec universities have signed this UN declaration). The declaration commits us to global action and enables a collective citizenry to imagine and drive towards desired futures. So, if any of this makes sense to you, start a conversation that matters. You can change the world! Believe it. We know it. We are seeing it.
Kent A. Williams (DSocSci) is an Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Management and facilitates leadership studies for undergraduate and graduate students that focuses on the 2030 Agenda and enabling citizenry ethics and virtue that builds leadership capacity and capacity for action to create desired futures for humanity.
 Ecological carrying capacity = total population X resource use level that ecosystem can maintain
Kent A. Williams (DSocSci) is an Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Management and facilitates leadership studies for undergraduate and graduate students that focuses on the 2030 Agenda and enabling citizenry ethics and virtue that builds leadership capacity and capability for action to create desired futures for humanity.