It’s Complicated!- Media, Messaging, Sustainability and Development


This week, I spent some time attending the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit. TERI’s flagship event with marquee names as sponsors and heads of states as speakers, I had expected to be overwhelmed by the quality of thought leadership and statesmanship on display.

I am disappointed. Not merely because I was hoping the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to go beyond hyphenating Global Development with Global Sustainability, a quote which was RT-ed all over, including by yours truly.

I am disappointed, because Minister Jean- Francoise Lisee, of Quebec is. According to him, the ship has sailed, and the last opportunity that the world of global statesmen had to hold the rudder of creating a sustainable agenda of balancing development in the world of climate change, was in Copenhagen 2009.

It’s been 3 years since, and as Minister M. Shakila of Maldives, put it “are we going to travel around the world, from summit to summit, with nothing to show for it?”

The problem according to the Heads of states, of the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim nations is clear and present danger. Not of rising sea levels, which is what the scientists expected from the melting polar ice caps, but from unprecedented erosion and unexpected changes in weather patterns.

And the problem, is that big growth economies, such as China, which is not part of the debate, India which is, and US which waffles along the sidelines, California being a very sustainability conscious state, while Texas holds the flag for oil-burning growth; are not
addressing the problem.

I believe the problem was actually a footnote in the questionnaire a young TERI volunteer put across. Do GNP and GDP truly represent development indicators or do new indicators like Gross National Happiness, or Gross National Sustainability need to be adopted? and old incremental models junked!

That’s what got me thinking! and I realised that all possible popular approaches are fundamentally designed around the rich nations paying for their consumption and bankrolling poor nations. Robinhood Romanticism is where the problem lies.

And the roots go as far as the Spanish Conquistadores, and the Dutch stock exchange bubbles. History is a bad teacher. The world saw the two approaches of wealth creation almost 600 years ago. The Spaniards rampaged through Latin America to bring in gold to mother Spain and make her the richest nation in the world, while the Dutch created the first venture capital bubble by selling and trading on paper Tulip stocks, where
Tulip prices went so far up, that a bulb could buy whole month’s food. Both economies are a footnote in history. Now, especially, with Spain on the verge of bankruptcy, and Holland with its dykes and dams facing more than its share of climate change.

On the other hand, simple hands at work; building homes and carrying water, brought about a climate of invention and innovation that created the industrial revolution and 200 years of British supremacy and last century’s American leadership.

Clearly, the basic lessons about money and wealth are still to be learnt by humanity.Money grows in its circulation and wealth in the number of people it touches. That should have made a business case for wiping clean the loans of Third World economies, and enabling local populations, with access to micro-credit, to create their own wealth indigenously.

But global governments, are driven by PR, and the need to be benchmarked by the same human development indicators that work for sub-saharan Africa as it does for North
America, even when the baselines in terms of society, security, and aspirations are different.The point made by Minister Gadgil of Norway ( Yes! he is of Indian-origin) is telling. The inequity is not just between nations and their ability to sustain, but within societies. The gulf between those served, and those under-served is growing. It’s NOT about energy, water and food, but basic human rights, and security.

My argument here, is that neither ( rich or poor nations) has vision. If the rich are benchmarking among themselves to get richer, or show their wealth in building unsustainable anthills and naming them “antilla”, the aspirations of the under-served are simply to get rich and display their wealth similarly.

The opportunity, then, is to up-end the argument. And I am disappointed that the statesmen of the land of Gandhi could not imagine or articulate such a discourse.

Gandhi, made it cool to spin yarn at home, grow his own food, and build self-sustaining communities in India and South Africa, nearly a century before the world made sustainability, local produce and ‘forage’ buzz words.

Wealth and currency thought through those lines, would change the benchmarks for growth, development and sustainability. That’s a challenge that has been in front of all the statesmen and their economic advisors, at these summits .

It would probably also be useful for them to examine spiritual texts from all across the world, the basic thought that comes across is – the more you evolve, the less you need.That’s like motherhood and apple pie, and knowing teenagers eat more than older adults. By that logic, US, China and soon India and all the G-20 nations are way, way down the scale of evolution, creating obese and self-obsessed ageing
populations and slipping even faster on the path to sustainability.

Maybe, it’s time to re-examine and change the messaging in the media. Wall Street and Main Street press are not designed for sustainability and happiness- they are designed to shock and awe.

Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness has been a sole advocate of the alternate messaging, maybe its time to make it cool. I believe India in this hall of nations has just the right credentials to own and make the change. Not because the realities of business, and
global laws need it to be so. But I believe it has had all the excesses of falsehood and experiments with truth, for its thought leaders to imagine and live the change we would like to see around us.


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